Camping at the Mt. Airy Festival

Shows our Cricket set up in camp at the Mt Airy festival.

We attended the Mt. Airy Fiddler’s Convention for the second year in a row. This time we had the Cricket as our secret weapon. Instead of sleeping on the muddy ground in constant heavy rain, we had comfortable beds, a great kitchen area, outside covered seating, and a secure place to stash our instruments while keeping them cooler than inside the truck.

The photo above shows our new REI 12.5×12.5 foot square tarp, and next to it, a large pop up shelter that a friend brought. Together we had a huge covered area for music and shared meals. The REI tarp works a lot better than the stock TAXA tarp that came with the Cricket. It has more coverage, doesn’t sag and collect water, and handles bad weather well. Plus it has much less of a gap between the tarp and the camper. There is still a little bit of water that runs down the side and over the big window, but it doesn’t get everything under the tarp wet. Plus the REI tarp was about $70. Attached it using small carabiners, one on the back tarp attachment point, and the other on the far end of the handle in the center of the roof. It’s tight enough without putting a lot of stress on it.

I’m still learning how to choose a good site. We got there on Thursday morning, and all the shaded sites had been occupied for days. But the large open field was flat and grassy, and had plenty of good sites left. My biggest mistake was moving the truck over to a parking spot along the road. This allowed another group to pitch their tent/tarp right up against our camper (really, it was touching in one spot), where they proceeded to talk and sing loudly until after 3am, and — much worse — smoke incessantly. The noise wasn’t that big a deal — it’s a festival, after all. But the smoke was pouring through our camper while we slept. Next time I will park the truck on that side of the camper and make sure I have blocked out areas around it.

Cricket in camp.

Here’s another view of the tarp over the Cricket. I have two tall adjustable tent poles, one on each corner, and I made the front corner much higher so water can run down off the back. I guyed out each pole in two directions so I could control the tension both ways.

We had the water pump replaced, so we drove up with a mostly full fresh water tank. We were able to clean dishes, and ourselves, brush teeth, etc., without leaving the camper. Worked well.

Playing music in camp.

The point of the festival is to jam with your friends, of course, and we spent most of our time doing just that. So I don’t have many photos from this adventure. The cool thing about old time music is the community of folks who play it. We play with people in their teens and in their 70s and all in between. People from all over the region and the country. It’s a relaxing atmosphere and the music is excellent.

Fiddling Around in the Cricket

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On the first weekend in May we took our Cricket to its first music festival, the Piedmont One Mic Acoustic Convention (POMAC) in Franklinville, NC. This is the second year of the festival, which celebrates acoustic music of all kinds, including Old Time, bluegrass, Piedmont blues, and mill music. POMAC is organized by some friends in the Piedmont Old Time Society, and it’s still a small and accessible festival for musicians and fans.

The festival is in a tiny town park along the Deep River. There is a wide grass flood plain where we were able to camp, with a grassy road running one way through the long, skinny park for access. The camping area was about five or six feet below the level of the road, and we had some concerns about getting the camper out after all the rain, but these proved unfounded.

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We got there Friday after work and set up camp. I chose the site based on easy access, being able to swing around next to the river like a pull-through site, rather than trying to back down the hill. It’s not a great choice in other ways, though, since it gets no shade during the day. After a quick dinner and a walk around the park, we found our friends and played music until all hours.

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On Saturday morning we explored the park. There is a bridge across the river to a trail system, and we hiked to Faith Rock, a large rock outcrop with an interesting history and a great view. In the afternoon we entered the fiddle contest, and played with our friend Bob in the band contest. A good time was had by all.

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With the water pump not working, we didn’t have water for washing up and personal hygiene. This has never been an issue before, but we’ve generally camped in places with bath houses. So we learned that having a functional internal water system is a great feature when boondocking. Other than that one issue, the Cricket handled well. Since one of the primary reasons we wanted a trailer was for music festivals and fiddler’s conventions, this was a great experience. Just what we wanted.

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Next up: The Mt. Airy Blue Grass & Old-Time Fiddlers Convention.

Five Days Paddling in the Swamp

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We took the Cricket for its first long weekend camping trip to one of our favorite places, Merchant’s Millpond State Park, in Gates County, NC. The main attraction is an old millpond that has grown into a cypress-tupelo swamp. We went in late April at peak warbler migration, and had some good paddling and great birding. Plus snakes.

I was hoping to learn how long I could run the TAXA Cricket on battery power with the usual load: Dometic 40 liter refrigerator, the LED lighting system, the Truma propane furnace/water heater, and charging various devices using the USB outlets. We have a dual battery setup with a pair of Type 24 80 amp hour marine/RV batteries. Since the park has no hookups, and we’d be there for four nights, it was a good test.

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We were planning to leave early Thursday morning, but the weather forecast made us rethink that plan, and we hustled to leave right after lunch on Wednesday. That got us to the park in time to set up the camper and make some dinner. Here’s a photo of the camper with the kayaks on our 4Runner – good thing the camper isn’t any taller than the tow vehicle. With the full load of camping and paddling gear, but dry tanks, the Cricket handled very well on the highway. We got about 15.5 mpg on this trip, on mostly level interstate. The Cricket normally trims about 2 mpg off our 19 mpg average, so the rest was from the kayaks.

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There are about 20 campsites at the park, all level back-in sites with gravel driveways and no hookups. Most of them have a fair amount of privacy. There is one bath house with showers and bathrooms, and there are water spigots located along the road.

I used a 5-gallon water container to fill the fresh water tank in the Cricket. It takes 15 gallons, so I made several trips. That gave us hot and cold water for washing dishes, cleaning up, brushing teeth, etc. We drank and cooked with bottled water. There is a small water pump that pulls water from the tank and pressurizes the plumbing system.

We had a lovely 8 hour paddle on Thursday, heading up Bennett’s Creek to an area with thousand-year-old cypress trees. We were able to find a small island where we could land the kayaks for lunch and restroom breaks, making such a long day possible.

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The weather on Friday turned out to be just as bad as predicted, so we went for a short birding hike down to the dam from the campsite, then drove to the small Colonial town of Edenton for lunch. Edenton is a like a tiny Williamsburg, with Colonial architecture and restored buildings, but also a functioning downtown area with shops and restaurants. We had a terrific lunch at The Governor’s Pub.

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We had severe thunderstorms heading back to the park, and several more overnight, though we were spared the tornadoes that hit elsewhere. The Cricket handled the weather quite well, though the tarp that TAXA sells for it is less than ideal. Rigged as directed, the heavy flap that is supposed to seal the gap with the camper doesn’t do so. It also collects water in large bulges no matter how I set it up, so I was up several times that night pushing the water out before it ripped. I tried rigging it to get better coverage, but we ended up buying a different tarp and will report back when we use it next month.

No matter, we hung out inside and played a little music.

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You can see in this photo the interior space and how crucial it is to be organized. We use a 2-inch memory foam pad, which adds a lot of comfort but also takes up a lot of room. It’s rolled up in the fitted sheet at the rear of the seating area. We can slide it around to get inside the underbed storage, at least when the bed is not made. Up top you can see our quilt and pillows in the bungee net, and the stuff we use during the day is just laying on the bed. At the bottom right is the Dometic 40 liter refrigerator — it looks like a medium sized cooler, but it has a small compressor and so far has been very good at keeping a steady internal temperature. On the floor in the middle is the connector for the table support. The banjo is a Deering Goodtime open backed banjo played clawhammer style.

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Above is a view of the Cricket from the front, taken late in the evening in between thunderstorms. Another issue with the stock tarp is that it doesn’t cover the open door, so we end up closing the door when it’s raining hard. That has an effect on ventilation inside. Note that we have a small outdoor carpet, and a 4-foot folding table that we use as an outdoor kitchen in good weather. There is a 12 volt outlet on the side of the Cricket under the folding table, so we can move the fridge outside into the kitchen.

So how long did the batteries last? All weekend and then some. With the fridge set to 37F, the Truma making hot water, the LED lights on as needed, and charging devices overnight, our voltmeter was down to 12.1v as we packed up on Sunday morning (it starts at 12.6v.) I’m comfortable letting it go to 11.4v before recharging, and my battery expert tells me I can go as low as 10.5 in a pinch (but then I have to turn off the batteries and get them to a charger.) Given this experience I will have no qualms going for as much as a week or even more without worrying about hookups or solar panels.

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Here’s a nice view of the interior showing the excellent headroom and all the natural light coming in the windows on a sunny day. The table is in position and all the canvas windows are unzipped.

We thought we’d go home Saturday, but the weather was incredible — clear blue skies, cooler temperatures. So we went for a 3 hour paddle instead, then had a pleasant dinner in camp. The campground – which had been almost entirely empty the previous three nights – was now full, but it still didn’t feel crowded.

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When we got home Sunday afternoon, I planned to clean out all the tanks with fresh water. At that point the water pump failed. I went through the various troubleshooting steps and couldn’t get it working. (Later I would do all the steps again, then take it to the dealer for a new water pump under warranty. I’ve seen several posts on the owners’ Facebook group about similar issues with the pump.)

On our next trip we’ll take the Cricket to a small music festival.

 

Camping at Stone Mountain State Park

TAXA Cricket camping trailer in camp at dusk.
In camp at Site 37 at dusk the first night.

So we finally got a nice weekend to take our new camping trailer out for its maiden voyage. We wanted to stay close to home but still have a place for a good hike and a peaceful campsite, so we headed to Stone Mountain State Park in Traphill, NC, about an hour from home. SMSP is home of Stone Mountain, a huge exposed granite dome, and it’s popular among climbers and hikers.

It turns out this was a very popular weekend for camping at Stone Mountain, too. Every site in the large RV loop (with electric and water hookups) was taken, mostly with giant fifth wheel campers. We had a site in the smaller A loop, mostly tent sites but with a few that would work for small campers like ours. On Friday night we won the highly coveted “smallest camper in the campground” award, probably by a good ten feet or more, but on Saturday night a couple from Virginia had a very cool tiny teardrop camper in site 55, the most private site in the RV loop.

TL;DR — the Cricket was great, we had a fun short hike and a nice lunch in Sparta, and the weather was terrific if a bit chilly.

Longer version — Since we were taking this trip to test the various systems in the Cricket, and make sure we knew how everything worked, I’ll just write about that. This is the sort of information I wanted when we were looking at campers.

The Cricket Kitchen

One of the prime features of the Cricket is the kitchen, located right up front in the tallest area of the camper. The birch plywood construction is striking, and the overall look is of something made by a very practical engineer.

Storage in the kitchen area.

There’s lots of storage in the kitchen area. We had some plastic boxes that fit in the wide shelves, and found others for the smaller compartments. The big blue box at the right is our pantry. The Dometic refrigerator is barely in view at the lower left. You can also see the four round black hot air outlets for the Truma system, and the cover for it at the lower left. The Truma control panel is top center, along with light switches and a fuse panel.

Countertop

Here’s a view of the countertop, with the glass cover closed over the stovetop and sink. There’s enough room for food prep as well as storage of commonly used items. Note the knife and utensil rack at the far right.

Cricket Kitchen

And here’s the kitchen in use, making farro with tomatoes and garlic. A tasty and quick one-pot camping meal. That stovetop will easily handle a 12-inch saute pan, too.

Cooking inside the Cricket is enjoyable. There’s good natural light with the windows in the pop-top open, and a decent LED light strip over the counter. There’s enough room to prep and cook, within reason. We did discover that the smoke alarm works quite well, as it sounded several times while cooking breakfast. Opening the windows and turning on the ceiling fan to pull air and smoke out fixed this immediately, and also showed us how much air the fan can move even on the lowest setting.

Sleeping and Living Space

Bed set up

Well, this is the important part, right? If we’re replacing our tent, it needs to be comfortable to sleep in.

The cushions in the Cricket are, er, exceptionally firm. Not quite as firm as plywood, but close. The good news is that they should last forever. The bad news is that we can’t sleep on them as-is. So for this trip we tried the very soft 2-inch memory foam mattress topper that we use on our bed at home. A standard queen size topper fits just fine, though we had to tuck it in a little at the foot of the bed where it narrows a bit. This added a lot of cushion, but this topper was too soft. We’ll try again next time with either a 3-inch topper or one that is firmer.

One of the issues with using a second mattress is, where do you put it? You can see our solution in one of the photos below — we roll it up and push it to one side, or down to the bottom of the bed, depending on which side of the storage area we need access to. It got in the way a few times, but it worked.

The quilt is our regular backpacking quilt, a 20-F rated Accomplice two-person quilt from Enlightened Equipment. We find it works very well down to about freezing. EE makes terrific backpacking quilts in many styles and temperature ranges, and they’re much lighter than most sleeping bags.

This weekend was a good test of living in the Cricket. It got down to freezing at night, and it was very windy Friday night and all day Saturday, so we ended up preparing and eating meals inside, and hanging out, changing clothes, organizing gear, getting ready to hike, etc., all inside the small interior of the camper. All in all, it works, though it takes some planning and organization given how the storage works under the bed, and how small the seating area and table are.

Living inside the camper.
NA checking out future trips on the tiny table inside.

 

Storage and Organization

Storage area under the bed.
Storage under the bed.

There is more storage space in the Cricket than I thought when I first looked at it. The under-bed storage area easily holds all our personal gear and clothing (on the right — one medium duffle and one Osprey day pack per person), and plenty of RV gear and tools (left.) We’re not using all the space under the bed, and could easily carry enough stuff to be gone indefinitely.

When I started thinking about all the things we used to carry in the car for tent camping, I quickly realized that all of those things were in the trailer: Tent, check. Kitchen bag — we have a whole kitchen! Sleeping pads, bags, pillows. Chairs, a small table, a screen house for cooking and hanging out. Personal gear, clothing, toilet and shower stuff — it’s all in the Cricket. It makes packing and preparing for a trip much faster and easier.

Storage on the ceiling.
Storage in the ceiling.

Our pillows and down quilt stow in mesh bungee nets in the ceiling. These are 15×30-inch cargo nets from Amazon, and they attach to various holes placed in the frame for this purpose. We can also stuff our jackets, hats, down booties, and other lightweight items up here. (The little string of star lights plugs into the USB outlet on the battery box, and provides a lovely warm, soft light in the evening. That also came from Amazon.) The mattress topper rolls up and gets pushed to one side or the other.

Power

Batteries in the trailer.

The Cricket, like most RVs, has a dual 120 AC and 12 volt DC power system. Plugged into power at home or at a campsite, and the power converter will run the various systems, keep the battery charged, and provide power to a couple of household outlets. Unplugged, everything runs off a pair of Group 27 RV/Marine AGM “house” batteries, 79 amp hours each. These are sealed lead acid batteries. Given the characteristics of this type of battery, we can use only about half the stored power before needing to recharge. The batteries run the fridge, the LED lights, and the combination heater/hot water system, as well as offering several USB outlets for charging devices.

I had some concerns about battery usage with the 12v refrigerator. On this trip we had the fridge running the whole time, plus the Truma heater all night, along with the LED lights and some USB devices. But after 48 hours of running on the batteries, our output voltage was still at 12.3 volts, which is great. (We have to shut things down if the voltage drops below 10.5v, or we’ll damage the batteries.) I expect we’ll easily be able to go off the grid for four days or more with no problems, which covers pretty much any music festival and most of our camping trips.

The Truma Combi Heater

The Truma is terrific. It’s a tiny propane-fueled furnace and hot water heating system that runs from a pair of propane tanks and the batteries (or shore power if we have it.) The furnace and the hot water heater function independently, so in very cold weather when it’s inadvisable to have any water in the Cricket (it might freeze and damage pipes or the Truma), one can still use the furnace for heat at night. (If you own a Cricket with the Truma and didn’t get the manual from your dealer, or got the wrong manual, you can download the PDF from the list at the bottom of this page.)

It was plenty cold enough to run the Truma both nights, and what a joy it was to wake up and turn up the heat a little before getting out of bed. For long-time tent campers and backpackers, this verges on luxurious, or maybe even decadent. Mmmmmmm. I could get used to this.

We didn’t run any water through the plumbing system on this trip, both because of the below-freezing temperatures overnight, and to simplify our first trip.

Towing and Setup

Towing the Cricket.

The Cricket towed easily behind our 4Runner. It was stable at 70mph on the interstate, and just as stable on a hilly, windy two lane road headed up into the mountains. It tracks well, the brakes work, and the 4Runner barely notices the extra weight.

Backing it into the campsite was fairly easy, though the driveway was more sloped than I expected. When we went to level the camper, we realized that the front stabilizers would not touch the ground — too much slope. Next time I’ll have a couple pieces of 4x4s or 6x6s with me. But this time we turned the Cricket sideways into the site, which made for some interesting maneuvers with the truck.

Setting up the Cricket was easy and fast. Level it side-to-side and chock the wheels, unhitch it from the truck, level it fore-and-aft with the jack, then put down the stabilizers. Pop open the top and it pushes up easily from the inside and latches into place. We set up the included awning using some small bungee cords and carabiners, three poles, and three long guy lines. It was tricky to line it up properly to keep the flap over the top edge of the camper, and I have some concerns about water flow in heavy rain.

Once we got the carpet laid out, and some comfortable camp chairs, we were all set to enjoy a lovely evening in camp. The string lights are LEDs running from a small battery pack that takes three AA batteries, and they are attached to the tarp with clothespins. One 33-foot string was enough to cover the entire tarp and provide very nice light after dusk.

A nighttime view of the camper and stars.
Shot handheld at ISO 6400 with the tiny Sony RX100, the photo is noisy but captures the feeling of being there.

The Cricket Comes Home

The Cricket in our driveway.
The Cricket in our driveway.

So we drove out to Bumgarner Camping in Lenoir on Saturday to pick up our Cricket. We spent about an hour with Darryl, one of the service techs, as he patiently explained the operation of all the parts. We’ve been thinking of the Cricket as a big tent on wheels, but some of it gets complicated — the Truma heater/hot water unit is quite complex, for example. Darryl had hooked up the Cricket to shore power and city water, and tested everything to make sure it all worked properly. He had also installed a pair of Group 24 AGM deep cycle batteries that should give us plenty of stored power for use off the grid.

After we finished the paperwork and wrote a really big check, Darryl and his team helped us buy the proper hitch ball, and helped me hook up the Cricket to my 4Runner. I haven’t towed anything since I was in the Army over 30 years ago, so it was useful to have someone look over my shoulder. We got it all hitched up, then pulled around front and found a few items we needed in their parts store. Then we headed home.

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In the service bay at Bumgarner Camping. It looks so tiny all closed up.

The 4Runner pulls the Cricket like there is nothing there. It tracks very well, turns easily, and acceleration is fine. Braking takes longer, and that’s when I feel the 1500 extra pounds. It was fine on the interstate at 65mph, but started to sway a bit at 70. The Cricket is no wider than the 4Runner, so I had good visibility with the stock mirrors.

We got home and I backed it into the driveway. Again, haven’t done that in 30 years, but it came back pretty quickly. We opened it up, checked out some of the systems, and got ready for the big test: will it fit in the garage?

It turns out that my very careful measuring of the garage door opening height and the closed height of the Cricket was correct: the Cricket fit in the door with about 1/2 inch to spare. Whew. Keeping it in the garage is more secure, and we can leave it connected to an outlet to keep the batteries fully charged.

This afternoon we pulled it back out and set it up again. I wanted to check some of the systems and see how they operate. I also wanted to remove all the pink RV antifreeze that the tech had run through the plumbing system. We don’t need it since the Cricket lives in the garage. (And the manual suggests that he should not have run antifreeze into the Truma heat/hot water system anyway.) So we hooked up a water hose, filled the Truma, and started up the heater and the hot water. Wow! In a few minutes it was very warm inside the Cricket. Hot water took a little longer; on Eco we had hot water in about 20 minutes. The Truma runs on 12v and the propane tanks. We also filled the fresh water holding tank and ran the water pump to make sure everything works when we don’t have a city water supply.

NA making hot chocolate in the kitchen area.
NA making hot chocolate in the kitchen area.

For our first meal in the Cricket, we boiled water on the stovetop, then made hot chocolate and served it with chocolate cookies. The stovetop worked well, but we discovered that our car camping/backpacking pot was not as useful and we’ll need to buy a tea kettle and maybe another pot or two with handles. We’ve been puttering around the kitchen area, trying to see what fits where, and what makes sense to bring. That’ll be the topic of a future post.

Then we sat and enjoyed hot chocolate inside our tiny, warm Cricket. After that, we packed it all up and put it back in the garage. Looking forward to our first real trip next month.

Enjoying hot chocolate inside the Cricket.
Enjoying hot chocolate inside the Cricket.

The TAXA Cricket

Exterior of Taxa Cricket camping trailer.

We’ve been tent camping for 30+ years, both on the trail (backpacking) and in state and national parks (car camping.) This past year we also started going to local music festivals and fiddler’s conventions, where we set up our big REI tent, 10×10 foot pop-up canopy, outdoor carpet, chairs, etc. It’s fun, it gets us outside, and even an expensive tent isn’t that expensive.

For most of those thirty years, we’ve occasionally seen a small, hard sided pop-up trailer called an Aliner, and we always said we’d get one eventually. Well, eventually finally came this year, so we went to the Aliner dealer and got a quote for a very nice one. Then some camping friends suggested that we check out a dealer who specializes in small campers, so a couple of weeks ago we ended up at Bumgarner Camping in Lenoir, NC, about 90 minutes from home. We looked a 15 different models from four or five manufacturers. The Cricket, from TAXA Outdoors in Houston, immediately caught our eye.

The Cricket is tiny on the outside and big on the inside. With the roof popped open, I have plenty of room to stand up. It has a large bed that converts to a small table and chairs, a kitchen area with a gas stove top, hot and cold running water, a propane furnace, and lots of windows for cross ventilation and views. There’s a fair amount of storage under the bed, too.

Interior of Taxa Cricket camping trailer.

The interior is, to put it gently, “practical.” It looks like the inside of an Air Force C-130, all aluminum framing and panels and held together with bungee cords, carabiners, and clevis pins. There’s a reason for that — the designer, Garrett Finney, was a senior architect at NASA and worked on the habitat area of the International Space Station. The bed frame and the entire kitchen area are made from birch plywood and they look great. I feel that I can take the whole thing apart and put it back together — very helpful for repairs on the road.

Interior of Taxa Cricket camping trailer.

Towing and using the Cricket should be easy. It weighs 1500 pound empty, and is small enough to fit in our garage. It has electric trailer brakes and a built-in brake controller. It should also look pretty good behind our silver 4Runner 🙂

I think what appealed the most to both of us was the idea that the Cricket is “just enough and not too much.” We wanted something that would let us sleep off the ground, make coffee and breakfast inside on a cold, rainy morning, keep us warm on cold nights, and carry our camping gear. Inside, it feels more like backpacking than any other trailer we tried (most of the big ones have the look and feel of a hotel room in Myrtle Beach.)

We bring it home in two weeks. More to come.