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Sheen Watkins Shares Her Learning Curves

Sheen and Dave Watkins’ entry into the camper lifestyle did not begin auspiciously. Thanks to zero-degree temperatures and icy roads in Northport and Traverse City, Michigan, the couple had to immediately put their new TAB 400 Boondock into storage, unwilling to take their chances as newbies in less-than-optimal conditions.

But while they didn’t have control over the weather, they did have control over their decision to become towable owners, starting with their choice of camper.

“The idea of getting a teardrop happened in early fall of 2020,” said Sheen. “We were in Empire, Michigan where we saw a teardrop camper. I really didn’t know anything about campers, but it piqued our interest. I googled bean-shaped campers and this whole world of teardrops started to pop up in search.”

Searching for the perfect teardrop trailer

Overwhelmed by the amount of information, the couple wisely create a checklist for what they wanted. At the top of the list was adequate living space, since the camper would have to accommodate two adults, two dogs, and Sheen’s photography gear — she’s a professional photographer — since she’d be working while traveling.

Next was easy to access to locations. “As a nature photographer, I need to get up and go quickly,” said Sheen. “We wanted the flexibility to get off-road, hit two tracks, and traverse highways and freeways. The ability to take our living quarters into more rugged terrain offered us off-road camping experiences, too.”

Another criterion was the option for the couple to spend time apart while on the road — something that wouldn’t be easily accomplished in a motorized RV. “As much as I love having Dave with me on all of my shoots, let’s just say he doesn’t get quite as enthusiastic about the 100th star shot of the night,” said Sheen. “The ability for him to have his own time and space when I’m searching and shooting helps preserve family togetherness.”

Finally, a very specific and personal preference: a camper with a bathroom and shower. “We don’t want to rely on public areas to do our business,” Sheen said. “Environmental responsibility and personal hygiene must converge safely!”

Discovering nuCamp teardrop trailers

Once the list was compiled, the couple read camper user and service reviews and looked at online demonstrations of various manufacturers and models, keeping in mind their tow vehicle: a Jeep Grand Cherokee Overland that came with a tow package.

“nuCamp rose to the top,” Sheen said. “Then, given that we knew our ultimate goal was to be able to get remote, the Boondock was the perfect choice. From the time we saw our first teardrop, we researched extensively about a month, then placed our order.”

The couple landed on ordering a TAB 400 Boondock Edition, which has the bathroom the couple was searching for. The TAB 400 wet bath includes a toilet, shower, and sink.

Another major item on the checklist was off-road capability. The Boondock package allows for a better off-road experience with your teardrop trailer. The 2023 TAB 400 Boondock package includes 15″ sports rims, aggressive off-road tires, boondock entry handle and graphics, a heavy-duty entry doorstep, a pitched axle, and an aluminum utility platform.

Learning how to camp in your teardrop trailer

Once the TAB 400 Boondock was out of storage in March 2021, the learning curve began in earnest. “We discovered there was so much to learn that if we tried to do it all at once, stuff would fall through the cracks. As first-time travel trailer owners, we wanted to ensure we completely understood how to operate our camper systems as well as how it performed on the road. We also had to learn how to drive, navigate, and park safely.”

It was also important that both of them knew how to drive, park, and manage their systems and resources, said Sheen. “If something happens and we need to exit fast, having both parties knowing what do to makes it go faster and it’s safer.”

Not being experienced campers, everything was new to the couple — not the least of which was how to back up a trailer, said Sheen, since their driveway is curvy, narrow, and on a hill.

“I had witnessed many loud, colorful discussions of people giving instructions with trailers — ‘turn right. No, the other right! No, back to the other right!’ We didn’t take lessons, but instead, we researched and did a lot of mental practice. We finally came up with a method of communicating to make it easier: 1. the placement of our hands on the wheel, 2. The use of driver side and passenger side, and 3. The use of hand signals of 1, 2, and 3 fingers to communicate. This approach made it easier to consistently communicate and navigate.” (See their YouTube video on how to back up the trailer in three steps.)

They also used a 1, 2, 3 process when doing their safety check before departure, said Sheen. “For example, back blinker on side 1: Dave will raise one finger to let me know it’s working, two fingers for passenger side blinkers, three fingers for brakes, and a happy dance with the thumbs for the flashers/emergency lights. No, I’m not kidding on #3!”

Packing can be a challenge for new campers since space is limited. As Sheen pointed out, while you want to have what you need, bringing too much makes it harder to find what you want. “Organization combined with less is more is our approach,” she said, ticking off their packing must-haves: soft baskets, hard plastic open cubes, collapsible pots, bowls, detachable handles on skillets, and wall hooks. “We even created a video that includes our packing tips.”

Camping for the first time

Once they felt confident in their abilities, the couple took their first trip: a complete immersion into camping. The trip included traveling for six weeks from Michigan to Arizona, stopping at both full-service and minimal service campgrounds and using Harvest Hosts locations for boondocking. This gave them safe test grounds for understanding how to manage resources and access supplies.

“Our first year was roughly 8,000 miles of camping,” said Sheen. “This spring was eight weeks, venturing back out west from Michigan to Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Texas. Summer was dotted with short trips: four nights/five days. Then starting in September, we’re heading back up to the Upper Peninsula for several weeks. We’re already planning our travels for spring of 2023.”

Most of the time now, the couple boondocks in dispersed locations and more primitive campgrounds, bringing along five gallons of fresh water in their jeep in addition to what’s in their tank, with stopovers at campgrounds or stations with services to replenish water and dump tanks. “Out west, Bureau of Land Management’s lands are just amazing: remote, quiet, and in beautiful areas in the middle of nature.”

While thus far, it’s been the couple and their two Cirneco dell’Etna dogs, Qallin and Gina, Sheen also took her first solo trip in August since her husband has to referee. “I’m so excited!” she said, “not to leave Dave, but to head out and camp solo!”

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