Gearing up to avoid the crowds

If you’re an experienced Airstreamer, you may have already noticed that camping situations have changed—a lot—in the past year. It used to be optional to get reservations at a lot of campgrounds, but in these pandemic days campground availability has become a lot more scarce.

This makes it harder to go out on spontaneous weekend trips, and even trickier to roam the country. I used to just take off on cross-country trips without a single planned stop, and just find camping at the end of a driving day at any convenient place. This summer I expect it will be a different story.

But that’s OK. It just means a little more creativity, skill, and gear will be called for, and I always enjoy a good challenge.

The key is to go where other people aren’t—and that means being flexible about when and where you camp. This includes:

I’ve written about all of those topics, so you can click the links if you want more information on any of them. In this blog, I want to talk about how you can prepare to be a flexible Airstreamer, ready to spend the night anywhere.

Airstreams come out of the factory ready for an overnight or two, with full self-containment features built-in. That means you’ve got the ability to carry all the essentials, namely a fridge full of food, fresh water in the holding tank, two cylinders of propane, and a boxful of electrons. You should always leave home loaded up and ready (and don’t skimp on the water because some campfire expert told you you’d save on gas if you emptied the water tank—it’s not true). This way you can be ready for anything the road might throw at you, such as a breakdown, unexpected delay, or an inexplicable spontaneous desire to sleep at a Wal-Mart.

Although Airstream gave you the basics, there’s a lot you can do to improve your boondocking capabilities, and there’s definitely some gear you should consider carrying. Here’s my top tips on ways to prepare for a few nights of complete independence from campgrounds, the power grid, and campground reservations.

1. Learn to conserve

The key to successful boondocking is stretching your on-board resources as far as possible. You can use less propane and electricity by having a few warm blankets on the bed at night. You can cut electrical use by using a phone or tablet instead of a laptop. Learning how to shower efficiently saves a tremendous amount of water. The strategies available are nearly endless. It just takes a willingness to learn a few techniques and perhaps invest in a bit of gear.


2. Increase capacities

Do you really need to use your laptop for hours? Does it take a lot of water to rinse the shampoo out of your hair? Well, you can always find ways to add more capacity. Usually in an Airstream it’s a matter of installing bigger battery banks (a custom job best done at an RV or solar specialty shop). For water, it’s a simple matter to buy a couple of 5 gallon jerry cans made for fresh water, and keep those in the truck bed.


3. Have a long reach

If you’ve been forced away from hookups for a while and then see the opportunity to dump tanks, plug into power, or put some fresh water in your tank, you don’t want to get skunked just because they’re out of reach. Carry extensions for everything: water hose, power cord, sewer.

I recommend having at least 100 feet of electric cord, 20 feet of sewer hose, and 50 feet of water hose. This is one of the reasons I love the Ultimate Water Hose—I can carry a lot of hose without a lot of weight and it fits in a small space.

I’d also recommend getting one of those replacement sewer caps that has a garden hose fitting built onto it. You can bring a garden hose that you use only for this purpose and this will allow you to dump gray water (never black water) in approved areas.


4. Have the apps

When you need propane, a sewer dump, or a place to spend a night whenever everything is booked, apps like Campendium, and AllStays Camp & RV are lifesavers. Put them on your phone or tablet and practice using them in advance. When you’re on the road and freaking out (a little) about finding a place to stay, it’s great to just flip through the apps and find a solution in a few minutes.


5. Get at least a little solar capacity

Often in an impromptu camping situation like a casino parking lot or a Wal-Mart, you can’t run a generator. It’s the kind of behavior that gives RVers a bad reputation, and might get you kicked out. This is one of the many reasons that solar panels are so useful for serious travelers.

Even a smallish set of solar panels can be lifesavers. Flat batteries just plain suck. When the voltage drops too much, you’ll lose everything—even things that run on propane like the refrigerator, furnace, and water heater. It’s nice to have a backup.




6. Go analog

Anyone over the age of 40 remembers that the world was once primarily analog, and we had plenty of fun even back in those Stone Ages. Digital gear is great but it all takes power and too much of it is connected to the Internet. At the risk of seeming to be a Luddite (which I definitely am not) let me recommend bringing some analog experiences with you.

For example, a paper book. Throw a few books in the Airstream just for “emergency use”. There will be a day when you have to cool your heels for some unexpected reason, and that’s your chance to lay back on the bed and read. Pick something you’ll really enjoy, even if it’s embarrassing like a graphic novel or trashy romance. It’s your Airstream, you get to decide how to entertain yourself.

Or how about binoculars? Whether you’re a birder, leaf peeper, or just a peeper, a nice set of optics can be quite entertaining both day and night.

Board games? Playing cards? Sketchbook? Puzzles? Ukulele? Anything goes!


If you’re comfortable with winging it as needed, you don’t need to fear the crowds. Just get the gear you need, move out of the popular ruts, and you’ll discover a host of new experiences that probably will enhance your love of Airstream travel in the long run. As a bonus, you’ll also make your Airstream more useful if you have to “bug out” in the event of a natural disaster. Your Airstream is made to go almost anywhere and keep you comfortable. Why not take full advantage of it?


The other day I heard about an educational seminar on the topic of solar power for Airstreams and decided to take a look. What I saw horrified me: the presenter turned this simple topic into an engineering class that would intimidate all but the geekiest among us. Imagine densely-packed slides full of numbers and technical terms.

Solar is easy. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. The sun shines, solar panels convert the sunshine into electricity, and that charges the batteries in your Airstream. That’s it.

The rest is stuff that only a few people really need to know. If you enjoy having all the details and talking about amps and volts (like me, I have to admit) by all means have fun learning everything you can, but I think most Airstreamers just want to get more camping time without having to find a plug or carry a generator.

Let me answer a few commonly asked questions:

“What can I run on solar?”

I often hear comments and questions from people who don’t understand exactly what solar panels are doing for them. At the risk of repeating myself: the solar panels charge the batteries. Solar panels don’t do anything else. So you don’t run anything on solar.

The batteries in your Airstream are actually doing the work of powering things when you’re boondocking. In my book “The Newbies Guide to Airstreaming” I have charts that show exactly what the batteries are powering. (In the 4th edition of the book you’ll find that chart on page 20.) Basically, if it runs on 12 volts, the batteries are powering it.

“Can I use the inverter?”

Sure. The inverter really has nothing to do with solar. It uses the battery’s energy to power the electrical outlets in the trailer. In other words, the inverter makes it possible for you to use things that have plugs, like the TV, DVD player and your laptop, when you’re boondocking—at least until the batteries run down.

Keep in mind that devices that plug in generally consume a lot of energy, so you should use them sparingly when you’re using the inverter. (I’ve done a more detailed blog on inverters which you can read here.)

“What size of solar panel system should I get?”

Unless you’re planning to camp off-grid for long periods of time, you don’t need a particularly large solar array. You can get a lot of benefits from a simple, plug-and-play portable solar setup like this one. You just unfold it, point it at the sun, plug it in, and walk away.

Solar panels are usually rated in terms of watts. The watt rating is really only useful for comparing one system to another since the actual energy generated on a given day varies depending on factors like cloudiness, time of year, and latitude. Personally, I wouldn’t bother with a system of fewer than 120 watts.

“Should I get solar or a generator?”

It depends on how you camp or travel. If you need to run things that consume a lot of power (like an air conditioner, microwave oven, hairdryer, CPAP machine, etc.) when you’re away from hookups, a generator will probably be the best choice.

But if you just want more battery power, solar has big advantages:

  1. Free energy from Mr. Sun
  2. Blissful silence
  3. Extended off-grid camping time
  4. No heavy generator or gasoline cans to carry

If you want more detail on this topic, check out this blog I wrote earlier.

“Should I get portable panels or a rooftop (permanent) installation?”

I wrote a separate blog about this topic, so if this is your question, click here.

“How do I know how much power I have?”

Sometimes people want to know how much power their panels are generating, or exactly how full their batteries are. This is entirely optional, but in this case, I recommend installing an amp-hour meter such as those made by Victron (BM-7xx series), Xantrex (Link series), Bogart Engineering (Tri-Metric), etc. These are much more useful than having a monitor on the solar panels themselves.

If you are less concerned with exact numbers, you can get by just fine with the built-in battery meter that came with your Airstream. It isn’t terribly accurate but it’s close enough for casual use.

To be honest I don’t even look at the numbers anymore. I just plug my solar panels in for the day and as long as we get a few hours of sunshine I know we’re fine for another day at least. (I could explain the math behind this, but I’m trying not to go down the rabbit hole of numbers here.)

“Do I need to upgrade the batteries?”

For most people, no. There are two cases where you should replace the batteries in your Airstream:

  1. They’re worn out and not taking a full charge anymore.
  2. You’re going to install a solar panel system larger than about 200 watts. In this case, you’d find there are a lot of days when the solar panels are producing more power than you can store, which means you’d have a lot of solar capacity that you can’t use. If you’re installing more than 200 watts you’re probably paying a fair amount to install rooftop panels, so you should talk to the RV solar specialist that is doing the work. They can help you match the battery bank to the capacity of your panels.

Bottom line: Solar is easy. Take in the free energy that the sun gives you and go enjoy your day.


If you want to check out my pick for a really simple and lightweight solar panel system, look here.

What I learned on my first boondocking trip

Does the thought of boondocking make you nervous? I’m a newbie, and it made me nervous too. 

Since buying a new Airstream last summer, we’ve been staying only in places with full hookups. But last weekend, I boondocked for the first time, and – spoiler alert! – I enjoyed it more than I thought I would.

First, let me say that I’ve never considered myself a “camper.” After a few tenting trips to northern Arizona and Yosemite, I realized it just wasn’t for me. With an olfactory system like a bloodhound, I’m not so big on unwashed body (or other) smells, which admittedly, I equate with “roughing it.” A hot shower and shampoo with blow-dry are my daily requirements. 

So, my vacation preference has historically been to travel by airplane and stay in boutique hotels with lots of amenities. I always thought Airstreams were cool, but I had never dreamed of owning one. 

Then I met Rich Luhr, publisher of Airstream Life magazine. And as soon as I became an Airstreamer by injection, I eagerly awaited the chance to travel in one. 

When we bought a 2020 Globetrotter 23 FB this summer, I fell in love with everything about it – the cozy shape, the interior design style, and sleek cabinetry, the fact that everything is so adorably little. I affectionately refer to it as The Fort and I’m really getting the hang of traveling in it.

But up until mid-January, all of our trips in The Fort had included full hookups. From Prescott and Patagonia, Arizona to Silver City, New Mexico, and Borrego Springs, CA, each adventure involved staying in a national park or private campground with water, sewer, and power. Meanwhile, Rich kept telling me how much fun boondocking would be, as it afforded the opportunity to stay in certain places that we couldn’t otherwise enjoy.

So in early January, I decided to throw caution to the wind – along with my high heels, a going-out dress, and my blow dryer – and head out for a sans hookup weekend in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, just north of the Arizona border. 

Unhooked campsite in Organ Pipe Cactus National MonumentOur unhooked campsite at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

I can honestly say that this no hookups campground ended up being my favorite of all those we’ve stayed in. The lush vegetation in and around the campground, spectacular vistas, and starry skies allowed us to unplug and relax for two days and two nights with our little dog Mickey. 

Our dog Mickey enjoying the sunrise out of our Airstream bedroom windowsMickey loved the Airstream bedroom sunrises.

Here are 9 things I learned on this first boondocking trip.  

1. The prep is a little different than if you are heading toward hookups.

Do these things before you leave:

    • Top off everything. Although we never leave with completely empty tanks or batteries, in the case of boondocking you want to be sure everything is full. Fill the water tanks to overflow, make sure you’ve plugged in overnight so your batteries are fully charged, and fill both propane tanks.
    • Plan ahead for coffee. Important to anyone like me who is adamant about having an excellent morning brew. More on that in a moment.
    • Take note of what you won’t (or shouldn’t) use while boondocking. When you are only using batteries, things that have a heating element or need a surge of power to operate, either won’t work or shouldn’t be used. Common items include: blow dryer, microwave, air conditioner, drip coffee maker, laptop charger. Plan accordingly.
    • Buy a bunch of fresh drinking water in gallon jugs. We took 6 gallons and used about 3 for drinking and cooking. Tip: Make sure at least one of the jugs has a screw-on top so you can lay it down in the refrigerator without risking the top popping off during towing.
    • Take a power source with you. This allows you to keep the batteries charged so you can run the lights, sound system, TV, and furnace without worry. We have a portable solar system. Rooftop solar or a generator are other options.
    • Pack easy to make foods and snacks. When you have a limited amount of water and can’t use the microwave, you’ll appreciate this. We took things like instant oatmeal, mixed nuts, dried fruit, cereals, cut up veggies, hummus, cold cuts, bread, etc.
    • Take a few rolls of paper towels. A tidy boondocker’s best friend, I found these to be useful for many things. 

2. Set up is so easy!

Normally, it’s my job to hook up water, electric, and sewer hose at arrival. It had been two months since our last trip so I was reviewing how to do these things in my head while we were driving, and mentioned to Rich that I might need a refresher from him about the sewer hose connection. He gently reminded me that there would be no place to hook it up. I had not quite clued into the fact that no hookups = no sewer hose. And no electricity plug or need for the EMS power protector or water spigot either. Just pull in, unhitch, and flip on the water pump and you’re good to go. 

3. You need a good coffee solution because you can’t use a coffee maker. 

Coffee lovers, pay attention! When you’re drawing from the battery, you can’t use anything that has a heating element that draws a lot of power quickly. That means, no drip coffee maker. Mon Dieu.

I have taken my Bialetti stovetop coffee maker on previous Airstream trips, and I do love the coffee it makes. But to plan for this trip, I had been testing a stainless steel pour over that doesn’t require a filter. I wanted a bit of a “slow coffee” experience. On this trip, I heated the drinking water we carried with us in a collapsible kettle and poured it over ground coffee. 

A pour over for my coffee and collapsable teapotThe aroma is amazing when you use a pour-over funnel to make your morning coffee. 

I love the simplicity of this pour-over method and the aroma is spectacular. Plus, you make it one cup at a time so it’s always hot and fresh and doesn’t have that burned taste you get when it sits on the electric warming burner too long. 

4. You have to check the fresh and grey water tank levels throughout your stay.

All you experienced Airstreamers are thinking “well, duh,” but I had truly not thought about this kind of diligent monitoring until Rich mentioned it during the trip.

The level data is available on the Tank Monitor panel. In our 2020 Globetrotter, it’s in the bathroom. In your model, it might be in the kitchen.

  • Push the FRESH button to see the percent of freshwater you have left. Most Airstream trailers carry 30 gallons in a full tank. If you are experienced you can run it down to 25% or even 10%. This helps you know how long you can stay put without going to dump and refill. If you plan to stay longer, you’ll need to plan for using the campground dump station and refilling the tanks.
  • Push the GREY button to see the percentage of space that’s been used in the grey water tank. In other words, at the beginning of a trip it will start at 0% and gradually go up as you use water. After a day, ours was reading 20% full, and Rich gave me props for that since I’m the primary cook and dishwasher.
  • Push the BLACK button to see the percentage of space that’s been used in the black water tank. There was no need for me to monitor this tank level because there are only two of us and our trip was only two days long. 

Note that the level on the panel is approximate. There are a whole bunch of reasons why the data cannot be completely accurate (for example, the black tank includes toilet paper, which impacts the level reading), but I won’t go into that kind of detail here. Mostly, because I still don’t understand it well enough to explain it.

Bottom line: The more you boondock and monitor your levels while doing it, the more you’ll understand your usage.

Check the levels of your fresh and grey tank regularly when boondocking. If you’re
planning to stay unplugged for more than about five days, check the black tank level too.

5. Solar power makes a huge difference.

We used the Airstream Life Portable Solar Kit throughout our trip and it performed beautifully. I plugged it into the solar charge port on the A-Frame and connected the two cables, then unfolded the three solar panels in the morning sun. Super easy. Because it’s portable, we moved the panels with the sun throughout the day to optimize our solar “catch.” 

The result was that we never worried about our batteries draining. The sun kept them charged all day long. So we used electricity as if we were plugged in, save for one thing:

You can’t use the microwave or A/C when you are using the batteries. And it did get into the 80s during the day, with west-facing exposure. This is where you have to roll with it when boondocking. Sure, it wasn’t an icy 65 degrees in the trailer. But we put the awning out and the fans on and it was fine. If we’d had our Zip-Dee solar shade with us, we would have hung it on our awning – but we haven’t yet installed it in our trailer.

If you are wondering, you can plug in your laptop charger, but boondocker beware. Without getting technical, doing so requires that you turn on the inverter, which switches the power supplied directly from the battery, to the type of power that is required to run things like a laptop power cord, television, DVD player, and other electronics. 

But just because you can do this doesn’t necessarily mean you should. At least, not too frequently. That’s because overuse of an inverter ultimately can lead to it failing, and that’s an expensive thing to replace. So if you must bring your laptop, don’t keep it plugged in the entire trip.

If you’re looking for more technical details about solar, Rich has written multiple blogs on the topic. Here’s one about when you do (and don’t) need solar panels 

We used a portable solar system to charge our batteries during the day.
The panels weigh only 18 lbs which made it easy for me to move them as the sun moved.

6. Yes, hot (albeit short) showers are possible!  

Full disclosure, I showered both days but didn’t wash my hair on the first morning of the trip. It’s medium length and thick and I didn’t want to use too much water. I’d say this was the only real drawback of boondocking for me. (I realize this may cue eye-rolling for some of you.)  

Here’s what I learned is the best way to take a boondocking shower:

    • Turn on the propane switch in the bathroom to heat the water. It takes about 20 minutes, so plan ahead. 
    • Turn the shower full on to HOT. That will get the shower-ready water faster and you’ll use the least amount of water. 
    • Turn the water on to rinse, and off to suds up. This will be familiar to some as a ‘military shower.’
    • Use the water saver button on the showerhead. I had not noticed this little gem but Rich showed it to me on day two. There is a black button on the side of the showerhead that shuts on and off the water. So, get the temperature right, then use the button to turn the water on and off – saves more water than turning it on/off at the faucet each time.
    • Shower during the warmest part of the day. This will make your shower infinitely more comfortable. Especially if you boondock during colder weather.

7. Paper towels are a great all-purpose solution for cleaning and water savings. 

Great for wiping out the pour-over coffee filter (read: no water was used to clean it each day), wiping out the sink, and wiping off countertops. I used, dried, and reused paper towels throughout the trip. I also brought a plate scraper, but we didn’t eat anything that required me to use it. I found the paper towel to be much easier and more versatile. 

Yes, there is the sustainability issue of more waste, but for convenience and the fact many of the paper towels could be used multiple times after drying them, I think paper towels are the way to go. And, you can purchase a brand made from recycled material. We used about a third of a roll during the entire trip. 

 You can rinse dishes and wash your face with surprisingly little water.

To wash dishes: Dampen a sponge and put dish soap in it, then suds up each dish or utensil with the water off and put it in the sink. When everything has suds, turn on the sink to a small drizzle, and using your hands and moving the plate, rinse quickly.

To wash your face/brush your teeth: Similar to showering, turn the water on only when rinsing, and keep the flow low. Turn it off when brushing or washing. 

9. Propane is really efficient and seems to last forever.

Kudos to Airstream for including so many gas-run appliances in the trailer. They are incredibly energy efficient. We didn’t skimp on running the stove, refrigerator, or furnace, and there was still plenty of propane left when we got home. 

My overall take on boondocking? It requires a little practice and mindset modification, but I didn’t feel we sacrificed anything. Sure the showers were short, but we ran the furnace, cooked, listened to music, and even watched Gone With the Wind one night. I just had to be mindful of and monitor my water usage. And frankly, that’s a conservation mindset I should adopt at home anyway. The boondocking experience kept me mindful about how we were using our resources.

If you have long, thick hair you may have to go without washing it for a day. And no, you can’t use the microwave or leave the faucet running while you wash dishes. But in the end, these aren’t the reasons you bought an Airstream anyway. So, don’t be nervous about boondocking. Embrace it as an opportunity for simpler travel, and an excuse to leave your blow dryer at home.