Camping in an Airstream Whets Appetite for More

Airstream 9 II

By Aaron Bragman

Driving to Airstream's world headquarters isn't the most exciting voyage you'll undertake, but driving away from it with a snazzy aluminum travel trailer in tow is a much more exciting endeavor.

After fighting miles of road construction on Interstate 75 south of Detroit, I exited and drove another dozen or so miles through pure Midwest farm country before arriving in Jackson Center, Ohio. It's an unremarkable little place, one of those Rust Belt factory towns that you hear so much about during the election cycles; one that surely relies heavily on the town's big employer — travel trailer and recreational vehicle maker Airstream Inc. Thankfully, Airstream is currently doing gangbusters business, selling high-dollar RVs that are in big demand during this robust economic time.

I arrived behind the wheel of a 2016 GMC Canyon equipped with the Duramax 2.8-liter turbo-diesel engine to pick up an Airstream Sport 22FB travel trailer for a long weekend. The purpose was to test the diesel Canyon's ability to tow a significant load through the hills of southern Pennsylvania to a friend's hilltop compound for a birthday weekend. The invitation suggested bringing a tent to stay on the host's 43-acre plot. I figured I could do better than a tent.

That led me to a stop at Airstream's sprawling 195,000-square-foot factory complex in central Ohio. Airstream invited me to take a tour before picking up the trailer, and it's well worth doing (public tours are offered at 2 p.m. weekdays). The tour opens the door to a fascinating mix of nostalgic and modern manufacturing, just like the trailers themselves.

Airstream's Manufacturing Center

The rounded aluminum panels are formed on-site from flat sheet aluminum, stretched by hand over a mold in Airstream's original plant. That plant has been around since Airstream began manufacturing in Ohio in the 1950s; it's a repurposed former bazooka plant leftover from World War II. Behind this building is where Airstream converts Mercedes-Benz Sprinter vans into motorhomes that have become extremely popular with affluent buyers.

"We get a lot of pro athletes buying them; they love them," said Steven Hileman, Airstream marketing director. 

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Across the street is Airstream's factory service center and gift shop. Here you can bring your Airstream to be serviced, upgraded or repaired. Given that the trailers are all riveted aluminum construction; it may be difficult for your local garage to repair a damaged trailer.

"There are owners who only let us touch their Airstream," Hileman said, with folks driving long distances to bring their RV to be worked on by the company's skilled technicians. With full-hookup campsites on the premises, owners can even stay in their trailers while there.

There's no Airstream museum yet, but fans may not have to wait long. Airstream's recent profitability has enabled it to start thinking about setting up a foundation to make something like that happen. Until then, historical models from Airstream's rich heritage sit on the lot behind the service center, including a stunning special model built for Airstream founder Wally Byam's wife out of gold-anodized aluminum, the only one of its kind.

The main plant is just past the sprawling multibay service center. Originally a 100,000-square-foot facility, it has since almost doubled in volume to accommodate the 3,000 to 4,000 vehicles that Airstream makes a year. The most astonishing feature of the Airstream manufacturing process is just how much is done by hand, from forming and riveting the aluminum panels to building the cabinetry that goes into each one. The plant almost looks more like a furniture factory than a travel trailer assembly factory, given how much wood lamination, computer numeric controlled milling, gluing and cabinet assembly occurs.

Building an Airstream

Building an Airstream starts with panels, both curved and straight, and aluminum extrusions brought in from Alcoa being bent and formed into the appropriate shapes on large racks. Sides, floors and roofs are stretched, shaped and machined out of single flat sheets, then all of these panels are hand riveted by a pair of technicians.

"There's one riveter on the outside of the shell and another on the inside, each doing the same rivet at the same time," Hileman explained. "They work together and get into a rhythm that they learn over time. People hired into this position work with the same partner for the whole time they do this job, so they learn the rhythm of the other."

There's no welding at all in the main plant, in order to keep the place spotlessly clean, but some aluminum welding is performed in a separate building.

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The plant employs about 900 people, and Airstream has no shortage of highly skilled workers to choose from.

"There's a lot of Honda manufacturing around here, but we offer a slightly different working environment," Hileman said, explaining that the plant does not operate on a round-the-clock schedule. Workers who are good at manufacturing but need a set schedule find Airstream to be ideal; they can go home at the end of the day and take care of their kids on a normal schedule instead of having to work third shift, for instance.

Once the shell is made and all exterior windows and doors are installed, it's hoisted into the air by a crane and mated to the trailer chassis, a steel platform delivered whole instead of made on-site. Once the shell and chassis are mated, the trailer goes through a shower to test for watertightness.

When a trailer is deemed water free the interior build-out commences. First insulation is installed; it's a material that's 70 percent sand that insulates and makes the trailer quite soundproof. Interior aluminum skins are riveted in place, and then cabinets, beds, storage, appliances, bathrooms and all sorts of tanks and electronics are installed. Interestingly, everything that's inside an Airstream trailer has to fit through the door — nothing is built inside the trailer itself.

The result is a luxurious travel trailer quite unlike those produced by most other camper manufacturers. They resemble an Ikea display ("How to Live in 150 Square Feet") more than an RV. That Scandinavian look is popular with Airstream buyers, Hileman said, who favor clean lines and surfaces to the kitschy American "country" look many RVs employ.

Setting Up Camp

I returned from the tour to find that the Airstream techs had hooked my Canyon to a shiny, 22-foot 2016 Sport, a single-axle "Bambi" type trailer that weighs about 3,600 pounds empty and up to 4,200 with all the stuff needed to survive for a weekend such as water, liquid petroleum gas, etc. My route out of Ohio avoided the traffic in Columbus, cut across a corner of West Virginia and rolled into southern Pennsylvania about an hour south of Pittsburgh near the town of Charleroi, deep in the lands that Bruce Springsteen often sings about.

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Setting up the Airstream on a hilltop campsite on my friend's rural estate was relatively straightforward. I leveled the trailer by rolling one of the wheels onto some stackable plastic tiles, extended the four corner leveling jacks and dropped the awning. That's it; I was done.

The Sport can operate off the grid if necessary, but it's really more in its element at campsites with electrical power, water and sewer. Without a 30-amp external electrical hookup, you're limited to operating off the onboard 12-volt battery or a generator that you may have brought with you. I had neither a generator nor a 30-amp circuit, so no air conditioning or microwave oven for me. But the internal 110-volt outlets still worked and the air-conditioning unit can still operate as a blower fan. Most of what you need will run off the batteries just fine, however. The fridge was actually an RV model that can run off onboard LP gas (as does the water heater), and the water pump, vent fan and LED lights are easily powered by the trailer's batteries. Recharging the batteries is done off the tow vehicle's alternator — drive for four to five hours and they should charge right up.

The Sport 22 was surprisingly roomy, with plenty of space for two people on a weekend getaway. For longer trips you'd probably want a larger trailer, if only to keep some sanity by having more personal space. The bed is nearly queen size, but a second bed is available if one lowers the dinette table and rearranges some cushions. The bathroom also was surprisingly spacious. I only wish the main storage cupboard had a locking mechanism to prevent things from tumbling out while the trailer is in motion. An onboard 20-gallon freshwater tank is big enough for a weekend of two people's use if you limit your showers to brief daily events. Pennsylvania's hot summer weather had me in the shower twice a day, and after the third day we had to refill the tank using a garden hose.

Four nights in the Sport camped out on a hilltop overlooking the country hills could not have been more pleasant. Comfortable, stylish and well-engineered, the Airstream Sport 22 was a fun experience. I did get the idea that to really get the most out of the trailer life, you really need to take it to an actual campground. Having electrical power, water, sewer and a flat and level campsite would have made a pleasant experience even better. But what you gain in convenience, you lose in quiet, relaxing solitude, so trade-offs are unavoidable.

My taste of trailer life in an Airstream was certainly appetizing; I can understand the appeal. And as a companion vehicle, the '16 Canyon diesel proved to be truly outstanding. Read more about how it performed towing my aluminum apartment across three states here. photos by Aaron Bragman


Airstream Canyon 1 II

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Always wanted a Airstream. Hopefully one day.

The absolute best in quality. Don't know why people don't spend the extra 10 grand for an airstream over all the other fiberglass crap out there. And you get the money back in resale value anyway. It is hard to find airstreams on Craigslist

Just returned from a visit to the Apostle Islands with my 16'Sport.Bayfield provides a great "jumping off" place to enjoy the outstanding scenery of this beautiful area. The Airstream provided all the comforts I enjoyed, especially during those intermittent thunderstorms. Can't say enough how much I appreciate my Bambi.

Why would anyone in their right minds fool around with Craigslist? It's a criminal's paradise.

Camping in an airstream? I daydream about not having a mortgage and living in one.

Not really " the goods" in Australia. Been two attempts to sell them in Australia, but buyers here have no interest.Aluminium Caravans have been made and sold here prior, but have never caught on . There are " conventional" Caravans that are over 50yrs old on the roads here.
A company has been making Caravans since 1928 and has been in the same family since then

No mention of the ridiculous cost of these OTD new? Most people aren't in the same buyer's bracket as "pro athletes"

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