Being avid snow-birders,who consistently drive to different southern locations for the winter, when we had to make a decision for our next winter destination, we unanimously decided we wanted to kick off the season with our first trip to the annual balloon fiesta held in Albuquerque. After going online to check out the approximate cost of the trip, we became a little disheartened at the tremendous cost of a stay for the full 10 days of the event. However, while pondering our options, I came across a link to an invitation to put ourselves forward as volunteers
When we first started our ventures into being commited snowbirders, we had to decide what options were best for us. Having enjoyed many years of visiting the Florida Keys during our working years, we felt we would still like to head down that way, so we began to look at our options.
Off the cuff, I filled out a volunteer form for the Florida State Parks, without any expectation of hearing anything further from my application. Needless to say, we were pleasantly surprised when we had an email from the volunteer coordinator at a certain park that we really wanted to spend time at. Without further thought of what we wanted out of our future camping experiences, we decided to jump in with all feet and go into the experience of volunteering as campground hosts in the Florida Keys.
Before we knew it, we were in the campground that we had asked for with big (innocent) grins on our faces. We knew that we would be campground hosts, but were not sure of the duties we would be expected to carry out. However, we were quite happy to discover that our duties included not only cleaning campgrounds, but also the shower and restroom facilities on the properties.
To be honest, we were so excited to be offered the opportunity to have full hookups (electricity, water and sewer) for as many months as we chose to do, that we really did not mind having to act as janitors for a few hours a day.
We enjoyed our first volunteering experience, which not only revolved around meeting campers and having the daily satisfaction of cleaning washrooms for the campers, but we especially enjoyed the experience of working with other like-minded volunteers.
Having completed a few more seasons at the same campground, we are now ready to try our volunteer skills on the other side of the country, at the Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta. This stint will last six weeks, giving us ample time to experience the hot air balloon world, as well as get to know the town of Albuquerque. Because we have always 'free camped' in BLM lands out west, this will be an interesting experiment to see if we will want to return to the venue to volunteer again.
The point of bringing up the subject of alternative snow-birding options, is that we will always have the option of being able to camp in the middle of nowhere with the use of our solar panels and good water supplies, but sometimes, it makes life interesting to change it up a notch and make friends with other travelers who have their own tales to tell of what brings them to the same places we are in.
Also, because we are not very rich, we cannot afford to even think of spending months in the RV resorts that many people migrate to on an annual basis. We have to think outside the box, in order to experience the wonderful sights of Florida and California, which can be very expensive if we don't have an alternative plan.
The pictures below will give an idea of why we love the Florida Keys in the winter.
There's a lot to be said about the freedom and wide open spaces when one chooses to camp away from the constraints of an organized RV park. Most snowbirds I know automatically think that they will choose a location in the Western part of the USA, usually Arizona, Nevada and New Mexico, without even considering the possibility that with a bit of forethought and investigation, it is possible to find some really good free boon-docking locations in the Eastern States.
While I do not claim to have a LOT of camping experiences on both sides of the States, I have enough experience to have an opinion of what I prefer.
So, while heading west could be considered the easiest option, sometimes the thought of all of the desert landscape, makes it nice to know that on our next camping foray, we will be surrounded by trees.... many, many trees. Ahhh.... what a nice thought after camping for months on end in the barren Western landscapes that have become part of the iconic images of western and road trip movies.
The beauty of camping in the BLM lands and Refuges scattered in the west means that you have the opportunity of awaking each day to a magnificent sunrise with a beautiful palette of colors that make up the mountains. Think Zion in Utah, Valley of Fire in Nevada and don't forget Sedona in beautiful Arizona. The list of places that provide magnificent vistas and colors, depending on the time of day, is endless.
Put yourself in a very different landscape such as Florida, Tennesse or Louisiana where you cannot expect to have fantastic vistas or great photographic opportunities around every corner. What you will get is the beautiful tropical foliage that fills the eastern landscape, along with the variety of birds and four legged creatures that feed off the lush vegetation.
So, apparently, in the Americas, the world is your oyster when it comes to taking great camping road trips.
Ever since we started camping, we always went by the seat of our pants trying to find the cheapest (free) campsite in the best location and with the best conveniences around us. Needless to say, there have been many failures in our attempts to find the ultimate place to spend a few days of peace and serenity.
It is at these times that I sometimes wonder if we would have been best off pre-booking a really nice sounding resort that offers all of the amenities we might enjoy, but with a price tag that goes way out of our budget.
I can say that we have tried these two options - boondocking in the wild and luxuriating in a resort.
So far, I have to say that we really do prefer the 'seat of our pants' scenario, where we arrive at a location and hope that we will find the ultimate (and free) site. However, there are benefits to both options.
Number one. Getting Social - If you like people; a resort will have them in great supply. There are constant reminders to attend a pickle ball game, either as a spectator or as a player, or there will usually be some sort of a Happy Hour gathering where we can all gather to share our events of the day and get ideas on what to do the next day.
However, when boondocking, if you like people; they will usually be far away from your home on wheels, purely because that is why they are out in the boondocks, they want their peace and solitude from the masses. The only way you are going to meet these folk is to be cheeky enough to walk up to their abode, knock on their door, and introduce yourself. This approach can be fraught with many negative effects. Either the owner is so anxious for their own privacy, they will refuse to open their door to you, or, at worst, they will stand at their door with a weapon, advising you to leave their property and "don't come back". However, I think most boondockers, even though they prefer their solitude, also like to meet up with strangers and share a margarita with you so that you can learn about them and what brings them to this out of the way location.
We have been the instigators of a few friendly gatherings with the campers in our surrounding vicinity, and, by most accounts, the events have been appreciated and remembered. Heck, we even had one group arrive on our doorstep at home, six months later, following a very fun evening around a campfire gathering.
Number two. Getting Active - If you are an active soul, who likes to be on the go, enjoying various sports and activities, then possibly a resort campground might be just right for you. There are always organized activities that you can partake in. Heck, you might even get too tired to attend one of the events because of the number of sporty gatherings you have signed up for.
On the other hand, when out in the boondocks, if you crave an active lifestyle, there are usually hiking trails and scenic areas to explore, while taking your dog for a walk or just for the fun of it. Speaking of which, we know that our cats do enjoy being out in the boondocks, enjoying the fresh air and various smells that permeate the air. In a resort, you pets have to be leashed and controlled. While this is true in the boondocks too, there is not much concern about encountering another yapping dog around every corner. My cats love to walk, but they do not appreciate scary encounters with other creatures and will come scurrying back to the safety of their trailer if there is a slight hint of potential trouble with other creatures.
Number three. Going Solo - Sometimes it is nice to have some 'alone time', either by yourself, or with your other half. This is often difficult in a campground environment, where you are living a camper door away from your neighbors. It's almost a certainty that the morning you decide to sleep in for the rest of the day, there will be someone at your door for various reasons.
This is unlikely in a boon-docking spot where your neighbors are within a few hundred feet away from you. Usually, it is very easy to find yourself still in your nightgown late in the afternoon, without having seen anyone during the day. This could be a bad thing too, but, if you are the type of person that wants no disturbances, boon-docking is probably the best option for you.
For many years now, it has been a great joy to follow other travelers as they traverse the highways and byways of North America by means of either their remarkably well written 'blogs' or of the videos taken by 'vloggers'. Over time, I have become accustomed to the writings and videoing of certain adventurers and have faithfully stuck to certain characters that I like.
I am always on the lookout for new travelers to follow and, in the process have become picky about who I will choose to subscribe to (or not). Some of the videos I have seen have started off very well, only to become tiresome very quickly, either because the subject matter is just not interesting enough, or I don't have anything in common with them, or, to be honest, the repetitive words they use can become quite irritating after a short spell. The main word that sets the bar for me is the use of the word 'cool' in almost every sentence of the vlog. There are other words and terms that will cause me to hit the 'unsubscribe' button after giving the presenter the opportunity to redeem themselves, but I digress on the subject matter, which is Blogger or Vlogger.
The truth is, I find watching YouTube videos quite relaxing, so that is my first go-to when looking for something of interest to do with my interests. However, I will say that it is very refreshing to read some of my favorite 'bloggers' when they submit their regular presentations.
I myself have yet to decide what my preference would be when deciding to put myself out into the big wide social media world.
When it comes to presenting a video, I tend to be a bit shy and unhappy with the way I might look to other people, so, in theory, I would think that producing a regular blog would be a better option for me. However, when it comes to viewership, probably producing videos would be a better way to create interest in what I do and how I do it.
So, the jury is still out as to which option is better for me as I move forward into the social media, ie. should I video or should I blog, or should I do both?
Even though we have been on a number of large scale trips in the past, I still feel like a newbie to the planning and strategy procedure. Every summer, for the past five years, we have known our departure date for our winter trip to the sunny southern climes. It has always been fun, during the long, hazy days of summer to set myself in front of my computer, strategizing our next adventure.
Once we have decided on a general destination, I can then take pleasure in investigating the possibilities of going to new places as well as deciding if we will be going back to any of our favorite past locations.
Because we are fully self-sufficient, ie. ample black water, drinking water and solar energy, we have the luxury of heading out to places further away than most might want to go. Probably the first avenue of investigation will be for me to keep my ears open for clues from other travelers that have been to an interesting location, or to avidly read blogs and Facebook articles written by travelers that have been to the destinations that get my interest up.
So you may be wondering about the title of this blog. The situation we are in right now is that we have decided to stay up north for the winter, just to remind us of the many reasons we decided years ago that we would rather be down south, out of the snow belt and away from the freezing temps that we would experience. So it has been difficult to rein myself in this whole summer in order to not preplan for our next trip, which would be at least eighteen months away.
Nonetheless, I have managed to find the odd spare minute or two, or three, or twenty to sit and think ahead to our next southerly escape, but I keep holding myself back considering how situations can change in a short period of eighteen months or so.
So I admit I am feeling frustrated, but I am also thinking about our next trip to the balmy California coastline starting in the winter of 2018
When we are camping, we love to be away from the crowds. On our own, minding our own business and sometimes being downright lazy. So when it comes to the question of when and how to do our dirty laundry, we always seem to manage to put the occasion off until 'another day'. So, after being on the road for some years now, we have come to learn that the business of leaving our campsite and finding a good laundromat quite a distance from where we would be camping can become quite tiresome.
This is why I decided on our last camping foray, that we would not be doing any more driving into town to search out a laundry facility where we would sit for hours and spend a fair amount of money to get our clothes clean. Instead, we would try washing our own clothes at the campsite, using whatever means are available to us.
The two main criteria for this exercise came down to firstly, finding the correct source of water but not using our fresh water supply in our 100 gallon water tanks, and secondly, not putting any of the dirty water into the grey tanks.
I managed to achieve this in two ways. One was to use the water faucet in the Wildlife Management Areas we were camped in, where we usually managed to stay in the horse camping areas because there was always a water facility available for the horses. Our second option was to camp close to a clean river, where we could gather ample water into our buckets and bring them to the campsite to proceed with the washing process.
Once enough water was gathered, I then had to figure out a way to get a good wash and rinse, using the few buckets I had available. The result was that I had one bucket for the first wash, filled three quarters of the way with clean water and the other three buckets were used for different stages of rinsing. If you watch the Youtube video I posted, it might be clearer to show how I achieved a good washing experience.
The negative naysayers may say that the biggest problem is the drying. Well, I can say, from experience, that this is not a problem at all. We hardly had to wring the clothes dry before hanging them on the sun and wind exposed washing line and they were dry in a surprisingly short period of time.
I would say the only drawback to my method is that our washing would have to be exposed for all to see, but, considering that most of our camping locations are away from the general camping population, there are usually very few passers by who have to witness the wash-day 'scene'.
Another benefit of having left-over water in the buckets was I was able to use the remnants for washing some dirty pans that had been waiting for some time to get a good cleaning. Watch the video to see what I mean.....
So fellow boon-dockers, I challenge you to take it upon yourself to get your dirty laundry out and try my easy, uncomplicated procedure. You will be happy to be sipping cocktails after your short amount of work while watching your laundry blowing in the breeze. Think of the money you are saving and the amount of free time you still have on your hands to sit in the sun and enjoy life away from the laundromat slog.
Once you make the decision to become a 'road warrior' with a view to exploring he great outdoors that so many countries have to offer, it then becomes a major process to decide on what type of vehicle you want in order to enjoy being a camping enthusiast. Do you want to be a 'glamper' with all of the glitz and glamour that some highly expensive, self contained RVs can provide, or do you want to be a 'no frills' camper, with just the necessities to get you by while you enjoy evenings under the stars, away from the realities of the outside world.
We decided to go half way between the two options by building our own trailer that would fit our particular requirements, which included being able to live away from the bright lights for a period of time that we would feel as though we were really 'getting away from it all', as well as having access to the basic necessities which included an indoor kitchen and cooking facilities, as well as self-sufficient shower and washing amenities.
For our first trailer, we went all-out and made a financial outlay that we felt we could afford and we then planned the build of our first Cargo Trailer Conversion. The whole project proved to be very exciting as well as a great learning experience for our next trailer. Needless to say, we learned from some of our mistakes in the first build, which did not include an indoor cooking facility or sufficient water tanks to sustain us for a long enough period without having to live in a full hook-up campground.
We had the first trailer for a short period of time before deciding we needed to go bigger in every way, including much bigger water tanks, a bigger bed and a decent sized indoor kitchen.
So, now we are onto cargo trailer conversion number two, which we have put to the test for a number of long-haul trips and, so far, we are very happy with the results and would find it difficult to purchase a standard factory built RV that probably would not fit our needs that we have come to learn we have.
Here is a link to some of our videos that we have taken to show the basic build of our current trailer
After visiting the Florida Keys for many years, we find that there is no end to the number of favorite places to visit and to explore for the first time. Considering Highway 1 is such a narrow road on such a narrow path heading to Key West, the number of places to visit along the way always makes this one of our favorite highways to explore.
The traffic can be horrendous most of the time, so it is always refreshing to take a stop along the way to take iconic photographs of the old railway line which became an old road, running alongside the new road or to just smell the fresh ocean smells that follow you all along the route, from Key Largo in the north to Key West, the most southerly stop on Highway 1.
The Seven Mile Bridge is the best example of a great stop. For a mix of all that is the Florida Keys, there is a Tiki Bar called the Sunset Grill, located almost under the bridge. From here, visitors can either enjoy an early morning breakfast while viewing this marvel of a bridge, or, at the end of the day, drinking your favorite cocktail that brings to home the fact that you are only a few hundred miles from the start of the Caribbean islands. The water flowing under the bridge has a variety of colors from an azure green or a Barbados Blue, depending on the colors in the clouds and the time of day. Needless to say every photo taken should be a 'keeper'.
Just before the Seven Mile Bridge is the town of Marathon. This town is the is in the middle of the Southern Keys, so it is not surprising that the highway is strewn with the typical stores, from grocery stores for the locals to the expected T-Shirt and souvenir stores for the travelers who come streaming through the town in search of a place to spend their hard earned cash. There are a number of biker bars and establishments that would suit the young at heart who think of the Florida Keys as party central, however, if the more sedate of us are just looking for a relaxing place to while away their time, if you leave the highway and head for the back roads of Marathon, you will find Sombrero Beach, which is one of the nicest beaches on the Keys. Bearing in mind that a lot of the beaches that used to be considered a good stop-off along the highway are no longer beaches, due to the rising tides affecting the Florida Keys. Considering there are not a lot of beaches to explore on this route, if you are looking for a tropical beach with palm trees on the shoreline, this is your best bet.
For a pleasant lunch time venue, we love visiting Burdines Waterfront Restaurant, otherwise known as the Chiki Tiki Bar. It is located within a working marina, so it is mostly locals that know about this restaurant come bar that overlooks the surrounding bay and the old marina buildings. On a hot August afternoon, the breeze from the upper floor restaurant is always refreshing.
While you are exploring the keys, if you have the luxury of an RV, rather than paying the very exorbitant prices you would pay at a private campground, you would be well-advised to plan on staying at the handful of Florida State Park establishments. Curry Hammock is just north of Marathon, making it a convenient stop if you need to stock up on groceries and the basic necessities. This is a lovely campground very close to the ocean, where the favorite pastime is sitting in the water in your camping chair, reading a book for much of the day while the tide rises and recedes beneath your chilled out feet.
Another out of the way bar and must see location is the No Name Bar on the Big Pine Key. This bar is known for the huge number of dollar bills on the ceiling of the entire bar and restaurant area. The figure of $250 000.00 has been mentioned when questioned about the estimated number of bills currently in the location. However, the other interesting aspect of this area is the Big Pine Key Deer that live in the area and are a very protected species found only here. They are quite friendly and happy to walk up to anyone who puts their hands out to pet them.
Long Key State Park is another recommend overnight campsite because you are guaranteed to have a campsite that is so close to the water, you may be afraid that the tide will wash up to your trailer if the tide is high enough.
The point of this blog is to let people know that the Florida Keys are not just about the rushed trip down south to Key West. It is also about stopping off and smelling the frangipangis and the hyacinths and the other tropical vegetation to be found along the side-road less traveled. It is about meeting the interesting people that live and work in this tropical paradise and it is about connecting with yourself and thinking about what gives you the most joy in life, from just whiling away your days on the beach, heading out to the tropical reefs for some diving adventures, or sitting on the shoreline, in a tropical tiki bar with your computer on one side with your margarita on the other, just catching up with life.
Enjoy the journey....
Although this is not a true boondocking location, I am listing John Pennekamp as my first blog about campsites we have stayed in because we have been coming here for years, either as tent campers in the nineties, or in later years in our current trailer.
The reason we love coming to this Florida State Park is that there is so much to do, whether out to sea or on land. If you are a pure water lover, you can base yourself here for days on end either with a canoe, traversing the maze of mangrove swamps, or, if (like us), you prefer to be out on the ocean in your own boat, there are numerous coral reefs that you can visit on a daily basis while camping in the park.
Usually, on arrival at the campsite, we take our boat directly to the attached marina, where there is a free, allocated dingy docking area. We use our 'boat loader' to plop the boat in the water and take it around to the dingy dock, where we tie up and leave the boat for the duration of our stay. Because the marina is a short walk from the campsite, it is very convenient to not have to drive very far to start our days activities.
If you are happy to mix your visit with either enjoying the great outdoors and enjoying some sightseeing, the opportunities for day trips are endless. We can either take our vehicle or a bus ride northwards into Miami for the day, or we can go further south towards Key West. Traveling from Key Largo south should be on anyone's bucket list of things to do before they die. The bridge construction between each 'Key' is just phenomenal, considering that the original purpose of joining the islands together was to make way for a train ride from the mainland all the way to Key West and then a short boat ride to Cuba where the rich and famous would be able to spend their days on the beautiful Cuban beaches and their nights gambling and carousing in the colonial town of Havana, with it's then beautiful architecture.
The whole plan was cut short when access to Cuba was not a popular option and then the railway was severely damaged by hurricanes. But more of the history of the Flagler Railway empire in another blog.
Back at Pennekamp, the other activities afforded campers is the newly completed bicycle track that bike owners will enjoy traveling alongside Highway 1 for many miles, south of Key Largo. Of course, there are numerous walking trails that hikers can enjoy.
The campground at John Pennekamp is well laid out, with 44 sites available for use either by large RVs that need a full electric and sewer hookup, or tent campers who can hook up to the electric plug-ins if they wish. The campsites are notoriously close together and campers will be slotted next to each other. This is not a problem if everyone is respectful of their neighbors, ie. no loud music or gatherings until late into the night.
The base for all campsites is coral. The big ding here, especially for tent campers is that you will be subject to either your tent base getting damaged by the coarse coral stones, or your bare feet will feel the brunt of the sharp corals. The suggestion is that you come prepared with an extra tarp to put under your tent, and be prepared to always wear shoes when on your campsite. RVers might also want to consider bringing a heavy duty outdoor carpet to lay at their doorstep to make it easier to move around the outside of your RV.
Another ding about being anywhere in Florida in the summer is the no-see-ums and the mosquitoes. Even in winter, the no-see-ums can be bad on a warm evening, especially around sunset. Bring lots of bug lotion with you and, if you have the space, bring a fan that can be set up outside your tent or RV so that you can sit outside in the evenings.
The camp has two very clean restrooms that include numerous hot showers and sinks, all with good water pressure. There is a nice dish washing sink in the same area as where the washing machines and dryers are located, so visitors can get their clothes and dish-washing chores done in one visit.
John Pennekamp is a very popular campsite, so if you plan to visit around any holidays throughout the year, including Spring Break, expect to have difficulty getting into a site that you want. Go to RESERVEAMERICA.COM and pre-book a site, or if you are coming during the quieter months, refer to the ReserveAmerica.com site to check on availability options if you want to check in when you arrive.
Hi there, I am Sue. the author of this Blog, and my husband Dieter, is very much my side-kick when it comes to our travels. Since 2010, we have taken a few RV trips across America, and in doing so, we have figured out what locations suit us best and also what type of camping vehicle we like to do our travels in. This blog is meant to let people read about some of our favorite places we have been to and also, we will discuss places we want to visit in the future. We will put forward our ideas on why we chose to convert our cargo trailer into a basic off-grid home for six months of the year.