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Caught in a Blizzard in My Survival Camper - The Real Test

Well, I had been planning a trip up north for a month now with my new survival camper. It wasnt ready by far, but hey, it was still quite warm out. It shouldnt be a problem to go out in my survival camper for a couple days with no heater. I figured I could experiment with heating ideas I had been playing around with for years. My friend has a nice sized chunk of land up in the mountains. It is fully undeveloped with no water, no sewer and no electricity.


I figured it should be fun going out for a weekend in the bug out shelter for a sort of test drive.


I should have watched the news closer. A blizzard was on the way.


We didnt get to the camp site in the middle of the mountains until about 12am Friday night. By then it was way too late to try to set up the camper properly, so we just made our beds and crashed out for the night. We also did not get into my friend's property because it was too dark and too late to mess around. We parked on a turn-around at the end of the lane. My friend brought a catalytic heater and a couple cans of gas. Those little green bottles that only last a few hours. We fired up the heater and went to bed. I made sure the ceiling vent was open a bit and the window by the stove was open to ensure proper air flow and avoid suffocation from the heater running.




I sneaked a photo after we had settled into bed.



My friend was hugging his ax to protect against the sudden attack of a wild bear. He was sleeping in the dining room area fold away bed. The table drops down, the cushions lie down and you have a nice cozy bed. Above the dining area I placed an aluminum ladder across some iron supports and use it as a sort of shelf. You can sort of make out the propane heater on the floor by the door and one of the oil lamps in the foreground. I took the photo while sitting up in the cab over bed.


It got down in the 20s that night. Inside the camper it was probably about 50 or so. My thermostat - which was meant to be hooked up to a heater but is now just a sort of temperature gauge - only goes down to about 60 degrees F. So I had to estimate the temp inside.


It was pretty cold inside in the morning because the can of propane gas was empty some time in the night. And I had not yet even tried to use the built in stove in the camper yet. The stove hood was still down and needed cleaning. There were old wasp nests in it. And I had not yet had time to test out the propane gas lines for leaks. My old thermostat needle was not even visible. It had dropped down inside itself, way below its intended temperature zone.


It took us a couple hours to get a decent cup of coffee going outside with my little Coleman camp stove. The camper was still in travel mode. That means that everything was tied down, packed up and secured for travel. I used a single cup coffee brewer where you add coffee grinds and pour boiling water into it, while holding it over an empty coffee cup. It makes a very good cup of coffee.


Above you can see our hastily set up camp from the night before. Right on the end of the street. Not the prettiest place in the world to camp, but at 12 am, who cares.



Above I am enjoying a cup of parking lot coffee next to my survival camper. I cooked outside with my newly acquired Coleman single burner camp stove. I paid $5 for it used, so I did not trust it indoors yet. Wanted to try it outside first. It works well. The truck tailgate makes a nice table for preparing meals.


Anyway, we went to town for supplies after coffee. We never did get breakfast because I listened to NOA weather on my hand crank emergency weather radio and heard that a major storm was on its way and was going to dump about 15 inches of snow on us, starting at about 3pm. So we unloaded the camper from the bed of the truck and headed to town. We ran around looking for a snow shovel and supplies for working on my friend's property later on. We figured that heading back home was not a good idea with a bad storm coming. We did n0t want to be driving in it. So we dug in.


We got back to camp with the truck just in time for it to start snowing. We rushed around to get the camper back on the bed of the truck before the roads became slippery and it became impossible to back the truck under the camper safely. Anyone who has ever owned a truck camper knows it can be a small challenge to get it loaded and unloaded in a hurry. You have to crank up three or four jacks to lift the camper up high enough to drive the truck underneath it. Then crank the camper back down into the bed of the truck. It is easier with someone to help guide you under the camper to prevent damage to it while trying to line up the truck underneath.


By the time the camper was loaded, the ground was already covered with about three inches of snow. It fell that fast. They had been warning on the radio that we were in for a big one with damaging, heavy wet snow which would bring down trees and break power lines. We had decided to keep the truck on the road instead of going onto the property in case the snow really was as bad as they were calling for. At least on the road I had half a chance of getting out.


We worked on my friend's property for a while cutting dead trees as it snowed. He got soaked through and through due to sweating on the inside and snow melting on the outside. I got the built in three burner propane stove in the camper working and fired up all three burners, two oil lamps and then burnt a couple Sterno cans. Within about ten or fifteen minutes we had it up to 70 in there. I also had a 10 inch 12 volt fan running off my new deep cycle battery to circulate the heat better.


After about and hour and a half, my friend's clothes were dried out enough for us to venture outside. It was getting dark and the ground had about 8 inches of snow already.


That night I made up some alcohol heaters with the empty Sterno cans. I stuffed them full of cotton balls and then poured them full of alcohol. You simply light them on fire and let them burn. They provide a surprising amount of heat and no fumes. But they burn out in a few hours. You can put the lid back on halfway to extend the burn time. I timed them and started at 10:40 pm. I had two of them going. They were still burning strong at 5am. Sometime between 5 and 6 am they finally went out. Not too bad for a free DIY heater. I also had two oil lamps burning for warmth. But it started getting colder after 6am. I did not drag myself out of bed until after 9am.


This is what I saw:





I only wish I had taken the photos before the sun rose. This was a very unusual October snow storm and it was already half way melted by the time I dragged myself out of bed in the morning. Sometime around 6am the snow plows had come and cleared the road off around my camper.


At least we could get out. I had feared that with my old two wheel drive truck, we may be stuck for a while.


Going out on this trip I had grand plans for experiments with my new survival camper. I had wanted to try out a new DIY solar oven idea and to get water from the ground with a piece of plastic over a hole. Well, nature had other plans. The sun never came out so those plans were scrapped. When we heard about the snow storm, it all became a real survival situation. We had to make sure our gear was covered and secured properly. And we had to ensure that the truck could get out in the morning. And we needed to provide heat for the camper to keep us through the freezing night.


In the end, it became all about keeping warm. It was in the 20s at night and the 30s during the day. We drank a lot of coffee and hot tea to keep warm. And I experimented with various types of heat generating devices.


Late Sunday afternoon we arrived at my home only to find out that there was no power, no heat and no sewer. Sort of ironic after all we had gone through. My friend headed back home, about an hour and a half trip further away while I prepared for another night in my camper. At least I had some sort of heat and light in there. My bedroom in the house was 46 degrees F.


Sunday night I fired up two of my homemade alcohol heaters and two oil lamps for warmth. I also rigged up a canning jar with some vegetable oil and an oil lamp wick and lit it up for warmth. But sadly it started to smoke very badly as the oil level burned down a bit and I put it out. It was about 50 - 55 degrees inside. But it was ok for sleeping.


I also tried another sort of survival idea. I had some old macaroni and cheese boxes that had expired about two years ago. I wanted to see if this stuff was still edible. In a real time survival situation sell by dates will not really matter anymore. So I cooked it up and started to eat it. It was horrible. It tasted sour. I cant imagine how a dried packaged food can go rancid, but it was bad. But I ate it all up anyway, praying that I would not get sick. I figured that it should be pretty safe. There were no really dangerous ingredients. It went down ok and I survived with no problems. I will toss the rest of these boxes, but I do know I can eat these if I ever find some in a survival situation.


Some time in the night the power came back on and my adventure was over the next morning.


In conclusion, the oil lamps produce way too much stench and fumes to use for a source of heat full time. I had two lamps burning day and night for the whole weekend. I will not do that again. The stove burners can be used in a pinch to heat it up fast, but are not safe to use as a heat source due to dangerous fumes. The small catalytic heaters on tiny little tanks burn out way too fast to be of any use.


My little alcohol heaters seem to be promising, but that can be way too expensive at $15 a gallon for alcohol. They make great little emergency heaters though and I will always keep a few around ready for use.


I will be researching better ways to heat up my little survival camper in the future. I am looking for a free source of heat. Either solar or wood heat. But I do not want open flames inside my camper for safety reasons. And for solar heat you need the sun. In winter, you do not get much sun up north. We did not see the sun at all during our adventures. I had thought alcohol was the answer because you can distill your own with readily available ingredients. But it takes way too much time to get enough for use as a primary fuel source.


I was in the Army and spent a lot of time sleeping out in the open with no tent in winter. I can tell you from experience that warmth is very important. There are some gung ho types out there who say all you need is a back pack and a sleeping bag for survival. Forget it. Those guys will probably be found frozen in the spring. Shelter is important for comfort and survival. I spent weeks at a time in Grafenwoehr and Hohenfels Germany in winter with no shelter but my sleeping bag. I can tell you that it is not fun. But during the day time we were inside a heated vehicle, so we had some warmth. And we were given semi warm food three times a day. If you spend too much time exposed to the elements with no shelter you will not make it through the winter.


A camper is better than  nothing. Any sort of shelter is better than nothing. A camper keeps out the biting cold of the wind. And it will heat up a little bit from your own body heat and from cooking water and meals. Some people consider using a pop up camper as a survival shelter, but it is not more than a glorified tent. It will not hold out the cold in deep winter. A hard walled camper is the best, if you can get one. But even a tent is better than nothing. I have camped in the winter in a tent and made it through ok. Cold, but ok. The tent will hold some body heat inside. A little.


A future project is to set up a some sort of storm windows in my camper. The cold makes the windows steam up so badly you cant see a thing out them. The condensation builds up so much that the whole camper becomes wet inside. I will probably caulk the trim around the windows and use a tight fitting plexiglass window inside for the winter months.


I may consider stripping out the interior walls of the camper and adding more insulation. The original insulation is only about half an inch thick, maybe an inch at most. Unless you special order extra insulation, most campers come with a pitiful amount out of the factory.


Running water is also such a nice thing. When you do not have it, you really miss it. A nice, hot shower can be so awesome. And just having water to clean up inside the camper is useful. A camper is hard to keep clean. You must be constantly sweeping and cleaning. Especially in bad weather and when you are running in and out a lot. I will think about ways to keep the water tank from freezing during the winter. We were constantly heating up a pot of water all weekend for washing, cooking and drinking.

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Troy Reid


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