Hot weather travel tips

Maybe it’s because I’m in Arizona right now and the temperatures are already hitting the nineties every day, but lately I’ve been thinking a lot about summer travel. For the most part it’s fun to plan where we will go and think about the great things we’ll see, but for us, traveling in the summer is a necessity in order to escape the unrelenting southern Arizona heat.

With an Airstream it’s usually easy to get out of the heat—after all, we have wheels—but there are times when it’s inescapable for a few days, like when we are crossing the Great Plains states on our way to Alumapalooza in late May. Many times we’ve been crossing Kansas or Oklahoma or Missouri and we’ve been nearly steamed to death in what the meteorologists call “oppressive humidity.”

So even if you plan to drive away from the heat, you need strategies ready in case the heat follows you. Here are a few of the things we’ve learned over the years:

First off, if you have delicate pets or humans traveling with you, don’t mess around: get a campground with 30-amp or 50-amp power and plug in. This may necessitate a change in plans and you might end up somewhere you don’t want to be, but the blessing of cool air blowing in from the A/C will make it all worthwhile.

I find that a lot people are surprised to discover the limitations of a single air conditioner on a 30-amp plug. If you’ve got a newer Airstream with dual air conditioners (and a 50-amp plug) you can deal with just about any level of heat. But a single A/C definitely has limits. The A/C will generally cool the incoming air by about 20 degrees, but that doesn’t mean your trailer will be 20 degrees cooler if it’s sitting in the sun. In our 30-footer, for example, a sunny 100-degree day means we’ll experience indoor temperatures in the low 80s, at least until the sun goes down.

So it’s useful to park in shaded campsites, preferably not in asphalt parking lots (green surroundings = cooler air), and be realistic in your expectations. If the trailer is over 100 degrees inside when you arrive, it’s going to take a while before the air conditioner can remove all the latent heat that is stored in every object in the interior.

To cope, try to spend the few couple of hours somewhere else (like a restaurant or visitor center) while the air conditioner does its job. Don’t even dream of using the stove or oven—the burners can output much more heat than the air conditioner can remove. If you have a microwave use it instead, or go out for dinner, or cook outside, or eat a cold dinner.

The keys to surviving a night in the heat are water and electricity:

Water, because you need to stay hydrated and a quick cool shower once or twice a day will go a long way toward keeping your body comfortable. In desert boondocking situations you can even soak towels and place them strategically around the trailer for evaporative cooling. We bring a few gallons of extra drinking water when we’re heading into a boondocking site in the summer.

Electricity, because you’ll use a lot more battery power than usual with the vent fans running constantly. A single Fantastic Vent (the kind installed as original equipment in Airstreams including motorhomes) might draw about an amp of power, which isn’t much for short durations. But with two of those fans running around the clock for a weekend, you’re looking at something in the region of 90 amp-hours, which is going to overwhelm the typical 2-battery setup in an Airstream trailer. You’ll need solar panels or a generator, and/or a much larger set of batteries.

 

The Zip Dee awning that came with your Airstream trailer (or the equivalent awning on a Nest, Basecamp, or Interstate) can make a big difference if it’s on the south or west side when you park. Definitely deploy the awning as much as you can to shade that side of the rig.

A Zip Dee Solar Shade is a huge help too, when the sun is beating down on that side of the trailer, especially when the entry door is facing west.  The Solar Shade broadens the shady patch in the afternoon, when it really matters, and gives you a nice outdoor space that you otherwise wouldn’t enjoy on a hot day.

In an Interstate motorhome, you may find that the Mercedes dashboard air conditioning isn’t quite enough when traveling on the highway on a 100+ degree day, especially for any back-seat passengers. Sometimes you need to fire up the onboard generator so that you can run the roof air conditioner as you go. It might seem weird but it’s OK to do this.

When you’re parked, you will probably discover that you don’t need to turn on the water heater. Often the fresh water hose lying in the sun, combined with warm water in the tank, will be plenty warm for showers. But there’s a downside to this: not all water hoses are rated for “hot water” use. Cheap-o hoses made of PVC or other plastics may leach chemicals when laying in the sun all day filled with hot water. That’s why we switched to drinking water hoses that are rated for hot water use.

Keep an eye on your refrigerator as well. Often, RV refrigerators don’t have great ventilation and so heat can build up in the refrigerator compartment (the space behind the refrigerator). When the air temperature around the refrigerator’s cooling fins approaches 100 degrees—which is very common in the enclosed compartment, even when the outside temp is much lower— the result is warm food in the refrigerator.

To combat this, keep the fridge door closed, and if you need to get something be sure to get it quickly. It’s not like your home refrigerator that has a big compressor and can recover its coolness in a few minutes. Each time you open that door it can take hours to recover fully on a hot day.

Also get a wireless temperature monitor so you can check the interior temp without opening the door. You can get two of them and monitor the freezer as well, but I’ll tell you right now that if the fridge starts to climb above 50 degrees, whatever is on the door of the freezer will probably start to defrost. (Pack your ice cream and seafood in the back.) These wireless monitors are available from many sources and they’re not expensive.

If you camp in hot weather a lot, with or without air conditioning, consider having a set of electric fans installed in the chimney of the refrigerator compartment. These things are amazingly effective at moving the hot air out of the fridge compartment to help the refrigerator cool down. We switch our fans on every day that the outside temperature is above 85 degrees. Some Airstreams come with those fans, but most don’t, and I think they’re a must for serious summer travelers. We’re going to work on a kit for the Airstream Life Store later specifically to solve this problem.

Finally, as you travel on hot days you need to be extra aware of the condition of your tires. They are much more susceptible to problems and wear on hot days. When the air is 95 degrees Fahrenheit, the highway surface can easily be 120+, and the air inside the tires will often exceed 140 degrees at highway speeds. That’s brutal on tires and it shortens their life.

This is just one of several reasons I strongly recommend a good tire pressure/temperature monitoring system. Blowouts and other failures are far more likely on hot days, and you want to know right away if something goes wrong before it does additional damage. If you don’t have a tire pressure monitoring system you should make a habit of visually inspecting all the tires at every stop, and checking air pressure frequently.

Watch the voltage!

James H. sent us this excellent question: “The voltage in our current campground is running 107 to 100 volts with my 5 year old Dometic air conditioner running. How low can the voltage go before I risk overheating the compressor?”

Most AC-powered appliances are capable of handling +/- 10% voltage without damage, which means from 108 volts to 132 volts. But, below 108 you’re playing a risky game.

Dometic warns that attempting to start the air conditioner at 103.5 volts or less will result in serious damage to the compressor.

Digital Voltage MeterIn practice, even when the campground voltage is running 108 volts, things can get dicey. That’s because the voltage will fluctuate and could dip much lower when the compressor starts up. One trick you might try is to plug into the 50-amp plug (using an adapter) if the campground power pedestal has both 30- and 50-amp outlets. Sometimes that circuit will have better voltage than the 30-amp one.

Low voltage is a common problem in campgrounds—and that’s why every Airstreamer should have a digital voltage monitor on board.

Airstream AC Interior

 

Top 9 Airstream Accessories

You’ve got a new (or new to you) Airstream—what upgrades should be first on your list? Alumapalooza 7 attendees learned about these favorites from Rich Luhr, author of Airstream Life’s (Nearly) Complete Guide To Airstream Maintenance and Terry Halstead, an ASE certified master mechanic and Airstream factory-trained service tech.

“This is by no means a comprehensive list,” said Luhr. “There’s probably five hundred more things that we could add, and not everything on this list is for everyone. These are just a few great upgrades that you might want think about having, and see if they fit your lifestyle.”

1. A cordless drill

“…so you don’t have to kneel on your hands and knees in the mud to put your stabilizers up and down,” said Halstead. Use it with a Camco 57363 Leveling Scissor Jack Socket, available on Amazon for about $5.

“It’s a really great timesaver.” Luhr agrees. “Whatever brand of drill you choose for this purpose, make sure it’s 18-volt or stronger.”

2. In-line water pressure regulator

In-line water pressure regulator
In-line water pressure regulator

“Airstream trailers come with a built-in pressure regulator, but that does absolutely nothing for the hose,” said Halstead. “This goes on the spigot at the campground to give protection to your hose. I’ve personally been to a couple of campgrounds over the years that have had a horrible amount of pressure. So this little ten dollar device will save your $30 hose.”

[NOTE: If you have our Ultimate Water Hose you won’t need a regulator at all! The Ultimate Water Hose can take up to 360 psi without damage.]

The regulator prevents bursting by reducing what could be 120 psi on the spigot end to about 50 psi on the trailer end— and you won’t further reduce your water pressure inside. “Don’t forget to put this on your checklist so you don’t drive off and leave it at the campsite,” added Halstead.

Another pro tip from Luhr: “Put your water filter on the trailer end of the hose in case the hose itself might be a little bit contaminated.”

3. Range hood LED

Your newer Airstream came with a Baraldi, “the Italian sports car of range hoods,” said Halstead. “They look really great, and they work really great, but they do have one minor thing that could be upgraded”: the lights above the stove are halogen.

Range hood LED
Range hood LED

“Those do two things,” he said: “generate a lot of heat, and use a lot of power.” “Fifteen watts,” added Luhr. “That’s a fair amount for one light when you’re boondocking.” Simply pull out the bulb and replace it with an LED—problem solved. “That will cut your power consumption about 90% off those halogens,” said Halstead. “You can find them in various places online and at RV stores,” said Luhr. “Good LEDs aren’t cheap, and cheap LEDs aren’t worth it. They usually have a very short life. Ten to fifteen bucks is pretty reasonable for a good-quality LED of this type.”

4. Voltage monitor

“These are really simple, and they do a couple of things,” explained Luhr. “Just put it into any outlet in your Airstream when you’re plugged into shore power, and it will tell you the voltage that you’ve got available—which is super important. It’s quite possible that the electrical pedestal at your campsite has a wiring problem, and that can actually be hazardous to your health.”

Voltage Monitor
Voltage Monitor

There’s a reason we need to worry about the voltage coming into our trailers. “We know that it’s supposed to be 120 volts,” Luhr explained. “Rarely is it actually exactly 120 volts; there’s a tolerance. Your appliances are going to be fine plus or minus ten percent.” Drop much below that, though, and you’re at risk of burning out certain appliances—especially your air conditioner.

“Under-voltage is by far more problematic,” said Luhr. “Your air conditioner typically can go down to 105, but when you fire up your air conditioner that big compressor draws more power.” If your voltage meter shows 108 you might be okay, but keep an eye on it as it starts up; if the voltage suddenly drops down near 102 for more than a few seconds, “you’re going to very quickly burn out the motor in your air conditioner and you’ll be facing a big bill, either to fix it or replace the entire unit,” he said.

“You read online sometime, guys who say ‘it’s okay, I run my Airstream off a 15-amp outlet, I do it all the time.’ Well, you can get away with some things, but I don’t recommend playing Russian roulette with your air conditioner, with your plug, with your cord. Watching your voltage is very important, and it doesn’t matter if you’re in a brand-new campground—especially on hot humid days when everybody’s cranking. So this is an item you definitely should have.” On a summer day, leave the meter plugged in and periodically glance at the voltage readout to make sure it doesn’t get below a safe level. The AC compressor could be cycling on and off, and each time it will draw extra power.

5. A rivet tool

“A rivet tool is a surprisingly easy thing to learn how to use,” assures Luhr. “Basically you just stick a rivet in, hold it tight, pop the handle of the tool a few times, and the stem of the rivet breaks off when you’re done. It’s so simple. It’s easier than a screwdriver, honestly.” Halstead said, “That’s actually an advantage of owning an Airstream trailer. The rivets are extremely easy to install.”

Rivet tool
Rivet tool

Do you really need to travel with a rivet tool? Luhr says yes, and here’s why. “Someday there will be a corrosion problem where the aluminum and steel frame meet on your belly pan, and it will rot out around the rivets and fall down and drag on the highway,” he said. “If you don’t have a rivet tool, that’s a major problem. If you have a rivet tool and some aluminum pop rivets it’s only a five-minute problem that you can fix yourself, right there by the side of the road.”

A rivet tool is handy for replacing popped interior rivets as well, and can save you a lot of money. “Missing one or two inside rivets is not a serious problem; it’s actually perfectly normal,” said Luhr (“especially after traveling over rough road,” agreed Halstead). With your handy rivet kit you can solve the issue yourself, no trip to the service bay necessary.

“It’s a no-brainer,” said Luhr. “There are 5000 rivets in the average Airstream. You should probably be able to replace one of them.”

6. A tire changing kit

…is another item Luhr feels strongly about. “Your Airstream did not come with any tools to change a tire. This is baffling to me. They give you a spare tire, but no way to put it on.” Luhr believes that a AAA membership is not a good substitute for knowing how to change a flat.

“Everybody should know how to change their own tires, even if they don’t plan to do it,” he said. “You may be physically unable to, but if you have the knowledge and you have the tools with you, then at least somebody else can change the tire. The alternative is calling for roadside assistance, which might seem to be a great solution, but you’ll be sitting by the side of the road for hours, in a place you often do not want to be,” he said. “Waiting to have someone come to change a tire for you is like hiring somebody to dress you. If you could just do it yourself it would be so much easier.”

“It’s not hard to change a tire,” Luhr said, who offers a tire changing kit in the Airstream Life store. “I sell it because I believe people need it, but if you buy all these items yourself you’ll spend the same amount of money. Just buy the tools.”

The basics are a torque wrench (essential for correctly tightening the lug nuts when you put the wheel back on); a breaker bar (used for removing the wheel); an extension, and a socket.

The complete tire changing kit is also packed with a safety vest for roadside visibility, a pencil gauge to check the air pressure, and a six page instruction manual that explains exactly how to change a tire. “If you read that manual and take the kit out and try it, you’re going know how to do this simple job,” said Luhr. “Then you just throw the kit in the back your trailer and never think about it again until the day you need it.”

If you choose to buy all the parts separately, “make sure you don’t skimp on the torque wrench,” said Luhr. “Cheap torque wrenches are not worth the money.”

“Remember, the torque wrench is for tightening,” added Halstead. “It is meant to be used in one direction, and it will let you know when you’ve reached the proper torque setting, usually with an audible click. If you use it to loosen the lug nuts, you’re going to throw off the calibration and it won’t be accurate after that. Bad things happen when you don’t torque the lug nuts correctly.”

7. MegaHitch lock

“Storage facilities are not safe,” cautioned Luhr. “I hear reports almost every month from people who have lost their Airstreams out of supposedly secure RV storage that had 24-hour management living on site, with video cameras. Just last month some friends of mine found out that someone had broken into their stored trailer and the thousands of dollars worth of their tools inside were all gone. Management didn’t even know—and it turned out that the videocameras were fakes.”

MegaHitch Lock
MegaHitch Lock

Cheap hitch locks provide zero security. “You can see a video on my website where they take about ten different hitch locks and defeat them all anywhere from between five seconds and two minutes,” said Luhr. “If you spend about $40 or $50 on a lock I guarantee a thief could break into that it within thirty seconds.” Thieves can’t break a MegaHitch.

The $200 price tag “is a big expense,” Luhr admits. “And it’s heavy. But it works. If you’re keeping a $70,000 or $100,000 Airstream on a storage lot, $200 is not a lot of extra money. I strongly recommend it.” Halstead added, “Check with your insurance company. If you have proof that your trailer was locked with one of these, in most cases they’ll waive the deductible for theft.”

8. Tire pressure monitor

A flat tire can do lot more damage to your trailer than you might think. “It doesn’t just go flub flub flub and then you come to a stop,” said Luhr. “Often you have no idea that you’ve had a flat because it’s ‘way back there on the trailer as it starts to shred. It rips up your Airstream, destroys the wheel, creates a hazard on the road, and it leaves you with a thousand dollars of damage that could’ve been prevented.” While highly recommended, the TST tire pressure monitoring system is again, not cheap, but it’s the best. “There are many others out there that are frankly garbage,” said Luhr.

Damage from flat tire
Damage from flat tire

9. Portable solar panels

If you’ve noticed the items on this list have been increasing in price, you’re correct—and solar panels are definitely one of the most expensive Airstream upgrades. If you’re considering going solar but don’t want to make too great of an initial investment, portable panels are a good alternative.

Portable solar panels
Portable solar panels

“You can get anywhere from 40 to 200 watts; they fold up into a carrying case, they have their own charger, and they’re easy to use,” said Luhr. “Just plug them in, and they charge your batteries.” Luhr prefers the Go Power brand over Zamp. “They’re a little bit less expensive and the quality is excellent,” he said. “The 120 watt system comes with everything you need, and you can get a 7-way adapter that plugs right into your umbilical cable, no special wiring.”

If your trailer came with a factory-installed solar port that says “Use only Zamp”, the Go Power panels will plug directly in and work with it! Click here for more info on that.