Thursday, 25 July 2013

Dometic Origo HeatPal, Gaslow Refillable cylinders, and off-grid caravanning

I make no secret of the fact that to me, caravanning is all about travel and adventure. It's the perfect way to live simply and reconnect with nature. As such, in the summer months I prefer not to be tied to an orange mains lead, but to go where I want to go regardless of what facilities are laid on. Or not.

With this freedom comes flexibility, as there is less need to book mains-free pitches in advance.

A solar panel keeps the batteries topped up, but a consequence of unplugging from the mains is a greater reliance and higher consumption of LPG (bottled gas).

For this reason, I have used the Gaslow refillable system for almost seven years now. For two years it was in use on my Sterling Eccles, where I had an 11kg refillable cylinder alongside a 13kg exchangeable Calor. This arrangement offered the best of both worlds, and my Renault Trafic tow vehicle could handle the noseweight. Whenever I was out and about, I'd simply pull into a service station and top up the LPG at a pump. Yet if I was stationary for a while and the refillable ran out, I could switch to Calor which, while more expensive, offered the convenience of not having to take the caravan off pitch to be filled up.

When I bought my Airstream in 2008, the Gaslow refillable system was not at the time available from Airstream Europe. The new company was still in its early days, and nothing was put on the options list until it was proven. Fortunately my nagging brought the two companies together and I took delivery of the first European Airstream to be fitted with the Gaslow system. Back in the day, having 2 x 6kg cylinders was the only realistic option given the restrictive size of the gas locker, although I understand that now the gas locker may be modified to take larger cylinders. If that were the case back then I would have replicated the set-up I had in the Sterling with just one 11kg cylinder.

However, you CAN disconnect one of the Gaslow cylinders and simply attach a propane cylinder instead. This may be an option for long-term stationary winter use.

Me, I like to travel as unencumbered as possible. Carting a 13kg LPG cylinder about safely and constantly upright is something I could do without. Therefore, at times I may run low on gas...

...which is exactly what happened this week. I couldn't understand why my consumption had been so high when the weather had been so hot. I consulted my technical guru, Pete Bull of Little Tin Hut Airstream Servicing, who pointed the finger at the fridge quoting some very precise consumption figures. In hot weather, the fridge can burn an alarming amount of gas in order to keep cool. I guess that makes sense. But it didn't help me in my critically low gas situation. I needed to preserve as much LPG as possible in order to keep the fridge running until I got to a filling station.

From the back of a cupboard I wheeled out my Dometic Origo 5100 Heat Pal. I acquired this to try out in my January off-grid trip to the Outer Hebrides, and it was an absolute lifesaver. Here it was coming to the rescue again.

The Heat Pal burns 'Denatured alcohol', which in the UK is most easily available as methylated spirit.  It produces about 1500w of heat, so in addition to being used as a cooker, you can use it as a space heater too.

In July 2013 the law regarding the production and use of methylated spirit changed, to introduce conformity in the composition and the amount of 'denaturing' carried out in its production. As such, Dometic now recommends users to burn Bio Ethanol. I will be procuring some and giving it a go in the future.

When burning any open flame in an enclosed space like a caravan or tent you MUST have sufficient ventilation. Open flames and smouldering coals produce carbon monoxide, which can (and does) kill in a confined area.

When using the Origo as a space heater in the Outer Hebrides, it kept my 17ft long trailer comfortably warm during the day even with two windows cranked open for ventilation. For cooking, it is quite a 'slow' heat which takes about 15 minutes to boil a litre of water. A woodgas stove such as the BioLite will cook much quicker, but these can ONLY be used outside, and you have the faff of trying to get the thing lit and, in my case, chopping up the kindling to use as fuel. The Dometic Origo wins hands down on sheer convenience. Simply fill up with fuel, light with a single match, and off you go. And, with adequate ventilation, you can use it inside.

It's an expensive piece of kit retailing at about £150. Bio Ethanol can be bought fairly cheaply online at about £6 per litre. Compare that to the £3.60 I paid for 250ml of meths from Wickes.

Either way, having lived with the Origo for over six months in the snow of winter and the heatwave of summer, I now consider this to be an essential piece of kit to any off-grid caravanner.

Yesterday, we packed up and moved on and finally filled up with LPG.

The cost of filling both 6kg bottles? £13.57.

The cost of 2 x 6kg Calor Gas refills? £42-44.00

The cost of installing a 2 x 6kg Gaslow system stands at between £400 and £500.

I reckon on getting through 20 single cylinders a year at an average saving of £15 per refill. That's £300 per year. So far, that's about £1200 for the four years I have had this system, not to mention the money saved by being able to use £4 per night CLs instead of £20 per night EHU pitches on sites.

In other words, even if you only do 10 cylinder refills a year, the system will pay for itself in about three years, and thereafter you'll save about £150 per year. Not to mention the freedom to go caravanning where you like, when you like. THAT is priceless.

Tuesday, 2 July 2013

Off-grid caravanning in the Outer Hebrides. In January.

January 2013

Seeing in 2013 was spent sat around the camp fire with some dear Airstreaming buddies. For a grand total of eight hours we sat by the roaring flames, drinking whisky, laughing, chatting, and quietly enjoying each other's company. My idea of a perfect New Year celebration.

Funnily enough, something to do with the amount of whisky imbibed, I didn't drive anywhere the next day. So it was the 2nd January that I headed up to Scotland.

A lovely few days was had at the new Caravan Club Site at Strathclyde Country Park near Glasgow, which has rapidly become one of my favourite cities in the UK. In fact, as I type this entry in July 2013, I'm sat in my favourite dog-friendly vegetarian pub in Glasgow. It hardly goes with its rough, deep-fried-Mars-Bar image, does it? Proof that you shouldn't believe the one-sided hype presented in popular media, and that there is no substitute for checking out places yourself.

I had a plan though. It sounded bonkers, but it was a plan. Wild camping in the Highlands and in the Outer Hebrides in January. No hook-up, no site, no worries.


Off I set. My first port of call was Tarbert on the Kintyre peninsula to catch my favourite band, Skerryvore in concert.

Next day I headed to the pleasant Ardgarten Camping in the Forest Site near Arrochar.


From there I headed on off up into the wilds with no fixed plan. I just knew that I wouldn't make Uig in Skye before dark, and I would need to find a place to camp by about 3pm before it got dark. When dawn doesn't break until almost 9am, that doesn't give you a lot of travelling time.

As it happened, I found a lovely little place on the Road to the Islands. I struck camp, fired up the central heating, but more importantly sparked up the camp fire. It was such a lovely evening, it would have been a shame to have missed this fire pit opportunity.

So sound I slept that night, I woke up too late to catch the one and only ferry to Harris. Did I fret? Did I rush? Did I bogroll! Rushing and stressing was not on the agenda.

Instead, I headed to Uig on the Isle of Skye as planned, where I had seen a campsite by the ferry pier on many previous trips.

The proprietor of Uig Bay Caravan Park was a friendly, welcoming, charming chap, and I knew as soon as he agreed to my pitch that my 'accidental' sleep-in that morning was in fact a fortuitous occurence.

Next day, we were all aboard Caledonian MacBrayne's mv Finlaggan on our way to, you guessed it, the Isle of Harris. I had no clue as to whether the campsite would be open, but thought at least on Harris we would be able to tuck ourselves behind a mountain in the lee of the wind, unlike flat-as-a-pancake Uist where the winter wind has proved a problem in the past. The fact that the Skoon Art Cafe would be open was of course also a deciding factor. Were the weather to turn bad, I would need somewhere to shelter and eat cake. And if the weather was good, I would still want to eat cake!

I'm not sure if Horgabost Campsite was open or not. All the seasonal caravans had gone and the facilities were all locked up. However, just like the bulb fields of the Netherlands, they can't exactly take it away when it's not in season, can they? Most importantly, the water tap was working. I pitched up in splendid isolation and enjoyed a stunning view.

Now, people will quickly tell you that the weather in the Outer Hebrides is rubbish. I was fully expecting to stay about three or four nights and head back to the mainland having gone barmy at the poor climate.

I'm starting to think that this whole 'Bad weather in the Hebrides' reputation is pure myth. I think that the people who go off-season like to have the place to themselves, and therefore 'big-up' the weather to put other would-be travellers off.

Well, the weather was NOT rubbish. In fact, it was pretty good. Every day Dougal and I went walking, and most evenings I sat around the fire pit outside for at least an hour.

Soup, cheese, and cakes were consumed at the Skoon Art Cafe, and Saturday evening supper was enjoyed at the Temple Cafe in Northton.

I wanted - NEEDED - to stay longer, but the Alde Central heating is not frugal with bottled gas. My Gaslow refillable cylinders were emptying at an alarming rate (1 x 6kg cylinder lasting about 3 days) and I knew that in order to stay on, I had one of two choices:

1. Drive to Stornoway - 90 minutes - to refill
2. Find an Electric Hook Up

I figured that (2.) was the simplest option. I knocked on the door of the Lickisto Campsite and asked if I could pitch up.

Lickisto is a campsite I have not previously mentioned. For a start, it is not easily accessible by all caravans, only smaller single-axle vans. The hardstanding pitches can fit three camper vans or two caravan rigs, so of course it makes better sense for the owners to court the custom of camper vans.

These issues don't really apply in January, and the lovely owners welcomed me with genuine warmth and the offer of freshly-baked bread despite the fact that, actually, the site wasn't really even open. But in the Hebrides, such details rarely matter. Both sides give and take a little. It's one of the many things that make this place so utterly special.

Leaving the island was the usual sad, torturous task. As ever, I stood on the outside deck of the ferry at the aft end watching Tarbert disappear into the distance with tears filling my eyes. Little did I know that it wasn't quite over yet.

Snow fell as I journeyed across the Isle of Skye, and it was the perfect kind of snow. Enough to coat everything in a clean, smart, bright, fresh white powder, but not enough to cause any kind of disruption.

I headed to the same spot where I had camped on the outward journey, although it was nearly dark when I arrived.

Next morning, as I cooked my porridge on the BioLite Stove outside, the view was utterly magnificent:

As I made my way across Glencoe, the snow was deep, the sun was bright, and the sky was blue. 

So there you have it. Wild camping in Scotland in the middle of the winter turned out to be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding caravanning experiences ever. Utterly fantastic. 

Finally, naturally, there is a small video for you to savour of the trip. Enjoy!

Winter Caravanning in the Outer Hebrides

Cabin Fever? The darker days of November in a caravan

November 2012... I had a plan.

Previous attempts at living in a caravan had shown that the three months between November and January inclusive can be the hardest if, like me, commitments (like job) count out breaks to the snow or to the winter sun.

Having been in the holiday let business for a little while, I know that many seaside holiday homes sit empty for the six or seven weeks between the half term at the end of October and Christmas. A holiday home sitting empty is not doing its owner any favours, where some income is better than none.

So I scratched around and found a beautiful house, one that I knew, right by the sea. My most important requirement, a log burner or real fire, was met. A super-reasonable price was negotiated and we were all set.

This also made an ideal time, of course, to get the Airstream serviced.

Now, when you are living in your van, it really does you good to go through the pain of emptying it once a year to give it a thoroughly good clean, and to evaluate how necessary each individual item is. Does it really add value to your Airstreaming, or is it just one more thing to lug around and move about?

The business of moving out of the Airstream was a sad one. Unbelievably sad.

Moving into a beautiful designer beach house on a reasonable rent for seven weeks did little to raise my spirits. The furniture, while beautiful, wasn't me. This wasn't MY space, as is the Airstream. As such, I rattled about in there for six weeks not really feeling at home. I even slept in the smaller of the two bedrooms as I was uncomfortable in the ma-hoosive master bedroom. The wood burner, though, was wonderful. I so want a wood burner in my Airstream, but for me right now this is not the most practical of propositions.

The location, right on the beach, was wonderful. Nearby was Dungeness where some wonderful photographic opportunities presented themselves. But I can park my trailer there, right?

Dungeness Beach


A week before my rental was due to terminate, I moved out. I couldn't care less about the final week which was already paid for. I wanted to go back home, to MY home, the space I could call my own.

How utterly wonderful it felt to be back in my trailer and back in my home. I won't be renting a house again for such an extended period, maybe just for short holidays.

The cliche really is true. Home really is where you park it.

Hebrides Round 3, Autumn 2012

Here's another one of those 'Oh heck I am so behind on this blog and I SO want to get up to date that I need to quickly run over what I've done' kind of entries. So here it is.

The 'Big Trip' to the Outer Hebrides in 2012 was in June, and is detailed a little further back in this blog.

Such is the draw of this place I cannot keep away, and managed to find time to 'nip' up there in the middle of September, wedged nicely between Rockhill Rendezvous (the big UKAirstreamers' Gathering in Shropshire) and a Skerryvore concert in Arrochar, just to the West of Tarbet by Loch Lomond.

My favourite island, Harris, was chosen as the 'one-stop shop' for my all-too-brief Hebridean Experience this time, mainly due to the the fact that my favourite cafe in the world, the Skoon Art Cafe in Geocrab, is on that island. It's funny how just one decent Eating Place can influence your decision as to where to go on your holiday... something that the accommodation-focused tourist agencies need to wake up to.

Other than eating cake, soaking up the ambience, and chewing the cud with Skoon's lovely owners Andrew and Emma, the main activities on this trip were to do absolutely nothing, walking Dougal on the beach, discovering new places now that we had the convenience of the motorbike with us, and a spot of photography. Rather than detail everything, here are a few images (worth a few thousand words) instead:

Motorbikin' around Harris

One of Harris's beautiful beaches

Dougal having a great time

Wherever I go, Dougal goes! On the 'Peat Road' 

Homeward bound, Isle of Skye