We’ve just spent a week camping completely off the grid in the Colorado desert, which was a first for us. We camped for free in a tract of the desert belonging to the Bureau of Land Management just south of the Joshua Tree National Park, which had no water and no electricity; nothing, actually, apart from miles of sand, but thanks to a full tank of water and our new solar panels, we pulled it off.
Before we left New York, we had researched the various solar panel options for trailers, so we could stay in the many amazing camping spots that don’t have electrical power. Portable solar panels are becoming cheaper and more efficient all the time and this certainly seemed a better option to a noisy, gas- guzzling generator.
However, when we bought our trailer, the dealership salesman suggested that our twin, 12-volt, deep cycle trailer batteries could last for three to four days without being charged, so we decided to see how we fared living off battery power alone before purchasing a solar kit.
It turns out the salesman was extremely optimistic. When we camped off the grid on Padre Island National Seashore in Texas, our batteries provided us with enough juice to run the water pump and a few lights for three days, but not enough to retract our trailer’s mechanical slide out section when we were getting ready to leave. We ended up having to borrow a kind fellow camper’s spare battery pack to get the job done.
We weren’t going to deal with that again, so we ordered solar panels to be delivered to us in Tuscon, the next private campground where we were staying long enough to receive packages.
Our folding, Eco-Worthy 120-watt solar panels couldn’t be easier to use. We stuck them outside when we arrived in the desert and attached them to our battery terminals and that was it. We had direct sunshine the whole time, which clearly helped, but after a few hours of sun, our batteries were fully charged again.
No amount of DC power from the batteries will run AC appliances, obviously, so we also bought a cheap inverter to attach to our batteries, which gave us enough AC power to charge our phones, camera, video camera and laptops. A lot of campers install powerful inverters inside their trailers so they can run more AC appliances, but we don’t need to watch the TV or use the toaster when we’re camping off the grid for a few days and our makeshift solution can be unplugged from the trailer and plugged into The Beast when we’re on the go, so we have AC power in there as well.
Anyway, we were pretty happy that the sun successfully kept us going for a week and allowed us to camp in a beautiful desert location free of charge. After The Chiricahua National Monument Incident, getting a flat tire in Phoenix and losing both our wifi hotspot and one of Shane’s crowns, which required an emergency dentist visit, we began to wonder whether we would emerge unscathed, particularly when we discovered we were camping right on the San Andreas fault. But aside from helping some campers who got their rental motorhome stuck in the sand, we enjoyed a no-drama week and some peace and quiet. We took Sonny exploring (watching out for scorpions), admired the desert flowers just starting to bloom, saw a golden eagle, enjoyed the beautiful sunsets over the mountains and watched the stars.
This was also a great location to explore Joshua Tree National Park, The Salton Sea and Palm Springs (see the gallery at the end for more photos). The vegetation of Joshua Tree National Park changes dramatically as you travel north and west from the Colorado desert into the Mojave desert and climb to higher elevations. All the Joshua Trees are in the Mojave part of the park, but after recent heavy rains, the Ocotillo and Cholla cacti in the hotter and drier Colorado desert were also green and covered in new shoots. The view from Keys View, at 5,185 feet, over the whole Coachella Valley was also spectacular.
Meanwhile, The Salton Sea, which was formed by accident when the Colorado River flooded in 1905 and has been getting saltier ever since, was the strangest place we’ve visited. On its north eastern shore, there are lush vineyards and attractive beaches, despite the heaps of dead fish, but traveling south from there was like driving into a scene from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, with decrepit power plants belching smoke, ground fires burning and brown wastelands as far as the eye could see. I thought I might have to stay there forever as there was a border control checkpoint as we headed back north and I didn’t have my green card with me that day, but after a sniffer dog decided that The Beast only smelt of cats, not drugs, we were waved through.
Having honed our survival skills in the desert, hopefully we’re prepared for Los Angeles. We’re heading there next!
Kathryn Tully and Shane Sesta are a married couple, one American and one Brit, who are spending a year traveling across America and writing about their discoveries. Sonny is their rescue cat and fried chicken aficionado.