How to Live Full Time in an Airstream

Last updated on June 11, 2015

I often get asked for tips and tricks to live full time in an Airstream–and still live a half-way normal life. Now that it has been several years on the road, I guess it is time I write about everything that helps me live that half-way normal life. Who knows? Maybe you will learn something! Even you full-time RVers.

Tow Vehicle

My 2008 23-foot Airstream International CCD weighs around 5,500 pounds full of all of my stuff. With a tow capacity of 7,700 pounds, the Volkswagen Touareg is an outstanding tow vehicle for me. From 2009 to 2014, I towed over 100,000 miles with a 2009 Volkswagen Touareg V6. Then I upgraded to a 2014 Volkswagen Touareg TDI Clean Diesel. With diesel, I get about a 30% increase in fuel economy, and I don’t have to put in the more expensive premium gasoline that the V6 craved. I also notice the increased torque and decreased number of shifts while climbing the steep mountain passes. While descending, I can manually shift to one of eight gears to reduce braking. While every single Touareg offers the same tow capacity, the benefits of diesel would make it tough for me to ever go back to gasoline. Oh, and to get just a bit more storage capacity, I have an Inno Low Profile 15 Cubic Foot Shadow Cargo Box on the roof.

Connectivity

In order to stay connected on the road, I use a variety of communication tools. The most important device is my iPhone. I have it mounted on the dash of my Touareg with a clip from ProClip. All audio from the iPhone comes right through my car speakers via Bluetooth. This includes voice instructions from the GPS app and music from apps like Rdio. I also use apps like All Stays Camp & RV and web sites like rvparkreviews.com to find places to stay. And to keep an eye on the weather, I use Storm by Weather Underground.

All of this requires constant internet connectivity. Right now, Verizon is the carrier I recommend. It just works in so many places, and especially in more rural areas. I have a Pepwave MAX BR1 Wi-Fi router always plugged in to the 12V power supply in the Airstream. So as I go down the road or when I am in a campground, all of my devices pick up the Wi-Fi signal from my Pepwave. I tell the Pepwave to get its internet from the embedded Verizon card or from the local campground Wi-Fi. I have two omni-directional antennas permanently mounted on my roof to help with 3G/4G mobile connections and Wi-Fi signals. My iPhone is with AT&T. In the US, with my two devices, that means I have both Verizon and AT&T coverage. While in Canada, I put in a Canadian SIM card and used the local cellular network instead of paying exorbitant global data charges. One time I used Rogers; another time I used Bell. Awesome! I also depend upon businesses like Starbucks or trendy, local coffee shops. I like to mix it up by getting out of the Airstream to work in a local favorite spot.

There is plenty of solitude, but I have no intention of being a hermit. To stay in touch with friends and family (and people I meet on the road), I have this blog. I send out updates through Twitter and Facebook. I track my location nightly with Foursquare and it helps create a custom Google Map. I also use text messaging, the new Apple FaceTime and Skype for video calls, and the regular ol’ iPhone for phone calls. And when that iPhone has no signal, I can use Skype over Wi-Fi to make the phone call instead. With technology, it is pretty easy to stay in touch with everyone.

The Other Kind of Connectivity

There are plenty of cables, hoses, and adapters that are an absolute requirement to making life on the road safe and easy. I use the Equal-i-zer hitch, recommended by my Airstream dealer. Other than the squeaks, it has been a great way to help combat the wind while towing. Update: Just a little bit of perfectly placed lubricant from Equal-i-zer completely eliminates the squeaks! Always looking for electricity, I have two 25-foot 30A power cords, a 30A to 20A attachment, and a 50A to 30A attachment. For water, I recommend a coiled hose. It beats rolling up a regular hose by hand on every departure. I also put quick connect valves on my city water and pass-through water inlets. Again, it just speeds up the connection/disconnection time. Finally, every serious RVer needs a high quality sewer hose. I have tested several (don’t ask) and settled on the RhinoFLEX RV Sewer Hose Kit.

Television/Movies

When I started my journey, I didn’t plan on watching any television, but that plan soon fizzled. If high-speed internet is available (and I am in the US), I can watch movies on Netflix and Hulu. For the uber-geeks, check out put.io, a great cloud storage service and web-based BitTorrent client. It seriously rocks! For satellite television, I found a great product from Dish Network called the Winegard Pathway X1 Automatic Portable Satellite. It is a portable dish that automatically finds the correct satellite. It is reasonably inexpensive, there is no contract, and there are no setup/cancellation fees. And it works! I also scan for local HD channels and use a regular antenna on the roof to watch TV over-the-air–for free. I love watching the local news broadcasts to get a feel of the area. (Ha! As I am writing, a comedian just dropped a few f-bombs on local Canadian TV!)

Energy

In 2014, I finally upgraded my solar panels. I have two 135-watt solar panels and one 80-watt solar panel for a total of 350 watts of solar energy. They are connected to a Blue Sky 25MPPT/6/PRO charge controller that charges two deep cycle 12-volt Lifeline GPL-24T AGM batteries. I could use more batteries (or even get bigger 6-volt batteries), but I am constrained by space. Even still, the Lifeline AGM batteries are so much better than the original Interstate deep cycle marine batteries that came with the Airstream. While boondocking, a Magnum MMS-1012 Pure-Sine Wave Inverter powers all of my essentials with no problem whatsoever. I also replaced several factory-installed halogen lights with LED lights. It was as simple as unplugging the old halogens, and plugging the new LEDs into the same socket. One halogen light uses 15W while one LED light only uses 1W! To find restaurants, I use Siri, ask the locals, and follow TV shows that highlight local eateries. I actually do some cooking on my own, too. When I get hungry for dinner, I just pull out the tiny Weber Q Portable Grill and grill fresh meat and vegetables from the local organic market. It turns out I’m addicted to my morning coffee. When I don’t have electricity, I use my good ol’ Bodum Chambord French Press, but when I have electricity, I love my Nespresso Pixie Espresso Maker.

Climate Control

The Airstream does a pretty good job at dealing with all the different temperatures year-round. When parked, the windows and vents are almost always wide open. The vents will automatically shut if it starts to rain outside. Only for a few weeks in the summer do I find the need to turn on the air conditioner, and for that, I plug into shoreline electricity. I use the heater much more. Even in the summer, places like the desert get down right chilly at night. I normally just use the propane gas furnace because it can run off the 12V batteries. If I happen to run out of propane  (it always seems to happen at night in the middle of nowhere) and I have shoreline electricity, I will switch over to the electric heat pump, but it is insanely loud. Whatever I choose, a digital thermostat near my bed controls everything. Update: I recently purchased a Holmes Ultra-Quiet Dual Ceramic Heater that is super quiet and efficient. It seems to do the job when I have electricity available. And it is small enough to stow away when I don’t need it.

Comfort

There are a few things that help keep it a comfortable living space. One of the best decisions was to replace my factory mattress with a custom-fit memory foam mattress from Rocky Mountain Mattress. Awesome! On my dinette table, I replaced the standard mount with a sliding one. It lets me push the dinette table a few feet to either side, giving me more space to lay out and watch a movie, eat a meal, or get work done. When I’m outside, I sit on a Lafuma Mesh Recliner, and if it’s incredibly sunny or incredibly buggy, I work under the Coleman 10×10 Instant Screened Shelter. And if I can’t be comfortable in flip-flops and khaki shorts, I move to a different state!

Mail

I am the perfect fit for a mobile lifestyle. Years ago, I gave up on traditional paper-based newspapers, magazines, and postal mail. I consume almost all of my media electronically. Unfortunately, the IRS and banks and insurance providers still need a physical address, so my official address is through America’s Mailbox in South Dakota. With a driver’s license, a voter registration card (proxy vote), and license plates, I get official residency in the state of South Dakota and have no other address, whatsoever. Every so often, I tell America’s Mailbox to send a package filled with mail to wherever I am staying.

Finances

I use Ally Bank to pay bills electronically. I chose them because of their TV commercials. Well, kind of, but I also chose them because they reimburse me for any ATM fees I rack up by visiting random ATMs across the country. I use Mint.com to track how much money I spend on everything. It rocks!

Everyone–and I mean everyone–asks me about how much it really costs to live full time in an RV. The answer: it depends. Other than the initial cost of the Airstream and the Touareg, my two biggest expenses are campground fees and fuel costs. And these two expenses can vary wildly from month to month. During the winter months, when I seem to stay in one region, I usually take advantage of monthly campground rates which could be as much as 75% off the maximum daily rate. And because I’m not traveling, my gasoline bill is drastically reduced (by as much as 90%). But during the summer, when I seem to travel longer distances, it isn’t that uncommon for me to have to fill up my gas tank twice in one day. Depending on the state (or province) and time of year, fuel prices can be anywhere from $2.50/gallon to over $5.00/gallon. I can offset that cost by staying overnight for free at Cracker Barrel or Walmart, staying for free on public land, or staying for free with friends and family. I have seen campsites for as much as $175/night, but I seem to average about $20/night (Mint.com: “Campground” category filtered for the year “2011”). As you can see, the monthly costs of driving your house down the road can be a little more varied than the costs of homes without wheels.

The Good Life

I love the freedom, the flexibility, the spontaneous life on the road. There have been many times when I start to drive with no destination in mind. My only requirement: good weather!

 

Also see: Can I Afford to Live Full Time in an Airstream?

 

  • Jude

    This is great information! Thanks for taking the time to put all of your insights down for everyone to read. It helped answer a lot of the looming questions I had about full-timing. See you on twitter!

    • Kyle Bolstad

      Thanks, Jude! Let me know if you still have any looming questions. See you on the road!

  • Lani

    Great entry! I told Chris about your Rogers plan as we both would love to spend more time in Canada.. Good to know about – we got slammed with some charges last year.

    Oh, and I will have to check out Brightkite! Thanks for all the tips!

    • Kyle Bolstad

      Thanks, Lani! Yeah, the Rogers plan is working out great. I used my credit card number to sign up, but had to put a Canadian address — my campground. I will soon be heading east towards you.

      • Anna-Marie White

        REALLY helpful Kyle thank you for this post. We are going to switch out our hose for yours. Buy a bunch of velcro and maybe even look into a couple of those crates. Best of all though, this comment explaining how you used the Campground for your Canadian address – – FABulous idea! Last time I went back home to Canada that was a big pain to have my stuff sent to a friend and go pick it up. This one tip will likely save me more frustration than you can imagine. Thank you so much for all the great tips and btw LoVeD the links and check them all out. 
        AnnaMarie and Mike, with the Platinum Airship

  • Rob

    Hey Kyle,

    You’re my hero! Not only do you live in your Airstream, you are an Apple fan and frequent REI. Three of my favorite things. I haven’t bought my Airstream yet, but am compiling 100+ reasons why Airstreams are so dang cool. Your blog is packed with ’em.

    Thanks for the info!

    • Kyle Bolstad

      Thanks, Rob! Glad I could help with your compilation.

  • rg coleman

    Great post, Kyle! We’ll be outfitting our DWR Airstream as a WiFi hotspot and adding solar panels this winter. Good resources!

    • Kyle Bolstad

      Two things that are necessities in the Airstream — Wi-Fi and solar!

  • Grace

    Just as an aside, my mom HATES the Ally Bank commercials. She thinks it’s cruel to show a child a pony and then not actually give her one (although I have a vague childhood memory of her doing the same thing to me). Interesting info; now I know where to turn should I ever find myself with an Airstream!

    • Kyle Bolstad

      Yeah, those commercials aren’t right. But they got me to sign up!

  • Dick Booth

    Hey Kyle, What’s not to enjoy in the Keys. I used to have some friends that lived in Marathon and always enjoyed visiting with them. For your information, the Wi-Fi is working very well and most seem to be satisfied. Your help was invaluable. Stay safe on your travels and stay in touch.
    Dick & Barbara

  • Eric Shelton

    This was an amazing write-up, and exactly the type of information I was looking for- especially the mail service part! Thanks for being so all-inclusive with your post! I’ve recently taken a job that requires moving often and thought buying an Airstream made more sense than flushing money on rent or long-term hotels but I’ve been scared to make the leap. Can’t thank you enough for helping to assuage some of my fears (like data connectivity for laptops, Hulu, work, etc.).

    Got any cold weather advice for somebody who might have to spend a winter in Fargo, ND? My vehicle isn’t suited for towing, but I figured I’d just pay a trailer towing service to haul my house to my next job site…

    • Anonymous

      Thanks, Eric. Glad to help. I know people who do it, but I don’t have much fun when the weather stays below 40 degrees or so. My Airstream just isn’t built for freezing weather. That is why I go where the weather is warmer. If you are set on it, make sure to have plenty of propane on hand, and get a good electric space heater. And find a way to keep your water hose from freezing. Either detach it at night, or wrap it with insulation, or provide heat to it. Good luck!

  • Natalie

    Hey Kyle.

    What do you do for fresh water and sewage?

    Thanks!

    • Natalie,

      I have a fresh water tank (so I can shower, wash dishes, etc.), a gray water tank (to hold shower and sink water waste), and a black water tank (to hold toilet waste). If I try really hard, I can go over a week without resupplying/dumping tanks. I try to stay at places with water and electric hookups. If I stay at a place with full hookups (water, electric, and sewer) then I make sure to empty my black/gray water tanks. Even if a place doesn’t have sewer hookups at individual campsites, almost all have a dump station to dump tanks, and a separate potable water station to fill up with fresh water. Hope that helps!

  • Wow! Thank you for such a good article. I’ve been saving to buy my very first airstream and am looking for location independent jobs but I had a bunch of unanswered questions about full timing. Thanks for clearing up a lot of the little things!

    • You’re welcome, Natalie! Hope to see you on the road someday.

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  • Rita

    Wow, I am glad I found your site! In a few months, I am selling my house, buying an Airstream and hitting the road. So this is perfect reading for me right now as I get ready for the change. Thanks, Kyle!

    • Kyle

      Glad to help! Good luck, and hope to see you on the road.