Trailer bliss in the big empty. Photo: Pablo H Caridad/Shutterstock
Earlier this month we drove our vintage Airstream to Marfa, Texas, for its maiden voyage. We knew zilch about driving or camping with a travel trailer before we left, so it was trial-by-fire from the get-go. Despite a few train wrecks along the way, we survived and learned some things for next time—a good thing, because now that we know how much fun Airstream camping can be, there will most definitely be a next time (Chaco Canyon, Crested Butte!). Whether you're plotting an epic family road trip or just want to elevate your usual camping experience this summer, follow these tips for a hassle-free adventure with travel trailer in tow. If you plan it right, you won't have to sacrifice wild places and open spaces for comfort.
1. Make sure your trailer is road-ready. Just because you’ve given your vintage Airstream a hip interior renovation with robin’s egg-blue cushions and eco-friendly cork floors doesn’t necessarily mean it’s ready to be hauled on the interstate at 70 mph. Check your brake lights, your latches, your tires, your windows, your rusty AM radio antenna. Anything old or loose will break or fall off.
2. Avoid RV parks unless you’re going for that sleeping-in-a-parking-lot experience. “Dry camping,” as it’s called when you park somewhere without electric, gas, or plumbing plug-ins—like in national parks or on public BLM and National Forest lands is much wilder and more private. Just pack your food in a cooler, bring a tank for the toilet, and fill your water tank before you leave. Most trailers have interior lights that run off the car battery. It’s far cushier than tent camping, and you won't have to deal with asphalt and close quarters. Bring camp chairs and a hammock for relaxing outside after the kids go to bed, and an extra tent in case you get the urge to sleep out.
3. Bring bikes and a bike trailer for the little ones. When you’re towing an Airstream, any extra gear will seem like a supreme hassle, but you’ll be glad you brought your bikes when you pull into camp and don’t feel like unhooking the trailer to cruise into town for dinner. In Marfa, you’ll score major points rolling up to the Chinati Foundation on two wheels for your morning tour. Bonus: exercise!
4. Don’t overestimate how far you can drive in a day. Towing a travel trailer will lengthen any trip by a couple hours; the younger your kids, tack on more time.
5. Stop for lunch in playgrounds, picnic areas, or parks rather than restaurants. You can grill a few hot dogs in your mobile kitchen while the kids burn off energy running, playing, or biking before it’s time to hit the road again. Yelp is a great app for zeroing on the closest playground when you're on the go.
6. Make sure you have a convenient place to park. We towed our Airstream home the first day only to realize it was a nightmare to back it up into our narrow, steep, dirt driveway. On the way home from Marfa, we made the mistake of pulling in after dark and spent half an hour trying to reverse up the driveway—so stressful that Steve burst a blood vessel in his eye and we aborted the mission 'til the next morning. Driving a trailer is a little like climbing: Don’t underestimate the trip home.
7. Try before you buy. Trailer park "hotels," where you can overnight in renovated vintage trailers, are becoming more popular, so you can figure out if you like the Airstream experience before you go whole hog like we did. A few hipster mobile home hangouts: El Cosmico in Marfa, Texas; Hicksville, near Joshua Tree, California; the Shady Dell, in Bisbee, Arizona; Hotel Airstream, in Pacifica, California; and Shooting Star Drive-In in Escalante, Utah. Or rent a teardrop trailer from Vacations in a Can (in Sonoma County, California) to find out if towing a glorfied tent on wheels is your speed. Cruise America rents traditional RVs.
El Cosmico, www.elcosmico.com; Hicksville Trailer Palace, www.hicksville.com; Shady Dell, www.theshadydell.com; Hotel Airstream, www.hotelairstream.com; Shooting Star, www.shootingstardrive-in.com; Vacations in a Can, vacationsinacan.com; Cruise America, www.cruiseamerica.com.