Going to Burning Man With a Trailer

I promised that I’d write up my experience taking my 2016 Winnebago 170S trailer to Burning Man, so here you go.

First, I pulled it using a well-prepared 2007 Honda Odyssey with a transmission cooler, full wiring for the 7-pin connector, a very good brake controller, and air bags in the rear coil springs. It did pretty well, hauling over three 5000 foot passes and one 6000 foot pass. Never had a problem with the transmission or the engine heat.

The Rig

The challenge with the minivan is a low, low hitch. I bought the trailer used and with it came a Pro Series bar-type load distribution hitch. The original owners had a pickup so the yolk was in the down orientation. That was totally scary-too-low for the minivan, so I’ll just tell y’all that it was a lot better once I reassembled the hitch with the yolk inverted. Plenty of clearance then. Regarding the hitch I also learned that I could use the trailer jack to raise the hitched car and trailer after locking the ball onto the receiver, which made setting the spring arms to the 3rd chain link much, much easier. With the hitch properly set up the whole rig was rather easy to drive. I even forgot to put on the anti-sway bar a couple of times and never felt the difference, and that was with all kinds of big trucks and cross winds batting at us.

The hitch done right

I figure I was over weight by a couple a hundred pounds, at least after picking up my ride-share person who brought a lot of bins as is typical for an experienced Burning Man participant. It didn’t seem to strain anything, and we kept our speed between 55 & 60 MPH at maximum. On the way to Gerlach I popped one of my air lifts while we were waiting for a pilot truck to take us through a one-lane section of California route 299. Oh dear! I let the air out of the other one, but because I had the load distribution hitch sewn up pretty tight the rear suspension still had plenty of travel as long as I stuck to paved roads, which was the plan anyway.

We ran with nothing in the tanks, and got our water in Gerlach, NV, which is about 15 miles from the Burning Man site, AKA Black Rock City. Hoo-boy I’m glad we didn’t carry that water over the passes. That added weight definately made us ride low, but heck only 15 miles were left to the trip. Again, the drivetrain and brakes had no problem with any of it. 

Living in the trailer was the best idea I’ve had for being comfortable at Burning Man. I’m on the staff as a “Ranger”, a role that is very different from the Rangers you may know. Our role in Black Rock City is to roam the city in pairs with radios, help participants figure things out for themselves, help folks who are emotionally distressed, mediate disputes, remind folks of the consequences of their possible decisions, and radio in for help if their decisions result in bad consequences. It’s pretty important and very involving, so the Burning Man organization springs for a couple of special zones where we can camp and get 110 volts of power, plus a shower. I took full advantage of all those perks. 

Aluminet also makes a nice, shady front porch!

I never showered in the trailer, Instead I filled the shower space with stackable plastic drawers where I put my clothing that didn’t fit in the bathroom closet. I also used my toilet only for midnight visits and deposited my solids in any of the many, many blue rooms all over the city. I also limited my water use from the fresh water tank and instead used a 5-gallon crew drink cooler for wonderfully cold water, since I put a 10 lb block of ice into it each day, another perk at my camp.

I found I could easily rev up my air conditioner on the 15-20 amps I was using, as long as I wasn’t running the microwave or the teapot. I only used it when I’d return from adventures or shifts, and I’d only use it long enough to bring the inside air temperature to something more comfortable than the daily 100+ degrees outside. To further cool the trailer I draped it with aluminet, which is a woven sheet of aluminized mylar that reflected about 80% of the sun’s rays, especially the infrared, and wouldn’t pick up a wind load from the up to 70 MPH winds we had. Using aluminet pretty much brought the inside temperature to the ambient outdoor air temperature, which for the desert is a decided WIN.

The south side of the trailer, with aluminet makin’ shade like a boss.

The fridge was great and ran fine the whole time. I started out with everything cold when I put it in the fridge, including 2 plastic jars of water frozen solid. That was as much to show me that the fridge was working as it was for thermal mass to keep things frosty during the drives. I installed an ARP controller with 2 12 volt box fans which kept the air moving through the back of the fridge, so that even with ambient air temperatures of over 100 degrees, the fridge always worked. The ice never melted in the jars. I used both gas and AC electricity, depending on my mood. Really, the fridge does not consume much gas at all. So for the first time in 17 years of going to Burning Man, I had real half and half for my morning coffee, plus a bunch of tasty meals. YAY!

I could not have done Burning Man this year without that trailer. I was only 3 1/2 months out of having my Whipple procedure done, which you can read about in the last few posts in the Cancer category of this blog. I had all the energy I’ve had before, but for a much shorter period of time. I needed good sleep every day, and 2 of those days I needed an extra 3-4 hours. When the heat started really getting to me I was able to hide out for an hour or two in air conditioned splendor, albeit very noisy splendor since the AC is not quiet at all. I could also cook up some good food when I wasn’t using the commissary after one of my shifts. Finally, I was able to use my CPAP machine with the humidifier, which was simply awesome.

The trip home was a cake walk. We even stopped by to visit some friends. Going between Seattle and Gerlach is a 2 day trip each way. Both times we stayed at a fantastic campground and hot springs known as “Summer Lake Hot Springs”. The RV slots were all full so we boondocked it in the general camping area…piece of cake, the campgrounds were even level! There is nothing as fine as soaking in a real hot spring pool after being inundated with talcum-powder-fine dust for 10 days.

After getting home I had to go through the last ritual of a person going to Burning Man, which is cleaning the stuff. Everything gets covered in that fine dust, which is composed of equal parts of clay and gypsum. It corrodes metals quickly, especially when you live in the Pacific NW. Of course it rained here the day after I got home, jeopardizing the mechanical health of my bicycle and most other metal stuff. Dang, there is a lot to clean in a trailer. I got back over 2 weeks ago and I’m still putting stuff back in the trailer as I clean them.

Lessons learned? You’ve already read about them but there are a few tricks I learned that bear noting or repeating:

  • Solo hitch alignment rods make life so much easier. I can hitch up in less than 10 minutes now.
  • Aluminet over the trailer in hot weather. Accept no substitutes.
  • Use the trailer hitch jack to raise the attached car & trailer before hooking up the spring rods of the weight distributing hitch. Makes it trivial to do.
  • Make sure your tow vehicle is ready to pull a trailer. It cost me a grand to have my mechanic set it all up but worth every penny.
  • Do the brake adjustment thing for your brake controller after you’ve loaded up. It takes 5 minutes and you just need to do it somewhere level. Once you’ve done it you’re set for the trip.
  • Keep your speed down; below 60 MPH. I guess the exception would be for anyone with one of those big ol’ pick’emups and better tires on the trailer, but that wasn’t me
  • A cheap pair of 2-way radios make backing up with an assistant much easier. Plus train your helper to just tell the driver which way the back of the trailer should go; driver’s side or passenger’s side.
  • Oh yeah, if you’re pulling with something like a minivan don’t be surprised when your fuel mileage gets cut in half. I was lucky to get 12 MPG where unladen that thing would do 22 MPG.

Etcetera, etcetera… All in all a good time. Nothing broke, I had fun, and now feel pretty comfy about keeping the thing. This all was a test of course. A test to see whether I’d like trailering. It’s not bad once you get used to all the stuff that must be done. I’m in.