Pop-up camping tips, stories, and intentional living.
Author: Ryan McElhany
Ryan McElhany uses his expertise in marketing and public relations to help drive enrollment in higher education. During more than a decade as Director of Marketing & Public Relations, Ryan implemented campaigns to boost awareness for businesses and universities. He also served in management for public entertainment, promotion, and business-to-business marketing. Ryan also teaches business, marketing, management information systems and website design.
But, beyond the professional 9-5 is a guy who loves the outdoors. Pop-up camping, hiking and exploring are great ways to find clarity and inspiration. MacBeTrippin is a blog that documents those adventures and shares helpful tips with aspiring campers.
I don’t buy new camping toys often. In a word, I’m a bit “tight.” I happen upon things at the store that would be cool to have. I even carry them in my hands as I make my way to the register. Then, that little penny pincher in my brain tells me to put it back on a shelf by whispering, “That’ll end up in the junk drawer at home.” Most of the time, I listen.
Last week before our weekend camping trip, I roamed the aisles at Atwoods. Most of the time I don’t do much more than wander. There is something about strolling around a farm supply store that makes me happy. That musk of wood chips, latex, and 2-cycle oil transports me to a calming place.
This time, in my aimless wandering I succumbed to impulse when I happened upon a toy I had never seen before that solved an old problem. I have often found myself camping and wondering whether I had enough propane left in the canister. While traveling in chilly weather, this can be a particularly important bit of information. My wife doesn’t enjoy sleeping in freezing temperatures.
And, so, I had mental justification to buy the Mopeka propane sensor. I quickly googled a price comparison on my phone. The $21 price was below anything I could find online, so I bought it.
That little guy traveled with us to the woods of Arkansas so that my bestie Joshua Martin and I could give it a go.
Here’s how it works. The sensor adheres magnetically to the bottom of your propane canister and syncs to an app on your phone via bluetooth. Then, in regular intervals, it sends a signal into the propane canister to measure the depth of liquid propane and report the fill level to your phone. You can even set up an alert so that when the propane dips below a pre-defined volume, it notifies you.
Even in the 30-40-degree temps, the reader worked as promised. Not bad for $21.
Of course, the far more valuable thing was the time spent geeking out about the little thing with a friend.
Joshua and I tinkered while the old women (my wife and Anissa) looked on mockingly.
I suppose it is a little funny that even at 40 years old, grown boys bond over toys. And, that was worth far more than the $21 I spent for the sensor.
When we woke up on day 21 in the Everglades, there were 2 goals. First, get in an airboat ride through the Glades. Second, drive northbound to civilization to give ourselves a chance at fixing the air conditioning.
If you read day 20, you know I already covered the AC repairs.
As for the Glades, we woke up early to break camp. By 8:45am, we were at an airboat company that LaShera found online. Normally, for a family of 5, those rides cost anywhere from $120-$350. The company LaShera found had a father’s day special that was free for dads. They also had an honor roll discount for children, making it free for A/B students.
The specials aren’t suppose to be valid with other offers. But, when Shera registered online, their system allowed it. So, we got 5 tickets for $54. Score.
The drive of the airboat was a bit of a daredevil. He enjoyed whipping the boat around in the open-water areas, which resulted in quite a bit of salt spray coming over the side of the boat to get the girls wet.
It was impressive watching him navigate the mangrove canals. Clearly, he had navigated them many times before. Often, he would turn directly toward a tree, causing some of the passengers to get worried expressions. But, then the tail of the boat whipped around and we found ourselves going into another narrow canal.
We saw several gators up close in their natural habitat.
Afterward, we visited the visitor centers for Big Cyprus and Everglades. Then, we traveled 3 hours northbound to camp.
Aside from the fiasco of fixing the air conditioning, the rest of the day didn’t provide a lot to write about. We took it easy.
This last leg of the journey will involve a lot of beach time and relaxation before we rejoin civilization.
If I haven’t said it before, not everything in these cross-country trips goes according to plan. I’ll state our family motto again:
Plan your trip. Work your plan. Be flexible.
On Friday morning, the plan was to make a leisurely drive from our home in the Keys up to the Everglades. The drive was only about 4 hours, so we planned to stop a few times along the way.
Before we left the Keys, we had a very bold morning visitor. With a few more Cheerios, I bet we could’ve gotten her to come inside.
I think the girls would gladly give up the dream of having another puppy if they could have a pet deer instead.
When we finally made it onto the road, I knew I wanted to taste some key lime pie before we left the strand. Success, thanks to the Blonde Giraffe.
Next up, we knew that we wanted to visit Biscayne National Park. It was a fantastic little national park. When we arrived, blue land crabs were frantically skittering across the pavement. About a half-dozen iguanas threw a welcoming party as well. The girls were ecstatic. There were the red-tailed Agama lizards, an invasive species of territorial lizards. There were the two lizards I caught in the act of love. Biscayne was a success.
Then, with about 2 hours before the sun went down, we were on the final leg toward the Everglades.
Before we left Friday morning, I discovered that the campground I had on schedule didn’t have electric hookups. On this trip through 102 heat index in some places, we didn’t want to spend the night without air conditioning. So, we re-routed to the one Everglades national park with electrical hookups.
By the time we arrived, it was raining outside — not so much that we couldn’t setup — just enough to be slightly wet outside.
When Things Go Wrong…
We had the camper about 75% setup when I decided to plug in the AC to pre-cool the camper. The AC came on, then promptly died. We tested some other outlets as well, and they weren’t working.
We reset the breakers in the camper — no luck.
We reset the breaker on the campground electrical box — no luck.
The person next door was a local and said that the electric boxes at that campground short out sometimes when it rains. So, we tore down the camper and moved to the spot next door. It was annoying, but would be worth it if the electric worked.
We setup the camper and turned on the AC. Nothing.
Defeated, we knew we were going to endure the Everglade weather for a night and then move down the road after the next morning’s activities.
We went to bed in the muggy, 90-degree Everglades with no AC. Needless to say, I didn’t sleep well.
The air felt thick and moist. I hugged the unzipped windows most of the night to draw in some of the outside air which was at least a couple of degrees cooler, but not getting close enough for a mosquito to suck my blood through the screen. (When I woke up this morning, there were mosquitos swarming the screen trying to find a way in.)
Plus, I was restless because I went to bed defeated. I didn’t know what the problem was in the dark of night, and I knew the day would bring new challenges.
Because of the circumstances and the Everglades lack of proximity to any real town, we opted to head north toward St. Petersburg a bit early. I’ll post separately about the day’s activities. But, I spent most of today’s trip obsessing about what could be wrong with the camper. It could be the fuses. It could be that the AC went bad. It could be the inverter. It could simply be that the electrical hookups at that campground were bad. I hoped it was the latter.
The first campground we tried to snag a site at was full. So, we had to push further north.
When we finally arrived at a suitable campground, we popped up. I waited to plug in the electrical until the last moment to put off my sadness.
Still — I was sad. The AC didn’t come on at the new site either.
So, methodically, I stepped through the electrical systems of the camper.
Then, we made our trek into a nearby town to Home Depot.
As we returned to camp, the skies opened up. Obviously, I couldn’t work on anything electrical outside. So, I fed all related wires and cables into the camper to get to business.
Ultimately, this connector plus is what I thought was the culprit. Note the burned connector. I suspect that the rain at Everglades got the port wet. Electric plus water equalled a short. At least, that’s what I hoped.
And, that meant I was going to need to do a bit of rewiring. Thankfully, I got some pointers on that from my father-in-law Bobby Snider back in 2017 when I was having electrical issues on our first pop-up. I put that knowledge to use.
Sadly, the rain persisted most of the evening. So, it was a couple of hours before I could venture outside, thoroughly dry the port, and test my work.
I plugged it in, switched the breakers, turned on the campground power, and then nervously went inside the camper to the AC unit.
I am happy to report that, at least for now, we are cozy in our cool camper on the midwestern side of Florida.
We’re at that point in the journey where I always get a bit sad. We’re about 2/3 of the way through. We reached our furthest destination. Everything from this point on is technically part of the journey home.
Our journey will still take us to the Everglades for a fan boat ride. Then, we’ll enjoy some beach time in St. Petersburg, Destin and Louisiana before arriving home.
Still — I can feel the trip winding down, and a little bit of melancholy is creeping in. Of course, sitting around the campfire with these views doesn’t help.
One day I’ll make a great retired person. I’ll take my grandkids to some of these places and think back fondly to these moments spent with my kids.
But, I’m getting ahead of myself.
For now, we have about 8 days left to milk for all they’re worth.
So, we did a bit of rooftop swimming.
We did a little bit of feeding the key deer. These critters weren’t the least bit shy. In fact, they often ate out of our trash can like dogs. So, when I went to hang my swimsuit under the back bunk to dry tonight, and I saw movement in the dark, I had a bit of a scare.
We did a little bit of sitting around the community fire pit. The girls also hung out along the shoreline looking at fish and brightly colored crabs hiding among the rocks.
I had a little hitchhiker on my water bottle.
The day was crazy hot. So, we spent quite a bit of time in the clubhouse playing pool, ping pong, and Rummikub with the girls. The air conditioner in the camper worked. But, when the weather feels like 99 outside, the AC unit isn’t going to be able to keep up — at least not until I buy those Pop-up Gizmos for the bunk ends to help reflect solar heat.
All-in-all, it was a nice, leisurely day.
Tomorrow, we head up the keys toward the Everglades. Hopefully we’ll see some more alligators, iguanas, snakes, or whatever other critters make the Glades home.
It’s hard to believe we’re already leaving the Keys.
Somewhere along the way, we will stop at a key lime store. We figure we stopped at Peach World in Georgia, we need to find a Lime World and an Orange World while we’re in Florida.
Since the trip began, I have longed for the post-Disney camping in the Florida Keys. More specifically, I looked forward to the ferry out to Dry Tortugas National Park, the 3rd-farthest national park in the country. It is roughly 100 miles from Cuba, 70 miles from Key West, and 300 miles from Mexico.
Basically, we taxied out to the middle of nowhere. Just us and an old, crumbling Civil War-era fort with coral growing along the walls.
To begin a day in the Keys, you need the right shirt and a cup of fruity coffee. So, I finally got my Jimmy Buffet goin’. I’d been waiting for the right moment to wear that shirt.
We began the day with another bright and early wake-up — rise at 5:30, in the car by 6:00, to drive to Key West and board the Yankee Freedom III for a 2-hour ferry out to the islands.
The old fort was a fascinating sight in the middle of the ocean with nothing else in sight.
After a tour of the fort, we got our snorkel gear from the ferry company and added another new experience for our family. We snorkeled in the shallow reef around the island. It was interesting seeing all of the little fish in the area. When hiking the upper walls of the fort, we even saw a few large barracuda swimming in the reef below.
Addie was disappointed that we didn’t encounter any sharks or sea turtles on the trip.
We did, however, encounter a different living creature — Speedo Stan. At least, that’s the name I gave him.
On the ride out, he was as concealed as they come. Jeans, baggy shirt, cap. But, on the island, all bets were off — as were most of his clothes. Speedo Stan was there to make the most of the occasion in nothing besides a little blue Speedo and his — ahem — snorkel.
Libbie thought he was hilariously gross.
Egg Farts at Camp
Jumping back to our arrival in the Keys, we were struck by, of all things, the smell. It was an aroma we encountered last year in Yellowstone when we stood beside the sulfur pots. The girls regularly refer to the stench as “egg farts,” like when someone has eaten too many deviled eggs at a family reunion.
At first, the girls attempted to lay SBD blame on LaShera.
But, soon enough, we discovered that it is something specific to the shallow waters of the keys and the bacteria that live in the muds below them. When the wind turns just right, it smells a bit eggy.
I even turned the propane off during the night because I was concerned that if we did have a leak, I wouldn’t be able to detect it.
The stench doesn’t follow everywhere in the Keys. But, we haven’t quite figured out the differences in geography that cause it in key locations (pun intended).
The campground does have a healthy population of key deer. They aren’t the least bit shy. The girls walked outside our camper door to feed them some grapes.
Even after a day in the hot sun, the girls were intent upon us going to the campground swimming pool. Since the grounds had just wrapped up happy hour, everyone else in camp when back to their campers. We had the pool to ourselves.
Then, one of those south Florida rain storms rolled through with a bit of lightning. So, we bounced out of the pool. After a change of clothes, we spent the event playing ping pong, pool, and cornhole in the campground clubhouse.
While I’m not the most enamored with our campsite at this campground, they do have great facilities. Plus, the ocean is about 30 yards from our back bunk.
Day 17 was sort of leisurely. We took our time getting packed up from the Disney campground to head south, hoping we could connect with cousin Mike along the way.
Of course, challenge 1 was finding a place to dump the potty. Disney doesn’t have a dump station. However, they will allow you to dump at one of the full-service campsites if you call them to ask which one is best.
By 12, we were on the road to Miami.
Traffic coming through Palm Beach was a beast. A storm popped up along the way, which caused traffic to slow.
The drive through Miami was a beast as well. We texted Mike about 60 minutes out from the restaurant to let him know our ETA. For the first 55 miles after I texted him, the Google ETA actually went up.
Eventually, we made it to Havana Harry’s for some great Cuban food. Parking was an adventure of its own.
It was a joy to get to spend a couple of hours with Mike and hear about his work and adapting to the Miami way of life. We hadn’t really had a chance to catch up in a couple of years.
Then, of course, I had to ask if we could take a selfie with him.
Sadly, we didn’t make it to 7-mile bridge before sunset. So, we’ll have to see that when we return up highway 1 toward the Everglades on day 19.