Whether you are dry camping or living your life full-time on the road, safety is always the key to a great and fun experience. Those who are new to adventure on the road may not be aware of some important tips and tricks in having a successful trip with an Airstream. Knowing some tips and tricks on how to handle Airstream will keep you safe while on the road.
In order to keep safe while towing an Airstream, you have to know the government weight restrictions, and you need to find the right tow vehicle, know the basic rules of the road, ensure to check everything from brakes to lights, and so much more.
1. Know The Government Weight Restrictions
Before purchasing your Airstream, it is best to do some research on the government’s weight restrictions. The tow vehicle is assigned a gross combined weight rating (GVWR), which includes the total amount of weight your vehicle can carry and tow. Having said this, all the weight, whether in the trailer or on your tow vehicle, needs to add up to less than the GVWR.
If you are purchasing an Airstream, don’t just consider the weight itself, but also keep in mind how much extra weight you will add when you are fully loaded for your life on the road. Once you’ve purchased your Airstream and your tow vehicle, head to a weighing station and make sure that you are below the allowed GCWR.
When you exceed the limit and get pulled over, you will be facing a serious fine. You always have to tow safe and smartly by keeping a close eye on your weight when towing.
2. Finding the Right Tow Vehicle: Know the Numbers
One of the best features of an Airstream is you get to tow it behind a vehicle. There are plenty of tow vehicles that you can use to tow your Airstream. However, it would be best to make sure that the tow vehicle is compatible with your Airstream model. When choosing a tow vehicle, safety is the most important factor.
The vehicle that you will choose should be able to tow your Airstream safely, and it’s up to you to understand the safe operating procedures. When you have understood these procedures, you would have to make a lot of choices. There are two most important factors that you need to consider when choosing your tow vehicle.
The first one is to understand your Airstream and your tow vehicle’s weight, how the weight changes when you add your gear, clothes, food, passengers, and other necessities. The other factor is power, and there’s a lot to consider with this one. However, the bottom line is that you need a vehicle that’s powerful enough to tow your Airstream safely and carry everything from people to your belongings.
Once you’ve found the best type of vehicle, whether it’s a hybrid, van, or truck, for your needs, it is crucial to understand the following weight considerations and limits. Most of the Airstream dealerships and dealers can address all the nuances of these numbers, but it is still best to know these terms.
Gross Vehicle Weight Rating or GVWR. This pertains to the maximum allowable loaded weight of your tow vehicle or Airstream. The GVWR is set by the manufacturers, and this number includes the weight of passengers, cargo, and the vehicle itself. Exceeding the set number would lead to significant risks such as difficulty controlling, slowing, or stopping.
Tow Rating. This is the vehicle manufacturer’s rating of the maximum weight that a vehicle can safely tow. The RV’s GVWR should not exceed the tow vehicle’s tow rating.
Net Carrying Capacity or NCC. The total weight that your Airstream can carry also includes cargo and passengers. The NCC doesn’t include the unit’s weight, so make sure not to overload your Airstream. Excess weight can create a dangerous amount of inertia, resulting in difficulty of stopping. Over time, the added pounds will take a toll on your tow vehicle’s brakes, suspension, frame, and engine.
Unit Base Weight or UBW. This is sometimes called the ‘dry weight,’ and it pertains to how much your Airstream weighed when it rolled off the assembly line. The weight doesn’t include the stuff that you’ll be placing in your Airstream.
Hitch Weight or HW. Also known as the tongue weight, meaning it is the amount of weight a trailer’s tongue places on the tow vehicle’s hitch. Since the hitch is attached to the tow vehicle’s frame, exceeding this weight will push down the rear of your tow vehicle. This can result in not having enough weight to be on the front of the axles, making it difficult to steer, a possibility of losing traction and trouble stopping.
The hitch weight can be influenced by the distribution of weight inside your Airstream. Let’s say you are bumping against your tow vehicle’s hitch weight limit, and you should consider the distribution hit, which can help level out your Airstream and tow vehicle. The HW includes the batteries and propane tank weight.
Occupant and Cargo Carrying Capacity or OCCC. As per the name, this is the maximum allowable weight for everything onboard, which includes people, pets, food, tools, full water, LP tanks, and other personal belongings. This weight is applied to motorized RVs.
3. Be Aware of the Type of Tow Vehicle
There are three basic types of vehicles for towing, which are trucks, vans, and SUVs. Almost all of them are built on the same frame as trucks, which means their bones are the same, but the skins and guts are different. Each of the tow vehicles has its own advantages and disadvantages that you need to know.
Trucks. Trucks tend to be the standard tow vehicle since they have the highest towing capacity and can tow the widest range of trailers. It is also the cheapest of the three primary options, pound per pound. Most of the trucks are made for towing since they are 4WD, which makes them great for off-roading when not towing.
Vans. Now, not everyone thinks vans are for towing, but they also have their advantages over trucks. Aside from being able to tow your Airstream, they also have a larger cabin where you can add your belongings or add more passengers to it. Cargo vans are not generally set up for towing but can still be useful. A Chevy Cargo van would be a great choice for towing.
SUVs. Airstreams are light enough, which makes most of the SUVs the right vehicle to tow them. It would be best to find an SUV designated for towing; usually, these are SUVs built on a truck chassis. The main advantage of having an SUV as a tow vehicle is its comfort. They have room for a full family to travel in style with great sound, tv screens, and full climate control.
It is such a great vehicle for long drives. Now, the only catch is you need to be extra careful of the max payload of SUVs. To begin with, they are already heavy and tend to be owned by large families who often like to carry a lot of stuff. Packing it to the gills and towing a load right at the maximum can overload the vehicle.
Another disadvantage is that not all of them have very much cargo compared to trucks or vans. When you are thinking about being a full-timer on the road, it can be more of an issue than if you are just camping. A bonus with SUVs is they tend to have a much better safety record than trucks or vans. They are built for families and include every airbag imaginable.
Just to sum up, trucks are best at towing, have plenty of options, the best value, but with the least seating. On the other hand, vans have the most storage, versatility, but you have to watch your max payload. Lastly, SUVs are better for safety, most comfortable but have the least storage, weakest towing, most expensive, and you also have to watch for your max payload.
4. Know The Basic Road Rules
It is easy when tow vehicles and trailers are well matched and set up when towing on an open road. However, you shouldn’t be driving at the same speeds as you would without a trailer. One aspect of towing is you must constantly be aware of the dramatic difference in vehicle acceleration and stopping caused by the added weight of the trailer.
A great example is a full-size, four-door pickup that is going at a 60mph speed typically stopping in about 150 feet in an emergency brake situation on dry pavement. If you add a 4500-pound trailer package to the equation, the distance can easily be 220 feet which is a difference of 40 percent.
When this is the case, once a vehicle suddenly stops in front of you, 70 feet will make a big difference in whether you can stop your vehicle on time. As a guide to safe speeds, it is best to apply a four-second towing rule and leave at least four seconds between your vehicle and the one ahead at whatever you are driving. This is as long as the road conditions are in good shape. When the road conditions are bad, make sure to leave six seconds of distance.
The additional weight of the trailer would also affect the acceleration and takes almost twice as long for a vehicle towing a medium-size toy hauler to accelerate from zero to 60mph, or from 30 to 50mps without a tow. When it comes to towing, it requires undivided driver attention.
The biggest challenge when it comes to first-time drivers is changing their driving style. Slowing down and being attentive to your surroundings and people is important. When doing this, it will make towing Airstreams easy for someone who tried it for the first time.
5. Make Sure to Stop The Sway
When preparing your Airstream and your towing vehicle, you don’t want them to sway to the music, or else you’ll be in big trouble. You want to avoid trailer sway by placing heavier cargo forward in front of the trailer’s axle. You want to center the cargo and tie it down since shifting can cause swaying as well. Find the right balanced weight of the trailer with the placement, and from there, you will have a smooth ride.
Checking your weight distribution can stop the sway when you are driving. Advance practice will make the towing experience less stressful and easier on your hands while you are on the road.
Check Your Airstream and Vehicle’s Tires
Here, it would help to make sure that the tire pressure on both your tow vehicle and Airstream meets the specifications set by the manufacturer. If you have under-inflated tires, it will negatively affect handling and cause more of the tire’s surface to touch the ground. This will then result in friction meaning the tires are more likely to overheat and blow out.
With properly inflated tires, you will get better fuel economy as well. To find the right inflation pressures for your vehicle, you can look at the tire pressure label. This is usually located on the frame on the driver’s side. Once you’ve checked the right inflation, you should also check the speed rating on the tires for both your Airstream and tow vehicle.
If you need to be reminded of the speed that you need to stay under, you can place a post-it in the middle of your steering wheel. Check the tire pressure of the spare tires for your vehicle and Airstream when taking a long trip, just for good measure.
6. Check Your Backup Systems
The backup system would include the emergency breakaway cable that is attached to your towing vehicle before you head for the road. If in case the trailer somehow disconnects from the hitch, this cable is designed to trigger the trailer brakes and will stop it quickly.
You can think of the emergency cable as an emergency cord on a treadmill. If it disconnects, it will stop the trailer quickly.
7. Check Your Lights
The taillights and marker lamps on your trailer may not sound important, but it is. Large trailers or loads can obscure tail lights on your tow vehicle. When the lights on your trailer aren’t illuminated, it can be difficult for other drivers to see you at night.
Having said this, collisions might occur when the tail lights are not working or are improperly connected. Make sure that you have a partner standing behind the vehicle while it is in the park to ensure that the turn signals, taillights, and brake lights work properly.
8. Check Your Breaks
Now, smaller or lighter trailers may not need trailer brakes of any kind. However, with heavier trailers, or those that are designed to carry heavy loads, you will need to incorporate a brake system. When your trailer is equipped with hydraulic surge brakes or electric brakes, ensure that the breakaway cable is properly attached to your tow vehicle.
9. Refresh Yourself With The Driving Basics
Long before you start preparing for your life on the road, you should take some time to practice towing your Airstream. Trailers will have a significant impact on a tow vehicle’s handling and performance, so hitch up your Airstream and find a large, empty parking lot to relearn some of the driving basics.
You can drive back and forth to get a feel for your vehicle’s braking abilities and acceleration. As mentioned above, the braking system in your trailer applies pressure gradually as you engage the brakes; that way, it won’t stop at a halt when you try stopping on the road.
It is best to practice applying the brakes slowly but consistently so that your tow vehicle and Airstream will stop simultaneously. Aside from braking, make sure to practice parking, turning around obstacles, and backing up. It may take time but will get easier when you practice.
You will also need to hit the highway with an empty trailer for a little while before starting your adventure. Always allow twice as much following distance between you and the car in front of you since you can’t brake as fast. Wind will also affect your handling much more when you are towing. With this, make sure to stay focused on controlling your vehicle when gusts of wind come from other cars and heavy winds hit you.
10. Make Sure to Pack Smart and Properly
When it’s time for you to hit the road, you will need to get your trailer hitched and loaded properly. Loading your Airstream properly can help you control it while you are driving. Put about 10 to 20 percent of your weight on the front of the trailer, and evenly space out the other weight throughout the rest of your Airstream.
The weight in the nose will add pressure to your hitch, which will keep it connected when you are driving. Once you have loaded your Airstream, double-check if any cargo on the outside is snug and not extending more than four feet. If your cargo extends the four feet mark, make sure to mark it with a bright-colored flag.
11. Avoid Any Distractions While on the Road
Just like driving a regular vehicle, distractions are not an option as they can lead to an accident for all types of drivers. However, the danger when towing is twice as much as driving a normal vehicle. The extra weight on your hitch will affect your driving, and not paying attention to the vehicle’s behavior is a great recipe for disaster.
Make sure not to take your hands off the wheel, and keep your eyes on the road at all times. Rather than talking to someone and asking for directions, it is best to let your passengers use GPS or their phone for directions. It is also not advisable for you to eat since your main focus is driving.
You can get away with small snacking while driving a regular vehicle, but with towing several thousands of pounds, even one small distraction can lead to a terrible accident. Having said this, as long as you stay focused and make frequent stops when you need a break from driving, you should be fine.
You should always keep in mind to take it easy. It is much more important to arrive in one piece than it’s to arrive on time. Every trailer has a particular speed where it becomes unsafe. Remember that you are not in a race, and there is no prize for getting to your destination the fastest. Keep safety always in mind.
12. Keeping Right: Driving on the Right Lane
Nearly in every state, slower-moving and larger vehicles are needed to keep to the right lanes of the highway whenever possible. Keeping right is better for the overall flow of traffic and safer for you and other vehicles on the road. One challenge it can present is when there are many on and off-ramps on the right lane. Airstream, due to its size, can be harder to merge with other traffic.
Plenty of drivers don’t get that your acceleration and deceleration are more limited than the vehicle they have. If you are in a really dense part of the highway, it is best to take the next lane to the left to try and ease up on the constant merging.
This case is only good if there are at least two lanes to your left; at this point, it is reasonable to compromise the lanes in these types of situations. When choosing a lane, you can observe what commercial truck drivers are doing and just follow their lead. They usually drive the same roads constantly and tend to know what lanes provide the smoothest travel while still following the legal requirements.
However, you need to remember that not all truck drivers set a good example, but they are often the most experienced drivers when it comes to the road.
13. Parking: Get a Little Help From a Friend
The most challenging part of towing an Airstream is parking. Pulling into a parallel parking space is not as easy as parking an SUV or van. Another great challenge when it comes to parking is backing up, which I will talk more about in the following section. It is best to keep in mind to turn left to go right, which makes no sense until you give it a try.
It is best to have someone guiding you and telling you where to steer when you are parking. It can make your parking experience much easier than doing it yourself.
Parking on hills and grades. Parking a tow vehicle and your Airstream on a hill is not recommended. However, if you have no choice, make sure to do it as safely as possible. Apply your foot brakes and shift into neutral and have someone place blocks or wheel chocks behind the trailer wheels on the downgrade side.
Once that’s done, release the brakes until the chocks absorb the load. Then, apply the parking brake and shift into Park or Reverse for manual transmission. With a 4-wheel drive, you need to make sure the transfer case is not Neutral where applicable.
When you’re ready to hit the road again, apply your brake and hold the pedal down while starting your engine in Park on automatic transmission while Neutral on manual transmissions. After that, shift into gear and release the parking brake. Then, release the brake pedal and drive uphill until the chocks are free. Lastly, apply the brakes while someone gets the chocks.
Even with these steps followed, only park on hills or grades if it’s an emergency situation.
14. Backing Up Your Airstream Safely
When you are backing up, the trailer turns in the opposite direction of your tow vehicle. So when you turn the tow vehicle to the left, the trailer will back to the right. The same thing goes when you turn your vehicle to the right. An easy way to back your Airstream in the direction you want is to put one hand at the bottom of the steering wheel.
To move the trailer to the left, it is best to move your hand to the left. To move the trailer to the right, move your hand to the right. Then, back up slowly, and if possible, get someone to guide you. Make small steering inputs since the slightest movement can result in a much greater movement in the rear of your Airstream.
Once your Airstream starts turning, straighten out the wheel, or else the turn will get tighter and tighter where you will end up in a jackknife position. To practice backing up your Airstream, make sure to find an empty parking lot and use water-filled jugs or small empty cardboard boxes to create obstacles.
You will see that every trailer and motorhome has its own unique handling characteristics and pivot points. Make sure that you get to know your rigs for any peculiarities so you can adjust your handling skills to the specific characteristics when you have a friend to help you out. Ensure to develop your own communication system between the two of you with simple arm and hand signals.
Have your friend motioning their hands toward them, which can indicate to keep backing up in a straight line. Pointing in one direction or the other can indicate to the driver they need to back the rear of the trailer in a specific direction. The typical stop hand sign used by truckers is holding up one or more clenched first can also be helpful when backing up your Airstream.
Now, before you try the backup process, make sure to check for low-hanging wires, branches, and other objects that can get in your way. When backing up, you need to take your time and don’t feel like a klutz when you need to pull forward and try again to reposition your trailer or correct any problems.
There may be a time where you need to pull out of your parking area completely and start all over again. This is normal for newbies and will soon improve with practice. Keep in mind that even those who are driving for years have trouble with backing up.
Make sure to be aware of the others whose backing efforts might hold up, so be polite and allow others to pass when you are having difficulty.
15. Start With the Smallest Airstream Available
If you are just traveling with your partner, it is best to start with something small. A good example of the smallest model of Airstream is the Flying Cloud 23CB. It is not as challenging to drive and will be easier to tow when you are just a beginner. Once you are used to towing something small, you can eventually upgrade to something bigger in the future.
16. Map Your Destination and Be Sure to Take Your Time
Mapping your destination and taking your time is one of the most crucial tips that you need to consider. It is important when you have a direct and safe route, especially when driving in mountainous areas. A great idea on scheduling a long trip is to also schedule an extra day or two for travel so that you will not feel rushed and push your tow vehicle and Airstream to its limit.
Aside from that, it will also allow you to take rests every couple of hours to stretch and refuel. A plus of planning ahead and taking your time is you get to find some amazing locations on the open roads that will be sure to pique your family’s interests.
Following the tips and tricks I’ve provided above will make sure your safety while driving a tow vehicle and Airstream on the road. Paying attention and not being easily distracted while driving is important since driving a tow vehicle is not like driving ordinary vehicles like SUVs or vans. Making sure that you do not overload your Airstream is another factor that you need to consider. Remember, being safe is always the key factor in enjoying your life on the road with an Airstream and a tow vehicle!