Gila (NM) and Piedra (CO)
Just got back from trip to Gila, and then Piedra. While I could go on and on about how absolutely gorgeous these areas are(!), I will focus primarily on van performance.
The heater: Trying to get it dialed in. Night time temps were generally in the twenties and probably teens off the Piedra. First night we didn't use the heater, and even had window cracked open listening for critters. Daughter slept in the penthouse in zero degree bag with down comforter on top. I slept down below in zero degree bag. We were both comfortable and slept soundly through the night with no issues, but toothpaste was apparently frozen inside the van in the morning. Fortunately, we didn't get a hard freeze inside (no damage to fresh water system), but I am guessing it was in the 30's in many parts of the van by morning.
That first morning I turned heat on when I woke up, which was a couple of hours before daughter. Espar heated the van quite comfortably in that couple of hours - more than necessary as I sort of played around with what it could do.
I am now worried about damaging plumbing much more than comfort, and will be more careful not to let the interior get so cold for that reason.
This would be my preferred use moving forward though: Use warm bags / down comforter / windows cracked / heater OFF to experience the camping sensation, and then crank the heater up upon first wake-up so by the time you are ready to get out of bed it is toasty warm. However, care must be taken not to let the interior freeze and the lowest the thermostat seems to go is 50’, which would have it on much of the evening. L
Next night I did not fully appreciate what the thermostat could do or where to leave it, so I ended up waking up periodically to turn it on or off. When on, it cycled a lot, sort of keeping me up, encouraging me to ‘over heat, and then turn off for awhile’.
By the end of the trip we just left the thermostat at ~60 all night as we got used to the sound of it cycling on and off. I have to say it was not like camping as I have grown used to though. You are pretty isolated from the outside world (sounds, smells, etc.). Plenty warm, and in the wilderness, but not really outdoors.
The sound: The heater is really loud. It sounds a bit like a jet airplane taking off on the outside, though the white noise of the fan on the interior is more constant. Something to consider when you have neighbors. We were in national forests away from people for the most part and it was not a problem, but this would be really obnoxious next to a tent at a primitive site. Also, as I said above, you can’t hear anything outside from inside the van when the heater is on.
The insulation: There is MUCH room for improvement. The windows were expected to not insulate well, but there were serious drafts coming from many other places as well (under the refrigerator, and near the A/C intake vent, for example). I will be working on running the big ones down. One thing that worked well was the simple curtain between the front section and the rear section. We don’t bother bringing all the front windows shades anymore as it was really cold up there with all the windows regardless and they take a lot of space to store. That said, the curtain did a decent job keeping the cold up front and containing the ‘heated area’ to the rear. We referred to the front section as the refrigerator.
MB factory engine pre-heater/booster: I thought about spinning up a separate thread for this because I found it vexing at first, when in fact it is as easy as pie and works very well. I struggled with how to turn it on, believe it or not. I tried various messing around with the steering wheel controls, buttons, youtube, and more. It looked like I could program it to come on at a certain time, but I just wanted an ‘on’ button to hit in the mornings. Indeed, if it is colder than 30something degrees all you have to do is press the button for 2 seconds and it fires up. Simple as that. I think it must not have been cold enough when I was trying before. Still not sure how to program the start time and set it to start, but not a priority right now. The engine pre-heater/booster warms up the engine ahead of starting it, and also makes for hotter air up front. I could make coffee and go sit up front (in the refrigerator) only by using this preheater and running the engine for 10-15mins to heat up the front section.
(off)road handling: Had probably a total of 100 miles of really nasty washboard road by the end of the trip, above and beyond normal unpaved roads. The van handled very well on these. I probably killed the shocks. They don’t have external reservoir and probably got really hot with the full weight of the vehicle on them. I was merciless, finding the speed that provided optimal comfort based on the wavelength of the washboard. On a separate note, it is clear that the 4wd is needed for even basic maneuvering on rough terrain. I think it is at least partly due to such poor articulation, but just trying to back up a logging road, a rear wheel would spin quite easily. Also I feel strongly that the low range is worth it. It just gives much finer grain control when you don’t want to go careening over a gulley.