We spend a hot weekend with a small Airstream.
No one likes downsizing. If they did, families would ditch their SUVs for coupes, newlyweds would excitedly go shopping for twin beds, and first-class air travelers would be interlocking elbows while the riffraff in coach.
That said, paring an object or experience down to just what’s needed can be refreshing. This is central to the appeal of those modular, chic, if not necessarily cheap, “tiny homes” sprouting up in increasing numbers on rural properties, or even adjacent to primary homes, where they serve as short-term rentals, guest homes, home offices, or playrooms. Whatever the use may be, tiny homes create self-sustaining spaces in 400 square feet or less, which requires some decisions be made about what goes in, what stays out, and for prefabricated tiny homes that roll in on a chassis, whether to keep the wheels attached.
No American company has been building tiny homes – with the wheels attached, anyway – longer than Airstream. Since founder Wally Byam first introduced the original Airstream Clipper in 1931, the company has hand-built over 100,000 of its iconic “silver bullet” travel trailers using aircraft-inspired riveted construction techniques of the era. Moreover, none have had slide-outs or second stories, and hence, have even come close to 400 square feet. If any company has had time to sort out what works, what doesn’t, and how things should be arranged in a tiny home, with or without wheels, it’s Airstream.
Caravel And Bambi: Two Names From Airstream’s Mid-Century Past
Airstream’s travel trailers are available today in sizes ranging from 16 feet to 33 feet, including three feet or so for the tongue/hitch/propane tank assemblies up front. Widths range from eight feet for single-axle versions to eight and a half feet for dual-axle models. As we reported earlier this year, Airstream has rejiggered its 16-, 19-, 20- and 22-foot single-axle models for 2020, bringing the beloved Bambi name back for the four single-axle sizes in the most basic yet pleasant specification level, and mining its mid-century past for the name of the more richly-appointed Caravel models, a marque recalling historic ships with an aptitude for sailing upwind, and which was first used by Airstream in 1961.
All four Caravel models share their basic body structures and interior layouts with Bambis, but trade the lighter, more retro color schemes, cloth upholstery, brushed metal fixtures, and faux hardwood flooring for the more upscale look of pricier, two-axle Airstreams. There are higher-contrast interior color combinations, super-soft and strong “ultraleather” synthetic leather, matte black fixtures, and tile-like flooring here.
The Caravel also adds dimmable LED lights (hooray!), frosted doors for the overhead storage areas in place of the Bambi’s silver roll-top lockers, a high-spec JL audio system in place of the Bambi’s JVC hardware, and an air conditioning system that is quieter and seamlessly integrated into the ceiling. As it stands, the Caravel offers six feet, seven-and-a-half inches between the floor and the clean silver ceiling, 3.5 inches more than the Bambi, which uses a large, central overhead A/C unit that drops down from above.
Outside, Caravels get the same second-skin steel rock guards for the front lower corners as the big trailers, beefier stabilizer jacks, a shock absorber on the axle, a powered hitch jack, twin stacked LED taillamps, optional roadside and rear awnings to match the standard curbside awnings, dimmable LED awning lights, and an extended rear bumper with handy storage supplementing the larger, full-width trunk. Bambi prices start at $48,900 for 16-footers and rise to $57,900 for the 22-foot model, while Caravels cost exactly $12,000 more in each size.
The Tiny, Tiny Trailer
We took particular interest in the little 16-foot Caravel for two reasons: first and foremost, to see to what extent all the comforts of (a tiny) home remain “comforts” when crammed inside a metal egg-shaped interior measuring just 13 feet by 7 feet, 7 inches at its widest points. That’s not even 100 square feet, let alone 400. Second, the Caravel’s stated curb weight of 3,500 pounds allows it to be towed by many mid-sized crossovers and even some passenger cars, hence many American families could feasibly buy an Airstream without needing a beefy new vehicle to tow it.
And so, we arranged for Airstream to hook one up to a denim blue 2019 Volvo XC90 T6 one Friday evening, with the goal of camping out in front of our friend’s place in the mountaintop village of Idyllwild, California, followed by a second night in an RV park in Palm Springs. We were ready for the full Airstream experience, and the trailer was loaded with every option: the $1,350 optional awnings and a $1,700 solar battery charging package. (Yes, there are only two options). Thus equipped, it rang a total of $65,284, including the $1,334 delivery charge. That’s more than four grand per foot. Baller.
Now is probably a good time to mention that until that day, your author had never towed anything – solo, anyway – in his life.
And so it was with some trepidation that we set off, immediately impressed with how well the Volvo’s turbocharged and supercharged, 316-horsepower four-cylinder engine – itself a prime example of effective and innovative engine downsizing, incidentally – could get on when saddled with the weight of the Airstream, a well-fed driver, and a fair amount of gear.The trailer’s extra foot of width limited the usefulness of the Volvo’s mirrors, but the rearview camera system of the trailer, connected to a supplementary screen installed by Airstream atop the XC90’s dashboard, provided a broad view aft, including surrounding lanes and effectively making up for the loss. A nifty equalizer hitch assembly, which Airstream showed me how to remove and install, creaked loudly when making tight turns but effectively limited the trailer’s propensities to sway and porpoise at highway speeds as we made my way eastward.
By 11 pm, we were approaching Idyllwild, feeling victorious for still being alive and keeping the entire rig in tact, particularly as the last section covered several dozen serpentine miles of crumbling asphalt roads, offering many opportunities to send wayward campers tumbling down the west slope of Mt. San Jacinto. We had even managed to turn around without assistance upon encountering a couple different roadblocks put in place while CalTrans restored portions that had washed out during last spring’s rains. Turns out the reverse camera is less than helpful in pitch black situations, but fortunately, the trailer is short and the axle close to the center, meaning that it’s quick to rotate (and jackknife if you’re not careful), so you don’t need a superhighway to turn around.
Shiny Disco Ball
At one point, noticing how the bright, nearly full moon was blanketing the dry mountain flora in cool white light, we pulled off the road to take it in. The moon’s diffused reflection followed us in the Airstream’s brushed metal aluminum body panels as we walked alongside it, though it’s also festooned with no fewer than 15 dazzling LED lights, four round tail lamps, and 11 clearance lights. The little Caravel was casting a red and yellow glow upon everything within about a 15-foot radius. Maybe all those lights need to be on dimmers, we thought. It looked like a goddamn spaceship. We christened it, “Shiny Disco Ball.”
Temps in Idyllwild were refreshingly mild, cooled by a light breeze as we arrived at my buddy’s place, and after meeting and greeting and then eating at the dinette with the windows open and fans running on power provided by its two deep cycle Group 24 batteries, we decided that conditions were favorable for sleeping in the Airstream without the A/C, which requires a 30-AMP connection that can be hard to come by outside of RV parks. Our buddy, who would be relegated to the roughly 40-by-84-inch convertible dinette sleeping area, opted to stay inside. The neighborhood is quiet and safe, so we left the blackout shades on the front and rear bay windows open, thus enhancing ventilation and providing a nice view of the moonlit trees. Then we burrowed into the specially tailored, high thread-count bedding and let the 48-inch-wide mattress with its memory foam pillow-top work its magic.
Windows And Dimmers: A Compelling Case For A Caravel
We awoke shortly after sunrise, taking in the mild mountain air and savoring what we consider to be the most impressive feature of the littlest Caravel: light – and tons of it – pouring in through its 10 windows and skylights (12 if you count the stacked side windows individually). These include full-width three-pane wraparound windows front and rear, each of which provide amazing, unobstructed 180-degree views of whatever pretty place (hopefully) one has plunked their rig. Keep the bedroom curtain pulled back and the swing-out flat-screen TV in its moorings near the foot of the bed and the Caravel 16RB feels 50 percent larger than it really is, effectively mitigating some of the claustrophobia one might expect to experience in such a small trailer. Indeed, we’ve slept in some New York City hotel rooms that felt more claustrophobic.
Interestingly, among all single-axle Airstreams, that window treatment is unique to the smallest CaravelThe added sense of spaciousness makes the $12K upgrade from the Bambi a no-brainer, especially if we were going to take longer trips in this thing. That, and the standard dimmers included for the Caravel’s bright LED cabin and patio awning lights. After all, we’re not cavemen.
Alas, the 16-footer’s wet bath, which is a combination toilet and shower stall, is the one thing that no amount of “ultraleather” or bay windows can help. It’s cramped. And after a shower, it’s cramped and wet. If you enter to use the toilet right after someone takes a shower and haven’t brought a towel, some portion of your clothes will likely serve the same purpose. Toiletry totes, too, should either be waterproof or kept elsewhere until needed, which is just as well considering there’s no sink in there, thus relegating toothbrushing, shaving, and such activities to the kitchen sink. Or, for exhibitionists, and/or anyone camping at a clothing optional resort, one could keep the bathroom dry by using the outdoor hot/cold shower on the roadside facade of the trailer.
To Airstream’s credit, this bathroom arrangement is hardly uncommon in trailers this small, and is probably the best way to incorporate such facilities into a space that also accommodates four horizontal adults humans, a stand-up closet, massive amounts of storage space above and below the bed and dinette, and a tiny, but complete kitchen.
Speaking of the kitchen, what it lacks in counter space, it makes up in space efficiency, fitting a microwave, a two-burner stove, a 3.1-cubic-foot refrigerator, the aforementioned sink with its black Moen faucet, a modicum of dish and grocery storage, a tempered glass Baraldi cooking vent, and two capsule-shaped side windows into an area about four feet long and two feet deep. Fortunately, all other Caravel and Bambi models boast larger bathrooms with dedicated sinks and separate toilet and showers spaces, as well as kitchens with usable counters.
The Elusive 30-Amp Plan B
That afternoon, we packed up and headed down to Palm Desert via the gorgeous Highway 74. Between the triple-digit heat and the relatively high speeds we had to scrub off during that particular descent, the Volvo’s brakes showed signs of heat soak, as did the trailer brakes, which required a few adjustments – done remotely from inside the cabin courtesy of a brake control unit provided by the Airstream dealer – to keep from seizing.
We rolled in to Palm Springs as temps hit a sizzling 113 degrees Fahrenheit and the winds strengthened, only to discover that the resort we were directed to was actually a 55-and-older community. Being about a decade away from joining that age bracket, and our friend even further away, we elected to join another friend at his home, where we could also park the Airstream in a place that provided refuge from pelting sand that was being kicked up by the wind.
Like most houses, his did not offer RV-grade 30-Amp hookups, so sleeping out there was not an option that night. We did, however, play cards and down a few beers, squeezing in one of the host’s single-room stand-up home air conditioning units so we could live to tell about it – more or less what we planned to do at the RV park. We wonder if there’s an air conditioner that Airstream could install that, if worse came to worse, could be run off a household power outlet, say, when one takes refuge at a friend’s place during a sandstorm.
Despite not enjoying a full campsite experience with the 2020 Airstream Caravel 16RB, we nonetheless returned the Caravel fully convinced of its worth. With better planning and a few more days, we expect it would have started feeling like a delightful little home – a tiny home, indeed – from which one might base any number of activities from camping to cycling to being lazy by a river. It’s classy on the inside and classic on the outside, and, being an Airstream, is perhaps the best fashion accessory a tow vehicle could ever ask for – seriously, it attracts more smiles better than a basket of puppies. Suddenly, four grand a foot seems kind of cheap.