Give your Airstream some winter love

I know that most Airstream owners have put their trailers away for the winter, and perhaps are sighing as they see their beloved trailers slowly being covered in snow. A few are flipping the pages of Airstream Life and noticing the cozy Airstream on the cover parked in a Florida state park, or being tempted by the ad for Alumafiesta in Tucson.

But if you just can’t get away right now, at least you can do something for your Airstream to make it a better place to camp in next season. Even when our trailer is put to bed, I get into it as often as I can just to tweak little things, clean, or think about what improvements it needs.

In our first three years of owning the Safari, we had our share of mechanical problems, ranging from the little things like screws backing out, up to major problems like a wheel separating from the trailer. I gradually developed a toolkit and spare parts for fixing most of the problems that crop up on the road, and I recommend that you do the same. This is a good time of year to think about that, since you can share the list of tools and parts with people who want to get you Christmas presents —or take advantage of post-Christmas sales!

The tools you need depend on the jobs you are willing to take on. At a minimum, I suggest you carry parts and tools to:

  • change a tire
  • replace a fuse or light bulb
  • disconnect / re-connect the battery
  • clean up corrosion on metal
  • detect a gas leak and tighten a gas connection
  • replace a rivet
  • fix a 12 volt electrical connection
  • tighten a loose screw
  • test a power outlet
  • fix a water leak

You don’t need a ton of fancy tools to do those jobs. A cordless drill is very helpful and you probably already own that. The only other expensive tool you need is a good torque wrench (and a 6″ extension & socket), so you can be sure you’ve got the lug nuts tightened properly when you change a tire. The rest of the tools are pretty simple and not terribly expensive, even the rivet tool used to replace pop rivets. Screwdrivers (a single driver with a set of different bits is ideal for storage), an adjustable wrench or two, a little spray bottle for soapy water, some sandpaper, butt splices, an outlet tester or voltmeter, a wire cutter/stripper, a tire pressure gauge, assorted fuses, rivets, and bulbs. Some tapes (electrical and plumber’s), glue, a razor blade, a hammer, and zip-ties wouldn’t hurt.

If you travel for long periods then you’ll want more stuff. The trick is knowing when to stop packing tools. I’ve seen guys traveling with pickup trucks that were basically big rolling tool boxes. I used to ask, “Are you planning on rebuilding the trailer on the road?” but then a friend of mine actually did rebuild his trailer while courtesy-parking at a friend’s house. So it all depends on the state of your Airstream and how much you care to do yourself. I bring things like a tube of silicone caulk for periodic replacement in the shower and kitchen, and that’s only because we take the Airstream out for about five months each year. I’ll bring a relatively rarely-used tool or part if it’s light or small, but there’s a point at which I’m going to find a service center.

My personal goal is to be prepared for anything small that might seriously disrupt a trip, which is why I put emphasis on tires, fuses, gas leaks, electrical problems, and water leaks. It’s really annoying to be somewhere remote, like Big Bend National Park or the north rim of Grand Canyon, and find you have power problems because of a simple bad ground. Do you really want to hitch up and tow 70 miles to the local garage mechanic just to have him clean a contact with sandpaper that you could have done yourself in one minute? That’s the stuff I try to be prepared for.

After eight years or so, my tool kit has matured. It’s pretty solid, but it occurred to me that I still don’t have everything I should. Several times I’ve had to pull off onto the highway breakdown lane, with traffic whizzing by at 70 MPH, to check on a tire or investigate a strange noise. It can be a pretty frightening experience. I don’t have flares or orange cones, and during the day I don’t think flares really show anyway. You’re probably more likely to get whacked by a car while you’re setting them up.

So I’m going to pack a high visibility colored shirt, in green or orange, that I can throw over whatever I’m wearing when I have to get out and tend to something by the side of the road. You can get these at Home Depot, cheap, along with a lot of other safety equipment. I’ve heard that in Europe high-vis safety vests are being mandated in passenger cars and you can get a ticket for not having one (which I think is a bit of European safety ov erkill). But they’re still a good idea.

The other thing you can do this winter is check over your Airstream periodically. Two things kill Airstreams: accidents, and water. Water damage is insidious and usually slow, so it’s easy to catch if you just make a small effort. This time of year people put away their trailer for the winter not realizing there’s a slight leak, and in the spring they find a smelly, moldy, and water damaged mess. Believe me, a slowly-melting blanket of snow atop the roof will severely challenge the waterproofness of the seams and rivets, even those that didn’t leak in the last gentle rain. So it’s a good idea to get inside to check everywhere (especially inside closets and around the floor edge) for moisture. A flashlight and paper towel will help you find any wet spots.

We’re running a short article in the Spring 2013 issue of Airstream Life about all the things that have expiration dates in your trailer or motorhome. There’s quite a list: fire extinguisher, smoke detector, carbon monoxide detector, propane detector, tires, water filter, First Aid kit, batteries, and propane tanks. If your trailer is over two years old at least some of these items are either expired or need new batteries, and if your trailer is over a decade old then it could need everything on this list replaced. This is why RV owners think 9V batteries are a good stocking stuffer. So go around your trailer and make notes of all the things that may have expired, or at least pack spare batteries and water filters for your upcoming trips.

Finally, I want to talk about the First Aid Kit. You probably don’t have one, because it didn’t come with your trailer. It is surprising to me that the RV safety code calls for installation of a fire extinguisher but not a First Aid Kit. This suggests that they are more worried about saving the RV than they are the people inside it. Seems ridiculous, doesn’t it?

Let me tell you from personal experience, when you are traveling most urgent medical issues happen when you are miles away from health care, or on the Friday night of a long weekend in a small village like Jackson Center. I don’t know why. The point is, you need a First Aid Kit. You can buy these pre-made, or just build your own like we did. We went to Wal-Mart the day after Eleanor sliced her finger open with a kitchen knife, bought a zippered case, and filled it with goodies like bandages, tape, gauze, anti-bacterial, scissors, gloves, hydrogen peroxide, Benadryl, etc. We also got some advice from friends who were formerly nurses, EMTs or MDs about treatment methods and tricks. The next time we have a domestic injury while camped somewhere remote, we’ll be much more able to take care of it ourselves.

So, I’m sorry if you are stuck in the snow, or facing a long gray winter with no fun travel plans, but at least if that’s the case you can do a few things to make next year’s Airstreaming more fun and more safe. I sometimes recommend to people that they periodically go spend an afternoon in the trailer even if it is parked in storage or in your driveway. Plug it in, fire up the furnace, turn on the lights, put on some music and snacks. Make the place feel alive again. You can watch a football game on the TV, read a book, or just hang out for a while. With nowhere to go, you’ll have time to think about what you’d like to do next, and what you can do to improve the Airstream. Trust me, spending a little time with your Airstream will make you feel better, like a mini-vacation, and may well extend its life too.