Restless millennials may have spawned the booming #vanlife movement, but wanderlust has been baked into the American identity for generations — just look at Airstream. The Ohio company built its first airplane-inspired silver trailer in 1929, long before Instagram, Airbnb, or even the humble hashtag, and the company has been an icon of life on the road ever since.
But 89 years later, as it sells upfitted Sprinter vans that start at $215,900, Airstream’s modern reputation leans more “retired snowbird” than “YouTube vagabond.” Are any of the best trailers fit for folks under 40?
Airstream is certainly trying to make one. Meet the Basecamp, a streamlined (read: smaller) version of Airstream’s classic silver bullet trailers, chock-full of 21st Century technology aimed squarely at the #vanlife generation — we’re looking at you, Troy Murphy. It carries much of what makes an Airstream an Airstream — iconic design, high-quality construction, and inherent convenience — with a much lower $36,400 starting price. Airstream’s slick marketing videos show millennials in yoga pants and flannel pedaling around on mountain bikes and sipping riverside beers, set to a rock soundtrack. But can Airstream get the under-40 crowd to appreciate #trailerlife and all the soft amenities that go with it?
Naturally, we had to find out. So we sent two editors — one 30-something, one 40-something — on a camping trip along Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge in our very own loaner Basecamp. They rolled home on Sunday at odds with one another, not over the Basecamp’s capability or quality, but over its necessity. As it turns out, whether an Airstream makes sense in your life might depend a lot on exactly how far along in it you are.
Rick Stella, Outdoor Editor:
At 31 years old, I fall squarely into the classification of millennial. But after spending a weekend with the Basecamp, I continued to come back to this one thought: This just isn’t for me.
This sentiment has absolutely nothing to do with the trailer’s quality or intended use but rather, it just doesn’t add a high level of convenience to my camping experience. Of course, I appreciated its amenities but at the end of the day, I didn’t need them to enjoy a night away camping.
Take the Basecamp’s kitchen, for instance. With an integrated two-burner stove, sink, refrigerator, microwave, I had all the tools at my disposal to make just about any meal I wanted. But then again, a normal Coleman stove, cooler, and cast-iron skillet will do the same job with a bit more preparation. On backpacking trips, hauling a Jetboil stove and eating dehydrated food out of a bag isn’t something I bemoan; it’s just part of the experience. As for running water, my LifeStraw filtration system turns any creek into a drinking fountain, although it isn’t as easy as turning a knob.
Caleb Denison, Senior A/V Editor
You’re right, Rick: This trailer isn’t for you, it’s for me.
As a 42-year old with a family, my tent camping days are few and far between, and my backpacking days are in the rear-view mirror. I still feel the call to haul into the deep woods with only the barest of essentials on my back and a twinkle of adventure in my eye, but it’s just not practical for me anymore. I’m no silver fox (yet), but I do have two kids who, right or wrong, prefer glamping to more traditional camping.
If I want to get out into nature for a couple of days and explore a trail, or chill out by a river for a weekend of fishing, I need a way to get out the door quick and be set up for fun within a matter of minutes after arriving at my destination. The Airstream Basecamp trailer lets me do that with ease.
The built-in fridge means I don’t need to worry about constantly restocking coolers with ice, and it even runs on propane if I’m without power or the battery somehow runs empty. Speaking of propane, two 20-pound tanks on board and a two-star stove mean I can cook in comfort at all times, in all seasons — there will be no rain on my culinary parade or wind blowing out the fire beneath my cast-iron pot of jambalaya.
The Basecamp trailer is designed to make meals for many a pleasure, leaving more time for me and my family to enjoy our surroundings.
And the sink? The sink? That glass-covered stainless-steel bowl with pressurized hot water means while you’re still messing around with a plastic tub and multiple trips to the creek after lunch, my dishes are done and I’m already down at the river with a line in the water catching dinner.
About that microwave: I’ll grant you it has no place in the wilderness — everyone knows Jiffy Pop on the stove is the only way to pop corn when camping. But every other kitchen convenience built into the Airstream Basecamp trailer is designed to make meals for many a pleasure — not a hassle — leaving more time for me and my family to enjoy our surroundings.
Call me crazy, but I’d file the Basecamp’s bathroom in the same category as the microwave. The utility and convenience of having your own bathroom — and a clean one, at that — isn’t lost on me, but I’m fine using a campground’s provided restroom. Sure, there’s something to be said for being able to stay inside when the urge arises in the middle of the night, but it still doesn’t make me think I have to own one of these trailers. But ask me again when I’m digging a hole in the forest in the middle of the night and perhaps I’ll change my tune.
I will admit that a hot shower is a game changer. I’m alright with using a community restroom, but if a campground has a community shower, I tend to stay away for two reasons: They’re almost always ice cold, and they’re typically a bona fide cesspool. I’d rather not shower for two days than venture into that kind of unknown. Plus, who doesn’t love the sensation of a warm shower after a few days on the trail? Having access to this while still on the trail is a genuine luxury, to be sure.
The Basecamp even lets you feed the shower head outside for al fresco showers. Do I want these kinds of benefits while camping? Absolutely. But do I need them? Not exactly.
All you’ve done here is sell me a trailer I already want, Rick.
Give me a shovel and a handful of leaves and I’m good. My family? They’ll tolerate vault toilets, but if I can offer them a hot shower and a clean, private space to do their other “business,” the resistance to an impromptu trip to the woods is virtually eliminated.
Also, we live in the Pacific Northwest, where camping-friendly weather is restricted to three or four months out of the year. I’d like to get out more often, and having a dry, warm place to stay is clutch for that. If I can take a trip in November or February and venture out in the mud and muck knowing I have a little haven waiting for me where I can clean up and warm up, I’m going to get out more often.
The Basecamp is a rolling power station, and that can pay off in a big way.
Let’s not forget that the Basecamp is a rolling power station, and that can pay off in a big way for a family like mine. If I need to charge a Bluetooth speaker and a phone to play some music, I’ve got all the power I need. I think I counted something like eight USB outlets and six or seven normal wall outlets on board. For extended trips, that kind of connectivity is essential, and rooftop solar panels make sure the battery is always juiced up to keep the water pump, onboard heater, and just about everything else functioning off the grid. I call that freedom without compromise.
All of that and just about anyone can tow it. If you’ve got a crossover or light pickup, you’re ready to hit the road. My gas mileage barely took a hit over the course of the 500 miles I towed it with my Toyota Tacoma, so it’s light on the wallet after you purchase it.
Don’t get me wrong, I agree with every point you made. It’s convenient, comfortable, accessible, and makes camping in the Pacific Northwest at any time of year downright easy — especially with a family. But that’s exactly what I’d expect a decked-out, $40,000 travel trailer to do. How many millennials have that kind of money?
The Basecamp’s true perfect owner is a decade older — and an income bracket away — from the millennials Airstream seems to be targeting.
If I’m going to spend a weekend mountain biking, I’m piling into those same crossovers and pickups, sans trailer. My tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag will pale in comparison to the plush sleeping quarters of the Basecamp, and it may get cold or wet during a late September trek, but it’s clear those conveniences are much more vital to you and your family than to me. Hell, even the fact it’s a rolling power station is something I can easily overcome with a juiced-up batch of external chargers and a durable Bluetooth speaker.
But I’ll admit: If we ignore the price, get past the Airstream advertisements, and take the Basecamp solely at face value, it’s hard to truly not want one. You won’t find a better-built trailer that offers as efficient a use of space packed to the gills with modern technology. And if you do, it’s going to cost around $40,000.