Five Tips for Navigating the Difficulties of Life on the Road
Nomadic life isn’t hard, but it takes some getting used to. These pointers will make it easier.
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More than six months have passed since Jen and I purchased our Airstream, which we call Artemis, and hit the road full time. At this point, we're amazed at how easy trailer life has become. But it wasn't always that way. The learning curve at the beginning was steep. Here's what we wish someone had told us going in.
#1. Pulling a Trailer Is a Skill. Practice Constantly.
The morning we went to buy the Airstream, I was giddy with excitement over the new adventure ahead. After the previous owners got in their truck and drove away, I realized we owned a very expensive trailer and had only rudimentary knowledge of how to batten it down and hook it up—and zero experience pulling anything behind our vehicle. My exhilaration quickly morphed into modest terror. We were going to have to figure out how to operate and pull Artemis if we ever hoped to leave that campground. I confess that the next thing I did after that realization was to check the max stay limit at the campground (14 days).
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Pulling a trailer isn’t rocket science, but it isn’t exactly easy either. The extra weight and size mean you must take everything wider and slower than you think. And backing up can feel like a sobriety test gone wrong. The best thing we ever did was to head for an empty parking lot and spend an afternoon practicing. We would take turns trying to put the trailer between the lines, to back into tight spaces, and to negotiate an obstacle course of empty boxes that we set up—all while the other person spotted. The anxiety over pulling is now mostly gone, though we still occasionally revisit those parking lot drills to brush up. As they say, practice makes for an unscathed Airstream…or something like that.
#2. Bikes Are Indispensable, Even If You Don’t Ride Much
Granted, I’m a dedicated cyclist and I would never travel without a bike (or, truthfully, two: one road, one mountain). But apart from recreation, the mountain bike is nearly as important a tool as, say, leveling blocks or a portable sewer kit.
Here’s the thing: we like staying in backcountry spots and tucked away corners, but finding those sites can mean braving rough dirt roads with big ruts, tight turns, and no turnarounds. Instead of charging off the main thoroughfare with a 23-foot trailer behind us—and possibly getting stuck—I simply grab the bike and pedal down the road to scout. This has saved us a handful of times from deep troughs and steep arroyos that would have beached the trailer. It’s time consuming but quicker (and cheaper) than calling a wrecker to pull us out of some god forsaken spot.
The bike floor pump we carry has also saved the day. I suppose because of the rough roads, the trailer has had three flat tires since we got it, all in pretty remote spots. Rather than having to take off the tire and drive it to town for a fix, I’ve simply pumped up the flat by hand (a plug kit is pretty helpful, too) and driven to the nearest Discount Tire.
#3. The Key to Staying Out Longer Is Conserving
We try to dry camp—stay in off-the-grid spots with no water or connections—as much as we possibly can. Artemis is, after all, our passport to the backcountry. That means, however, that power (for lights, for our computers, for our camera gear) and water are our two biggest limiting factors. We’ve collected some great gear to help us mitigate those limitations, especially the solar chargers and batteries from Goal Zero. But we’ve also devised a few strategies to help conserve those two precious resources.
The refrigerator can be a big power drain, especially in warm weather. To help manage that, we keep several Yeti Ice blocks in the freezer. At night, we turn off the power completely and fill the fridge with the blocks, which keep food plenty cold in the cooler nighttime temperatures. In the morning, the fridge goes back on and the blocks go in the freezer to chill for another night. It’s an easy way to save some battery power. Besides, when you’re out in the woods, you’d rather hear the thrum of the crickets and frogs at night than the buzz of the fridge.
To save water and keep our tanks from filling up, we do our best to hit the woods for toilet duties as much as we can. Of course you need a good trowel, biodegradable TP, a lighter, and a solid understanding of proper backcountry waste disposal etiquette. But popping a squat outside means no water wasted on flushing and a lot fewer trips to find hook-ups and dump stations.
Lastly, we noticed that even after we’ve heated the water, it takes close to a minute of open faucets for the hot water to make its way to the sink or shower. Rather than waste that water by letting it run down the drains and fill our tanks, we collect it in our cast iron cooking pot and either use the water for dish duties and cleaning or simply funnel it back into the clean water tank at the end of the day. It might sound laborious, but on shower days, that can yield as much as a gallon of water savings (not insignificant when you're trying to make 29 gallons last a week or two).
#4. Get a Good Tool Kit and Expect to Use It
Airstreams are well-built relative to many trailers and RVs out there. But the constant jostling and vibration of pulling your home at highway speeds and down washboard roads inevitably shakes and rattles parts loose. One of the biggest surprises of trailer life is that there’s always something that needs to be tweaked or fixed.
Jen and I are not fix-it-ourselves people. When something breaks at home, we call the electrician, the plumber, or whomever. But on the road, out in the woods, you don’t have that luxury. We’ve had doors and cabinets come unhinged, lights go out because of wiring issues, leaks spring due to loosening pipe fitments, and countless other little problems. With the exception of the stove fan that rattled apart on the way to Chaco Canyon, we’ve fixed them all ourselves. (Turned out, the fan broke its plastic housing, which we managed to correct, at least temporarily until we ordered a new part, with some duct tape creativity.)
My advice: if you don’t already have a good tool kit, head to the hardware store and buy yourself a full set of high-quality wrenches, ratchets, screw drivers, hexes, and a solid drill. We’ve also taken to carrying an organizer of spare screws, nuts, and washers in a range of sizes. You will need all of it, and probably more.
#5. Don’t Be Afraid of RV Parks and Campgrounds
When we first began, I had this purist idea that I never wanted to go to an RV park or a campground. But once you’ve drained your batteries and water and filled your tanks, you have to find somewhere to replenish. The truth is, every week or two, plugging in to shore power and a sewer system (and being able to run all the lights and take more than a 30-second shower) can feel like a luxury. A night or two tucked in among a row of other campers also underscores just how good the boondocking is when you head back out.
Perhaps the most useful resource we’ve found in this vein is the Camp and RV App from AllStays. It might seem pricey at $10, but the money is well spent when you’re pulling out of the woods and in need of somewhere to plug in. The map feature lets you locate all parks, campgrounds, and RV resorts in your vicinity, and it lists site numbers and sizes, amenities, and phone numbers and websites for easy reservations.
A few other favorite apps: Ultimate Campgrounds has up-to-date info on more than 30,000 public campgrounds in the US and Canada. GasBuddy is a quick and easy source for finding the nearest, cheapest stations. And Sanidumps is an extensive listing of dump stations, both public and pay. Much of this info is available on AllStays, but we’ve found that cross-checking a few sources can save time and energy in case a place has closed or gone out of business.