7 tips for hot summertime travel

It’s May, and we’re gearing up for summer travel—and that means gearing up for heat.

Perhaps heat is on my mind because we’re in Arizona right now and the temperatures are already hitting the nineties every day. 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. Many times I’ve been crossing Kansas or Oklahoma or Missouri and 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 I’ve learned over the years:

1. Air conditioning is miraculous—but not magical

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, especially if it’s sitting in the sun. That means on a 105-degree day, the trailer interior might be well into the upper 80s until after dark.

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.

2. Boondocking requires special skills

Not many people will choose to spend a night in extreme heat or humidity without air conditioning, but someday you may find yourself in an unexpected situation where you must. (Maybe a breakdown in a remote area, a power outage in the campground, or failure of the air conditioner, as examples.)

In this case, 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 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. I’ve always brought a few gallons of extra drinking water when 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 most Airstreams) 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 to plug in, or have an auxiliary source of power: solar panels, generator and/or a much larger set of batteries.

3. Beware the melted power plug!

If you’re plugged in, be aware that heavy use of air conditioning can result in a melted power cord, which can be disastrous. This is caused by corrosion building up on the prongs of the plug. Corrosion makes the brass prongs of the power cord look dark brown or black. If you see this, clean it off before you use your power cord again. (We sell a kit in the Airstream Life Store specifically to prevent this.) Failure to do so will cause the prongs to heat up and melt the plug. Not only will that end your air conditioning, it can damage your Airstream or even start a fire.

4. Use the awnings and a Solar Shade

The Zip Dee awning that came with your Airstream trailer (or the equivalent awning on a Nest, Basecamp, Interstate, or Atlas) 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. If you’ve got window awnings, use those too as needed to cut the direct sun.) You should try to stop the sun from shining on the sides of the Airstream as much as possible.

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.

5. Make sure your water hose can handle the heat

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: most drinking water hoses are not rated for “hot water” use. Cheap-o hoses made of vinyl 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.

6. Monitor the fridge and freezer

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.

If your refrigerator has a manually activated cooling fan, switch it on whenever the temperatures exceed 90. Some refrigerators have automatic cooling fans, others don’t have fans at all. If yours lacks a fan, consider having a set of electric fans installed in the chimney of the refrigerator compartment. These things are amazingly effective at moving hot air out away and helping the refrigerator cool down.

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.

7. Keep an eye on tire condition and temperature

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, checking the temperature with an infrared sensor, and checking air pressure frequently.

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.