Base­camp: Airstream mys­tique, packed tight

The Washington Post Sunday - - TRAVEL - BY ME­LANIE D.G. KAPLAN

The ob­ject of my de­sire was sil­ver and riv­eted.

A decade ago, Airstream in­tro­duced a small, util­i­tar­ian trailer called the Base­camp. The beau­ti­ful, stream­lined pod turned heads on the high­way. Inside, it had no bath­room but the easy-to­clean, min­i­mal­ist in­te­rior was perfect for muddy and sandy gear. The re­ces­sion-era trailer was in pro­duc­tion all of two years. The com­pany built a cou­ple hun­dred units and stopped in 2008 be­cause of the slow­ing econ­omy.

When I vis­ited the Airstream fac­tory in Jack­son Cen­ter, Ohio, four years ago, I saw a Base­camp on the lot and fell in love. Back home in the District, I scoured

the In­ter­net for one, but be­fore I found my dream trailer used, Airstream an­nounced that the Base­camp was com­ing back new. The com­pany in­tro­duced an up­dated ver­sion, hop­ing for a more re­cep­tive mar­ket.

The 2016 Base­camp (MSRP $35,900) is 16 feet long and weighs in at just 2,585 pounds, the light­est in Airstream’s fleet. In Oc­to­ber, the first units rolled through the doors of deal­er­ships, and there’s been a wait list ever since.

I wanted to give it a whirl, so I co­or­di­nated with Airstream. At Saf­ford RV in Thorn­burg, Va., my friend Greg and I picked up the trailer, which looked like a dis­tant, fu­tur­is­tic cousin of the iconic Airstream. Un­like the ear­lier Base­camp, it has a full bath­room, wa­ter tank and all sorts of in­no­va­tive fea­tures, in­clud­ing so­lar pan­els on the roof to fuel the bat­tery and an in­te­rior shower head that snakes out­side for a rus­tic cleans­ing. A tech­ni­cian set the ther­mo­stat and ex­plained that as we drove, the propane tanks would es­sen­tially pre­heat our liv­ing quar­ters. He showed us the USB ports, lock box for our valu­ables and Bose Blue­tooth speaker that de­tects mu­sic-play­ing de­vices.

“For the glam­per in all of us,” Greg quipped.

Al­most 20 years ago, we spent a month to­gether in Patag­o­nia; he was com­pet­ing in the Camel Tro­phy ad­ven­ture race and I was cov­er­ing it. I didn’t know him well un­til we re­con­nected a cou­ple of years ago and re­lived our ad­ven­tures: pitch­ing tents in snow, wear­ing the same clothes for weeks, driv­ing Land Rovers over rocks and through mud. So when Airstream asked me what kind of tow ve­hi­cle I’d like to bor­row, for old time’s sake, I chose a Land Rover.

A moun­tain re­treat

Greg took the wheel, and we left the deal­er­ship in Land Rover’s Range Rover Su­per­charged LWB with a bea­gle and two bikes in the back, the Base­camp in tow. We had planned a fall week­end of camp­ing, cycling and pad­dling in North Carolina’s Outer Banks, but Hur­ri­cane Matthew foiled our plans. At the last minute, we set our sights on the West Vir­ginia moun­tains.

By the time we ar­rived at Canaan Val­ley Re­sort State Park in the north­east­ern part of the state, it was dark. We un­hitched and lev­eled the trailer, con­nected its elec­tri­cal cable, switched on the lights and moved into our home away from home for the next three nights. After fir­ing up the gas stove for hot choco­late with mac and cheese, we awk­wardly con­verted our din­ing-room table and benches to a plat­form for our two sleep­ing bags. We could have fit a third, co­zily.

It was a clear, chilly night, and as we walked to the camp­ground fa­cil­i­ties with tooth­brushes, we looked up to see the Milky Way.

“It’s not quite Patag­o­nia,” Greg said. “But it’s pretty nice.”

On our walk, we laughed about the lux­u­ri­ous, semi-au­to­mated Range Rover and won­dered how it would do off-road. Maybe Land Rover had got­ten soft over the years. But then, so had we. In­stead of melt­ing snow for our hot wa­ter, we turned a knob on the kitchen counter. Greg drew the line at some lux­u­ries. He made it clear that, even in the mid­dle of the night, he wouldn’t use the trailer bath­room. I, on the other hand, had no prob­lem with our posh fa­cil­i­ties.

In the morn­ing, the black­out cur­tains and tinted win­dows let me sleep two hours later than usual. I woke to the sound of rain pat­ter­ing on the roof and RVs pulling out of the camp­ground, their driv­ers protest­ing the foul weather. I was thank­ful for our cli­mate-con­trolled refuge as I looked out the panoramic win­dows to the drip­ping-wet fall col­ors.

Al­though the mod Base­camp was built with many con­ve­niences (a two-burner cook­top, a full bath­room, LED light­ing), it bless­edly doesn’t have ex­trav­a­gances such as a flat-screen TV or fit­ted sheets. The trailer is meant to be more rugged than its brethren sil­ver trail­ers, and it passed the test in sev­eral cat­e­gories, but not all. The gray-an­dred color scheme is well-suited to hide the dirt from the out­doors. The rear cargo hatch os­ten­si­bly makes it eas­ier to load gear such as bikes and surf­boards, al­though we never fig­ured out where that gear would go once the space was filled with hu­mans. The in­te­rior is full of handy cargo nets and bungee cords for stor­age. But one over­head net zip­per broke on its first use (stow­ing part of the con­vert­ible bed, as the tech­ni­cian showed us) and made me wish that Airstream had skipped the cute out­door kit with a com­pass, binoc­u­lars and a head­lamp to in­vest more on dura­bil­ity.

Weather­ing the cli­mate

It was a good day to stay in sleep­ing bags. I read for a cou­ple of hours, then we played backgam­mon and fi­nally got geared up for the out­doors at noon, us­ing the tiny bath­room as a chang­ing area. We had given up on cycling be­cause of the rain. In­stead, we drove down the street to hike at Black­wa­ter Falls State Park and then eat lunch at Hell­ben­der Bur­ri­tos in Davis.

That night, I used the Base­camp’s mi­crowave to heat left­overs, the alu­minum walls re­flect­ing the tiny lights on ap­pli­ances and glow­ing like a space­ship. At 3 a.m., I heard Greg open­ing the bath­room door. He re­sponded be­fore I’d had a chance to ask the ob­vi­ous ques­tion.

“I didn’t want to track mud inside,” he said. I snick­ered into my sleep­ing bag and fell back asleep.

The rest of the week­end, we made peace with the wet weather and split our time be­tween the trailer and other in­door lures — the re­sort hot tub next to the camp­ground, hot drinks at TipTop in Thomas and din­ner down the street at Front Street Gro­cers, my friend Justin’s new store and cafe. I showed him a pic­ture of the trailer. His eyes widened, and he ex­claimed: “RoboCop!”

On our fi­nal morn­ing, we packed up be­fore day­break and I in­sisted on re-hitch­ing the trailer my­self. A cou­ple of years ago, I strug­gled with the hitch on a 22-foot model, but this one is more user-friendly. It took nearly 30 min­utes of repo­si­tion­ing the SUV by frac­tions of an inch to align the parts, but that would get eas­ier with time. My con­fi­dence was re­stored.

Driv­ing out of the moun­tains, I was amazed by how many times I for­got about what I was tow­ing be­hind me. I barely no­ticed its weight when I turned or braked.

Un­hitch­ing the Base­camp at the deal­er­ship, I felt a wave of gloom, like I was re­turn­ing a toy with which I hadn’t fin­ished play­ing. I drove out of the park­ing lot slowly, con­sid­er­ing turn­ing back. It would be so easy now, I thought, to add my name to the wait­ing list.

PHOTOS BY ME­LANIE D.G. KAPLAN

ClOCK­WISE, FROM TOP: Airstream rolled out its 16-foot Base­camp last fall, the up­dated ver­sion of a short-lived util­i­tar­ian trailer that the com­pany first built a decade ago; the back of the trailer opens for load­ing gear, such as kayaks, bikes and boards; the in­te­rior feels spa­cious, at least with­out bags and gear, among din­ing ta­bles that lower to be come the base for a bed, as well as bench cush­ions that un­fold to act as a mat­tress.

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