EV Camping 101

Statements

It’s late June and everyone is starting to think about Summer vacation. Me? I’m a camper. Not way back in the backcountry, but a typical camper who camps at state and national parks’ campgrounds. I’ve camped many times with a PHEV and it’s about the same experience as taking an ICE vehicle camping. I’ve camped with a Chevy Bolt EV, a kayak and two mountain bikes, but that was still very similar to taking an ICE vehicle, except for planning recharges. We took a large tent and that’s what we camped in.

This year we decided to try something new: camping in an EV.

My wife is more of a “glamping” kind of woman. When we’ve gone camping previously, the last night always included a stay at a nice hotel. The plan was the same this time. We were going to drive from Fort Worth, Texas to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. It’s almost 1,000 miles each way, so we planned to stay at a hotel the first and last night of the trip, while we were between destinations.

Step 1: Have a charge plan Of course, EV drivers know this, but for the newbies out there: There are places that have very few charging stations. Plan your route before you ever leave home. In fact, plan your route before you reserve a hotel room or campsite!

Know your EV Step-by-step I do NOT recommend taking a 2,000 mile road trip with a vehicle that is completely new to you, EV or ICE. All vehicles have different driving characteristics. You need to be comfortable with your vehicle, especially for longer trips, where you might become less attentive as the hours of driving go by.

Plugs More and more often, I am coming across people at charging facilities that are charging for the first time. Some were renting an EV to see what it’s like. Others had bought an EV and were just heading out on the road. Many of these people I met were struggling with charging because they didn’t know there were different plugs and they were at a charger that was incompatible with their car.

Charging levels They often didn’t know about there being a huge difference in charge time between a Level 2 charger and a DC fast charger. Part of planning a trip is knowing how long it takes to charge your EV. Charge times vary greatly, even if on the same DC fast charger. Some EVs charge fast (200+ kW) and some more slowly (50kW). You need to know your EV’s charge time.

Feed yourself when you feed your EV. Always have something else time consuming to do when you stop to charge. If you would have had to stop an do the task anyway, doing it while your charging means that the charge didn’t cost you any driving time. You would have been stopped anyway, to eat, use the restroom, shop, or pick up supplies.

Hotels If your road trip will include nights in hotels, try to locate hotels that offer EV charging. Some of these chargers are Level 2 and free to use for hotel guests. Sometimes a charging company will install a bank of chargers, including DC fast chargers, at a hotel and offer charging at a fee. Hotel stays are great for overnight, Level 2 charging, especially if it’s free!

Trip planning tools Two tools I use for road trip planning are A Better Routeplanner (ABRP) and PlugShare. Each of these are available as a website and as an app for your portable devices. They have a learning curve, so practice with short trips and work up from there. ABRP was so good at planning that I noticed we always arrived at a charger within ten minutes of the planned arrival time.

Network apps Once you have your charging stops planned, make sure you have the charging companies’ apps in your smartphone. It’s like the old days, when every gas station had their own credit card. Each network may have it’s own way of interfacing with them and it will be easier if you have the app ahead of time.

Campsite charging? Many RV campgrounds, state parks, trailer parks, etc have electric outlets for an RV to plug in so it can run lights and an air conditioner. That same outlet can be used to charge an EV. You’ll need a portable charger (preferably Level 2) with a plug on it that is compatible with the outlet at your campsite. I do not carry a Level 1 charger on road trips because they charge too slowly. I have a Level 2 charger that has a NEMA 14-50 plug on it. Many campsites I’ve checked list the plug type at each camping spot on their reservation system, so you can verify the plug is what your charger needs.

Step 2: Tent, trailer or EV? Where to sleep at the campsite will be determined by your EV’s capabilities, accessories and personal preference.

Tent camping feels like traditional camping. You pack a tent and sleeping bags and pitch the tent near where you park your car. The car just gets you around and may serve as a refuge in a storm. One other possibility an EV could provide for tent campers is to provide electricity to the tent. Many tents today have a “power port,” which is just a flap through which you can thread an extension cord. If your EV has a 120V outlet (like in your home) you can plug the extension cord into your EV and run it into the tent to provide charging of devices, lighting, music, etc.

Trailer camping is the same with an ICE vehicle as with an EV with one major exception. The trailer’s aerodynamics and weight will cause your EV to expend more electricity per mile. The same is true in ICE vehicles except ICE vehicles can refuel very quickly at locations that are very common. You must know how the trailer will affect your EV’s range and plan for that in your charging plan. Other than that, just like with an ICE vehicle, when you get to your campsite, you’ll unhitch the trailer and leave it free standing so you can use the EV for getting around.

EV camping was a completely new idea for us. The feeling of not worrying if the tent is going to leak in a bad storm is wonderful. Several EV manufacturers have a utility included in their EV that allows the entertainment system and air conditioner / heater to run all night long. Tesla calls it “Camp Mode.” Hyundai and Kia call it “Utility Mode.” I call it heaven. We were camping at an elevation of 8,500 feet in late May, so temperatures were in the low 30s overnight. We set the thermostat to 58 degrees and slept like babies. The USB outlets located throughout the EV allowed us to recharge all our portable devices while we slept. Of course, to turn a vehicle into a hotel room requires a few add-ons, like:

Mattress We tried a couple different brands and I suggest you do the same. The first one we tried was too thin. At 4-1/2” thick, the second was great. Check the Facebook page for owners of the EV you’ll be taking and ask around there.

Tent Yes, we still ended up taking a tent. It became our storage shed for the camping trip. With us sleeping in the EV, there was no room for our clothes, hiking equipment, lawn chairs or bicycles. The tent also made a great dressing room. It was way too difficult for both of us to try to dress in the car!

Lantern / Flashlight Even though you’lll be sleeping in a room with electric lighting, you still have to walk to the restroom in the middle of the night or check out why that twig snapped…

Privacy screens We found privacy inserts for all our EV’s windows, including the windshield, making the inside of the car as private as our bedroom back home.

Sunroof screen Many EVs today have a roof that is almost all glass. These large sunroofs are often so large that the manufacturer did not include a way to block the sun’s light. If you’re heading to the southwest U.S. in July through September, you’re going to want one. Or, if you’re a late night, sit around the campfire kind of person, it can keep the car dark inside so you can sleep late the next morning.

Multi-outlet power strip If your car has a standard electric outlet, like your home has, a power strip may be useful for plugging in several small devices (like smartphones). Be aware of the maximum power the outlet can deliver and how to reset the EV’s breaker if it trips.

Power inverter If you have larger devices to recharge or your EV does not have an electric outlet, you may want to buy a power inverter to convert your EV’s DC energy into AC. An inverter often has either a cigarette lighter-type of plug or clamps to attach to a battery’s positive and negative terminals. We bought an inverter to recharge the electric bikes we brought with us, since the park had no outlets and we did not want to wait for hours in town to recharge them.

Results:

EV Camping One of my questions was how much energy will be used by heating the car for 8 to 10 hours? We weren’t trying to make it 75℉ in the car. We used sleeping bags to allow us to keep the thermostat a little lower and conserve energy. What I found was that we were losing about 14 miles of range while we slept. At an average of 3.5 miles per kWh, that’s about 4kWh of electricity (about 64¢ worth). Our EV has 78kWh of usable storage, so we could camp for 18 days before we’d need to drive into town to recharge.

“Autonomous” driving Although different manufacturers are at different stages of rolling their autonomous driving capabilities, it’s worth checking them out, especially for long trips. The reduction in fatigue is truly astounding. We have a Tesla Model Y, so we pay $99 per month, for the months we want to use full self-driving. However, you have to pay attention. Every now and then it’ll do something it shouldn’t have, like veering into a 90 degree turn the navigation route doesn’t include. That being said, when it works, it is phenomenal. I was especially surprised that it knew how to navigate the national park. Our EV drove across the Continental Divide from Grand Lake to our campsite, without my intervention. It did a better job of staying in the speed limit on the downhill stretches than I ever did.

Regenerative braking and mountains During the drive across the Continental Divide, I kept an eye on remaining miles to see what we were regaining from the regenerate brakes. Our start and end points were at almost the same elevation. When we left Grand Lake, we had 112 miles of range remaining. When we arrived at our campsite, we had 70 miles of range. The actual distance driven was 48 miles but we had only used 42 miles of range. We had risen from an elevation of 8,439 feet to the top of the drive at 12,183 feet and then descended to 8,500 feet.

Summary If you enjoy camping (or would if it was a little less “roughing it,” you need to try EV camping. We had a wonderful vacation and were really sad that it had to end. As you can see, having an EV as your camping road trip vehicle don’t have to affect your experience very much or it can really change it. That part’s up to you. But the campers around you will love the silence of your EV every time you drive away. I had no problems finding charging along my usual route, but I have a Tesla. The move of the other OEMs to Tesla’s NACS connector will make travel easier on all EV drivers soon, as will the roll out of NEVI-funded chargers. Texas will have DCFC in every county seat and every 50 miles along major interstate highways within the next 5 years. If those had been in place for our trip, we could have reduced the number of charging spots by at least two.

Photos & videos If you’d like to see what we did with photos and videos from our trip, you can check out my EVangelist blog.