If you've only been following along with our story for a little while, you may not know that we're not new to the traveling/Airstream renovation scene, though we only started The Modern Caravan last year. Airstream renovation and full-time travel isn't a new thing for us. This post is about what we've learned after doing six Airstream renovations over the course of four years, and though that's not say, the number that bigger companies with big teams do, it's a hell of a lot for two people. We've learned so much because we don't have a team. We are both 100% involved in every single renovation we do. Everything you see (with the exception of some cushions and one countertop) is built and crafted by our two sets of hands. We know the ins and outs of this work, and continue to put ourselves in the way of learning. We don't claim the term 'expert', we claim 'continually learning', with 12,000+ hours of physical renovation labor under our belts alone. That doesn't include the hours upon hours of research we do, or the work of starting the business, or the full-time travel, or any of the other associated learning that comes with living on the road, running a business from the road, etc.
So let's get to it - here are a few of the many things we've learned over the past several years regarding Airstream renovation. This is largely geared toward those of you who are planning to get on the road, but there's advice in here for any Airstream renovator.
1. Airstream renovation is a massive undertaking.
It will consume your life. You won't just be putting in the labor hours, you'll be researching and trying to figure out how to do tasks you've never done before. Yes, you might've been a contractor or home builder, but Airstream renovation presents a unique set of challenges. Both of our dads built houses in their early twenties, and when they came to help with our aluminum dwellings, we were teaching them, not the other way around. If you're wanting to get on the road quickly, renovation is not the answer.
We have folks reach out to us for consultations who are certain they'll have their gut renovation done in three months because they have friends who are carpenters, or they have a strong work ethic, and they can spend every weekend and evening after work doing the renovation...or insert any other reason here for why they will bust out their reno faster than even we can bust one out, and we're doing this full time, not part time, and have actual Airstream renovation experience! Time and again, we've watched those renovations stretch out to eight months...to a year...to two years...there are too many unforeseen circumstances and too many things you don't know how to do that you'll spend more time researching and brainstorming than actually doing. That doesn't even begin to touch on timing, which I'll go into detail on below.
2. Don't Take the Shortcut
After six Airstream renovations, including a not-so-vintage Airstream from 1994, trust us when we say the shortcuts are never, ever worth it. Anxious to get on the road? We get that. Trust us. We've been there. In many ways, we're still there. Yet you never know what's behind the skins or under your subfloor unless you do the work of looking. We see so many people - who didn't remove their interior skins - complain about leaks and are constantly up on their roof with a caulk gun, but this problem could be solved by being thorough from the beginning. Yes, it's tedious. Yes, it's time-consuming (to check every rivet). Yes, it's scary to drill out rivets and pull down your interior skins.
Not that long ago, we were in your position, standing right where you are now, afraid to take out the original interior though it was rotted and moldy, afraid to drill out a rivet, afraid we'd ruin something. Scared or not, it's worth it to be thorough. It's worth it to know your chassis isn't rusted and you won't lose the back half of your trailer going down the road. It's worth it to not spend thousands of dollars and many hours of your life building on top of an unsafe, leaky trailer. Please bear in mind we are not saying this to make anyone feel bad, but having seen multiple trailers from various years (including our own, newer '94) in poor condition, we feel it's necessary to say.
3. Give Yourself More Time Than You Think You'll Need
I'm circling back around to #1 a little bit here, but this is one that even I still struggle with. The issues we see the majority of people struggling with when planning their renovation timeline are as follows:
- Too much excitement and starry-eyed dreaming. Believe me, I get this struggle. Ellen still has to remind me to be more realistic. I get overly excited and make giant, hopeful lists to accomplish by day's end, and I'm inevitably disappointed when night comes and we've barely accomplished the thing we started doing that morning. There's always something that halts progress, and more often than not, the really good, crazy productive days don't generally come back-to-back. You might have a couple, but you're gonna have setbacks. You can't avoid them with this work.
- Assumption that building in an Airstream is like building in a house. It's just NOT. I'm not even talking about scribing curves (though that's frustrating, it's not tough if you have the right methods and tools). I'm talking about how nothing is square. Traditional measurement doesn't always work. You've gotta learn how to adapt, and then do it a million times over throughout your build. There are also many necessary steps that have to happen before your build even begins that require a vast knowledge base, much of which most DIY-renovators learn while they go. Learning new skills takes time.
- Airstream renovation is not for the faint of heart. I read recently that these old trailers have a way of making you earn their respect, and I agree wholeheartedly. If you're not taking shortcuts and doing this right, you're learning RV electrical (AC, DC, solar), RV plumbing (tanks, proper venting, 12v pumps, pump bypass, city water, fresh water!), propane, tank monitors, installation of AC units, fans, RV appliances with multiple power sources (12v, AC, propane). You're waterproofing and restoring. Repairing chassis frames. Removing all the old shit, which isn't just removing furniture. You're grinding off a hundred rusty bolts and drilling out thousands of rivets and scraping off old caulk with a heat gun, bit by bit. The work is dirty and gross sometimes. It's mentally and physically challenging. It will test your patience and your limits, over and over again.
If you're working full-time and renovating your trailer on the weekends, I would absolutely advise to allow yourself at least one year from demo-to-done. If you want to have a life and not feel chained to your renovation, stretch it out to a year and a half or even two years, which would allow you weekends off occasionally (without guilt!), time to take vacations, go to weddings, and see your grandma.
4. It's Expensive as F**k
Our first Airstream renovation cost around $22k, when all was said and done, including the cost of the trailer itself ($4k). We didn't have fancy countertops, appliances, a hot water heater, etc. Our compositing toilet was homemade using a kit, a box we built, and a walnut toilet seat purchased on Amazon. It was bare bones simple in there because we spent so much on replica pieces, frame repair, skin repair, new windows, et cetera, not to mention all of the specialty tools we had to purchase, like a buck riveting kit, polishers, and angle grinders. Lucky for us, we had a lot of 'traditional' tools already, or we might not have been able to afford that fancy a$$ back window replacement we desperately needed. We still spent $22k, and that didn't include decor. We didn't purchase anything special to outfit the trailer, we just used things we already had on hand. Even our "upholstery" was made using two wool Army blankets cut up and sewn back together.
Our second Airstream renovation cost $42k. The cost of the trailer itself was $5k, which means we spent $37k on supplies. We didn't need to purchase tools this go-round, we already had them. Now, this was June, which is one of the most-pinned renos on the ol' Pinterest boards, and we absolutely went "high-end" this time around. In this case, that meant we had a hot water heater, fridge, and oven/cooktop...which felt like pure luxury in comparison to Louise, and then we got a little fancy and added Fireclay Tile, Pergo flooring, and custom made solid walnut countertops and Belgian linen cushion covers wrapped around natural latex core. We had a heftier battery bank too, and we splurged on a Nature's Head Composting Toilet. Overall, we spent twice the amount of what we spent on our first renovation...and made a solid, gorgeous, comfortable home with common conveniences we'd not had before. For reference, the body work was similar to Louise, and the chassis repair was more extensive (the entire back end fell apart when we took up the subfloor, it was so rusted).
Your budget should be planned accordingly. While I can understand this is difficult to gage (one of the questions we get asked a lot is regarding budget), I recommend asking other renovators who have done full-gut renovations without hiring anyone (big difference here - they're not paying for tools and they are paying for labor). Note the fixtures and finishes they've used, along with amenities and technology they installed on board. If it's comparable to your desired outcome, loosely base your budget around that starting point, and always plan to spend more money than you think you're going to.
5. The Work Doesn't Stop When You're Finished
So you've done the work, you've got your Before & After shots posted to Instagram, and you're ready to get on the road. You've spent all this time and money and you did thorough work, so everything should be smooth as silk from here on out, right?
Nope, not so much. If you're getting on the road, for starters, your entire life is about to change. Familiarity, comfort, convenience, support...you're willingly leaving those behind, but no matter how willing or excited, it's still a big adjustment to travel full-time. Constantly changing scenery is fun, but vigorous change can also wear on you, especially if you're simultaneously learning how to live tiny and learn your rig. Building out your trailer and actually using it are very different, and it takes time to re-train your brain to remember to heat the water before you're ready to take a shower, or that you've gotta fill your water tanks and charge your onboard batteries. You no longer have the convenience of free-flowing water into your home, or the ability to flush your poo and no longer think about it. Black tank or composting toilet, you're gonna be dealing with that shit. Literally.
Here's a couple of tips on getting acclimated:
- When scheduling out your renovation, try to pad the end of the renovation with a 'dry run', so to speak. Go to a local campground or park in your folks' backyard for a week or two to really get to know the ins-and-outs of your space. Practice living before you get on the road, which is another major step, in and of itself. Look at it in steps:
- Renovation/paring down/planning to hit the road
- Dry run
- Moving in/getting on the road
- Give yourself ample time when hitching up the first time (and several times after), and have two checklists: one for inside, one for outside. List everything that you need to check and do before you get on the road. We call this 'battening down the hatches'. Examples of the exterior list items are things like removing chocks, checking the air in the tires, and checking the running/brake lights, and for the interior list, it's things like turning the water pump off, closing fans and windows, securing drawer latches, et cetera. **Pro tip: install your water pump switch right by the front door so you can flip it off right as you're getting ready to lock up.
- Learn to back up and haul a trailer in a big, empty parking lot. If you have a partner or older kiddo, this is a great time to learn to communicate regarding backing the trailer up, which you'll have to do at many campsites. If you have cell signal available, use FaceTime or Skype...the last thing you want to be is THAT loud, angry couple at the campsite. Using the video capability on your device allows the person standing at the rear of the rig to show the person at the wheel what's really going on, and it can be a lifesaver in compact spots. If you are working with a partner, decide on a set of terms that the driver can easily understand and use them clearly every single time. Yelling 'go the other way' isn't clear to the person at the helm, but 'point the curb side rear two feet to the left' is. In our partnership, we've realized through a lot of trial and error how to communicate when traveling and parking with our rig, but now it's smooth as butter.
- Things are going to break. Fantastic builder or not, you've got to be ready for issues on the road. If you're hauling a trailer, it's being shaken up like a magnitude 8.0. earthquake back there. On the road to Alaska, we had wires shake loose inside the walls! If you're in that big, EMPTY parking lot on your test haul, take a turn riding in the back just to hear and feel and see everything creaking and shaking. It's a good education - it helps you understand what its like back there. Then multiply that, because highway speeds or crazy washboard roads are gonna be worse than a smooth parking lot at 10mph. (DON'T DO THIS ON A ROAD.) A lot of people think that everything will stay in place because that's what we see in a still image on Instagram, but those trailers aren't in motion! They're at a full stop, leveled, set up and styled for a photo. That's not reality.
To wrap up, you will be dealing with things breaking or not working. All that shaking can loosen what you thought was tight, and you've got to care for your rig and the things inside (i.e., don't leave your water heater on without water inside and burn it out, check your plumbing connections on the regular to ensure you haven't sprung a leak after a particularly rough stretch of road). Living in a vehicle that you haul down the road takes regular, deliberate care and maintenance - yes, you got rid of that big yard and house, but you aren't off the hook for home care and repair.
6. Living the Dream Means Working to Keep the Dream Alive
When people find out that we live in an Airstream, the response is pretty common: "You're living my/the dream!" This sentence and varied iterations lives in the comments section on Instagram and in our email inbox. We've been hearing and reading it from people for four and a half years who don't live this lifestyle. The issue with the Airstream/nomadic life being 'the dream' is that the work of living this lifestyle is lost in translation. Pretty Airstream interiors (when parked, set up, and styled), don't allude to the tough aspects of living on the road. Sometimes it can feel lonely and isolating. Sometimes your grey tank backs up into your trailer. To put gas in the tank, pay for campgrounds, food, and bills, we've gotta work full-time, same as someone who lives in a brick-and-mortar. Sometimes you're in transit and your window shade knocks into your faucet handle, flipping the water on, and at the same time, your faucet swings to the top of the counter and when you stop, the entire contents of your fresh tank have flooded your floors (true story, this happened to our friends Kate & Adam). Sometimes you're cold and sick and just want a hot shower, but you're out of propane. Sometimes you break down on the side of the Alaskan Highway and you don't have the tool you need to fix the crazy freak issue (one of our stories).
If you really believe that all your problems are going to be solved by living in a dreamy-looking Airstream and traveling, you're going to have a good, cold slap of reality once you get on the road. If you're expecting this life to be as easy as it looks on Instagram, remember that it's Instagram - and anyone and everyone can pose for a picture and tout their lifestyle to make it look better than it actually is. What those bare-butted women posing for #vanlife aren't telling you is that they're laying in a bed so full of dust and sand that if you slapped the mattress with your hand, it would look like a dust storm on I-10 coming out of those linens and that that cute butt was a few inches above the ground, shitting in a hole they dug themselves that morning after using dry shampoo for the 9th day in a row. Nothing wrong with any of that, I've done all of that myself (minus the bare-butt pictures, but my equivalent is being an interior designer - my job is to make Airstreams pretty), yet this is why I write real captions under the images I post. I'm careful to share the realities of this life, which are beautiful and ugly, good and bad, easy and tough...because behind any dreamy looking nomadic life is a bevy of discomforts and insanely hard and daily work.
If you really want the nomadic life, you'll put in that work. You'll sacrifice convenience and comfort. When something breaks, you'll fix it (and not expect someone else to do it for you). You'll read and research and listen to locals and seasoned nomads alike. You'll learn from your mistakes, because you will make mistakes. You won't give up when it gets tough. Hell, we've been working toward a nomadic, free life for 4.5 years now and have watched countless amounts of people get on the road in the way we'd like to be while we're still over here, toiling away just trying to get there while also having the freedom of working for ourselves...and we've had setback after setback, shitty circumstance after shitty circumstance...and we still work toward having the life we want. We're not giving up, no matter what life tries to throw our way.
In conclusion, this list isn't meant to scare you off. It's meant to tell you some nuggets of truth that a lot of people aren't talking about. We're all so worried about making our lives look perfect and together all the time (even nomads, who say they wanted to leave all that behind) that we don't talk about the tough stuff. Airstream renovation looks easy online only because we make it look easy, yet I still believe wholeheartedly that anyone can do it if they put their mind to it. Hell, I never thought I'd be someone who would have done any of this...and everyone in my life was completely taken aback when I did. I'm working to make the life I want happen because I want it more than anything, and I work my ass off for it.
If you want the "dream life"...you'll work to build it. You'll find a way, you'll overcome the difficulty, you'll learn what you don't know, you'll find the money, you'll find the time, you'll ignore the haters and naysayers, and you'll work like hell to not only build your rig, but build your dream life and you'll keep the dream alive, no matter how much work it takes or how uncomfortable it may get. You can have it as long as you're willing to work for it...which, for us, is a good long while.