High Tech Primitive Camping

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Air conditioned tentNo, your eyes aren't playing tricks on you. That's an air conditioner installed in my tent. It sits on three bricks in the rear door. I zipped both door zippers as close as possible to the sides of the air conditioner, then sealed the small openings between the door and the sides of the air conditioner with duct tape. In a downpour, it leaks just a little. Note that the plug is inside the tent to keep it out of rain. Note the 50 foot extension cord running from the air conditioner to the campsite's electrical outlet pole in the right background.

There's three things you must consider before installing an air conditioner in your tent:

1. The air conditioner must pull no more than 6 or 7 amps.

2. The extension cord must be rated for 15 amps or more.

3. The extension cord must be rated for outdoor use.

There is a reason for that. Plug-in electrical connections generate heat. You don't want the tent end of the extension cord to get hot to the touch. Slighty warm is ok; hot is dangerous. Buy a low-amperage air conditioner and a high-amperage extension cord. Tents make dandy bonfires.

My unit, shown in the photo, pulls 5.3 amps. It's a Daewoo Model WM-501, rated 5,150 BTU. I picked it from several different brands because it pulled the least amps. In fact, those units, all in the 5,000 BTU range, pulled from 5.3 to 8+ amps. My Daewoo cost $155 at Walmart where I also bought the extension cord.

5,150 BTUs are more than enough. My tent is a huge 9-man tent, and even on the hottest Mississippi Delta afternoon it's cool and comfortable inside. In fact, I've never had to turn the control knob past "Low Cool." At night, I turn the thermostat just high enough to cycle the compressor every once in a while. To do otherwise is like sleeping inside a refrigerator.

My air conditioned tent has allowed me to do things I couldn't do before.

I can now sleep late in the mornings. The hum of the fan and compressor motors drowns out the sounds of morning birds and insects. Ever noticed that morning birds are happiest when you have a hangover?

On hot afternoons, I can now use my computer in my tent. Before, I had to find someone willing to loan me the use of their air conditioned room and their electrical outlets. I now put a roll-up table in a corner of my tent and use the table like a desk, my Dell notebook computer and my Zip drive on its top and powered via a regular extension cord.

One word of warning. I discovered over the winter that the inside of my air conditioner was matted with bugs. I'm talking lots of bugs. The condenser fan sucks outside air through the vent you see on top of the unit in the photo and through vents on both sides. Since I was camped next to water for over a week, it sucked in bugs night after night. I had to remove the cover and clean it. Next trip, I'll cover those vents with filters.

If I camp somewhere without electrical outlets, a wildlife management area primitive campground, for example, I can't use my air conditioner. But I can use my Dell computer and my Zip drive. The Bluesmobile is equipped with a diode-isolated auxiliary battery. I installed it behind the driver's seat because of no room under the hood and I didn't want it in the trunk. I wasn't worried about acid ruining my already ruined carpet. (Note: automotive batteries ooze flammable gas. I don't smoke, and I drive with a window down. Put your auxiliary battery under the hood or in the trunk. )

Auxiliary batteryMy auxiliary battery is a 115 amp/hour deep-cycle marine battery. $54 at Walmart. Regular batteries are for high amperage/short period use, i.e., starting a car. Deep-cycle batteries are for low amperage/long period use, i.e., running a trolling motor or a computer. 115 amp/hour means it will operate a device pulling 1 amp for 115 hours. Or 11.5 amps for 10 hours. My computer and Zip drive together pull a maximum of 4 amps. So 115 divided by 4 = 28 3/4. Theoretically, my auxiliary battery will operate my computer and Zip drive for more than 28 hours without recharging.

It's hooked up with 8 gauge electrical wire I bought at Ace Hardware. The black, negative wire, runs over and down for maybe 12 inches and is securely fastened and grounded to the metal floorboard. The purplish, positive wire runs to the left, as you see in the photo, and goes under a plastic inside wall panel. From there it runs under the rocker panel, up and behind a plastic inside wall panel beneath the dash, then out a small hole I drilled in the firewall. The thick black wire you see clamped to the battery's posts and leading out of the Bluesmobile's door trails across the ground and into my tent.

Under the hoodHere under the Bluesmobile's hood you see the isolator, the finned object. I bought it at my local NAPA store for about $25. (Directions came with it.) The purplish wire in the foreground comes from the isolator and goes to the positive main battery post. Behind the isolator (and hidden) is a 20 amp circuit breaker, also from NAPA and about $3, and with one of its posts connected to the isolator. The purplish rear wire comes from the auxiliary battery through the hole I drilled in the firewall and connects to the circuit breaker. I soldered the ends of all wires to copper connecters I bought at Ace Hardware for 79¢ each. I wanted no bad connections; thus the solder.

You can't see it in the photo, but there is a rubber grommet inside the hole I drilled in the firewall. I wanted no possibility of an electrical short; thus the grommet. Don't just wrap your wire with electrical tape where it goes through your firewall. It will eventually loosen due to vibrations and present you with a fireworks display beneath your dash. Use a rubber grommet. Get it at NAPA, Walmart or Radio Shack for about 3¢.

With the isolator, I can discharge one battery and it has no effect on the other battery. If I leave the Bluesmobile's lights on and run down the main battery, I get my jumper cables out of the trunk, hook them from the main battery under the hood to the auxiliary battery behind the driver's seat, and jump myself off. Cool, huh?

But "cool" isn't the reason I installed the auxiliary battery. I wanted to be able to write on my Dell computer and download photos from my digital camera to my Zip drive no matter where I was camped.

Unplugged from the gridIn the photo on the right, taken in my front yard, you see my little Dell notebook and my Zip drive sitting on the roll-up table I normally place in a corner of my tent. My computer and my Zip drive are plugged into power supplies which, via cigarette lighter plugs, are plugged into the little black box you see dangling beneath the right front of the table. A weatherproof cable 30 feet in length travels from the box, through the Bluesmobile's rear door, then clamps to the auxiliary battery, as you saw in the previous photo of the auxiliary battery.

I made the box from an electrical outlet box. The weatherproof cable (from Ace Hardware) comes in one end. A female cigarette lighter socket is in the other end. The front is covered by a generic plastic automobile dome light assembly I bought at my local NAPA. Cost = $3. Beside the light's rocker switch I mounted a red Light Emitting Diode in series with a regular diode. The red LED lights only when 12VDC of the proper polarity is applied. In other words, I know if I've hooked the clamps to the wrong posts of the auxiliary battery.

Hindsight being 20/20, I should have designed the circuit with both a red and a green LED. Green means polarity is OK; red means WHOA! I also could have used another diode in the circuit and allowed only voltage of the proper polarity to reach the box's output terminals. Keep those facts in mind if you build your own circuitry.

The red LED has another function. If I get up in the middle of a dark night, I don't have to hunt a flashlight. I see the bright red LED; I touch it, and the light's rocker switch is beside my finger. Touch the switch, and I have light in my tent.

I ordered the 12VDC adaptor for my computer from Dell It cost about $100. At the time, Zip didn't make 12VDC adaptors for Zip drives, so I made my own. It cost about $10. I found a discarded power supply for some unknown something, and luckily the DC end fit my Zip drive. I removed the power supply's guts and its AC cord. I made a 12VDC to 5VDC Integrated Circuit voltage regulator and installed it in the empty power supply. (Radio Shack about $2.) For about $5 at NAPA, I bought a replacement cellphone cigarette lighter power cord and hooked it to the 12VDC side of the integrated circuit. Presto! I had a Zip drive power supply with 12VDC in and 5VDC out.

Click here to see the schematic. Use a heat sink on the IC and vent the power supply. Use an IC rated for more amps than the device pulls. For example, my drive pulls 1 amp, so I used a 1.5 amp IC.

I have camped without grid electricity for as long as two weeks. Every morning after coffee I start the Bluesmobile and run the motor about two minutes. That charges both batteries.

Now y'all know my secret. I've done some of my best writing while camped alone in deep woods. When the words won't come, I step out of my tent into the campfire light. I sit there and think while embers rise into the blackness above me and owls cry from somewhere in the blackness around me. It's how I imagine Jack London and Robert Service did it.

I wasn't going to admit the following, but I think I shall. In the deep woods, I have one connection to the outside world—television. I hate to miss "Wheel Of Fortune" and New Orleans Saints games, so I carry with me a little color TV with a 12VDC adaptor. It sits in my tent on that roll-up table with my computer and my Zip drive. It only has a one-eared rabbit ear antenna, so I partially bought and partially made a neat alternative antenna.

From Radio Shack for about $20, I bought a powered, amplified VHF-UHF rabbit ear antenna. It had a 115VAC to 12VDC power supply. All I had to do was make a power cord with a cigarette lighter plug on one end and a plug that fit the antenna on the other end. Simple. But I got to thinking how cool it would be if I could figure out a way to get that little antenna high in the air.

So I made that power cord about 25 feet long. And I tied it to the 25 feet long coaxial signal cable I installed from the antenna to the TV. Now, if Vanna's sexy dress isn't clear or I can't see the movements of the cheerleaders, I throw a line over a limb and haul that antenna up in a tree.

Now, that's cool!

Life is hard when you're roughing it in the Mississippi Delta wilderness.

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