After happily being all-electric for almost four years, we sold our Leaf and, until early September ’23, have been driving a gas truck for the last 18 months!
What possessed us to do such a thing? After all, we sold a perfectly functional Subaru Forester (when we bought the Tesla Model 3 in 2018) that was already capable of traversing the forest service roads we like to access for hiking…
In short, “life happens”, and as so often happens, such changes necessarily cause you to re-evaluate your personal and family priorities. When we went full electric in 2018, we had a vague thought that “in the future”, there will be more of an “adventure EV” on offer eventually that we could then purchase and go back to accessing hikes, and we also dreamed about towing a small trailer. After we both lost our fathers within a few years, both very shortly after retiring, we started thinking we’d better not wait on getting back out hiking, and maybe we should pursue that trailer dream too! We also had that moment of realizing our kids were getting older quickly, and wouldn’t necessarily want to travel with us for much longer into their teen years.
And so with all these thoughts running around our heads through 2020 and 2021, we placed a deposit on an electric truck in summer 2021, and spent several months looking at used trailers until finding the right one in January 2022. It stayed in winter storage in Calgary until April, when we found the smallest truck capable of towing it, a Honda Ridgeline, and headed north-east to pick it up.
However, just because we were planning to tow a trailer, and with a petrol vehicle no less, we didn’t want to throw all of our previous values out the window! This meant selecting a trailer shape and size that minimized fuel consumption, was big enough to sleep all 4 of us in a pinch, had a proper kitchen so we could “eat-in” and avoid excessive dine-out waste, yet was still small enough to be pulled by a mid-sized vehicle.
We settled on a trailer first, a 20’ Airstream with a very functional layout and large kitchen (rivalling that in much larger units), though admittedly not the best sleeping arrangement for the parents (one of us [read: me] has to crawl over the other, and it is only double-width; this is fine for us in our 40’s… we’ll see as we age!). Importantly, the trailer shape has been shown to reduce aerodynamic drag over comparable boxy-trailers by 25% (the largest component of energy consumption on the highway). The other benefit of this is safety – the trailer is much more stable, particularly in cross-winds or when large trucks drive by. Interestingly, anecdotally it seems to fare about equally well as “teardrop” style trailers of roughly the same size, which seems related to most of the edges of the Airstream being rounded, whereas “teardrops” usually have a very sharp edge between the roof and sides, and sometimes even have too tight of a radius for the “teardrop” to work as intended. Clearly there are still improvements to be made in trailer aerodynamics, and the next decade should turn out some interesting designs with the aid of computational fluid dynamics. Airstreams tend to age well and many of them are still on the road (even several decades old! check out dedicated vintage sites), and when they are eventually retired, the shell is all aluminum and readily recycable (as opposed to most trailers out there).
Second was to choose a mid-sized vehicle; given we like to bring our mountain bikes with us on most of our trips, we relatively quickly decided against an SUV, as the idea of putting bikes on the roof was not appealing, nor the fussing around with having a bike rack on the rear of the trailer and moving it to the SUV – so, truck it was (as an aside, pre-trailer, I’ve never previously considered trucks because of the lack of covered storage in conjunction with carrying bikes – as you’ll see in a post or two, that is one major reason we considered a truck again when placing a deposit on the EV we chose).
Because we had already put a deposit on an EV truck, we also wanted to buy something older to minimize subsequent depreciation between buying it and selling it in a few years. As I dug into mid-sized truck specifications, it quickly became apparent that the Honda Ridgeline was really the only choice when considering towing as a use case like we were – it has the highest payload (by far) of all mid-sized trucks from the 2010’s, it comes with a tow package (transmission cooler, beefy 650lbs tongue rating, 7-pin harness), and it is reasonably fuel-efficient with its V6.
18 months of adventures
We hit the road quite a lot in the last 18 months!
Let’s get the nerdy stats out of the way:
We towed just under 10,000 km (+4,000 km of incidental driving on these road-trips without the trailer [i.e. left it at the camp site while exploring])
The truck consumed 2500 L of fuel for a mixed consumption of 17.5 L/100km. CO2 emmitted of ~5800 kg (ouch…)
I tracked our fuel consumption when towing vs not towing, and depending on the terrain / speed (we generally kept it to 95 km/h max, sometimes 100); we saw values ranging from 18.5 up to 21 L/100 km.
Converting that to “EV” metrics, that is about 25,000 kWh of energy (if you were to include charging losses), overall consumption of ~1.7 kWh/km, and towing-only of 1.8 – 2.1 kWh/km! Or stated in efficiency terms, 0.55 to 0.48 km/kWh.
Compared to regular highway driving without towing at all (typically 12.5 – 13.5 L/100km, or ~1.3 kWh/km), the consumption increased by 55-65%, limiting our range to roughly 60-65% of normal. Because of the small tank on the Ridgeline, this worked out to about 300 km in practice.
We have slept in the trailer 89 nights so far, 7 of those used the propane furnace, 58 used the propane fridge (meaning we had no electricity hook-ups), and every day we boiled water on the propane stove for tea/coffee and dishes. (We only used the hot water on propane once to try it out; otherwise we only use it when we have electricity.)
We have used about 3 tanks of propane so far. They are “30 lb” tanks, which are filled 80%, or to 24 lbs, which works out to ~120kg of CO2.
This shows why a person should focus on what they are towing with (or driving in general) before trying to electrify/solarize your trailer – orders of magnitude more energy are consumed for towing than for operating daily life in the trailer – your choice of tow vehicle (and trailer to tow) will, by far, make the biggest difference in how much energy your camping lifestyle consumes.
Where our travels took us
Our travels took us both regional (nearby Provincial Parks, towns, hikes), to the Canadian Rocky Mountains National Parks, and around the Pacific Northwest this summer.
2022 spring – the Okanagan valley – a week of mountain biking, seeing the wildflowers, and a bit of gym climbing:
2022 summer – circling the BC/AB Rockies – 3 weeks of hiking, wildflowers, family, biking and canoeing:
2022 spring & summer – northern Kootenay Lake – we camped at Davis Creek in Kootenay Lake Provincial Park 3 times through the spring, summer and into early fall, matching activities to the seasons. Lowland hiking and canoeing in the spring, hiking high in the alpine meadows and swimming/paddling the lake in the summer and early fall.
2022 late summer – Slocan Lake & Valhalla Provincial Park – late in the summer we spent a weekend+ in the village of Slocan and enjoyed some rock climbing at Slocan Bluffs, and a great hike to Gimli with several friends! Another hike where our Tesla Model 3 just wouldn’t have cut it.
2023 spring – Kimberley – in mid May we spent a long-weekend+ in the Kimberley area – largely biking and enjoying the wildflowers.
2023 summer – Pacific Northwest – from mid-June to the end of July, we travelled a fairly large loop through the Pacific Northwest, avoiding the major cities and instead spending time down the eastern side of the volcanic mountain chain inland in WA and OR states, then over to the coast to see the giant Redwood trees, then slowly travelled north up the coastal highway and back into Canada onto Vancouver Island. Our second dream trip in the trailer, and all of the US portion was new to us. It was filled with learning about new ecosystems, histories of people (indigenous and settler alike), and finding adventures wherever we went. The truck and trailer were comically full on this trip (many large relatively light objects!), and it was at this point that I really felt we needed a slightly larger & stronger truck.
The universal thread in the above trips was quality family time, generally outdoors on some adventure, learning about where we were, and visiting friends/family afar. While I wish we had been able to do this in an EV instead, I don’t regret it either.
If you’ve read this far into the post – you get a preview of coming posts!
This is the truck we bought at the beginning of September 2023. Last weekend we essentially repeated the trip to Kimberley that we did back in May with the gas truck – so a detailed trip comparison will be posted s0–0n! I’ve also already run consumption/efficiency tests for various truck configurations (e.g. roof box, bikes on rack, bikes in box, suspension height), so as time allows, I will create posts for those tests as well. Stick around!
(P.S. – I did complete a rough trip-planning exercise for all of these trips over the last 2 years and towing with an EV truck; all of them were viable, but there were a few key legs that would have required charging at a Level 2 for a few hours [or just driving a bit slower] – these are trade-offs I can live with in order to drastically reduce my family’s energy consumption for our vacations.)
Andrew is an environmental engineer by day, "youth activity volunteer" by evening, and EV advocate / blogger in his remaining spare time.
He is very passionate about the future of energy generation & usage. He prefers bikes & buses to cars, but acknowledges that Canadian cities have been developed primarily with cars in mind, so if we're going to drive, let's make them all EVs!