Friday, January 1, 2021

Our Airstream Basecamp First Trip Out--What We Learned

Airstream Basecamp tiny trailer camping
Lake Darling State Park, December 2020. Camped on the spot where I toured my first tiny trailer.

Once upon a time there was a couple who bought an Airstream Basecamp 16-footer. Their little joke to themselves was that it was their Christmas present since they had picked it up from the dealership just three days before Christmas. They towed it home, and there it sat in their driveway, plugged in to 110 to keep the batteries charged and the inside warm. 

The challenge, though, was when could they use their wonderful, beautiful gift they had given themselves. Immediately after getting "Moondance" home, the temperatures dropped to the single digits, as low as one degree Fahrenheit one morning, the highs in the teens. "We can camp in these temperatures," Grandpa said, "but do we really want to?" 

Mother Nature, the most kind and capricious of mothers, decided to be playful and conjured snow with warmer weather--but just before the snow and just after the deep-freeze weather . . . two days of sunshine with temperatures ranging from 15-35 degrees! A tiny weekend window of weather that was neither outstandingly cold nor outstandingly warm! Maybe we can even whisper, "Just right."

And so I bring to you a narrative of the first time my wife Sandy and I headed out in our brand new Airstream Basecamp, traveling to a local SE Iowa winter destination just seventeen miles from home. But before any traveling, we had to get our brand new (and empty) camper geared, stocked, and packed up. 

Moving In

Almost two months earlier, we had sold our tiny trailer, an RTTC "standy" Polar Bear, in preparation for the arrival of the Basecamp--yes, good-bye to the Green Goddess and hello to Moondance, a poignant experience. We emptied out all our gear from the tiny trailer and stored it in our spare bedroom . . . and waited.

Moving in was going to be easy, we thought. All our cooking gear was in a plastic travel bin, and all our food was usually stored in an identical bin. When traveling in the Polar Bear, the cookware had been stored beneath the bed, the food in the aisle. Arriving at the campsite, the cookware bin usually stayed on an outside table while the food bin sat beside it except for nights when it was stored in the SUV to discourage critters. We did find gearing up and stocking the Basecamp kitchen to be easy, but that doesn't mean it didn't require some thought. We found smaller plastic bins downstairs to use for the cabinet storage so gear and food wouldn't slide around during travel. We happily discovered that when "all things kitchen" were stored, we still had space and didn't have bags and bins getting in the way and tripping us up, as was apt to happen in the Polar Bear. Heaven!

Airstream Basecamp tiny trailer camping
Our inside bedding that we used with our tiny trailer. 
Can we use less with our new little trailer?

For our bedding, we moved in the topper we had used for the Green Goddess, plus sheet, blanket, sleeping bags, and pillows. That turned out to be quite a pile which fit at the rear of the old standy pretty comfortably but was somewhat cumbersome for the Basecamp configuration--a big pile of stuff blocking the back door and dominating the space. We were willing to live with that for our first outing, knowing that the actual experience of living in the camper would provide us with insight. We stacked everything up in back and moved on with the packing.

Clothing was a bit of a concern--not our actual trip clothes because we were only camping for a night or two--but we weren't sure about the clothes storage solution for the Basecamp--beneath the seat bench or up in the storage racks? The overhead cargo storage areas aren't as big as they look in the photos, and the storage beneath the bench on the street side of the camper is awkward to access, especially with a large pile of bedding encroaching onto the bench cushion. For this trip we each just filled a medium-sized soft travel bag with a change of clothes, sleepwear, toiletries, and a few sundry. Easily accessing the bench storage space will take some time to figure out (and some kind of sticks to prop open the access lids), and the storage racks above the seats were filled with pillows and sleeping bags after our first night. We know an easier solution will manifest with more camp time.

Since we were winterized, we also adapted our plastic bag toilet system we developed for our tiny trailer, using the Basecamp's commode rather than our portable toilet. Also because we were winterized, we brought our drinking water in stainless steel containers, stored in a cardboard box on the floor for travel--also what we did with the old tiny trailer.

Hitching Up and Taking Off

Our second tow with the Basecamp proved to be as easy as the first (our trip home from the dealership). Our Nissan Pathfinder pulls the unit easily, although now I can tell I'm towing something, whereas with the tiny trailer I mostly didn't even notice the weight behind. I've also found backing the trailer as easy as the smaller trailer, and I'm not talking about how backing tiny trailers is twitchy. What I mean is that even with the wider trailer, I'm still able to have a good sense of what's happening behind me as I back--and, of course, I'm always willing to stop, get out, and look. I have noticed that when hooking up I have to be more exact with my placement of the hitch ball. With the tiny trailer, I could rock the trailer and roll it a bit (rather than the hitch jack leg resting on a "foot" as the BC does, the RTTC Polar Bear had a wheel). This isn't a deal breaker, since I've gotten pretty good with alignment, but I'm glad I have the Pathfinder's rear camera.

Airstream Basecamp tiny trailer camping
Ready to roll, Airstream Basecamp and Nissan Pathfinder

Following the advice of our orientation technician at RV One, we left the propane tanks turned on with the heater set and the electricity on so the refrigerator would run. Evidently there is some controversy about leaving power on while traveling, but the technician's rationale was that the tanks have automatic safety shut-off valves, so why not keep the trailer's interior above freezing and the refrigerator cold? 

Our Camping Experience

My wife and I were looking forward to staying in the camper. We knew we'd learn a lot about the unit just by spending time living in the space and interacting with the systems. Remember, our tiny trailer, although wired for 12v lighting and having 15 amp electrical hook-up capacity (really, just an extension cord), was really more a simple "hard-sided tent" . . . with a small homestyle window air conditioner mounted in the front. It was a huge step up from a tent, but the set-up and capabilities were still basic--which was part of its charm. Our new Basecamp is a quantum leap in capabilities, like the difference for math nerds between an abacus and a computing calculator. Even though we wouldn't be using any of the water systems for this trip, we would still have available the superior Truma heating system, the kitchen systems (stove, refrigerator, and prep and storage), and the lighting and USB outlets. Mostly, though, we were looking forward to experiencing the larger space. What would that be like?

What we discovered (and this is the topic of another blog article) is that Airstream camping is pretty much Airstream glamping. There, I said it! Green Goddess Glamping has finally got her glamping on. Let's look at a few specifics.
  • Cooking inside is great for winter weather, although we did accommodate for minimizing condensation by releasing the steam from our Instant Pot pressure cooker outside, frying fish burgers outside, and heating water and washing dishes outside (since the water system was shut down). Although I had cooked in our standy tiny trailer, the Basecamp has a well-planned kitchen space up front which makes preparation and cooking not just possible but enjoyable. We are still working out our routines and where everything goes, but that's just part of the fun! 
  • After our first night of sleeping in the Basecamp, we realized that the trailer's insulation and heating system was such that our cold-weather sleeping bags were too much. We were hot all night, even though we turned down the heat a couple of times. The next morning we packed up the bags and topper and put them away, the topper in the car and the bags in their compression sacks. This week at home in the driveway, we'll experiment with a pared-down sleeping system, consisting of a flannel sleeping bag for a base layer, our summer sleeping bags used for top blankets, and a cotton thermal blanket for possible pre-dawn chill. If comfortable, we should have less gear and more space.
  • As I mentioned earlier, our clothes were in two zippered duffle bags, but with a more efficient sleeping space, we hope to be able to store most of our clothes in the bench storage area, keeping out our day clothes and sleepwear. Then we'll be able to ditch the duffle bags. My wife's looking into some cube storage sacks for the underseat storage. We may even eventually buy a cargo box for the roof of our SUV where extra cargo can be stored until needed when we're taking extra stuff for longer trips.
  • Our main learning lesson was that we have more space in the new trailer, but we won't know exactly how we will best utilize that space until we live in the camper for a while. We plan at least one night driveway camping this week (we're iced in right now from a winter storm) and perhaps a couple of nights out next week at a state park twenty-five miles away, weather permitting.

Airstream Basecamp tiny trailer camping
Our first time using the stove.

Airstream Basecamp tiny trailer camping
Our new bed layout we're going to try.

Airstream Basecamp tiny trailer camping
Brunch: scrambled eggs and a breakfast bagel.

The bottom line is that we have learned that what attracted my wife and me to tiny trailer camping in the first place has not been lost with our acquisition of the Airstream Basecamp. The Basecamp's interior is more a liveable space than our tiny trailer, but it is still a small enough space that we will be engaged quite a bit in outside living. That outside engagement will be a little easier now, though, because we will be camping in a "little" trailer, not a "tiny" trailer. A few examples of how our camping lifestyle will remain the same, just "upgraded," seem pretty obvious to me at this point in time.
  • We will still cook regularly outside, but the built-in outside propane gas connection (which comes with a low-pressure regulator) will make the process easier. 
  • I think we will still wash dishes outside fairly often. That inside sink is pretty small, and how do you rinse and drain? I'm looking forward to seeing how all that works inside, but it's pretty darn easy outside. We may bring along our induction burner hotplate to heat dishwashing water in our big pot. We used it this trip with the outside electrical connection, and it was easy. We'll have to experience the juggle of which is easier--packing the induction burner or using the outside propane stove and filling the tanks more often.
  • Showering might be easier outside because more water can be used without filling the drain tanks. We'll see about that. I've found that our portable shower unit works well, and I can heat five gallons of water easily, even more, so it's really simple to take a shower using 5-10 gallons of water if I want to. However, again--how much do we want to pack?
  • Really, the balance will become obvious over time as we camp: How much stuff do we want to pack? That's going to be our big learning curve. Which is more convenient, cooking inside all the time or also packing our portable Coleman stove? Which is more convenient, washing dishes inside or also packing along our little portable dishwashing kit? Which is more convenient, a short shower inside or a longer shower outside that may require packing some extras? Over time, we'll find the golden mean; until then, we intend to enjoy the heck out of figuring it all out. 
The main thing is that Airstream has designed the Basecamp as a small, self-sufficient unit. Everything we need is there. The big question for Sandy and me is this: How much time do we want to spend inside using the Basecamp's capabilities when we could be outside?

Airstream Basecamp tiny trailer camping
Outside before the wind turned and the day got even colder.

We left camp after only spending one night, leaving late Sunday afternoon after the wind had changed to the north and started spitting snow. We knew a major winter storm was arriving. Perhaps it was coming early? The state park had no cell receptivity, and we decided that since there were only a couple of hours of daylight left and we were planning on leaving early the next morning anyway, we'd just error on the side of caution and head on home. Having kept the trailer hitched to the rig, loading up was easy and quick. We were home safe before sundown, riding through some snow flurries on the way. 

What a successful first trip out with "Moondance," our Airstream Basecamp 16! We learned so much about all those little changes and adaptations we intend to implement. Mostly, though, we just had fun, camping and hiking at the lake, cozy and warm on a short winter stay in our new trailer. It was a special experience taking that long walk along the lake on Saturday, taking a new trail and seeing some new territory. On the trip out, the wind hadn't turned frigid yet, so we just enjoyed the exercise and the views of the woods and the frozen lake. It was good to be out hiking beneath the stark colors of the winter sky, the frozen lake and the bare limbs of the trees painting their winter beauty, the cold, clean winter smells purifying and invigorating--and then arriving back home to our warm little trailer. I definitely think we'll do this again!

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  1. Interesting to read about your short trip with the basecamp but I was wondering if you looked at other small campers and why you selected the basecamp.

    1. We did look at many other campers--and there are some good ones out there.The T@B 320 is a good trailer, but my wife wanted something a bit larger so it could accommodate her business work and also possibly grandchildren. The BC isn't set up for grandkids, but we feel we could "hack" in a portable bunk bed. Our first choice was the Safari Condo Alto 1723, a retractable teardrop, but the covid pandemic made working with them in Quebec, Canada, difficult. We came back to the Basecamp for several reasons: 1) there is a dealership in Des Moines, 2.5 hours away; 2) we like camping during the off seasons, which means colder weather, and the BC is insulated better than some; and 3) our tiny trailer standy, the RTTC Polar Bear, had a great look, and we wanted our new trailer to also be aesthetically pleasing. The BC does that. A lot of other travel trailers are functional but don't have a real beauty to them. That's a personal value, but one that drove our final decisions. Thanks for the interesting question.

  2. Years ago, when we were doing horse-trailer camping and we had a bed up in the gooseneck of the horse trailer, we bought a double sleeping bag that has a velcro sheet inside it. It has a summer and a winter when it is really cold, you switch which side is up. I love it, because I can air out the bag itself- like a quilt- it un zips-- but I can throw the sheet in the washer. It also rolls up easily and can be leaned against, or stored if you want it out of the way. I like the kitchen set up, but it does look like you are short on storage space-- at least in the pictures

    1. From my bike camping days, I have a silk sleeping bag liner. Its function is much like you mention--more easy to wash than the bag, adds a bit of warmth to the bag, and in really hot weather can function as a light blanket. Thanks for reminding me! Finally, although the Basecamp is a "little" rather than "tiny" trailer, it shared the tiny trailer characteristic of being stingy with storage space. Something we will have to deal with in order to have those other positive qualities that small brings.

  3. Fantastic read Tom!!!! You could very well be tweaking how to best you your new tiny space for many trips to come. That's been true for us... the funny thing is we still end up with the original plan. Sometimes we spend so much time planning when the actual usage dictates best. I'm so happy to hear you got out there! Thanks for being my first read of 2021! All our best to both you and Sandy for a safe new year full of great discovery and adventure!!!! Sending you both big hugs!

  4. What a thrill to be your first 2021 read! Yes, Sandy and I will probably spend a lot of time thinking about certain situations and then end up using the KISS approach and keep-it-simple-stupid by just doing it the way the designer planned it. That doesn't make the figuring any less fun!

  5. Nice writeup! I'm considering a basecamp - have never had an RV or trailer before. Appreciate the trade-offs you're writing about, some I've considered, others totally new! Thanks!

  6. Because the Basecamp is little--not tiny but still little--a lot of the situations that apply to tiny trailers also apply to the Basecamp. My blog has a tab, "Why Tiny Trailers?" that may have articles you will find thought-provoking. Thanks for responding!

  7. Glad you are enjoying Moondance! I think half the fun is figuring out what you need and don’t need, and where to store it. I’m still having fun with that after more than 4 years :-)

    1. I think storage is one area where the Basecamp reveals itself to at least have one foot in the "tiny trailer" camp. It's little enough that storage space and the need to consider the camp area outside are still real factors for travel. I think the fact that the BC has a rear door impacts space utilization. Your trailer, for example, probably utilizes some of that rear space for storage, but I'm not sure. Maybe just a bed. We've had snow and freezing rain on top of that--and snow again next week--so I probably won't be able to camp anywhere besides our driveway until the campgrounds are more manageable. I believe you're in Florida, yes?