Impossible questions

Over the years I’ve gotten a lot of queries from people who want to understand RV’ing, or Airstreams specifically.  I’ve noticed that commonly I’ll get questions that really have no single answer, like “What tow vehicle should I buy?”, “What’s the best length of Airstream?”, “Where are the best places to go?” or “What budget should I have for full-timing?”

Lately these questions have been increasing in frequency, probably because the rate of people entering the Airstream community has taken a sudden jump this year.  Lots of Baby Boomers are buying Airstreams (half of them buying Airstream as the first RV of any type they’ve owned, according to Airstream) and indulging life-long desires to get lost in America.

When I get these queries I try to give some sort of answer, but all too often the best answer is “it depends on you.”  With all the complexities of switching from a stationary home to a traveling home, it’s understandable that people wish a few things would just be easy, with pat answers and well-established procedures, but experienced has shown me that “One Size Fits All” advice (OSFA) is usually not the best.

Really the only good way to give an answer that makes sense is to start by asking questions.  To know what works for you, you first need to know something about yourself.  What’s your travel style: fast, slow, long stays, short stays?  What do you like to do: visiting friends, getting away from civilization, glamping, outdoor activities?  All of this plays into the answers to the commonly asked questions.

Camping Style illo by Brenda MintonTo help with this problem, we are running an article in the upcoming (Fall 2013) issue of Airstream Life entitled “So, What’s Your Camping Style?”  In it, author Renee Ettline lists a few personality traits that have a big affect on Airstreaming, and asks you to rate yourself (and your traveling partner) on a scale.  It might seem like a silly exercise but really it’s an essential first step to knowing what will work for you—and what won’t.

The problem is that it’s hard to know your camping style when you have never owned an RV before.  I know we had absolutely no clue what it was going to be like when we bought our first Airstream.  Even after a year of ownership, our style kept mutating as we learned more about what worked for us.  Our style of travel underwent a big change again when we switched to full-timing.

Well, if you are going into it ab initio, you’ve got to make some choices and hope for the best.  So here’s my best shot at OSFA advice, for people who really are adrift or paralyzed by their options:  talk to your partner, or talk to yourself.  Be honest about what you think you want, and listen to what that means.  A lot can change when you move from a 2,000 square foot home to a 200-square foot home, but your essential nature and your personal needs will probably stay the same.  This is what Renee is trying to show you with her personality questions.

Generically I can suggest a bits of common wisdom that often apply (but not always!)  First, many people get a trailer smaller than they really need or want, because they are attracted to the “cute factor” of small trailers, or because they are fearful that a big trailer will be hard to deal with.  They’re right, smaller is easier, but once you get some experience it becomes less of a factor.  It’s a mistake to go too small because it usually is expensive to trade up to a larger size later.  Bite the bullet and get the Airstream you really want or need.

Personally, I would much rather tow the Argosy 24-footer that we used to have, than the 30-footer we have currently.  The Argosy is lighter, easier to maneuver in cramped spots, and fits in more places.  But when we had the Argosy we discovered a 24-footer just wasn’t practical for our style of traveling at the time:  full-timing with three people and a small business.  So we faced reality and tried the intimidating 30-foot Safari.  Life got a lot easier when we didn’t have to make up the beds every day, and that trailer has served as our full- and part-time home for eight years.

It will be a bittersweet day when Emma is off to college and we downsize to something smaller, because I will be happier wrangling something in the 25-27 foot range but we’ll miss having Emma with us.  (If you want a nice used Airstream Safari 30 Bunkhouse in 2018, give me a call around then and we’ll see if I still feel that way.)

The second piece of advice is that nobody’s budget and nobody’s style matters but your own.  Don’t bother trying to figure out “the cost of full-timing” based on what other people spend.  That’s like trying to figure out the cost of having a house based on what other people spend.  We’re all different.  I am pretty sure Matthew McConaughey spends more on his Airstream travel than we do, and there are many people who spend less, but neither has any bearing on what we spend.  Everyone has their own special conditions and values that determine the cost of full-time travel.  Do you have fixed itinerary points?  Medical issues?  Personal obligations that will affect your schedule?  Do you cook, or eat out?  What sort of campsites do you prefer?  What’s the condition of your tow vehicle and trailer?  Do you do your own maintenance?  Do you have friends who will courtesy park you at their homes?  How much Internet access do you need? Will you be traveling internationally?  Etc.

The third thing you should know is that most people don’t understand towing dynamics and hitches at all, even though they can readily regurgitate plenty of platitudes they read on the Internet from “experts”.  You’ll hear all sorts of advice about tires, receiver hitches, trailer hitches, weight distribution, and tow vehicles, and I can tell you with great confidence that most of what you will be told is either utter nonsense or badly twisted fact.  It’s a real shame that the industry finds itself in this position, because it shouldn’t be such a problem, but almost nobody in the RV’ing industry (and this includes the manufacturers of RVs as well as the manufacturers of hitches, cars, trucks, and tires) is willing to stick their neck out to give up-to-date advice.  Here’s a place where we could use an industry standard, but it is an unavoidable fact that there are too many possible combinations out there to allow that.  Also, there’s a certain amount of potential liability involved, and being a lawsuit-happy country makes manufacturers highly concerned with avoiding litigation.

Don’t write to me asking for hitching advice either—I’m just as concerned about liability as the next guy.  I’ll talk about what I use (as I have in this blog many times) and I’ll tell you a few things not to do, but I won’t tell you what gear to buy because it only takes one stupid lawsuit to ruin my day.  The industry standard has been to give out OSFA in vast quantities, sometimes repeated from brochures first written up in the 1960s before we had independent air suspensions, no-sway hitches, integrated computerized brake controllers, assembly-line (rather than custom-built) receiver hitches, and 3/4-ton trucks capable of towing a 10,000-lb trailer up an 8% grade at 65 MPH.  There is no up-to-date “best practices” document in North America for modern trailer hitching—only OSFA advice designed to limit liability … which puts the onus on you to interpret the advice for your situation and figure out what works.

Go forth and be prolific in your reading.  Our long-running series about towing by Andy Thomson is a good place to start.  If you aren’t the type to do that, then you’ll probably go with the most common approach: buy a bigger truck than you really need, buy any decent hitch & follow the manufacturer’s instructions to set it up, and tow at reasonable speeds. You’ll be OK.  This will get you on the road and hopefully you’ll continue to pick up knowledge as you go so you can optimize your rig.

Finally, avoid a few traps that can cause your Airstream dream to become a nightmare.  Get your financials in order—I’ve met a few Airstreamers who left home with a burden of debt that ultimately collapsed their travel plans.  Similarly, don’t hit the road to escape your problems.  They’ll follow you.  Start with as clean a slate as you can, including clearing out the house and getting rid of “stuff” that is psychically weighing you down.  Head out with the Airstream in good shape, if you have a used one.

Divers have a saying, “Plan the dive, dive the plan.”  But it’s different for Airstreaming.  I recommend you make a plan for every trip, and plan to change it as you go.  You’ll enjoy Airstreaming a lot more if you allow yourself some flexibility to blow with the wind.  There’s no single answer to most of the questions, no magical list of “best” destinations that work for everyone.  That’s why I like reading blogs of Airstream friends who are traveling.  They have completely different perspectives, different destinations, and have unique experiences even at places we’ve gone. They inspire fresh thinking.

So many of the questions are impossible to answer.  But if they all had OSFA answers, I think our lifestyle would be much less interesting.  It is the fact that my journey will not be your journey, that makes it worth doing.  In other words, grasshopper, do not request answers to questions you should answer yourself.

About the Author

Editor & Publisher of Airstream Life magazine