The 1-minute Roadside Airstream Inspection

Last weekend we were happily towing our Airstream through the Tohono O’odham Nation in southern Arizona. We stopped for fuel and I did my usual quick inspection of the Airstream while I waited for the fuel to pump. It occurred to me that I’ve done that exact inspection hundreds of times—and it has saved me from disaster more than once.

Good habits are like that; you just do them automatically and painlessly, and eventually they pay off. There’s no cost to a quick look-over of the Airstream and truck and it only takes a moment. For that small investment you might catch something that could really cost you later, like a blown tire or a dragging belly pan. Why doesn’t everyone do it?

I describe this procedure in my book “The (Nearly) Complete Guide to Airstream Maintenance” on pages 27-28. If you’ve got a copy, maybe take a moment to re-read that section and commit to yourself that from now on you’ll always take a minute whenever you stop, to check on things that might need attention.

You should also teach your co-pilot about things to look for. I took a moment to talk to Tothie about it, and walked her though my process. Now we’ve got four eyes on the job.

We shot a quick video about the process. Check it out below!

Sleeping around (in an Airstream)

In the Spring 2021 issue of Airstream Life (which will hit mailboxes in February), we have an article about “Uncamping,” meaning unconventional camping opportunities through Harvest Hosts and Hipcamp. It’s a good article with lots of inspiring ideas, and beautiful places … but there’s a piece of the story we didn’t tell in print.

The secret, mildly salacious truth about Airstreamers is that a lot of them spend their nights in places that aren’t really campgrounds. In fact, many of the places some Airstreamers like to camp aren’t—strictly speaking—entirely legal or formally approved by the locality. Like skiing off-piste, it’s in this gray area between approved campsites and trespassing that we often find the most unique, challenging, and memorable experiences.

I joke sometimes that Airstreamers are the people who spend $100,000 on a travel trailer and then look for free places to camp. There’s a bit of truth in that. Driving by the local Bureau of Land Management area just south of Tucson I usually will spot a newer Airstream or two dry-camped on a scrap of desert. You’d think that they would prefer a more civilized location than this dusty unremarkable spot by the highway, and perhaps more respectable neighbors than the rag-tag mix of old RVs that tend to form the majority. But there they are—and if you ask them, they’ll always say they love it.

My friends Mike and Tracy camped on BLM land in Quartzsite AZ, 2008.

It’s perfectly legal to camp on BLM land, where approved, and in fact the bulk of the famous Quartzsite AZ gathering each winter is held on a massive BLM “Long Term Visitor Area”(LTVA). Tens of thousands of people do it every year in BLM sites around the west, and it can be a remarkable boondocking experience. It’s attractive not because it’s free or cheap—despite my poking fun at people for doing it—but because you get an entirely different experience that can be a relief after too many cookie-cutter, overly rulebound campgrounds.

When you camp in a place that isn’t a campground, you get to design your own experience. If you want to get far away from others, you can find a place like that, especially out west. If you want the convenience of resting without the hassle of checking into a campground late at night, and perhaps a rotisserie chicken for dinner, you can park in a Super Wal-Mart (usually). Staying in a campground is not always the best option.

Camped on the Skyway Pier with friends, 2005

One of my favorite “uncamping” spots was the Skyway Fishing Pier State Park in Florida just north of Bradenton. A decade ago you could pull on to this long pier (which was once a causeway bridge) and spend a night two miles offshore and about 30 feet above the Gulf of Mexico. It wasn’t the quietest spot due to traffic all night on the nearby Sunshine Skyway Bridge, but it was magical anyway, with the the bridge all lit up to the east and huge rays swimming in the water below. Alas, these days it is no longer possible to pull a trailer onto the pier.

Several times I’ve spent the night at a truck stop out of sheer necessity, but it’s not an experience I care to repeat. They’re noisy with trucks coming and going all night. But I do remember a night in Wyoming where I camped between two abandoned tractor-trailers behind a dilapidated gas station very peacefully, and several times I’ve camped in the parking lots of restaurants that allowed it. Stops like this are always about convenience, no pretense at romance or charm.

Driveway camping in San Diego

Driveway camping is a lot nicer. You usually get a few amenities and it’s almost always quiet. I’ve spent nights in driveways from Maine to California. Every time has been unique and fun. All you need to do is find a friend or online acquaintance who is willing to lend you a space—but read my tips before you go!

Thornhill-Broome in Point Mugu State Park, California

Beach camping is another favorite of mine. There are campgrounds in California, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Oregon, etc. that will put you facing a beach, but if you really want to take a chance and have the surf lapping at your wheels, check out Padre Island in Texas. You can really get away from it all when you’re five miles down a roadless beach. Just be sure you don’t misjudge high tide and end up floating away from it all. Another spot that was once good (and might still be) is Oceano Dunes State Recreation Area in California.

Oceano Dunes, near Pismo Beach CA, 2007.

Casino camping is a big deal for some folks. If you haven’t done it, it’s much like camping at a truck stop … with slots. I have taken advantage of conveniently located casinos on a few roadtrips but since I’m not into the casino action my interest tends to be mostly about getting a cheap dinner. If this might be for you, check out Casino Camper.

Boondocked near Spencer Hot Springs, Nevada

Too urban for you? Maybe you’d like a quiet night in the middle of nowhere (well, Nevada) near a hot spring? Spencer Hot Spring is one of the hard-to-find spots where the hardy can camp. I haven’t been there since 2005 so I can’t offer a current report, but you can read my blog from way back then:

We are parked on a slight hill so that we can see clearly that there is hardly any sign of civilization for miles around. About 300 feet from our spot are three pools fed by a natural hot spring which bubbles from the earth at about 110 degrees. In other words, it’s perfect.

I think you get the point. A little creative thinking and sleuthing will lead you to some unexpected and fascinating places to spend the night. With campgrounds getting crowded, perhaps it’s time to break out a little bit. All you need are boondocking skills (just sufficient for one night) and some chutzpah.

How do you know where to go?

Wally Byam saw the problem first. While talking to a customer in early 1951, Wally realized some Airstream owners weren’t getting as much use from their Airstreams as they could. The problem was that they didn’t really know where to go, and wanted someone to lead the way.

Wally suggested a short trip down Baja California to Ensenada. He and his customer enjoyed that jaunt so much they talked about a more ambitious trip to Mexico City, each taking some more friends. That led to Wally organizing “The First Annual Inter-American Caravan Tour,” which ended up with 63 trailers (even though the caravan was supposed to be limited to 50). In turn that led to even bigger caravans into Central America and Canada, and eventually the formation of the Wally Byam Caravan Club and caravans around the world.

These days we have a similar problem. With the pandemic causing a lot of state and commercial campgrounds to shut down or have tight restrictions, and Airstream Club rallies and caravans mostly cancelled, it might seem like there’s nowhere to go. Atop that, there’s the social pressure from friends and family who might be freaked out at the idea of you traveling across the states in a time when people have been told to limit “unnecessary travel.”

Even in the best of times I’ve often been asked by new Airstream owners, “How do you know where to go?” It might sound like a silly question in the context of vast and diverse North America, but I get it. We have the blessing of a land filled with opportunities and sometimes the choices can be overwhelming.

Some people choose to simply “chase 70 degrees,” meaning they go where the weather is good and find things to do when they get there. That’s a great strategy if you are a full-time Airstreamer (perhaps a mobile worker or retiree), or have lots of time to travel.

Others go with their interests, chasing birding hotspots, playing premiere golf courses, riding famous trails, exploring history, or volunteering, for just a few examples. When you start to look at the travel opportunities in that light, you’ll see there are an abundance of possibilities.

My favorite tools for trip-planning include:

  1. Paper maps. Call me old-fashioned, but I think there’s an inspiration (and education) that you can only get from browsing a big map. Spread it out on the dining room table, or open one of those really big road Rand-McNally atlases or Delorme Gazetteers, and have a conversation about the green patches that indicate state and national parks, the attractions that are flagged, and the roads less traveled.
  2. NPS.gov—the national park service’s official website. There are over 400 national park sites in the US and most of them are reachable by road. They exemplify and protect the very best of America’s history, culture, geography, and beauty.
  3. RV-specific websites like Campendium. Once you’ve zoomed in on an area, sites like this one are extremely useful to choose your campground. You’ll find reviews by other travelers, pricing, details about cellular reception, and much more.
A bit of snow in Yellowstone National Park in early October

Perhaps the real trick these days is to know where you shouldn’t go. Mostly I look at the weather, especially in the Rocky Mountain region and the Central Plains states. In the summer, I’m looking for indications of weather fronts that might spawn big thunderstorms, hail, and tornadoes. Traveling across the Plains in May, as I often do, I check the weather at least twice a day to make sure nothing is brewing that might force a course change. Once the thunderstorm arrives, it’s too late.

In the other three seasons, I’m looking for the possibility of snow or hard freezes, especially in mountain passes and other high-altitude spots. Altitude is really the key factor. More than once I’ve run into sudden snowstorms in Colorado, after a blissful day of towing in sunshine and 70 degrees. Places like Crater Lake National Park (Oregon) and Lassen Volcanic National Park (California) are so high up that they are only accessible for a few months each summer.

With the pandemic still raging, my list of “where not to go” includes states that are suffering big spikes and/or have restrictions on travel or camping. Of course, this has been a very fluid situation over the past few months. At this writing, the big one to avoid is California, since even in less-affected counties there are significant restrictions and “stay at home” recommendations. A few months ago it was New Mexico, where we found campground owners locked us out of the showers because visitors were under a mandatory 14 day quarantine order.

Our site at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

For sure, Tothie and I have no interest in camping in urban areas right now. We’ll get back to that once things calm down, but for now there are many great opportunities in small towns and out-of-the-way places. No need to risk crowds; Our visits lately have been to places like Silver City NM, Prescott AZ, Borrego Springs CA, Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, and Patagonia AZ.

Being aware of local circumstances is crucial. For example, next month we’re planning a trip to Rocky Point (Puerto Peñasco), in Sonora, Mexico. It’s a great spot for a quiet beachfront weekend, but not during Spring Break when the students are rip-roaring through town waving bottles of tequila and barfing on the campsites. (I’m not exaggerating, this is what I experienced a few years ago when I wasn’t quite diligent enough). A quick lookup of the major university schedules in 2021 reveals that Spring Break is cancelled, so no worries there.

We do have quite a big trip planned for this summer, predicated on the assumption that the pandemic will be more under control than it is at present, and we’ve had the opportunity to get vaccinated. The trip will start in June and cross the country, ending sometime after Alumapalooza in September. Our trip is based mostly on big rallies that we want to attend, with our course influenced by friends that we want to visit along the way and other side trips.

It will hardly be a straight line (more of a giant letter “N” across the USA) because the point is not to fly from west to east as quickly as possible, but rather to have a full and satisfying summer of travel adventure. If it doesn’t work out as planned, due to circumstances out of our control, that’ll be fine too. No matter what changes might be thrown at us, there will always be a lot of places to go. We’ll do what Wally wanted: get as much out of our Airstream this summer as we can.

Best National Parks for winter Airstreaming

Let me take a stab at guessing your current situation: You have been trapped indoors for far too long this winter, and you’ve listened to “Baby, it’s cold outside” far too many times on your Christmas-themed music streaming channel, and you’ve gone beyond “Covid fatigue” to something closer to Jack Nicholson in “The Shining”.

It’s time to warm up your brain and your toes simultaneously, somewhere outdoors where the sun shines regularly and snow is a concept practiced by distant people who actually like long underwear.

Fortunately, you have an Airstream so you don’t have to climb into an aluminum tube with 150 other people to go somewhere—you can hang out in your personal aluminum tube with just the trusted members of your personal Covid bubble.

If you have read any of my blogs in the past, attended one of my rally lectures, subscribed to Airstream Life magazine, or bought my book “Explore” you know that I’m a huge admirer of America’s National Parks. So where do I go where I want to get far away, warm, and outdoors? Here are my top 6 national park picks from east to west:

Florida: Everglades National Park. You can find reliably warm weather just about anywhere below Interstate 4 in Florida, so that’s not the challenge. But there’s nothing quite like the Everglades for a unique camping and exploration experience.

The wildlife is absolutely incredible, especially the birds that seem to pose for photos everywhere—and the alligators.

Take an airboat tour or a Ranger-led hike to see beyond the campground. The Everglades are a place full of hidden mystery that can only be understood when you step off the rare spots of dry land and out into the trackless river of grass.

Florida: Gulf Islands National Seashore. Much of Florida’s panhandle is beach and there are quite a few great state parks visiting that give you access to the seashore. The big daddy of peaceful beach life, in my opinion, is the Gulf Islands National Seashore, a reserved portion of pristine barrier island near Pensacola. (There’s also a section offshore south of Biloxi MS, reachable by ferry from Gulfport.) You won’t find casinos and condos lining the beach there—but you will find a lot of sea oats and wide open beaches that invite long aimless walks.

Two campgrounds accommodate RVs in the Florida section. Check ahead on nps.gov for current conditions, as hurricanes often alter the barrier islands and cause limitations in camping or access.

Texas: Padre Island National Seashore. Want the beach with an extra helping of solitude? Padre Island may be for you. It’s known for being “The Longest Stretch of Undeveloped Barrier Island in the World”. If you’re brave and prepared, you can camp anywhere on the first 5 miles of South Beach, right on the sand next to the waves. If you’re more cautious, there are two campgrounds close to the water. Check the details here. In either case, Padre Island is reliably warm, windy, and feels like the edge of the world.

Texas: Big Bend National Park. Like ’em big and complex? Big Bend has it all: three distinct ecosystems (river, desert, mountain), natural history (think geology like fossils and hot springs), human history (ancient native people, miners, settlers), and wildlife ranging from bear to javelina.

Big Bend is so big that it can easily be over an hour’s drive from one end of the park to another. Cell phones rarely work, so you’ll get plenty of time out of touch with the world. And it’s definitely not on the beaten path: even once you get to west Texas it’s long drive south from I-10 to the entrance of the park. You have to really make an effort to go there, but once you do, you’ll want to visit again.

Arizona: Organ Pipe Cactus National Park. This place is so lightly visited that reservations aren’t needed except during the peak January-March season—and even then the campground is usually not full. You’ll be right next to Mexico and the famous wall construction, so in addition to amazing natural desert beauty, you’ll have the opportunity to learn first-hand about the past and present of border life. (Hint: leave your preconceptions at the state line; things are different from what you read in the headlines.)

Don’t worry, it’s safe. I’m sure fear keeps many visitors away, but so much the better for you; this is a place that’s never crowded.

California: Death Valley National Park. Everyone knows Death Valley, which makes it well-visited, but since it’s such a huge park you won’t find crowds like the other popular western parks such as Yellowstone. You could visit in June when it’s 116 degrees but—call me crazy— I think January through March are great. You’ll need a few days to hit the many highlights, like Devil’s Golf Course, Badwater Basin, Scotty’s Castle, Ubehebe Crater, Zabriskie Point, and others.

Boondocking skills pay off here. The hookup campgrounds fill up quickly, but the more primitive campgrounds are big enough that there’s always space. That means you can drop in on Death Valley on your way from Arizona to California without worrying about advance reservations.

For more on any of these parks, the best and most updated source is always NPS.gov. There you’ll find current closures (particularly important this year due to Covid, border wall construction, and hurricanes), tips, and camping options. If your inner Jack Nicholson is tapping at the door, a virtual stroll through NPS.gov to plan a trip south will probably help you hang on until it’s time to hitch up and go.

7 Great National Parks to Visit in Late Fall

If I had to pick, I’d say that Fall is my favorite season for Airstream travel, no matter where I am in North America. The air is less humid and the mornings are crisp, the leaves are changing, and the summer crowds have gone back to school and work. It’s an ideal time to spot wildlife, explore in the middle of the day without dreadful heat, and cook outdoors.

Those of you in extreme northern or high-altitude areas might find campgrounds closing in mid-October, or but otherwise it’s fun and easy to camp in the late Fall with just a few simple preparations. Here are some of my favorite national park destinations for this season (along with tips to make your experience better):

EASTERN US

Shenandoah National Park in Virginia has the advantage of being beautiful and convenient to large cities on the east coast. Its slightly higher altitude means it gets fall foliage a little earlier than the Shenandoah Valley region, and hiking in the forests can be a sublime experience. On my last trip with Bert Gildart we spotted a bear cub racing down a hillside, historic old cabins, and stood on high rocky precipices with stunning views.

As with most of these destinations, late Fall weather can be changeable, and a heavy fog is just as likely as clear blue skies, so be ready for anything.

For more on this park, see this blog entry.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park is another popular one because of its proximity to population centers and ease of access, but don’t let that dissuade you. In the Fall it’s much less crowded. You can pick how you want to spend your day: exploring historic sites by car or with easy walking, or hiking hundreds of miles of trails that will quickly get you away from civilization.

Like Shenandoah, it’s a mountainous region so the weather is highly variable, and the roads are occasionally winding, but it’s rare to have conditions that would be unsafe for Airstreams in the fall. The park is so large that you’ll never see it all on a single visit, and that makes it a great place to visit year after year.

Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky is great in Fall for the same reasons as the others (less crowding, great foliage) but with a twist: the caves are always the same comfortable temperature year-round. There are many cave tours to check out, most of which involve easy paved walking trails and lighting, but you can also opt for wilder experiences where you’ll need to gear up and slither through tight spots.

If you’re a bit claustrophobic, the park offers mountain biking, hiking, kayaking and other options—well worth exploring while your adventurous companion roams the underground world. In any case, the campgrounds and caves are located in forested areas so if you can time your visit for fall foliage season you’ll have a spectacular experience.

WESTERN US

Out west, it’s not latitude that determines where you can go, it’s altitude. High-altitude parks (above 6,000 feet) are generally off limits by late October due to snow and freezing temperatures. But that still leaves plenty of great options.

Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado is spectacular—and chilly—in late Fall. There are four campgrounds in the park that support boondocking RVs but if you want hookups you’ll probably end up in a commercial campground in nearby Estes Park. But the minor inconveniences are well worth it in the elk mating season, when the male elk gather their harems and “bugle” and occasionally do head-butting battle with other males.

It’s a spectacular wildlife show. Bring a good set of binoculars, a spotting scope, or a long lens for your camera, because you have to observe from a distance. For really great viewing, check out the line of Swarovski optics offered at the Airstream Life Store.

If frosty mornings don’t appeal to you, hit the beach! Padre Island National Seashore in Texas is an under-appreciated resource in the national park service, in my opinion. You can tow your Airstream trailer out on the beach and camp anywhere in a 60 mile stretch (assuming you have 4WD). It’s nearly-unique opportunity to sleep in your Airstream and hear the waves all night long, and the breezy fall weather makes for ideal conditions (no need for air conditioning). If you have a 2WD drive there are still five miles of drivable beach you can camp on—or you can pick from several no-hookup established campgrounds.

Further west there’s always the venerable Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona. In late Fall the north rim is closed due to higher elevation, so aim for the south rim instead. In the summer and early Fall it’s crowded, but if you time your visit carefully you can catch that sweet spot between crowds and freezing temperatures.

Personally, this is the only time of year I’ll go to the Grand Canyon south rim. Otherwise it’s just too crowded for my taste. The Trailer Village campground offers full hookups and there’s a shuttle bus that can take you to major sights along the South Rim so you can leave your tow vehicle behind.

A quieter spot is Guadalupe Mountains National Park in Texas. Primarily it’s known as a hiking park, with plenty of great trails, but it also has a hidden benefit: it’s only 40 miles from Carlsbad Caverns National Park, so you can get a two-fer. Carlsbad doesn’t have any RV camping, and most people end up in the uninspiring White’s City RV Park nearby. That’s not a terrible option (and it’s the only option if you want hookups) but for the intrepid boondocker who prefers great scenery, it’s hard to beat the quiet camping available at Guadalupe, surrounded by a bowl of mountains and directly adjacent to hiking trails.

One final recommendation from me: Know Before You Go! Things change rapidly in national parks, and so to get current information on any national park site (including camping options, closures, and weather) visit NPS.gov.