With summer now upon us (in most parts of the country anyway, it’s still snowing at our cabin in Nederland), we are starting to spend more time out traveling and living in our custom camper van. It’s a 2013 Econoline we’ve been converting into a “sportsmobile” for the last two years. We are constantly studying and working on innovative ways to improve our #VanLife; as well as testing new products and reviewing them to help improve yours.
Here’s a look at five new pieces of gear we put through the ringer on a recent road trip to Joshua Tree National Park, Palm Springs and the Salton Sea in Southern California.
The Weego JS-12
This jump starter/device charger/emergency flashlight is now a must-have for my van kit. These types of portable jumpers have only been around for about two years, and only recently have they been powerful enough to jump start larger vehicles. The JS-12 ($129) will start gas engines up to 6.4 liters and diesel engines up to 3.2 liters.
This thing is so much simpler, easier, cleaner and more functional than traditional jumper cables, that there really isn’t any comparison. Ummmm, not to mention the fact that you don’t need a second vehicle to jump your van or truck with the Weego. You can even charge your laptop with it, although I didn’t try that (see Enerplex below).
The Weego only loses about two to five percent of its charge per month, meaning it can sit in your vehicle untouched and still be charged when you need it, and according to its manufacturer it operates in temps ranging from -4 to 140ºF. The brand also touts the built-in circuitry protection and an 18-month warranty. So there’s almost no reason not to give this product a try.
While I’ve been using Goal Zero portable batteries and solar panels for several years, I was admittedly very excited when a competing brand, EnerPlex, owned by Ascent Solar, introduced a 1231 Wh portable battery that was almost 60 pounds lighter than my Goal Zero Yeti 1250. The use of a Lithium-ion battery is one of the primary reasons they were able to get the weight down, versus the lead-acid battery used in the GZ Yeti.
Now, the other really cool thing about EnerPlex is their flexible, thin, highly durable solar panels, the Commandr 20’s. You can link these folding solar panels together to increase your charging capacity, without the requirement of mounting them to the exterior of the vehicle. They charge even in ambient light; but it’s important to understand that charging times for devices, from any manufacturer, will vary. They’re also made right here in Colorado. Not only are they flexible, rugged, and can get wet, but the company makes panels that are enabled to be USB-direct, meaning you can charge your devices right off the panels themselves. Goal Zero just introduced similar technology but in a smaller format.
The drawback to the EnerPlex Generatr 1200 ($1400) compared to our Goal Zero Yeti 1250 ($1600) is the internal inverter. The Yeti has a much more powerful inverter, and so we are able to run appliances such as water boilers and space heaters on it that we can’t run on the EnerPlex. But we use them both for fans, lights, laptops, camera batteries, phones and more all the time we’re on the road.
Slackline Industries Baseline Slackline Kit
One of the most fun and easiest ways to entertain ourselves at campgrounds and on the road is with a slackline. Plus, it has the added benefit of building core strength, balance and proprioception for actual sports, which is a nice side effect considering we totally suck at slacklining.
The guys and gals over at Slackline Industries are pioneers of the sport both in design and technology, and in competition. The BaseLine introductory slackline kit (50 foot; $65) is designed specifically for beginner and intermediate users, featuring static-style webbing ideal for learning. The BaseLIne Kit includes the two-piece slackline, ratchet tensioner, tree protection and instructional DVD guide, which we didn’t watch. They do have some helpful hints however for getting started, including rigging a cheat line above your slackline that really helps you learn to balance. This particular line also works for learning tricks, which we also haven’t gotten to yet.
It’s fast and easy to set up, assuming you have two large trees nearby, and doesn’t take up much room in the van.
I didn’t have a lot of experience with Primus expedition stoves before testing its new line of CampFire products, but these more base-camp friendly offerings definitely impressed. They feature quality construction and inspired design, and the brand says that they are being made in Europe to the same engineering standards as its expedition and trekking stoves.
We put the Onja ($139) two-burner folding stove through the paces in the desert of Borrego Springs. It works simply and beautifully, as the body unfolds into a stable stand with two butane connecting right underneath. The burners are well protected from the wind with a poly-cotton covering, and an included oak lid comes off to be used as a cutting board/serving platter. The board doesn’t stay in place perfectly when being tossed around around or falling out of the car and such, but it’s certainly functional for normal use, like carrying it from the van to the picnic table at the RV park and back again.
We also got to play with the new Primus CampFire Prep Set, because let’s face it, you have to have a nice set of knives if you’re gonna have a nice cutting board. Well the Prep Set ($80) comes with one very nice stainless steel knife, three oak utensils (spoon, fork and spatula), and a decent little cheese grater. It rolls up in a well-designed case, held together with the usual combination of magnets and straps. It’s classy and I anticipate using it for years, making it the perfect addition for any Yippie van dweller like myself.
Big Agnes String Lights
I hate to use the words “game changer,” but in this case I don’t see any other alternative. That is the perfect way to describe the subtle, enveloping, soft, clean, ever-lasting LED lights strung around the inside of your van, or tent, around an EZ-up, RV awning, or something similar.
The Big Agnes mtnGLO Tent Lights ($40) are not the only product in this class, with ENO, BioLite, and others competing strongly with a wealth of ease-of-hanging and wattage options available in the LED camplight world. But the BA lights are simple to use and come covered in a thin layer of tent-like, glow-softening nylon that makes them nicer to handle than similar cords.
If this isn’t a true game changer, than at the very least it is certainly one of those “a-ha” products born from other technological advances. The Tent Lights are 100 inches long (2.54 meters) and held in place with six small plastic clips rather than the magnets used by other companies. Weight is not provided by the manufacturer, but even with the little neoprene case, they’re very light (if you were backpacking), and the brand says they should burn for about 90 hours.