Planning For Backcountry EV Adventures

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If you’re willing to plan ahead, take a little extra time, and enjoy the journey as much as the destination, there’s no reason to leave your EV at home.

Now that the weather is starting to warm up, it’s a great time to start heading out on days off to see the outdoors. For many EV owners, this might mean firing up a backup gas car, because “Shorter range EVs are only for cities,” or “There aren’t any stations out there!” The truth is, though, that you don’t have to overly participate in the destruction of nature to go out and enjoy it. If you plan ahead, prepare, and make a few phone calls, nearly any EV can get you out there.

Prepare Your Vehicle

It seems like most manufacturers don’t think an EV is going to be used outside of cities. If you need a charge, there’s a level 3 nearby. If you have a flat, you’ll get a tow to the tire shop. They don’t include the things you’d need out where there’s no cellular coverage and/or towing service. You’ll need to look at your vehicle to see if it’s ready for being on its own and remedy any shortcomings.

RV Park Charging

What a NEMA 14-50 plug looks like. Public domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

Most EVs come with a “trickle charger” that can be plugged into any household power outlet. While that’s handy for times you are running short and need to just add a few miles, trickle charging only adds 3–5 miles per hour of charging. Most cities have at least a few level 2 plugs that give the car 220V power and add 20–40 miles per hour, but remote areas aren’t going to have any “destination chargers” or J1772 plugs. You’ll need to bring your own.

Some vehicles do come with a portable EVSE that’s better than a trickle charger. Teslas, for example, come with a Mobile Connector that has a number of options, including NEMA 14-50 plugs, also known at RV parks as “50 amp service.” My 2018 LEAF came with an EVSE that can charge from both 14-50 plugs and 110V household style outlets. But, if your car didn’t come with it, you’re going to need to buy one if you want to be able to charge more quickly out in rural areas.

The important thing here is to get something that can plug into a NEMA 14-50 outlet and give your car a J1772 port for charging.

Other Things To Bring

In many rural areas, it’s getting harder and harder to find help and even gasoline. Photo by Jennifer Sensiba, abandoned Conoco station in Lake Valley, New Mexico.

Many newer vehicles don’t come with a spare tire because the manufacturer wanted to save a few pounds to get better range. The best thing you can do is get a full size spare tire for the road in case of an unfortunate scenario. Don’t spend a fortune on one, though. Just check with your local used tire shops and find something with at least some tread left on it. Get a cheap steel wheel. Most used tire shop guys can help you find a cheap solution, just in case.

Be sure to also get a jack and crossbar. Most auto parts stores and even Walmart have compact floor jacks for sale. While a scissor-style jack will do in a pinch, you can change a tire much easier by spending just a few extra dollars. Also, get a lug wrench that fits your car. With all this, you can get back on the road pretty quick if something goes wrong instead of waiting hours for a tow, assuming you have cellular coverage to even call for one.

Finally, be sure to bring emergency supplies. Have a first aid kit, some extra food and water, and blankets. If something goes horrendously wrong, you might be really glad you have those things.

Planning Ahead

When going onto backroads and into backcountry areas, even gas/diesel cars aren’t immune to needing a plan. As speed limits have increased and cars have become more efficient, there are a growing number of areas with no gas stations. Out in the American West, there are vast areas with paved roads, but no pumps. Sometimes, even the gas cars get stranded when the owner blindly assumes that they’ll just find a gas station when the “idiot light” comes on. So, really, planning ahead a bit isn’t a special chore for EV drivers. In fact, there are many areas where you’d have an easier time finding electricity than gas.

Check Cell Phone Coverage

Aside from the obvious need for cellular coverage to call for help, you have to keep in mind that your vehicle might rely on cellular coverage for some of its functions. Built-in navigation, music streaming, remote control/tracking, and other things you use every day might not work. Not all manufacturers use the same LTE, 3G, or even 2G connections for these things. It’s also worth keeping in mind that even when maps show solid coverage, there are areas near mountains, or down in ravines where coverage will not be available. If you know you’re going to be in steep or rough terrain, keep that in mind.

Verizon’s coverage map shows plenty of dead zones on my route.

You might want to check with your car’s manufacturer and see which carrier they use. As far as I know, Nissan and Tesla vehicles use AT&T, and you can find that coverage information here. GM’s OnStar (for the Bolt, Volt, and Spark EV) has a webpage with coverage information.

If you know you might not have access to features, find alternatives for them ahead of time. On smartphones, you can download maps for an area ahead of time. For music, services sometimes offer offline listening or downloads.

If you think you’ll be spending a lot of time in a dead zone, be sure to look at alternative ways to get help. Amateur radio, satellite phones, and emergency beacons are all good options.

Find Stations

PlugShare’s map of the area I’m planning to travel through.

Before you go, be sure to check PlugShare to see what charging options you have in a given area. Set the filter for not only level 3 stations, but for anything else you’re set up to use (destination chargers, J1772, NEMA 14-50, wall plug). Some backcountry areas have a lot of options available, while you might not find much in other areas.

RV parks are a special case to be really careful with. Even if PlugShare or another site shows that you can charge at one, that may have changed since the listing was added. I’ve come close to nearly being stranded on several occasions, and have learned that you need to call ahead and verify before each trip. Ownership changes hands, management changes, and sometimes another EV driver did something stupid to make us all unwelcome. A quick phone call to both the park itself and a backup park nearby can save a lot of hassle.

For areas with no RV parks listed, be sure to check on Google Maps for RV parks in the area. Give them a call and see if they let EVs charge, and what they charge for it. Some parks want you to rent a whole night, while others charge by the hour or by the kWh. If you find a new one, be sure to add it on PlugShare so others will know who to check with next time.

See if you’ll actually make it!

When traveling out on backroads or wilderness areas, terrain is often an issue. You can’t just fire up Google Maps and see if the next station is within your vehicle’s advertised range. If you have steep inclines, the car may not go anywhere near as far as both the EPA and your vehicle’s range indicator say. Your mileage will often vary.

One great tool I’ve found that works for most EVs is A Better Route Planner. It was originally intended for Tesla drivers who wanted another option and more features than Tesla’s Trip Planner, but ABRP developers are in the process of adding many other makes and models. I’ve found that their “beta” for the 2018 Nissan LEAF is quite accurate at figuring out what the vehicle’s remaining battery will be between charging stops. It takes out most of the guesswork and gives you an idea of whether the car will make it.

You can access ABRP on your computer to set routes, and then access it later on a phone, tablet, or in-dash browser. It has most Tesla stations, and most level 3 stations for other cars, but the selection of J1772 and RV park stations is far more limited than PlugShare. To get around that, right-click any spot you know a charger or RV park to be and tell it “add waypoint to route.” Then, click on the gear to tell ABRP about your plans for charging, charging speeds, times, etc. This helps ABRP build the unlisted station into its plans for your drive. When you’re happy with a route plan, click “save plan” to be able to access the plan later.

I like to build trips for each day’s journey so I don’t plan to do more driving and charging than I can reasonably do in a day. Then, I plan my activities in Google Calendar to make sure there’s time for driving, charging, and whatever else I want to do on the trip.

Enjoy the Journey!

The biggest thing about road tripping in an EV outside of areas with rapid charging is that you’re taking a slower pace. While it can be painful at times, it doesn’t have to be. Try to pick charging spots at places with something interesting to do. Many museums, campgrounds, and recreation areas have a place to charge. Also, RV parks with 50 amp service are often located close to something fun to do. Even if not in walking distance, it helps to take a bike, e-bike, or electric scooter along to be able to easily travel a few miles from a park where you are charging.

If you take the attitude that you are planning on enjoying the journey, and not just rushing out to someplace you have to go, then it can be rather enjoyable.

Next week, I’m planning on taking one of the longest trips I’ve been on in my 2018 LEAF. I’m planning on camping at RV parks, charging at attractions, and even traveling into a remote desert area for some photography work. Be sure to follow me and CleanTechnica on social media so you can see these tips in action next week!

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1774 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba