Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Steve and Amberly Russell: Walking the Tiny Trailer Talk

Two degrees below zero. anyone?

Two school teachers from Connecticut, Steve and Amberly Russell were married only a year before buying their first tiny travel trailer, an RTTC Kodiak Stealth. "We ordered our first RTTC in November 2018, a Grizzly Bear, but later switched the order to a Kodiak Stealth. We took delivery of the camper in April 2019. We later sold this 2019 Kodiak Stealth in May of 2020 and built the new Kodiak Stealth that we have now in order to test out new prototype features."

What makes Steve and Amberly special as tiny trailer owners is that not only do they own a Rustic Trail Teardrop Camper, a Kodiak Stealth, but they are also part owners of the company, having in 2020 bought the company (along with Amberly's brothers Derrek and Jermey Long) from its founder Jonathan Sechrist. In these unique times, the Russells were able to combine three factors--business owner input, the coronavirus pandemic, and schools teaching online--to live for long periods of time in their little home on wheels. They were able to walk the RTTC talk by living and experiencing tiny trailer life not only as trailer owners but also as business owners. Let's put some numbers to back up that statement. "During the summer of 2019, we visited over twenty different states and put around 15,000 miles on our camper within this first year of owning it," they say in their RTTC blog. They have also lived full-time out of their 5 x 10 camper for six months while teaching remotely and running a small business. 

Kansas, December 2020

The Russells had to get creative in how they utilized the tiny interior space of the Kodiak in order for both of them to teach remotely at the same time. Often, Amberly would sit upon the bed of the camper with her laptop positioned on a makeshift desk consisting of blankets and the optional Rustic Trail Teardrops outside table. Thanks to the interior walkway space inside the Kodiak Stealth, Steve was able to set up a camp chair located in front of the bed while using the countertop area as a desk. Many innovations came from living full-time in their Kodiak Stealth, many of which ended up in production versions of the campers. Steve and Amberly explain the dynamics of this process in their blog. 
"As you can imagine, living in a tiny camper for a long period of time gets one thinking about what kinds of changes and enhancements could be made to our line of campers. During this time, we redesigned the dinette for 2021 giving greater ease of use. We also created a new optional front cabinet layout for the Kodiak that provides added storage and flexibility. One of our favorite innovations was the sliding RV queen-size bed in the Koala Bear which gave our customers the ability to sleep on an elevated platform instead of the floor–something that is rare in a 5 x 8 camper. In total, over a dozen changes and improvements were implemented to our line of campers throughout the summer."

Steve and Amberly give a big shout out to Derrek Long (co-owner and Director of Operations) and the build team Levi Sechrist, Zachary Shelton, and Jonathan Moser. "RTTC is a team operation, and we are very thankful for their hard work and dedication to Rustic Trail Teardrop Campers." 

Towing in New Mexico

All this time on the road and in the camper is a tribute not only to the Kodiak Stealth but also to the Russells' tow vehicle, a 2014 Lexus RX350 with a factory tow package, which is rated to tow 3,500 pounds. That's plenty of muscle for the 1,525 pound trailer. Previously they owned a 2012 Toyota Highlander that was designed to tow 5,000 pounds. "Both cars share the same engine, and we actually find the Lexus RX350 to tow better than the Highlander," says Steve. "We recently towed our Kodiak Stealth up Colorado mountains to 9,000 feet. Even though the Lexus has nearly 200,000 miles on it, the car performed great!"

Their Kodiak Stealth, all cleaned and straightened up and ready for a tour

Prior to their being married and becoming tiny trailer owners, Amberly and Steve both did tent camping growing up. Amberly's family owned a pop-up tent trailer, and because of Amberly's experience with the pop up, she knew right away when they were looking for a small trailer that it had to have hard-sided walls, saying, "When my family camped in a really windy location, I'd experience constant headaches throughout the night because of the sides whipping back and forth. I am also not a fan of the condensation that builds up on the tent walls; as a child I used to get my sleeping bag wet because it would brush against the wet side."

Even in this time of the pandemic, Steve and Amberly have spent a lot of time camping, splitting that camping between their original 2018 Kodiak Stealth and then the newer upgraded 2020 Kodiak. "On the average, we spend over  ninety nights per year in our Rustic Trail Teardrop. In 2020, we spent over 210 days or seven months in our Kodiak Stealth." They mostly camp at small family-run campgrounds, which helps maintain their internet work connections, but also spend a good amount of time boondocking and off-grid.

Living close to the beach in New England, they are always not far away from the shores of Connecticut or Rhode Island. Their favorite time of year to camp is in the summer or early fall when the temperatures are comfortable and the New England fall colors are plentiful. Their favorite places to camp however include Rollins Pond Campground, located on Saranac Lake in upstate New York, and in the mountains of North Carolina and Colorado.  One camping place that is a little different from the usual natural campgrounds is the Fort Wilderness Campground at Disney World. "This is one of our favorite campgrounds simply due to our love for Disney World Theme Park. Going to the Fort Wilderness campground was our first big trip with our 2019 Kodiak Stealth." 

Oscar in the Kodiak

Because Steve and Amberly have been to a lot of different locations and have covered the majority of America over the past two years in their RTTC teardrop, they have many "favorite" experiences. Interestingly enough, one of their most favorite "things to do" is not an activity but a process: going on trips that are not planned in advance. One example of a spur-of-the-moment decision on a trip resulted in what is one or their most memorable times, a trip to Rollins Pond in New York which they booked about three days in advance. 
"We came to find out by speaking with fellow campers at Rollins Pond that most people have to book a year in advance in order to get a reservation, and the site on the water we had was even more sought after. We are thankful for our jobs as school teachers to have the time off throughout the summer and school breaks to be able to travel and explore this beautiful nation. In summary, the freedom our Rustic Trail Teardrop has given us to go where we want when we want is our favorite experience itself." 

The main advice that Steve and Amberly shared for people new to tiny trailers is to consider a tiny trailer with a layout that is more than just a "bed on wheels." Although many campers find a "bed on wheels" the best fit, the Russells found that for them, an inside layout that included more space was essential. "After considering this longer, we determined that camping with our dog, trying to get changed while lying down, and having no room to even partially stand up was a deal-breaker for us." They found in Rustic Trail Teardrops a unique interior layout that offered more features and space without a raised cost. They encourage all future owners of a tiny camper to consider interior layouts that offer more space, like their RTTC layout, and to experience how it can radically change the comfort and camping experience. "We would also encourage others not to be afraid to give up a rear galley as the trade-off, for interior space and comfort is well worth it." Their final tidbit for future trailer owners is to not purchase too many items before their trailer arrives other than basic necessities, such as wheel chocks, an extension cord, and any other items needed in order to tow the trailer. Once you've got the basics, they say, then the experience of actually camping with whatever tiny trailer camper you choose--that hands-on camping experience will let you know what you need and what you don't--and save a lot of money

The unexpected dangers of tiny trailer travel

A "dream trip" the Russells would like to take in the future would be to take their tiny trailer on a trip to Alaska. Thankfully with their jobs, they think they can make that a reality within the next few years. This next summer they will be traveling around 9,000 miles with their teardrop. Along the way, they will be putting on RTTC gatherings in Pennsylvania and Utah for RTTC community members and friends. They will also be stopping at places such as Las Vegas and Fort Wilderness Campground at Disney World. "Of course," they say, "our summer would not be complete without going to Rustic Trail Teardrops World Headquarters in Pilot Mountain, North Carolina, where we will build our next camper and continue to make revisions and upgrades." 

Summarizing their experience in the world of tiny trailers over the last couple of years, Amberly and Steve describe it as one of joy and passion that took them on a journey "from customers to employees of the company, to now part owners of the company."  As part owners of RTTC, the trailer they tow is the tale they tell when they promote the company. "A Rustic Trail Teardrop is simply not just a product that we build and sell at our business. It is a way of life for us, and we get excited for our customers who order our campers, and hope the camper gives them freedom and adventures that will create lifelong memories, just as our tiny travel trailer has for us."

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  1. Great article, I look forward to meeting them at the Pennsylvania gathering.

    1. I hope to be able to get to the RTTC gathering next fall. Cross my fingers!

  2. I enjoyed reading your latest Tiny Trailer Owner Profile as there are several suggestions that will help me decide on what to buy next.

    1. I learn a lot myself when writing an owner profile. I'm glad you found the article helpful. Happy camping!