The day finally came! After six years of saving up for a family gap year and a year of intense preparation, it felt quite surreal to pull our RV out of the driveway, wave goodbye to our parents and start driving toward Halifax to ship our RV to Europe. 

Me giving the thumbs up as we back the RV out of the driveway, heading for Halifax and Europe.

When you ship your RV overseas you have to arrive at the port around 5 days before your scheduled sailing date.  As such, we set aside three weeks to get from our small Ontario town to the port in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Straight through you can drive it in around 30 hours, but we wanted to visit friends and see some of the Maritime provinces on our way through.

In Trois Rivieres, Quebec we tried our first stay with a Boondocker’s Welcome host. Boondocking is the North American term for camping in your motorhome outside of a campground. Boondockers Welcome is a website on which people who are willing to host boondockers can offer parking for a night or two. People like us pay a small annual fee for access to the listings. 

We’ll post our full review of Boondocker’s Welcome soon, but suffice it to say that it’s quickly become the first type of accommodation we look for anywhere we go in Harvey. Our Trois Rivieres location was on a lovely family farm with a view of horses across the road (Wandering Family Girl made me take her over for a look four or five times). Our friendly host offered us water, hydro and free wifi and gave our kids some children’s books he found in his home.  Wandering Family Boy drew him a picture of his farm as a return gift. It was a lovely first Boondockers Welcome experience.

Our first Boondocker's Welcome stay on a farm with our RV parked outside of the house
Our first Boondocker’s Welcome stay, on a small family farm in Quebec

Our next several nights were spent staying with friends, some of whom we hadn’t seen in years. It was wonderful to catch up, eat some fresh-caught trout, and tour the small, picturesque communities of Baie St. Paul and L’Isle aux Coudres located about an hour east of Quebec City.

Our friend drove us around L’Isle aux Coudres, an island in the St. Lawrence. It’s so tiny that we were able to ferry over, drive around the island and take the ferry back all in just over an hour. The weather was rainy and cold but even this early in the spring we could see that the entire area must be just gorgeous in the summer and fall.

Our host stopped at his favorite island bakery to pick up a sugar pie with pastry swirls in it that he said translate from French to English as “nun’s farts”, and then he took us to an abandoned waterfront property to show us where he and his friends drank around the campfire as teenagers. I was captivated by the seemingly random statue of Mary on the water’s edge – on a point of land with no buildings on it and that hardly anyone ever goes to. What was it doing there? I found out later that there are a number of these same statues stationed around the island, placed there in the 60s by a gentleman who promised to do so if he survived his illness.

Rocky beach on L'il aux Coudres on which stands a large statue of the Virgin Mary

We then proceeded into New Brunswick and spent our first night boondocking in a Walmart parking lot, which felt like a rite of passage as far as free camping in North America goes! We thought we’d feel weird boondocking, exposed perhaps, or self-conscious, but honestly once you’re in your RV with the doors shut, your music on, and supper cooking on the stove, you could be anywhere.  No one gave us a second glance and within a night of two of boondocking we felt completely at ease and slept just as well as at home.

Note for American readers: Most Walmarts in Canada still allow boondocking in their parking lots, likely because we have a lot less RV traffic than many states do and so the Walmarts here have not had as many issues with crowding, garbage etc.

Actually, we are sleeping better, and longer, in the RV than we do at home (so far).  We left Ontario in early May, so at night it’s still COLD, around -3 to + 3 degrees C or so. Without being plugged into shore power we can’t use the heater (too much electric draw) so we find ourselves going to bed just after Wandering Family Girl and Boy. Sleeping from 9 pm to 7 am feels amazing after so many years of rat race sleep depravation. And sleeping in the cool has made us realize that our bedrooms in our house were too hot.

The following night we raised our boondocking game by sleeping in a small local park in Fredericton, New Brunswick.  Just before dark a van and a hatchback with a makeshift bed in the back arrived to sleep there with us.  We had no idea how many people are sleeping outside in their vehicles all over the place on any given night!

We had planned to spend a day or two in Fredericton, seeing the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and the farmer’s market (Fredericton has, in our view, one of the best farmer’s markets in Canada), but it was just before we made it that far when our journey’s troubles began.

The symptom that finally clued us into the fact that our electrical system was not working properly was Wandering Family Man’s CPAP crapping out in the middle of the night. The low voltage alarm on our inverter went off, causing quite the middle-of-the night panic amongst us grown-ups (the kids sleep through anything).

It had been raining for days and it turns out that we had discharged our house batteries quite a lot without knowing it.  Sure, we knew that the solar panels weren’t charging our batteries in the absence of sun, but we thought our engine alternator would be doing that job.

I’ll back up a step here to briefly explain the solar panel set-up that we added to Harvey a few months before we departed for our Big Trip. RVers in North America usually plug into electrical sources in campgrounds to run their lights, water pump, appliances etc.  In researching the idea of taking a North American RV to Europe, we were unable to work out a way to plug Harvey into shore power there. This is because:

  • Electricity in Europe is 220V and 50 Hz, whereas North American vehicles and appliances run on 110 V and 60 Hz;
  • While one can buy adapters that allow the use of North American appliances in Europe, large electrical loads like an RV require a transformer to be able to plug in. We couldn’t find a suitable transformer that we could safely use outdoors;
  • Even if we could find a suitable transformer, many European campgrounds provide around 10 amps of power (compared to 30 or 50 in North America, which would require at least one further adapter and wouldn’t offer us any more power than a few solar panels will; and
  • We want to free camp as much as possible anyway, to keep our costs down.

To provide for our (very limited) electricity needs, we installed 300 watts of solar panels on Harvey’s roof and replaced the house battery with 4 12V golf cart batteries.  This isn’t enough on it’s own. Despite many RVer’s hopes of effortless off-grid living, a few solar panels are not able to sustain a family’s electricity needs. This is the case even where, as with us, no major appliances are being used (we took out the microwave, don’t use the air-con, and the only A/C appliances we have are our phones and laptops). The batteries also need to be able to charge from the engine alternator as well as from shore power (when it’s available).

We had been driving a lot, so when our batteries gradually discharged anyway we realized the alternator was not charging them.  But we are not electricians and so had to pay an urgent visit to an RV service centre in Fredericton.  Unfortunately for us we arrived a few days before the May long weekend, which meant that every service centre was booked solid for the next two weeks!

Note, for context: Victoria Day weekend is the first warmish-weather holiday weekend in Canada and i traditionally celebrated with a camping trip, even though nine years out of ten you’ll freeze your toes off if you go camping that weekend. So everyone wants their RV de-winterized and ready to go for that weekend, and RV service centres make something like 50 percent of their annual profit in the 10 days prior.  Okay, I’m exaggerating the profit bit, but you get the point.

These first few weeks of RV travel have taught us a lot, but the biggest take-away for me is this: if you’re going to take a motorhome, camper, trailer or van on a long trip, especially overseas, do at least one proper dry-run of all of your systems first.  Don’t just test the connections in the electrical system and have the engine and brakes checked out, etc. Actually take the vehicle out for at least two weeks and drive and behave much as you plan to during your long trip. That’s the only way we could have detected our alternator issue before we left.

We didn’t do a dry run and as a result we ended up stuck for two weeks waiting for a service appointment, having to reschedule the shipping date for the RV, and worrying that our entire trip was in jeopardy and/or that the fix for the electrical system would be outrageously expensive. We were not in a good emotional place that week.

As luck would have it we have wonderful friends in Truro, Nova Scotia who let us park in their driveway and plug Harvey in to slowly recharge his batteries (it took four days!) while we waited for our service appointment. They took us to a friend’s cottage on the Bay of Fundy for a weekend, which was a wonderful place to decompress and help us move into the mindset that everything would be fine in the end.

We watched the very high and low tides that the Bay of Fundy is famous for. Wandering Family Boy got to try his hand at fishing in the ocean right from shore. A BBQ, great company and a huge campfire helped us forget our troubles for a few days.

A small boy fishing in the Bay of Fundy in Nova Scotia, Canada
Wandering Family Boy learning how to fish from the shore of the Bay of Fundy

Two weeks later we headed to Moncton, New Brunswick to get the alternator fixed. The garage needed to keep Harvey for the weekend and we were lucky to get a terrific deal on a hotel through Hotwire. Hotwire is a website that offers discounted hotel rates, but the catch is that you don’t know which hotel you’re getting until after you book. 

It was our first time trying Hotwire, as we’ve always been nervous about ending up somewhere that wasn’t convenient to get to with two little kids. However, it worked out really well for us in that we got a great rate at a good hotel with a pool. Littles don’t care about much else, so long as there’s a pool!

The electrical issue, ensuing panic, and eventual zen acceptance that whatever needed to happen would happen turned out to be a good way to jolt ourselves into a traveling headspace.  When travelling, you can put a day in motion, but you just have to deal with whatever happens afterwards. The illusion of day-to-day control over our lives evaporates.

Travel is very in-the-moment and I think that’s one of the things that makes travel something that so many people love. One has to live in the moment just to cope with all the changes and hurdles that moving out of the daily routine throws at you.

And as you’ll read in our next update, some early practice dealing with a potentially significant hurdle turned out to be a good thing for us (ooh, did you see that? Foreshadowing! My grade 10 English teacher would be proud).