Six tapes for your tool bag

I’d like to be able to say that once you get your new Airstream you don’t have to worry about anything going wrong with it for years, but that’s not the reality of RV ownership—no matter what brand you buy. Bouncing down the road inevitably takes a toll, specifically in the form of leaky plumbing fittings, loose screws, and broken rivets. The wise Airstreamer travels with a basic kit of tools to deal with those little on-the-road problems.

A perfect example came up a couple of weeks ago when we towed our 2020 Airstream Globetrotter 300 miles out to the quiet desert town of Borrego Springs, CA. After seven hours of driving all I wanted to do was go for a nice walk through the state park campground, but a mysterious puddle of water on the floor changed my priorities. I traced it back to the Airstream’s water pump, where a plastic screwed-on fitting was spitting water.

Tightening the fitting didn’t stop the leak, and it leaked badly even when the pump was off, so I had these options:

  1. Camp for 4 nights without water
  2. Hitch up and tow 60 miles to the nearest RV technician
  3. Fix it myself

Ten minutes later, the problem was solved, thanks to just one indispensable item: Teflon (plumber’s) tape. A few wraps of that stuff on the threads of the fitting and the leak was gone—and our camping trip was saved.

Tape is amazing stuff. There’s a tape for all kinds of problems, and it’s incredibly easy to use. Having a variety of specialized tapes has gotten me out of dozens of jams while traveling. Here are the six types of tape that I always have in my Airstream tool kit:

  • Teflon
  • masking
  • double-stick molding
  • electrical
  • silicone
  • butyl

Let’s go over all six types and see where they’re useful in an Airstream.

Teflon tape (AKA plumber’s tape)

As I mentioned, Teflon tape is great for sealing leaking threads on plumbing. If you get a type that is also rated for gas use, you can use it on propane “pipe thread” fittings too, but keep in mind that most of the propane fittings on an Airstream are flare or compression fittings that shouldn’t get tape. I use it routinely on all threaded water fittings, especially the drain plug for the water heater. This is the tape I use the most overall.

We include Teflon tape that is rated for gas and water in our Maintenance Essentials Kit, and our Propane Maintenance Kit, so if you have either of those, you’ve got a roll already.

Masking tape

I don’t use masking tape a lot in the Airstream, but when I have to replace a pop rivet inside the Airstream, masking tape is ideal for protecting the surrounding metal surface. You can see an example in this short video. Sometimes the rivet tool “bounces” and can scratch the aluminum. A few layers of masking tape prevents that.

Double-stick molding tape

This stuff is surprisingly handy. The 3M “VHB” (Very High Bond) version is great for hanging pictures on smooth walls, and making other attachments where you don’t want to drill a hole. I’ve even used an automotive version of this to secure wires on the Airstream’s roof, and it held up through all kinds of weather and the relentless Arizona sun for years.

The best part of this tape is that it can be easily removed, even years later, without damage and without leaving a gluey residue.

Because this tape stretches rather than tearing, you’ll need some good heavy-duty scissors to cut it.

Electrical tape

If you get into little repairs of the Airstream’s 12 volt electrical wiring, you’ll want some electrical tape. But not everyone needs this. When I’m working on electrical stuff I tend to use splices and other (more permanent) connections so the electrical tape gets used very little. I think I’m still using up a roll that I bought in 2010.

Silicone tape

This is one that most people have never heard of, and I’ll admit that it’s only rarely needed in an Airstream. But when you need it, there’s nothing like it.

Silicone tape isn’t adhesive. It has the fascinating property that it sticks only to itself and only when you stretch it. This makes it perfect for wrapping around things to secure them like a custom-made rubber band. You just wrap it tight around the object you want to secure, and the silicone instantly fuses to itself. And it’s waterproof, which makes it a perfect (temporary) seal for leaking pipes.

Two months ago on a trip through New Mexico I noticed that two of the acorn nuts that secure a rockguard on the front of the Airstream had worked loose and fallen off. The rockguard was flapping in the breeze and threatening to come completely loose while towing. We pulled off the road but I didn’t have replacement acorn nuts available, and we were (of course) in the middle of nowhere. What to do?

Enter silicone tape. I wrapped the exposed threaded rods with a few layers of tightly-stretched silicone tape, essentially fashioning temporary acorn nuts made of silicone.This held long enough to get to Silver City and stop at the hardware store for new acorn nuts. (I also put blue Loc-Tite on the threads and bought two extra nuts for my tool kit, just in case.)

Like the double-stick tape above, you’ll need scissors to cut lengths of silicone tape. Cutting is also the only way it can be removed. Since it has no adhesive it always comes off perfectly cleanly.

Butyl tape

This stuff is the secret weapon of many an RV tech. It’s a putty that comes in a roll, so it can be stretched, trimmed, and formed into any shape you need. Use it to fill gaps around the underbelly (to restrict rodents from entering), plug holes, stop rainwater leaks at the windows, seal cracked glass, or use it as a replacement for glue.

It sticks to almost everything, stays gooey for a long time and makes a long-lasting seal against air and water. Think of it as a substitute for chewing gum.

Last week I found a new use for my roll of butyl tape. Two screws that hold an overhead cabinet hinge stripped out during a recent trip, and the cabinet door was hanging at an odd angle. The screw holes were so enlarged that I had to do the old matchstick trick to make the holes useable again. But the holes were in the upper part of the cabinet, facing down, so the matchsticks kept falling out.

Butyl tape was the perfect solution. I tore off a small piece and smeared the putty/tape around the matchsticks. This made them sticky enough to stay in place. After that, the fix was easy.

The one tape I don’t carry

Did you notice the tape I didn’t mention? Duct tape. Lots of people think duct tape is wonderful stuff, but I hate it. It leaves a gross sticky residue on things, it stretches when I don’t want it to, it’s not very strong, not waterproof, and not resistant to UV. If you carry the other tapes listed here, you won’t need duct tape.

And, if you have all six of these tapes and scissors in your Airstream tool kit, you will find there are a lot of repairs you can do even if you don’t think of yourself as being particularly handy. One of these tapes will probably save your camping trip someday, just like they did for us in the California desert.

Comments

  1. Pat says

    I use duct tape to keep my sliding overhead cabinet doors from opening during travel. I put one piece right in the middle of the cabinet where the two doors overlap. Which one of your tapes would you use instead?

    • RichLuhr says

      Good question. If you are using the duct tape to stick the two doors together, then removing it after towing, you’re probably getting some adhesive residue. In that case I’d choose an inexpensive tape that comes off cleanly, so masking tape seems like a better choice.

      If you are leaving the duct tape in place as a way to slightly increase the friction of the door slides, I’d try smearing a *tiny* bit of butyl tape in a hidden spot in the gutter. That would make the door stick just a little bit, which might be enough to keep it from working open in transit.

  2. TERRY says

    Nice informative post. I’ll add silicone tape to my bag. In addition, I carry gaffer tape for some emergencies.

  3. Dr. VR Brick Saunderson says

    You may hate “DUCT TAPE” but it does have it’s uses. I too carry all the tape you mentioned + Duct Tape because if you need to do any quick temp repair on your furnace ducting you will find “masking tape” won’t cut it. How do I know – experience. There is also different types of duct tape. We carry a fabric base type which also works for repairs to tarps and table shelter. Again – how do I know – experience. Otherwise a good blog post….

  4. Pete Woodhead says

    Thanks Rich, Good information and well presented. I’ll add silicone tape to my tool box.

  5. Thomas says

    Nice information. I will be adding these tapes I don’t already have and getting rid of the duct tape.

  6. BariBC says

    Gapher’s tape is extremely important to me. I use it constantly. It doesn’t stick to surfaces so no residue on walls or paint removed. When I drive down the road there are several doors/drawers that like to pop open (one time a drawer flew out and smashed to pieces) and I secure them with gapher’s tape. I’ve been working in the broadcast industry for almost 20 years and that tape is gold.

    • RichLuhr says

      Good tip! I haven’t used gaffer tape yet but will definitely check it out to see where it helps in an Airstream.

  7. Steve Jones says

    Great and helpful article Rich! I concur about duct tape. Messy stuff. I’ve got some but I think I’ll replace it with the tapes on your list here that I don’t have. I’ve PDF’d your article and saved it for future reference.

  8. says

    I had never heard of Silicone tape, but I will look for it. I will always carry duct tape. It saved us one time when we were boondocking and caught the bumper and torn it off one side. I was able to duct tape the bumper and it got us home.
    That episode did lead us to create a camping motto: “If one says ‘No’, we do not Go!”

    • RichLuhr says

      I can see how duct tape helped you in that situation! Good “MacGyver” technique there! 😉

  9. says

    Thanks, Rich! May I have permission to post a reprint of this in our Carolinas Airstream Club newsletter? Subtly promoting your great magazine too 😉

    Marcia
    Newsletter editor

    • RichLuhr says

      Sure, anyone can reprint this blog post with attribution: Reprinted with permission from “How To Airstream”, howto.airstreamlife.com

  10. Dale Yocum says

    +1 on Gaffers tape as a Duct tape alternative. It’s much more expensive than cheap Duct Tape for a reason. It was designed for the film industry where temporary attachment of thing-1 to thing-2 is a way of life. It’s stronger than Duct tape, removes cleanly, can be torn by hand, comes in multiple colors, can be ripped horizontally or lengthwise.

  11. Suzy Price says

    My personal all-purpose tape is 3M stucco tape. 2″ wide, weather resistant, sticks well and doesn’t leave a residue. Available at Home Depot. We carry all your others too. I never stopped to count how many that is!

  12. Scott Peters says

    Thanks much for the article and recommendations. Wondering if for space consideration if this list of six could be reduced to three? Gorilla All Weather tape, masking Tape and Teflon. Thinking about leaking areas visible I might consider Flex Seal product. Thoughts on this grouping?

    • RichLuhr says

      It’s really a matter of what you think you might be repairing on the road. In 16 years of owning my Safari 30 I had only one exterior leak, but I had numerous leaks at plumbing fittings and made many small electrical repairs. So Teflon tape and electrical tape were useful to me, and I don’t think I ever would have used Flex Seal.

      After having been saved a few times by silicone tape, and having found many uses for double-stick molding tape, I wouldn’t travel without those.

      Given that even 6 rolls of tape fit easily into a pocket of my tool bag, space isn’t really a consideration for me. I don’t carry every possible tool but it’s easy to carry a variety of useful tapes.

  13. Carlos says

    Thank you Rich for the tape recommendations. Will be adding new tapes to my supply tote.

    Regarding the article on the plumbing leak, I also experienced a similar problem on my 2018, 26RB. In the process of correcting the leak by using Teflon tape, I found out that each plastic connector has a cone shaped washer that sits inside the connector. The washer is compressed when water lines are tightened together. They fail because the system is under pressure and possible road vibration. RV supply companies categorize them as “santoprene plastic cone shaped washers”. I replaced about 6 of them in the AS plumbing fittings.

    • RichLuhr says

      Interesting that you’ve had to replace so many washers. I’ve never had one fail.

      The Teflon (plumber’s) tape, as you know, is useful to resolve leaks around the threads, but it probably won’t help if the washer is bad, so checking the washer condition is a good tip for anyone who has a problem with recurrent leaking at plastic fittings.

  14. Carlos says

    To clarify, I decided to replace the 6 washers that I could access as a preventative measure. Two were actually questionable where leaks had previouly occurred.