Yes, the battery installation and battery monitor project was somewhat rushed. Yes, we changed our travel plans because the RV shop took longer to complete the job than anticipated. Yes, it seemed the RV shop didn’t install Lithium batteries and Victron Battery Monitor system very often. Did things go wrong on our first winter trip?…..Yes.
The plan was to meet our son at Targhee, ski powder and then hike Utah canyons for a couple weeks. Stay in the parking lot of Grand Targhee. Cross country skiing and snow shoeing for my wife Jackie is right there. (She no longer downhill skies.) The town of Driggs is just down the hill so Jackie would have options while son Ryan and I skied. Our plans gave us a couple extra days on the way out. Thought we would stay in the parking lot of Colter Bay at Grand Teton National Park. Go cross country skiing and snow shoeing in the shadow of the “Grand”. How cool will this be!
We can only drive 65 MPH with the camper so this is a two day drive from Minneapolis. Night one was to be at the Cabela’s lot of Rapid City. We did it last summer with no issues. It was later than we preferred when we pulled in only to see the parking lot blocked. No worries, we found another parking lot near by and stopped.
The next day our mission was to sleep in Grand Teton Park. However, we always seem to cover fewer miles than anticipated. Last summer we drove through the Big Horn Mountains and the pass between Buffalo and Ten Sleep. It is beautiful but takes WAY too long towing a heavy camper. Unless you are camping in the Big Horns don’t take that rout with a camper. Go through Casper and avoid the pass.
As the day went on it became clear we were not going to make it to Teton Park that night so we found a campground by the Boysen Reservoir just south of Thermopolis. The Wind River Canyon south of Thermopolis is truly beautiful and is not a difficult drive. The Boysen Campground is a great setting although it is close to the road. Light sleepers be warned you will hear trucks. Below is a picture from our camp site. We were the only ones there.
From here the drive takes us to Dubois and then over the Togwotee Pass and into Teton Park. Last summer we drove this route and noticed a very large museum just before entering Dubois- The National Museum of Military Vehicles. I mistakenly thought it was some government boondoggle to put a large museum in the middle of nowhere. Turns out it is a passion project of the former CEO of St. Jude Medical, Dan Starks. I was curious so we pulled over and I wandered the museum for an hour while Jackie hung out with the dogs in the parking lot. I was as much interested in the content of the museum as seeing what a super rich titan of the medical industry would choose to spend his time, talents and treasure on out here in the middle of nowhere Wyoming. It is a first class place well worth a stop if you are at all curious about the history of United States warfare. I could have easily spent much more time.
It is a short drive from the museum to Dubois and on to the pass. It had recently snowed so the pass was full of slush. I didn’t think anything of it as we hurtled on, actually enjoying the sound of snow/slush blasting the bottom of the camper. (Cue the foreboding music of the move “Jaws”.)
We drove across the country with little fresh water in the tank. Now late in the game it occurred to us we should have filled the water tank in Dubois. At the bottom of the hill it is right turn to Yellowstone/Colter Bay and a left turn to Moose and then on to Jackson. We decided to drive to Moose in hopes of finding water. Moose in the summer is nice little stop with a restaurant, gas station and some miscellaneous shops. In the winter things are scaled back and we discovered there is no water to be found from a hose. We did fill up a few water jugs but the mood was heading south. This was now our third day of driving and we were heading out to the far corner of the park. We have never been there in the winter and I was banking on the recommendation of a forest service ranger from a phone call 6 months ago when I was looking for winter camping locations close to Jackson Ski Resort. It is now late afternoon, the light is starting to fade and it is about 15 miles further out than I anticipated. But we did get there and find a modest sized parking lot where camping is allowed. All the facilities were shut down but they do have a one hole bathroom that is heated. There is a “short bus” converted to a camper and a camper van in the parking lot, that’s it. Feels like we are really out there and now it is getting cold…5 degrees. The camper is cold. Windows are frosting up, we don’t have much water. Foreboding….
3 am. I am cold. Don’t think I have heard the heater turn on for a bit. Now I am wide awake. I flip the light switch on, nothing. I push the generator button, of course nothing since now the batteries are dead. How is it possible the batteries are dead? We were at 90 some percent when we went to bed. Seems I only have one more shot, start the truck and plug the electric cord into the truck. Thank goodness it works. The battery comes to life and we start the generator. I look at the Victron battery monitor app on my phone. It says the battery is at 100%. Something is really messed up. I have no idea. So with the generator running about 2 feet from my head, we try to get some more sleep. No chance. We wait for daylight and our chance to escape before something else goes wrong. Now it is apparent we should dump what little water we have before something else goes wrong. I look for the 3 handles. Fresh water, gray water and black water. I only see 2. I am sleep deprived but not halucinating. Where is the third handle? There is a glob of snow where I think the black water handle should. Could it be caked on snow/slush from the Togwotee pass yesterday? I lightly touch it to break off some snow to see. The whole thing comes off in my hand. Yup, it is the black water handle now broken off. But what about the fresh water? Nope, frozen shut.
So now we are driving to Jackson and calling Targhee to reserve a room. I am a bit dazed while driving but manage to reserve a room for a few nights giving me time to get this figured out. Is there a truck car wash in Jackson we can use to spray all this snow and ice off the bottom of the camper? Sure there is. We do it. Now I can open the fresh water valve but nothing comes out. The water must be frozen. And I’m guessing we added a thin fresh layer of ice to the bottom of the camper 5 minutes after we drove away. Make a mental note on using truck car washes on campers when it is really cold. Don’t.
Things seem to be getting worse by the hour. Driving the camper to the top of the mountain at Targhee now doesn’t seem to be such a great idea. Let’s abort completely and drive to Idaho Falls where they have a couple full service RV dealers. We need help, Jackie agrees. So on we go to the Teton Pass which is the shortest rout to Idaho Falls. Five miles before the pass we both see a sign that says “no trailers”. I have gone over that pass many many times before. Summer and winter. Never saw (or maybe noticed) that sign. That can’t be right, I drive on. Now I am in a trance of sorts. In five minutes we are at the bottom of the pass and see an electronic sign. No question this time. NO TRAILERS.
There is nowhere to turn around; at least that I see in my diminished state. I keep driving. Not sure if I or Jackie are breathing anymore. I glance over and see her in that panic/freak out body position of hands locked behind your head. It is a 10% degree pass so I put it into manual. We have 10 gears in the F350. Half way up the pass we are down to 2nd gear. It is cloudy and misty, we are in four wheel drive. If we lose traction its over. We were granted a minor miracle in making it to the top of the pass. For dramatic effect the clouds parted exactly at the top. On the way down only a couple cars passed us until we were able to pull over. As they passed angry sounding horns blared. Jackie was sure police would great us at the bottom. They didn’t, we dodged another bullet.
Now on to Idaho Falls. Our son works for a Marriott so he made reservations for us at a Marriott in Idaho Falls. It is now Sunday evening so I called Bish RV and left a voice mail saying we are coming in the morning. I am just going to show up and beg.
Fortunately they took the camper in and started to thaw it out. The water was frozen but apparently it was the lines inside the camper leading to the tank; not the water in the tank itself. This despite the fact I removed the inside cover to the plumbing so heat could easily enter the space. Apparently this is is caused by a weakness in the design for the low point valves. See the picture below.
I will improve this by spraying foam insulation into the cavity being careful not to disable the functionality of the valves.
However, after Bish totally checked out the battery system they did not find any problems. Not good. We filled up the fresh water tank and I went back to the hotel, turned everything on in the camper and went to sleep in the nice warm hotel bed. What will the morning bring?
Morning again brought a dead battery system. In some ways a good thing to know for sure we still have a problem. Back to Bish. I arrived one hour before they open. I begged my way into their warm waiting room waiting for the service staff to arrive.
Turns out their best battery guy was not in the office yesterday. He seems to know what he is talking about but I’m not buying his theory that the battery is shutting down because it is getting too cold. It is installed under the bed on top off the heating vent. I wait.
Two hours later the battery expert and 3 other techs surround me in the lobby. The story changed again, but this time it makes sense. They say the Victron battery monitor was never calibrated correctly. The MN RV dealer installed the hardware correctly but did not calibrate the software. It was inaccurately showing a much higher charge percentage than was true. We simply ran the battery out of energy.
We all went out the camper to look at the batteries. I asked again if they were installed correctly. Mr. Expert looked once more and said no. Yikes! “Change this cable to here and that cable to there.” (It was set up in “slave” mode, now they are truly load sharing. Not sure I totally understand what that means but I’m done asking questions. I just want to leave and have it work.) Maybe we are in the clear now, aside from needing to charge the batteries for 12-16 hours.
There is an RV campground in Victor with sewer hook ups, water, electricity and showers- Teton Valley Resort. Great place, highly recommended. That is where we are headed. The Targhee parking lot is out at this point as we are suffering from PTSD winter camper syndrome and cant risk any more melt downs. So after getting situated in campground we turned on the water pump. Nothing. (OMG, hide the razor blades.) After messing around for some time I was able to determine that that the pump and inside plumbing was working by sucking water out of a bottle in the way RV antifreeze is installed. The water in the tank must be frozen. What now? We can hook up to the campground water supply but we need a heated hose. Off I go to the 3 hardware stores in Victor and Driggs. No heated hosing at those hardware stores so I was about to drive 45 miles to a Walmart at another town. The campground manager (an angel) called me to make a suggestion. You can use duct tape to attach “heat tape” to a hose and use that. That is what she does and it works fine. Great, I bought the heat tape, cut my hose to the right length and with Jackies help duct taped the heat tape onto the hose. Thank you God, it worked. We have water, we are plugged into electricity and we can take long, long, long hot showers in their bathrooms. My son Ryan has now arrived we are going skiing tomorrow. Getting the fresh water thawed and dumped will have to wait.
After skiing Targhee the next day I went to the local lumber yard to rent a propane heater and figure out how to fashion a “skirt” of some sort to capture the heat. With all my MacGyver skills I fashioned up the below with Ryan’s help. Junk pallets holding up plastic with a propane heater blasting away under the camper. We will either fix this or blow ourselves up.
It worked. I was very excited since mechanical skills have never been one my strengths. At this point I am hard pressed to know what my strengths are! But now we could ski and not worry any longer about the camper.
We skied for 4 straight days. Targhee, Targhee, Jackson first chair and then backcountry in Teton National Park with a guide. I am not in good enough shape. It about killed me. More on that in another post. We were going to continue the trip from here to southern Utah for canyon hiking but all the camper carnage was just too much. Decided to head home and perhaps head to the canyons in the spring when it is warmer. If I am not too psychologically damaged I will try another ski trip this season and meet up with my son and another friend. I am sure hoping all the winter kinks have been worked out.
Just for fun, we had one more issue on the way home. After sleeping in the camper at a truck stop in Buffalo, the plan was to dump the gray, black and fresh water. Looking under the camper once more, there was no black water valve handle. It simply fell off. So one more stop, this time at the Camping World in Rapid City. Found a new handle, dumped the gray, black and fresh. Bought a 1 1/16th socket I forgot to pack and drained the hot water tank. We beat the coming storm to home and collapsed into bed at 11 pm.
Likely I have mental issues, but I can’t wait to do this again with my son and a buddy to see if I have solved all the camper problems. We will wait a couple weeks for the polar vortex to retreat back to the Artic and time the departure to match up with impending snow in the northern Rockies. Look for a report on little known areas in Idaho on the Indy Pass. Places like Tamarack, Brundage, Silver Mountain, Pomerelle etc…
The next family ski trip with Jackie and Ryan will have a lovely hotel, condo or Air BNB as lodging. The camper will be in the parking lot waiting for phase 2 of that trip.