...make sure you stack the odds against you by going fairly far away from home, go to a very remote location, dry camp, and if you can manage: do it right on the ocean's coastline when there is a pounding rainstorm and hazardous wind warnings". And then for some reason he rolled his eyes and walked away. Or maybe that was when I woke up.
Just for the record, for a shake-out cruise we recommend camping close to home, with hookups at least the first night, and in decent enough weather if you can swing it. :)
What follows is an account of the shake-out cruise of our new Little Guy Max that we have named "Giant Panda". Did we survive this harrowing adventure with the odds stacked against us? Okay, we stacked some of the odds against us ourselves. But hey, we're professionals...
So off we went to Kirk Creek, a full hour and a half south of Big Sur (two hours South of Carmel?) down scenic highway 1. The picture on the left here is between Carmel and Big Sur. It quickly got dark and before long we were driving in pitch black, raining and rocking wind, and horrible fog. Highway 1 South of Big Sur has been shut down for the majority of last year due to a bridge failure, a mountainside collapse which buried the highway, and Paul's Slide area shutdowns for, well, landslides. As it turns out, you can't go any further south than our destination of Kirk Creek. So add to the horrible weather conditions the fact that we were passing very few cars which really added to the feeling of desolation. Oh, did I add we were very low on diesel?
We finally pull into Kirk Creek to find a fairly empty state park. The picture here on the left isn't broken. It was DARK. With the pounding rain and wind we set up as quickly as possible to get inside and dry off. Setting up the Max is different than the T@B's because at 3300 lbs or so, you aren't going to be wagging that around with the front handles (which it doesn't have anyway). I backed in, chocked the tires, and disconnected the Jeep. The SmartJack worked great to lift the tongue up, but the site we had was sloping down towards the car quite a bit, and after raising the tongue a fair amount with a push of a button I got worried. What if the SmartJack doesn't automatically shut-off and goes past "safe"? Not the place to find out, so I stopped and left it somewhat nose-low. Kirk Creek has no facilities other than a couple pit toilets and some garbage cans, so no water or electrical to hook up. I turned the propane tank on for the heater and stove and scampered inside, drenched.
The Dometic refrigerator is way bigger than we are used to, it's 4 cu ft and besides being tri-fuel (AC/DC/Gas) is automatic, so it was nice to see it automatically light itself on propane when we turned it on. Later, when I ran the generator, it automatically switched over to AC while it was running. Cool (literally)! As you can see, the fridge door is big enough for 2-liter bottles and milk in the door. In the T@B's we used bicycle sports bottles or old kids sippy cups you can squeeze to squirt milk into coffee, etc. Also, it easily fit a box of wine, plenty of room for food, and a decent sized freezer (we brought some P.F. Changs frozen "cheater" meals to skillet up quick).
The first night was cozy. We are used to the Alde system in the T@Bs, so the immediate heat blowing from the Dometic furnace in the Max was very welcome on such a wet and cold night! It warmed up the cabin within minutes. Trish and I got jammied up and got a cocktail, and spent the night playing games like scrabble on the front table and reading books in bed.
We were going to snuggle up with a DVD movie but realized that while the Furrion entertainment system works on DC just fine (we were playing music through my phone via Bluetooth), the TV's are both AC only. Grrr! That was frustrating and we'll have to work on that in the future for sure. Also, there are no DC cigarette lighter plugs anywhere in the trailer, so the inverter we bought just for Giant Panda is useless until I install one somewhere.
On the plus side, we really loved the room the bigger front table provides. We can get two laptop computers set up, with a snack and drink, and a notepad, etc. and still have plenty of room with the front counter area as well. We wouldn't have been able to do that in the 400. We loved all the room in the Max! Here is a shot of Patricia starting dinner just to give you a sense for size in the kitchen. She's 6' 8" by the way (just kidding).
We liked how the two burner stove has a built-in ignitor now instead of having to use a lighter stick. Also, the sink is way bigger and really deep. Combined with the big faucet and a pull-out sprayer head, it is fully usable. Something for us to figure out: the smoke detector is VERY sensitive, so when I was cooking it went off several times. I turned on the fantastic fan in the bathroom and opened the window behind the cooktop a few inches to solve that problem. All the pull out drawers and pantry in the kitchen are awesome. We had lots of room to spare, how often does that happen?
Sleeping in the big full-size queen was great. We didn't want to use a mattress topper on this first trip so we could test the mattress as-is, and we both agreed it was very comfortable and didn't need a topper. The only bummer was having the trailer nose low by a few degrees. Sleeping on a slight incline was mildly annoying but again, the full sized comfortable mattress was great! Cubby holes everywhere were nice. Oh, one more negative: the USB charging slots were in several of the AC outlets, so that didn't help while dry camping! Another thing to add to Mitch's Growing To-Do List...
The next morning we woke to the wonderful sound of pounding surf, and were able to actually see the campground! I wasn't going to rest until we got diesel though, so right after a hearty breakfast we got in the Jeep and drove back North towards Carmel until we were able to gas up. At Kirk Creek you are isolated. No cell reception anywhere, and wifi at the campground was only for the camp host and they weren't sharing. So we couldn't use our gasbuddy app or anything to look for the closest diesel. We had to drive all the way back to Carmel to find diesel! Since we were there, we had lunch at the Rio Grill and charged our laptops while working for an hour or two on their wifi. Full tanks of fuel are a good feeling.
Returning to our campsite, I hooked up the Yamaha 2000 generator and ran it for a couple hours to top off the battery. It was still raining off and on, but with the Rough Rider package we had plenty of room under the Max to put the generator. I positioned it behind and under the trailer, with the exhaust pointing out and downwind. Things started to clear up in the late afternoon and we were rewarded with this view:
The following morning was beautiful! We opened up the front window and HOLY COW is that thing large! Between the front window open and the left window open (which was facing the ocean more) it felt like we were out in the open even while having coffee. Amazing visibility, fresh air flow, and the sound of the ocean. Wuff.
We took advantage of the wonderful sunny weather and explored the paths along the bluff. Kirk Creek has a beautiful section reserved for tent camping, and only for bikers and hikers which I thought was pretty cool. There was also a path down to Kirk Creek itself and down to the beach area but it was pretty muddy and we explored other areas. We noticed the built-in Zamp controller on the wall automatically charging during the sunny periods from the roof-mounted solar panels which was nice.
We took our second showers that morning. I can't tell you how nice it is to shower in the Max! Absolutely plenty of room to move around and wash your hair without sitting on the toilet and having nowhere for your arms to go! The temperature of the water was pretty much all over the place but doable. Trish would make weird squeeking noises occasionally when it passed through a colder spell. But again, plenty of room to towel off and move around. What a difference.
This was our last day and we realized we were at the bottom of the fresh water tank. After talking with the ranger, there were pretty much no good options. Kirk Creek was non-potable and we certainly didn't have water filtration systems. There was a hidden stream about 10 miles up the road but it was 1) impossible to tell us where it was and 2) it was also of questionable potability. Places 10-15 miles away sell a gallon of water for $5, not an option. We still had about a gallon of drinking water in the pantry, so we decided to tough it out, drink wine instead of water, and use the remaining water to use to flush the toilet that night. Oh, roughing it, right?
Speaking of roughing it, we decided to break out the new Volcano grill Trish got me for Christmas! The Volcano Grill can run on wood, charcoal, or it has a pretty cool propane burner you can put in it that conveniently hooks up to the 20lb propane tank on the Max. I'll do a separate article on the Volcano grill as I get more experience with it, but it worked great this first time.
Note to self: take a picture of the steak cooked next time so it looks less like road kill (pro marketing tip!).
Towing the Max wasn't hugely different than pulling a T@B. It's taller and longer and heavier obviously, so you take turns a tiny bit wider and really keep an eye on the tail when you are backing up. Our EcoDiesel Jeep Grand Cherokee gets about 27mpg with normal driving, which drops to about 19mpg while pulling a T@B through the mountains and highways. It dropped to about 14mpg for the Max. As you'd expect you feel the car working a tad bit harder while excelerating and up mountain grades, but other than that it towed pretty easily.
There are a slew of touches that really add up to a delightful experience. We found all the different lighting options to be great (between all the reading lights, ceiling lights, indirect lighting, etc). While I was out hooking up the electric cable to the generator it was nice having magnetic clasps hold the external storage door open. And there is a switch right on the outside porch light by the storage door so you don't have to go inside to turn it on. The toilet is "real-er" than those in the T@B's and sit up higher, which is more pleasant. Integrated starter on the cooktop was a good upgrade. The instant heat of the dometic heater was appreciated.
The Alde system in the T@Bs is nice, but the reality is they are quite slow to warm water or the cabin (unless you have both propane and hookups on), and they occasionally need to be reset at 2:00am when you realize it's gotten quite cold in the cabin for some unknown reason and then you have to turn it off, wait a minute, turn it back on, and hope you have heat in "a while". There are also fewer RV repair shops that know the Alde system. Now keep in mind this is coming from someone with a fleet of 6-8 T@B trailers for a couple years and knows the Alde system pretty well. I have real experience with them! And don't get me started on the special little teenie fuses that blow from time to time... Anyway, a good basic Dometic furnace with instant heat was nice.
The amount of storage in the Max is almost staggering. The coat closet with a hanger bar was killer, and provides a nice big tall area for clothes, coats, and my guitar. The front sitting area has a long side storage that was perfect for my portable white board, notebooks, guitar music and sketching supplies. Having a built-in awning is super nice with the built-in LED lights that are useful in either retracted or extended position was cool. The pass-through external storage is a game-changer for those of us with years of T@B experience and gets a LOT of gear out of the tow vehicle! We have our 12x18 outside rug in there, chairs, ez-up, etc. Dreamy.
So we came back with a list of improvements we want to make for better dry camping. Perhaps upgrade the front battery to either 2 6V batteries in series, or perhaps a 235Ah battery like the 400. I'm talking with Zamp to discuss these two options and what is a best way to go with the roof-mounted 100w solar panels. Add a few cigarette lighter plugs (with USB charger inserts) and a built-in pure sine wave inverter. Look into DC monitors since we also use those as secondary laptop monitors (yeah we're road warrior nerds).
I called SmartJack. Yes, it has auto-shutoff and won't let you raise the tongue too high. There are a few small things I contacted Little Guy to get addressed and so far they have been pretty responsive. I felt like they were listening to my feedback on dry camping features for the most part, and I'm sure if they get enough feedback they will roll more of those features into the Max in the future.
Check out my article on Little Guy Max Information, Repairs, and Improvements as I update it over time.
So to summarize: we absolutely loved the larger "super teardrop" and all it provides. The real queen bed can't be beat. Having a separate table that is big enough for two laptops and related gear is crucial for Trish and I (and that you don't have to put a bed away to put up a table). The fact that it drops into a single bed is gravy. Taller-than-standing-height throughout the trailer is amazing, as is the roomy bathroom and shower. The amount of storage is really staggering. The build quality is exactly like the Amish-built T@B cabinetry with hardwoods and dovetail construction. Seeing how the Max is built gave me even more confidence in the trailer. Having a 2-bike rack, solar panels on the roof, and the Rough Rider package is perfect.