There’s an assumption that it takes a certain type of big, brawny, automobile-loving person to handle a 7,600-pound Airstream. At least that was the impression I got from the surprised faces of onlookers when all five feet, three inches of me pulled up to a campsite trailing 27 feet of sleek, riveted aluminum. The ranger sidled out of her booth to hand me some paperwork to sign. “That is a mighty nice rig you’ve got there,” she said with genuine appreciation. Then she peered over her spectacles at me and my friend Jessie, who was sitting in the passenger seat. “You girls sure are brave.”
It became the defining refrain of our four-day road trip from San Francisco to California’s eastern Sierras and back. RVing couples at campsites, curious bystanders at gas stations, even friends we regaled after the fact joined the chorus. So brave. Despite the fact that Airstreams are literally made for road tripping, in this age of smart cars, the idea of towing anything larger than a trailer has become intimidating. I was so nervous about controlling such a large piece of equipment that after the technician at Bay Area Airstream Adventures walked us through the features of the Globetrotter the dealership loaned me for the weekend, I sat with my head between my knees for five minutes, terrified that I would somehow destroy the $99,900 trailer.
Yet, every year more of these sleek land yachts hit the roads. Since Wally Byam founded the company in 1931, Airstream has maintained exacting standards of efficiency and comfort for its travel trailers—and created a style that has become iconic. Today, approximately 80 percent of all Airstreams ever produced are still in use, according to the company. And now, the viral success of the vanlife hashtag has a whole new generation interested in recreational motor vehicles.
Some of those versatile and retro-chic Airstreams have been transformed into alternative living quarters and luxury camping accommodations for design-minded #vanlife enthusiasts. But Airstream’s fiercely loyal fan base will tell you that these aerodynamic beasts were built to roll—and driving them is a lot easier than you might think. It only took me a few white-knuckle hours behind the wheel to relax and agree.
Once you get the hang of things, cruising around with an Airstream is slow travel at its finest. There’s no such thing as a need for speed when you’re towing a small house, and there’s no rush to make it to a campground in time to set up before nightfall, either. Getting all the comforts of home up and running is quick and simple: You level out the rig and hook up to the campground’s power and water. While the freedom of towing your accomodation means you could easily end up in a new place every night, these puppies are made for long-term comfort, so you can stay a while to explore each new patch of the great outdoors you find at your leisure.
Either way, though, getting out there in an Airstream is downright simple, if you follow these three silver rules:
Never underestimate the power of a good tow vehicle.
Whether you’ve dreamed of investing in the lifestyle, or simply want to rent a rig and try things out for a weekend you can’t hit the open road with an Airstream without something to tow it, and no, your four-door, city-slicker sedan isn’t going to cut it. The right car or truck for this job is not only capable of heavy hauling, but also designed for it: You shouldn’t feel like you’re towing anything at all.
Little did those impressed campers gawking at our Airstream and its diminutive driver realize that it was actually the 2018 Yukon Denali doing all the work. Stabilizing technology kept our high-profile Globetrotter grounded as we wound around the mountains outside of Lake Tahoe in unexpectedly strong winds, and an integrated, controllable braking system kept the unwieldy trailer’s inertia from taking over. The whole powerful system made the actual pulling so effortless that once or twice, I actually forgot there was something behind me.
Take unapologetically wide right-hand turns.
Before we pulled out of the parking lot of Bay Area Airstream Adventures, I asked a technician for his number one piece of advice for a nervous newbie like myself. “Take unapologetically wide right-hand turns,” he responded. And just like that, he eliminated all my fears of inconveniencing the drivers around me. It became my mantra.
The idea of overcompensating with an Airstream in tow was empowering: By keeping myself safe, I was also keeping the drivers around me safe. I achieved a Zen-like calm when cruising along just below the speed limit on gusty two-lane highways. Pulling over to let other cars pass became an act of benevolence. I felt a camaraderie with slow-driving long-haul truckers that I never had before. After all, now I too knew how easy it is to pull an intimidatingly wide load.
Find a travel buddy you trust implicitly.
There can be a huge difference between good road trip buddy and a person to whom you can relinquish all control. On an Airstream road trip, you need the latter. It’s not just about good teamwork; your copilot will often be your eyes, whether it’s checking your right-side blind spots or helping you back up a hulking, jack-knifing metal object with a mind of its own into a tiny parking spot.
Jessie and I have taken countless road trips together, and she is equally as good a driver as she is a navigating, DJ-ing copilot. But while I trust her with my life, I couldn’t help questioning her directions as we attempted to back into a campsite on that first night. “There is no way she could actually want me to keep going to the left,” I kept thinking. “The car is practically perpendicular to the trailer!” It took 45 minutes of failure and frustration for me to completely let go, ignore my own (mis)conceptions of what was going on, and just trust her. Fifteen minutes later, the thing was parked, unhitched, and fully set up.
From then on, arriving at and leaving each campsite became mere blips of efficiency on an otherwise languid trip. Most days we would unhitch the car to drive off in search of some hard-to-get-to, off-road hot spring along Highway 395, thankful to have left our unnecessary gear and hefty accommodation behind. It was mid-February, so inevitably, we’d return after dark, knowing that a cozy camper with a hot shower was waiting. Each night we’d cook dinner with good tunes playing over the sound system and plan our next day’s adventures. Choosing where to go and what to do once we were there was the hard part. Actually getting ourselves and the Airstream to the next place was simple.