Yep that’s right, we bought a new Airstream trailer this year. Buying a new travel trailer was a big purchase and an even bigger lifestyle change for us. After almost 18 years together our only “camping” experiences before this year were staying in cabins three times. So what made us decide to buy an expensive travel trailer???
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2022 is our 4th full year of early retirement and it’s also Covid Pandemic Year 3. The urge to “get down and run around” has taken over again! And now we have one more reason to be thankful for our family motto of All Options Considered, which helped us make another big personal choice together!
As 2021 wrapped up we did our end of year accounting to check our spending for the year, review our budget, and figure out how much cash we had left. The main thing we reviewed was the total cost of construction for the pa-in-law unit we had built for our housemate to live in on our property. Thanks to COVID, supply chain issues and inflation, that construction project ended up costing almost twice our original budget by the time it was finished and it took many months longer than we had estimated. Because of that we spent a good chunk of the money we had set aside to also work on the main house. We bought our fixer upper at a great price and intended to do a lot of remodeling in our own space but the pa-in-law was our priority. In addition to spending some really big dollars on construction we’ve also spent all of our patience for bigger remodeling projects for now.
We finished 2021 with about $50k left in our home remodel savings account. Our fixer upper could really use new/functioning kitchen cabinets, flooring, windows, doors, showers, toilets, bathroom and kitchen sinks, insulation, a furnace, and most importantly some wall and foundation repairs. We could do a lot with that $50k since we’d only want low cost upgrades and we don’t want or need anything high end in our house. But after a year and a half of living there we want to be done with all that for a while.
We’re ready to focus our time, money, and energy on something unrelated to our compound. This year we want to focus on experiences!
Idea 1 – van life
Back in December when we were deciding how to repurpose our home remodel cash I got a text message from some of our housesitting host friends letting us know they were selling their travel van. They knew we admired their van and had been talking about the idea of a van or trailer, and they generously offered us a friend discount to sweeten the deal.
Their van was a 2013 Leisure Travel Van Unity in excellent condition, with tons of upgrades and a full warranty covering everything from solar panels to appliances to the slide out. The price range they found for their van online was $95k to $115k (*cough).
The fact that they reached out to us out of the blue at the very moment we were discussing buying a van or trailer seemed like fate. But their friend discount price of $89k was much more than we wanted to spend and it was obviously way over our budget, so Alison was interested but also very clear it wasn’t a perfect match.
We talked through the details relating to that Unity van, and the reality that we couldn’t buy it on our own with our existing budget. Since that $89k was too much for us we discussed the idea of co-owning the van with Alison’s sister and her husband in order to cut the price in half. But after a couple of days we all decided it wasn’t right for any of us.
That’s when Alison and I decided to find the right van or trailer for us! What would be perfect for us at this point in our lives?
Setting our budget
Back in 2017 when we had our pre-retirement getaway weekend (our Seabrook Summit) we did a bunch of research on travel trailers since we were considering living in a trailer full time. At that point the idea of a trailer was discussed as more of a “need” as our primary home rather than entirely a “want,” which helped us wrap our brains around the concept of spending close to $100k on a trailer. That number was so big we needed to think of it as money for a tiny house on wheels in order to imagine spending that kind of cash. But we just weren’t comfortable making a purchase of that size on a trailer or van back then.
This time around our first parameter was our budget. We took the remainder of our home remodeling cash and gave it a new Money Job to buy a van or trailer. Of course we didn’t have exactly $50k but that’s the amount we rounded up to for our budget. And we figured we might have a bit left for buying whatever gear we needed plus we’d have our regular spending money for 2022 to use for supplies and gear as well.
This time we were talking about buying a trailer or van with no plan to live in it full time, and we acknowledged that would be all want and zero need. Now that we’re in our fourth year of early retirement we have much less anxiety about money, and since the cash was already in hand it was much easier to say YES to this idea.
We also reiterated an important detail… We bought a used Highlander (named Betty) in January of 2021, knowing that would give us the ability to tow a small lightweight trailer. That’s us, always trying to plan for all options! Betty is the right vehicle for us at this point so we didn’t spend any time discussing the idea of buying a bigger tow vehicle this year. Betty can tow a small camping trailer weighing up to 5,000 lbs and that’s enough for now.
Most importantly, we promised not to withdraw any extra cash from our retirement portfolio for the purchase of our first van or trailer. Our budget for some type of tiny home on wheels was $50k, and no more. Thank goodness we stuck to that promise because we’d both be dealing with serious regret right now if we had pulled out extra money weeks before the start of such a substantial market correction this year.
Setting our parameters
1 – Trailer!
Alison set the first parameter, which immediately narrowed down our options. As the primary driver in the family she said she’d rather tow a trailer than drive a van. Alison liked the idea of being able to drive Betty and tow a small trailer that we can drive away from, either at the compound or during our travels. Alison didn’t like the idea of buying a van which is really a second vehicle with an engine that would need to be driven and maintained regularly. And with our budget of $50K we really didn’t have enough cash for the type of van we’d be interested in.
2 – Toilet and shower!
I was ready and waiting to set the next parameter! I’m not interested in camping the way we both did as kids when our families had us sleeping in tents at Yosemite National Park with our food dangling from trees. I wanted a real toilet that flushes and a shower inside our trailer. I also wanted to be able to cook inside our trailer when cooking outside isn’t ideal. The bottom line for me is that tiny living makes me happy, but true camping isn’t my thing.
3 – Bigger bed!
The next parameter was obvious for both of us. Alison is 6 foot 3 inches tall, which is 75 inches, and she has a matching wingspan. Queen size beds are narrow for us since they’re only 60 inches wide by 80 inches long, and we really can’t sleep in a bed that’s smaller than that. We’d only consider buying a van or trailer that has a bed around queen sized or bigger, which narrows down our choices by a lot since many trailers and vans have beds closer in size to a double at around 54 inches wide by 75 inches long. That’s no bueno!
4 – Four seasons!
Many RV’ers travel with the seasons to stay in mild temperatures and avoid cold in winter and heat in summer. We wanted a trailer we could be comfortable in during all four seasons and all kinds of weather, just in case. Our trailer should be well-insulated with a furnace and air conditioner inside and heat strips for the tanks and underbelly outside. Those systems make trailers more expensive and heavier as well but four season comfort was a priority for us.
5 – Lightweight trailer!
We knew Betty could tow up to 5,000 pounds but we had a lot to learn about what that really meant for us. We were definitely going to make sure we found a trailer that was below Betty’s towing capacity, after it was fully loaded with everything we’d be adding to the mix. That’s really a no-brainer but it was a complicated puzzle to figure out. Safety first!!
Idea 2 – Travel trailer
There are a ton of trailer options to choose from including a wide range of brands and price points. We knew there were a bunch of low cost budget trailers that start at around $10k, but honestly the only brand we were really excited about was Airstream.
When we moved into our fixer upper house last year we bought very low cost towels, sheets, bed frames, and mattresses, a sofa, and a used dining room table and chairs. But when we were shopping for our travel trailer we didn’t want the cheapest option.
Some people like the look and performance of fiberglass shell trailers and others prefer aluminum shells. Some people want slide outs and others don’t want moving parts in their shell. We wanted to avoid fiberglass, and potential delamination issues. We also wanted to avoid slide outs and potential motor failure, misalignment, or leaks. Buying a trailer (or van) is a very personal purchase and people are drawn to different styles and brands. Airstream is the brand we’re drawn to.
We know Airstream is one of the more expensive brands in the RV industry but there are some good reasons for that. First of all there’s that gorgeous aluminum shell, and the fact that they’re built by hand with high quality materials. Knowing that most other RV brands are built to last around 15 years is concerning and does not jive with our values the way Airstream does. We appreciate that Airstreams are built to last for multiple generations and that they’ve made minimizing environmental impacts a priority.
We also love that the Airstream brand has so much name recognition and a very enthusiastic community of ready buyers looking for used trailers. We don’t know if this is a one year idea or a rest of our lives idea, so the fact that Airstreams are hard to find and easy to sell is appealing.
Bigger is better, right?
When we planned our early retirement in 2017 we visited an Airstream dealership in the Seattle area numerous times. Back then we were curious about Flying Cloud trailers up to 27 feet in length with beds that were 60 inches wide and 75 inches long. We compared those bigger Flying Cloud models with smaller Bambi, Basecamp, and Caravel models. But at the time the idea of full time international travel was more appealing and we didn’t feel ready to buy a trailer of our own. So much has changed since then!
Since we had already researched Airstream trailers we immediately focused on the Basecamp this time. The 16 foot Basecamp has an interior height of about 6 feett 3.5 inches, which is just tall enough for Alison to stand up in, and a bed that’s around 76 inches in width and length. Not bad for a small trailer! The 20 foot Basecamp is even more fabulous with an interior height of about 6 foot 7 inches, and a bed that’s around 82 inches by 78 inches.
It took a couple weeks for us to end the debate about the two Basecamp trailer sizes, mostly because I do think bigger is better (*wink!). Alison wanted the 16 foot Basecamp since it would be our starter trailer and we weren’t sure if we’d actually enjoy trailer life, but I was completely set on the 20 foot trailer. We decided to visit the Airstream dealership in Las Vegas in early January since they had both sizes on their lot (not available for us to buy) so we could spend some time exploring them in real life.
The 20 foot trailer is taller, wider, and it has a lot more storage space. And I love it! I’m convinced that bigger floor plan would be perfect for us, maybe so perfect that we’d want to live in it full time. But that extra space means the 20 foot Basecamp is 800 pounds heavier and costs about $10k more. So there you have it. The 20 foot Basecamp is too heavy for our current tow vehicle, or at least it’s too heavy for our comfort level with our current tow vehicle, and it’s over our current budget. Those two factors were both deal breakers for us so we decided to buy the smaller 16 foot Basecamp.
As I keep telling Alison, probably too often, we can always trade in our 16 foot trailer for a 20 foot model at some point in the future! But not until we’re willing to buy a truck with more towing capacity and we know that’s not happening anytime soon.
Finding our Basecamp
RV sales surged after the onset of the Covid pandemic so there’s a lot of demand for used and new vans and trailers these days. By the time we made our decision to buy a 16 foot Basecamp I was already searching the inventory of Airstream dealerships all over. By end of December last year I had talked with sales people at the Airstream dealerships in four different states.
Basecamp trailers are not easy to find these days, new or used. Three Airstream sales people said they couldn’t keep any of the smaller Airstream trailers on their lots and hadn’t received one that wasn’t pre-sold in over a year, and they had waiting lists for used models. We were advised that we could go with luck and hope to randomly find a used trailer or a new one someone preordered and canceled. Or we could pre-order a trailer from the factory in January and hope for delivery by the fall season.
I was determined to find our trailer immediately by luck, so I just kept looking at different dealerships and talked to a bunch of sales people. I started searching bigger RV dealerships that were certified by Airstream but selling all kinds of brands and on January 5, I found a Lazydays dealership with more than 100 trailers on the lot. They had two Airstream trailers and one was a new 2022 Basecamp 16x. Jackpot!
We called and double checked with a sales person and immediately gave a deposit so they would hold our trailer for us. Then we finalized our plans for buying the trailer and picking it up, and did a little celebratory dance!
The starting price for a Basecamp 16 is $43,900, but we wanted to add some additional options. We did another dance when we realized the trailer we found already had all of the extra options we wanted to add including the X package, AC and heat strips, and a solar package. It also included a microwave oven, which we didn’t want. At the end of our first trip we unloaded the trailer for the first time and removed the fancy little oven. We’re fine being limited to gas burners since that seems more like camping. We really needed the storage space and we’d rather give that little oven away to someone who needs it.
Learning about GVWR and towing capacity
As soon as we were serious about buying our own travel trailer we wanted to learn as much as possible about Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR). We have to make sure there’s a nerdy math section in everything we do!
Since our plan was to tow an aluminum trailer that’s small for an RV but bigger than our towing vehicle, we wanted to make sure we both understood how the math works for our entire towing setup so we can be safe on the road. GVWR is the maximum weight of our trailer when it’s fully loaded, including two full propane tanks, a full fresh water tank, and a full gray/black water combo tank, as well as all of our gear and belongings.
Our Betty Highlander can tow 5,000 pounds — when properly equipped. We made sure to buy an XLE V6 model but Betty didn’t come with a factory tow package and wasn’t fully equipped for towing when we bought it last year. We needed to get some work done on Betty to get ready to tow including installing a tow hitch receiver, 7-pin connector, brake controller, and heavy duty battery.
Even with those upgrades we want more safety and less risk so we planned to stay at least 10% below Betty’s towing capacity. We also decided to have a sway control hitch system installed on the trailer to minimize sway and control weight distribution. Towing is hard work and can strain the engine, transmission, and suspension and also wear down the brakes and tires on both vehicles at a faster rate compared to regular driving. And of course the more weight we tow the more gas we guzzle and that’s something we also want to minimize.
As a next step we drove over to the truck scales to weigh our tow vehicle for the first time. Then we visited the truck scales a second time after we got our trailer so we could weigh the car and trailer together. The gas tank was almost full in Betty that second time but the fresh and combo tanks were both empty in Bessie. We’re planning to visit the truck scales a third time on our next trip with all of the tanks full (gas, water, combo, and propane) because the weighing process is interesting and we are nerds that love gathering data.
We still have a lot to learn about weight distribution and safety, but the bottom line is we always want to keep our total combined weight as low as possible and well below 11,000 lbs.. After our first few trips we know Betty has to work very hard to pull Bessie, especially on any kind of uphill grade and that also means really low gas mileage to boot. We can’t imagine towing a bigger and heavier 20 foot Basecamp with Betty even though technically that would be under our max capacity. It will be interesting to try moving a little more weight back into the trailer since the first time we weighed the car and trailer together we had almost all of our gear in the back of the car instead of the trailer.
It will take us a while to figure all of this out and that’s part of the fun. For now we’re pretty focused on learning how the trailer functions since we’re just starting out. So our first few trips were about experiencing different kinds of weather, hookups, and locations.
How’d we pick the name Bessie?
When we picked up our Basecamp trailer I started calling her Basie Basecamp, but I’m more of a Bessie Smith girl than a Count Basie girl so a slight tweak was needed. And that’s how we ended up with a new trailer called Bessie Basecamp, which seemed to go perfectly with Betty.
Isn’t Bessie too tiny?
Bessie is around 100 sq ft inside, and honestly that’s comfortable for us. We’ve had Airbnb’s in Vietnam and Japan that weren’t much bigger. At the end of each trip I can clean the entire inside of the trailer in about 7 minutes! I wouldn’t mind a little more space, like maybe 4 more feet in length (haha). We sleep well in our trailer, especially on that last trip when it was warm enough to make a living room outside and we didn’t need to convert the bed back to a dinette. And it helped a lot to take out the microwave so we had a little more storage space. We really do like tiny living and we miss being in that space when we’re hanging out at home, which is a really good sign.
Where do we want to take our trailer?
We’re proud national park geeks, first and foremost, and we want to visit all of the mainland national parks with our trailer. Visiting national parks carries the same kind of thrill and splendor as visiting other countries for us. And all of the local and state parks we visit will be bonus locations.
I don’t think we’ll stay at KOA type facilities often, but our trailer purchase came with a year’s membership with Thousand Trails so I hope we’ll book at least one trip in their system during our trial membership. I’m sure there will be trips when a night at a KOA or Thousand Trails campground with all of the hookups is convenient.
We imagined tons of boondocking when we first started researching Airstream trailers in 2017, but now that we actually have a trailer and we’re camping instead of living in it full time, the idea of boondocking doesn’t seem as appealing. I’m sure we’ll try a little boondocking here and there but we’re not interested in complete isolation or extremely rugged locations at this point.
I’m sure we’ll do our fair share of moochdocking here and there when visiting friends and family. That’ll probably be limited to one or two night stays outside of a personal home on our way to other destinations. But I don’t think we’ll end up sleeping in a Walmart parking lot!
What about international travel?
We had a plan to take one of our nieces to Europe during the summer of 2021, which we postponed to summer of 2022 because of Covid. But after three years of talking about that trip idea and two years of delays we realized we had missed our window and life had moved on. It was hard to let go of the idea of gifting an all expense paid trip to Europe to our youngest niece now that we are really equipped to do something like that, but that’s life and it’s time to seek other horizons. Our nieces and nephews are all busy with their own lives now, as they should be. We support all of our nieces and nephews in finding their own way in life!! As sad as I was to miss that amazing opportunity, canceling that trip made it easier to say yes to buying a trailer.
Our last trip off this massive island of the Americas still seems pretty recent since we went to England in the winter of 2020/2021. Our friends invited us to visit their home area on the Isle of Wight and they did all sorts of things to make the trip easy for us so we could follow local quarantine rules and other Covid precautions. That last trip satisfied enough of our international travel cravings to last a few years!
We’ll be excited to travel internationally again before too long, hopefully to mainland Europe this time. We haven’t visited the EU since 2019 when we enjoyed a grand summer traveling around France for almost two months with Alisons Mom. We would love to return to Europe but we won’t try to force anything this year. We’ll enjoy Bessie the trailer as much as possible and wait for the wind to change direction again.
How does our trailer compare to nomad travel?
It doesn’t! After two years of nomad life we had our system down. We packed light and we didn’t need much more than a roller bag of clothes and a backpack for our laptops and phones.
Now that we have a trailer we need all kinds of gear, very little clothes, and plenty of food. But we still use our beloved packing cubes from our nomad days! Other things have changed over the last two years as I started adding more stuff to my routine, like face cream in addition to body lotion and all sorts of new vitamins and supplements. When we were nomads I was able to drop a lot of my OCD and germaphobe behaviors but that sort of thing has really blossomed in me since the start of the Covid pandemic and now we’re carrying more masks, wipes, gels, and sprays everywhere we go.
We tried to start our trailer packing by using our old nomad packing list and found that we needed a whole new list for our camping trips with our trailer, so we created a new Trailer Travel Packing List to keep ourselves organized. It will be interesting to see what we take with us on our next international trip!
What about frugality?
Let’s be clear, buying a travel trailer had nothing to do with being frugal. RV life has been popular in the USA for a very long time, and it has gotten even more trendy and popular over the last few years during the Covid pandemic. We each have family members who owned RV’s and we’ve been thinking about this option for ourselves for years. We just had to get into this stage in our lives, when we aren’t working and we aren’t traveling abroad much either. The time was right and the money was available, call it fate!
We used to say we didn’t want to go camping partly because we didn’t want to buy camping gear. Buying a trailer definitely opened up a can of worms and we’ve bought what seems like a ton of stuff to outfit our trailer and tow vehicle since then. At the end of our first few trips we made lists of things to buy or find at home for the next trip, but I think we’re all set now. Bessie is a tiny home on wheels so we needed things like bedding and cookware, and we’re ok with that. This is an investment in the lifestyle we want to create for ourselves, and that makes it an excellent use of our money!
That’s it for now!
Owning a trailer is a lifestyle choice that fits us perfectly right now. We’re grateful we were able to choose the type of trailer we wanted without needing to upgrade our tow vehicle. It seemed like it was meant to be when we found the exact trailer we wanted just a few hours away and we were able to pick it up immediately.
And we were thrilled we could pay for our new trailer with cash on hand without getting back into our retirement portfolio for more money. That funky old kitchen back at the house can wait!
We’re grateful that our housemate and his puppy have a nice new home on our property, and we’re happy we decided to move our focus away from remodeling our house as a next step for the compound. Rerouting our house cash to Bessie the trailer and switching our focus to experiences was the right decision for us.
We bought our trailer partly because we want to be in a position of YES, not in a position of fear. And luckily we are fortunate enough to put ourselves in a yes position. This was a big purchase for us and we were a bit nervous, but our family motto of All Options Considered helped us think this decision through as a couple so we could say yes together.
Each time we pack up our trailer we get that same feeling again, just like when we were traveling full time and moving to a new country. Bessie the Trailer is an investment in our happiness!