Many are taking summer road trips — especially since all overseas tourism is off — but they are
naturally concerned about the risks of catching Covid-19 and of violating lockdown orders that protect others. Many wonder if a camping road trip, in an RV or with a tent, is a good choice. After all, by sleeping in your own tent or RV, you won’t be exposed to the virus or expose others. Being outdoors is generally safe if you don’t get into crowds outside your household.
An interesting new option is the electric car road trip, something only recently made possible. One of the great options for an electric car trip is to make use of RV parks, most of which have the facilities to recharge almost any electric car overnight. There are vastly more RV parks than there are superchargers or other fast chargers, and they are everywhere, including places far off the beaten path, and far off the fast charger networks. If your idea of a road trip means getting away from the interstates, they are your answer.
The bad news is that other people have had the same idea. RV sales and rentals are up, and bookings at RV parks are also up. You will need to confirm any bookings in advance, because if you get too far off the fast charging networks, you may not have an option to recharge.
Vacation travel is obviously “non-essential travel” so it’s out if travel through a region that currently forbids that, but many regions don’t. In addition, camping and charging may mean very limited contact with others. The few things you need to touch — mainly charging posts and cables — can be touched with disposable gloves or wiped down with disinfecting wipes before and after use. Picnic tables can be wiped down or covered with tablecloths, even (for this short period) disposable ones. You will want to stay off the beaten path anyway, to avoid having to turn away from places that have gotten crowded.
Here are some hints for taking an electric car camping road trip, both in the era of Covid and otherwise:
Pack your charging kit
To charge at RV Parks, your main tool will be a travel EVSE (often incorrectly called a charger) that will plug in to the RV 50 amp plug, officially known as a 14-50 Nema plug. A good one will charge your car as fast as it will go from Level 2 AC charging, generally enough to fill up from near empty in the typical 10 hours you stay with sleeping and buffer time.
Some cars come with only a mobile adapter for Level 1 charging. This is really not much use for travel, so you need to buy the Level 2 one. You can find low cost ones (around $200) that will do 16 amps, but that’s a little light. You won’t regain more than about 100-120 miles of range in a night from one. You will need to pay more ($300 or so) to get one that handles 32 amps. The 50 amp RV sockets will deliver up to 40 amps, though many cars can’t take that much.
Not all RV parks have 50 amp service, or may not have a spare berth. Sadly, the more common 30 amp RV plug, known as the TT-30, offers only 1/3rd the power of the 50 amp RV plug. While it’s better than the regular plugs at level 1, you definitely don’t want to depend on this. Even, so if you get stuck with no other choice it can be good to have one, and is only about $35 of extra kit.
EVSEs which can plug into TT-30 are rare birds. There is an aftermarket plug for Tesla’s Mobile Connector but generally this is not an easy thing to find. What is common are adapters that take the 50 amp plug and put it into the 30 amp socket. Unfortunately, these are mostly made to plug big 50A RVs into 30A sockets — those RVs know to use less power when this is done. These adapters will not work for your EV.
You will readily find online TT-30 to 14-50 adapters marked as for use by electric vehicles. You can get one of these but it is important that you understand your car will think it is plugged into a 50A circuit, and might try to draw more current than this plug can handle. You should not draw more than 24 amps from such a plug, and never more than 30. You will blow the breaker or worse. On the Tesla, the charging control screen lets you set the current the car will draw. By default, it will expect it can take from 32 to 40 amps from the 50 amp plug. You must manually reduce it to 24 amps to be safe. You must be careful to make sure you always do this. And again, you are still only going to get 1/3rd the power — so take his as a second last resort.
Your last resort is to plug in a level 1, which is 120 volts at 15 or 20 amps. You’re not going to get more than 50 miles extra in your car in a night. That’s not enough for a full day’s driving, but 50 extra miles is still 50 extra miles — less time spent at a fast charger, or more range to get to your next destination where you can really fully recharge. Such plugs are so common you use them on a “why not?” basis. Many hotels and sites with no EV charging will still have a parking space not far from a plug. As such, I recommend you carry a 25 foot heavy duty extension cord. By heavy duty, it should be marked as being 12AWG or 10AWG thick wire, sometimes written as “12/3” or “10/3.” In addition, the socket you plug into must be on its own circuit, with nothing else connected to it. There can’t be anything else plugged into its circuit or the breaker will eventually blow if it comes on for more than a few minutes.
Some cars (including Tesla with a different plug) can make use of 20 amp standard plugs. You see these around a fair bit, they have one of the blade sockets as a “T” rather than a single line. It’s not a lot, but 33% extra is still something if every bit counts. (You can see an example of that T socket in the photo of an RV park above.)
For drivers of the Chevy Bolt, unfortunately when it is charging on 120v, it can only take 8 or 12 amps. The RV TT-30 adapter won’t help you, and you can’t even use the 20 amp Level 1 plugs.
Another important note. While everybody calls the EVSE a “charger” the actual charger for Level 1 and 2 is built into your car. If you have an EVSE that supports 30 amps, but the charger in your car only supports 16 amps, you will only get 16. Early EVs came with such small chargers, but it’s less common today. The charger in higher end Tesla Model 3s can do 40 amps, the lower end ones only do 32 amps, so they can’t take the full 40 amps that is your limit on RV park 50 amp service.
Claim your spot
If you want to overnight at an RV Park, or hotel with charging, call ahead and reserve. One downside to EV road tripping is that charging is not an option. If you’re going off the fast charging network, you can’t learn the spot is not available. If you are on the fast charging network, you can handle missing an overnight charge by still using one of the slow methods above, and having to take breakfast at the fast charger.
Tesla owners and the CHAdeMO adapter
Tesla sells an adapter that lets you plug your Tesla into a CHAdeMO DC Fast charging station. It’s never your first choice — these stations are much slower than Tesla superchargers and more expensive to boot, but there are a moderate number of routes and locations that have CHAdeMO but no Tesla supercharger. If your route takes you through them, this adapter can expand your options quite a bit.
The bad news – at $450, this adapter is expensive, particularly because you’re probably only going to use it a handful of times a year, when you road trip in these areas that have CHAdeMO and not superchargers. Worse, CHAdeMO just became the “loser” in the charger standard wars. Today, most fast chargers do both CHAdeMO and the winner, CCS — in fact, slightly more do CHAdeMO than CCS. In time that will change it will be only CCS at new stations. Tesla may eventually make a CCS adapter, but it will be even more expensive due to technical reasons. Most CHAdeMO stations only have 1-2 chargers, unlike Tesla superchargers.
A better plan, if you can pull it off, is to rent this adapter. A few outlets do this but they are often out of stock. A third option is to buy one and sell it on eBay — that’s more hassle but it probably will cost less than renting it and provide more flexibility.
Again, only do this if you look at the places you want to go in a map like “Plugshare” with both Tesla superchargers and CHAdeMO showing, and you see places you want to go with CHAdeMO but no supercharger. Examples of this include California highway 99, the US 50 “loneliest road in America” route through Nevada and a variety of others, including many areas of Canada.
A table and other gear
It can be handy to bring a small folding chair and table. Restaurants are closed, so you will be having take-out, and in particular, you will be often eating take-out while charging your car at fast charging stations. It’s always wise to charge while you eat, since then charging takes no extra time. With two people, one can sit in the passenger seat, another in the chair with the table between you. RV parks will tend to have a picnic table for your use which you can wipe down and use, but chargers don’t.
Of course, you will need all the usual camping gear. However, if you plan to camp mostly at RV parks there is some spare power available beyond the 30 amps you might use for charging, which can be enough to run other appliances you’re not used to in tent camping, such as an 800w electric heater. As a plus, your car has an AC and heater in it which can be run without running a noisy engine, though of course this uses up range if you’re not plugged in.
Some people sleep in their cars, and they even sell air mattresses designed to fit in the back with the seats folded down. This is pretty cramped for two people, and requires you clear all the things that were in the back and put them somewhere else. If you do this, though, you have access to heat or AC while sleeping.
If you carry a small inverter, you can plug it into the accessory socket (cigarette lighter) and draw up to 120 watts to run certain small devices if you camp away from power.
Stay in private homes
Many road trips involve staying in private homes, possibly with family if it can be done without Covid risk. In random houses, they may not even have a dedicated circuit plug near where you will park. You should call the friend in advance and find what they have. In rare cases, they might also have their dryer plug in a place near where you can park — in that case consider getting a dryer plug adapter, which will let you charge at 240v 24 amps, which is plenty. Since you need to unplug the dryer, this is only for occasional use. Otherwise you will have to charge at level 1, and possibly a reduced level if the circuit is not dedicated. In that case a local fast charger may be your option to make up for any lack caused by the fact that road trips have lots of driving.