Camping, hiking, and good food a short drive from home
The Blue Ridge Parkway is a 469 mile two-lane scenic roadway through the mountains of Virginia and North Carolina. The Parkway was built in the 1930s and is run by the National Park Service, which maintains the roadway, various hiking trails, recreation areas, visitor centers, historic buildings, folk art centers, several lodges and restaurants, and eight campgrounds.
Doughton Park, at mile marker 240, has many of the features of the Parkway, and it’s just over an hour from our home in Winston-Salem. The campground has a small trailer loop which is usually full, and a very large tenting loop which is rarely close to capacity. So we made a reservation for one of the trailer sites for a June weekend, and headed up the mountain on a Thursday morning.
Along the way we stopped at the Blue Ridge Music Center, a wonderful music venue and museum of local folk music on the parkway in Virginia. The museum was still closed due to COVID restrictions, but the Midday Mountain Music had returned. Every day a local artist or band volunteers to play old time or bluegrass music in the breezeway from 12-4pm, free. During the summer, the amphitheater hosts outdoor concerts by regional and national artists.
We had a very private campsite with a pull through driveway, and steps down to a flat area with a table and a sitting area. We were surrounded by woods, and once DF set up our string lights, we had a private, quiet area to hang out. The locals call this site the “honeymoon suite.”
The rest of the trailer loop was more crowded and close together. The loop was designed decades ago when small camping trailers, teardrops, and vans were popular and people didn’t need satellite TV and air conditioning. It was amusing to see some extremely large RVs and even a diesel RV bus wedged into tiny 20 foot driveways. Somewhat less amusing was the constant hum of generators, though being down in our sitting area helped with that and the folks with generators cut them off during quiet hours.
Scenery and Hiking
Doughton Park is located on the Blue Ridge Escarpment, which is a fancy way of saying that there are a lot of bluffs and cliffs here where the land drops away to the piedmont. Hiking trails are everywhere, from the Bluffs Trail that follows the Parkway along the edge of the escarpment, to several trails that head down to the bottom, and the Basin Creek Trail that starts at the bottom and hikes up to historic Caudill Cabin.
The Bluffs Trail is well maintained and has great views. It’s about a 7 mile out and back from the campground to the scenic overlook at the far end of this trail (see top photo), which we did on a particularly hot afternoon.
An enjoyable weekend
We headed into the market town of West Jefferson on Saturday morning. West Jefferson has a thriving shopping area, some excellent breweries and restaurants, and all the services that the residents of Ashe County might need. We stopped in at the farmer’s market, where we could buy organic meat, local fruit and vegetables, tie dyed clothing, artwork and crafts. We had a great lunch at New River Brewing, with good service and a very nice saison to go with our sandwiches.
Back in the park, the Bluffs Restaurant has reopened. The Bluffs was an icon – a classic Park Service coffee shop and lodge that had a 60 year run before closing in 2010. With support from the Blue Ridge Parkway Foundation, the restaurant has reopened and is serving three meals a day. The renovated space is lovely, and looks very much like the old coffee shop. Reservations are recommended. We ate there three times, once each for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The food was excellent, and the service very good.
It’s a 15 or 20 minute walk from the campground to the Bluffs Restaurant on the Bluffs Trail.
After a lovely three night trip, we headed home. This seems like the kind of trip we should be doing every month.
Camping, paddling, birding, and making music with friends
We headed to Eastern North Carolina for Spring Break 2021 with our TAXA Cricket camper, our kayaks, and a week of groceries. The weather was terrific; we saw some good birds and played music with friends; we learned some North Carolina history; and we paddled in a beautiful swamp.
It didn’t take long to attach the roof rack to the truck, then load the boats and hitch up our Cricket. We planned to stop at a sub shop to get lunch for the road, but I had mis-remembered when they opened, and we hit the road sub-less. But a quick stop at a friendly Jimmy John’s in Greensboro fixed that, and we were on our way to Pettigrew State Park.
As we drove around the Raleigh beltway, I suddenly remembered that our lovely lightweight fancy kayak paddles were safely stashed away. In the garage. At home. Two hours away. Four hours round trip to go back and get them. Sigh. If we turned back, we’d double our driving time and arrive at our campsite at 7pm, far later than I’d like. If we didn’t, well, kayaks aren’t much use without paddles. Then we remembered the REI store a few miles away in Cary, and turned off the highway. It turned out that REI didn’t have many choices, but the nearby Dick’s Sporting Goods had a great selection of reasonably priced paddles. We took the opportunity to enjoy lunch in their parking lot, and were back on the road in well under an hour.
Pettigrew State Park borders Lake Phelps, a large, shallow pocosin lake in a very remote area of Eastern North Carolina. There is a tiny campground with 13 sites and a bathhouse, no hookups. It was fully booked for Easter weekend, with all but one site taken. The park includes the sites of two colonial plantations. One, Somerset Place, is now a North Carolina State Historic Site, with the original Georgian plantation house and many outbuildings.
“Originally, this atypical plantation included more than 100,000 densely wooded, mainly swampy acres bordering the five-by-eight mile Lake Phelps, in present-day Washington County. During its 80 years as an active plantation (1785-1865), enslaved persons converted thousands of acres into high yielding fields of rice, corn, oats, wheat, beans, peas, and flax. Meanwhile, enslaved and free millwrights operated sophisticated sawmills that turned out thousands of feet of lumber. By 1860, Somerset Place was one of the Upper South’s largest plantations.”
We set up the camper and our Quickset Clam screen house — affectionately known as the “yurt” — and got a nice campfire going for the chilly evening. It got into the mid 30s the first couple of nights, so a campfire made it much more enjoyable to hang out. We were both surprised at how warm the yurt was, even on a cold night. Blocking the wind and holding in some heat makes a big difference. We set up our outdoor kitchen inside the yurt, along with chairs, tables, and an outdoor rug. I heated up some pork barbecue for dinner, along with slaw and potato salad and a cold beverage. (No alcohol allowed in state parks. Well, that’s the rule, anyway. I’m certain that everyone follows the rules.)
There’s a pleasant boardwalk trail through the swampy edges of Lake Phelps, leading to a dock with a swimming area. DF walked out to the benches on the dock to watch the sun rise while I fired up the stove to make coffee. I joined her with the coffee mugs on a cold, clear morning. Later, back in camp, I made a large breakfast of scrambled eggs, potatoes, ham, and cheese, along with toast and raspberry jam.
We walked over to Somerset Place and toured the site, though we didn’t have time for the formal tour. Like a lot of old Southern historical sites, this one is lovely. Pretty grass, large shade trees, a view of the lake. It’s quiet, and peaceful. I think this tends to reinforce the “Tara” view of the South, the “Lost Cause” and the “Boys Who Wore the Gray” and all that. Pretty Southern belles and their romantic gentlemen farmers, who went off to fight for “freedom.” The reality would have been far different. Hundreds of people, most of them enslaved Africans, worked 12 hour days cutting timber, digging the canals by hand, sawing logs into wood, running the huge farm, and dying in the “hospital” on the property. It would have been brutally hot, buggy, loud, and dangerous.
The visitors center is in an old “boarding school” building on the site, where the owner’s children were sent to live and study away from the main house. The site does attempt to talk about the history of the enslaved people who were there, which is a welcome addition to the site. They have reconstructed two of the almost 30 slave quarters on the property, and listed the number of people living in them. The informational panels also talk about 80 people taken from West Africa specifically for their knowledge and skill with growing rice. After the Civil War,
“Nearly all the emancipated black families left the plantation by the end of 1865. The financially crippled owners eventually sold and left the property, never to return. The plantation itself remained functioning through 1945, but it was never profitable without enslaved labor.”
– from the NC Historic Sites website
That can probably be said for most of the colonial plantation system in the U.S.A. The plantations generated huge amounts of wealth for a very small number of people, but only because they weren’t paying their workers. (Not to mention the horrible inhumanity of the entire system, of course.)
It was a sad place with echoes of its people in the land and the forest.
Later that afternoon we drove down to Washington, NC. Our Old Time banjo playing friend LB lives on the river there. We had contacted her ahead of time to see if she wanted to play some tunes, in our first post-vaccination jam. Another friend was able to join us, and we spent all afternoon playing old time tunes and talking. It did not go unnoticed that the music we play, and the instruments, have a direct connection to the people at Somerset Place, especially the African people who would have been playing the banjo and the fiddle at a gathering or dance in the big house. Much of what we think of as “mountain music” comes from Down East in North Carolina, where different musical traditions from Europe and Africa formed something new.
Another cold evening in camp, though we skipped the fire and went straight to the heated camper.
The next morning we walked out to the swimming dock, but the wind-driven waves were almost to the deck and it was bitterly cold. We retreated to camp for coffee and breakfast.
There are several hiking trails along the shoreline of the lake, and we chose to hike to the “Bee Tree Overlook.” The trail was an old carriage road between the two plantations, and ended at a modern farm field at the edge of the park property. There was a large canal running out from the lake, one of many that had been built for transportation. At one time the owners thought they might be able to drain the entire lake for farming. It was a pleasantly warm morning and the hike was easy (it’s very flat there.)
After lunch we took our fiddle and banjo over to Somerset Place and sat in the shade and played very old tunes for an hour or two, thinking about the people who had lived there.
I started a campfire early in the evening, hoping to have a warm spot to hang out until late, but it was very smoky and of course the wind put all that smoke straight inside the camper. I was able to get the fire to calm down a bit and we stayed up a while, looking at the stars.
As we were breaking camp early Monday morning, DF spotted a large bird in a tree about 100 yards away. With binoculars, it turned into a Great Horned Owl. Then, another one showed up in a branch above it. The second was a fledged juvenile, who then fluttered down to join its parent on the large branch. The adult had a small mammal – maybe a squirrel? – and it proceeded to rip the animal into bite size pieces and feed the juvenile. I had time to get a spotting scope set up so we could get a closer view. About that same time a park service maintenance person was working at the check in station, so I walked over and invited him to view the owls. He was happy to get the chance to see them, as were we.
We had thought to leave late in the morning and stop in Edenton for lunch, but there were no good places to park our truck and camper right downtown, and none of the places we liked appeared to have outdoor seating. So we got an earlier start instead, on the road by 10am. We had to stop at the AutoZone in Edenton to pick up some fuses — I had blown a fuse in the camper that controlled the 12 volt outlet where we plug in the fridge. (Pro tip: the 12v outlet on the kitchen cabinet of the Cricket is only 5 amps. If you plug a phone charger into the 2.1amp USB outlet on the same circuit, there is not enough juice for the fridge and it blows the fuse.) The folks at the store were helpful and everyone was wearing a mask.
We arrived at Merchants Millpond State Park before noon and checked in at the visitors center. Had camp set up in an hour or so and had an easy lunch in camp. The campground here has about 20 sites, and they are very well spread out. Site 5 was very private, but close to a water spigot and a short walk from the central bathhouse. By the time we walked down to the pond, it was hot — up into the 80s, a far cry from the freezing temps we had a few days earlier. We didn’t have many birds on this walk. I think we’re a week or two early for peak migration.
I set up our solar panels to top up the batteries. They seem to work pretty well, though I have never had enough time to leave them set up to fully charge the two AGM batteries in the camper. I was getting over 10 amps from direct midday sun, which seems pretty good. I did buy a set of longer extension cables for this trip, but one of them must have a bad connector, because they kept throwing an error message on the solar charge controller. The shorter cords I already had worked fine. OK, the new ones can go back to Amazon.
We made a fancy dinner in camp, gnocchi with pesto, and sauteed kale with garlic and olive oil. Did I mention that the weather was just perfect all week? We could cook and eat outdoors, and be cleaned up before it got too buggy as the sun set. The only real environmental hazard was the pine pollen that was coming down in waves all over the campground. Everything we own, inside and out, was covered in yellow pollen.
We slept in until after 8am this morning. This is very unusual for us, but I guess we needed the sleep. We made a quick breakfast of coffee and muesli, and went down to the pond for a paddle.
Merchant’s Millpond is, as the name implies, an old millpond. There is a dam at the western edge, and the pond is filled with cypress and tupelo trees. It’s like paddling in the forest, or maybe Jurassic Park. The water is black and mostly still. The park maintains a launch area with a small parking lot near the dam. In pre-COVID times, they also rented canoes.
We had a nice 3 hour paddle, then came back to camp for lunch and to hang out during the hottest part of the afternoon. We were trying to figure out a bird we had seen. I thought it might be a yellow throated warbler, and played its call on my phone. DF confirmed that’s what it was, and I put the phone down. But the call kept sounding. I checked the phone, it was off. More bird calls. Finally realized it was a live bird, sitting just outside the yurt, responding to the bird call I had played. We also saw parula warblers, lots of blue gray gnatcatchers, all the different woodpeckers, and many large turtles.
At 5pm we drove back to the put-in and walked around the dam, looking for birds. We found a few, but the most interesting sight was the river herring, milling around by the thousands just below the dam. There is a fish ladder, but we couldn’t see any herring using it. The herring catch used to be a big deal years ago, and it looks like they still come back in the spring.
Another, longer paddle today, but we got a much earlier start. On the water shortly after 8:30. We found more birds, including an adult bald eagle sitting on a nest in a large pine tree on the north bank of the pond. The earlier start gave us better light, and made me wish I had brought a “real” camera for the first time this trip.
After lunch we went over to the visitors center and played some tunes in the shade nearby. (I think that’s nicer than playing in camp and bothering other campers. I wouldn’t want someone playing their radio loud enough for me to hear it in camp.) We had been playing for half an hour or so when a park ranger came strolling over. DF immediately stopped playing, in the middle of the tune, assuming we were getting thrown out. The ranger turned out to be an old time music fan, and a good guitar player as well. I grabbed my little Recording King out of the car and he played a couple of tunes with us, and also noodled around with some excellent flatpicking. We had a great conversation about music, jams, and artists we admire. He has a brother who lives near us, and I hope we’ll see him again at our weekly old time jam back home.
We were up, packed, and ready to roll by 9am. We had an easy drive home, with a stop in Zebulon for gas and Bojangles biscuits. Got home midafternoon and unloaded everything all over the garage. My job over the next few days will be to clean all the gear and put it away.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Next up: The Mt. Airy Blue Grass & Old-Time Fiddlers Convention.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
Storage and Organization
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)