Inside the All-American Airstream

We talk to Airstream CEO Bob Wheeler to find out how designers managed to fit a highly technical home inside Basecamp — the brand’s lightest trailer yet.



Airstream’s signature teardrop shape dates back to 1929 when Wally Byam built the first Airstream trailer. It began as a tent built atop a Model T chassis, which was soon replaced by the recognizable aerodynamic permanent shelter. It’s come a long way since then — Airstream has plenty of hefty models for a life on the road. But it’s getting back to the basics with its aerodynamic, ultra-light, superbly technical, teeny yet beautiful, Basecamp. We chatted with Airstream CEO Bob Wheeler to get all the details on how they managed to pack a working home inside this petite riveted trailer — complete with that epic panoramic window view.

Inside Airstream’s Jackson Center, Ohio factory Photos by Airstream

Q: Airstream has such iconic design roots. How does that influence making a new product? How much do you look to the past?
A: Given the weight of our history, we have to make a concerted effort to honor our past without allowing ourselves to be bound by it. And really, the Basecamp is the perfect example of this design philosophy. It uses some of our trademark elements, like aluminum and rivets, but sets aside the iconic “silver bullet” shape in favor of something smaller, sleeker, and more aggressive. And here’s a little “inside baseball”: as a further nod to our heritage, it’s based loosely on the 1935 Torpedo, an Airstream design that actually pre-dates the current silver trailer style. Not many people know that.

Q: Can you tell us about the aerodynamic shape — is it purely for fuel efficiency? Or is it in part your brand identity?
A: It’s really a little of both. Every Airstream is designed with aerodynamics in mind, a kind of “form follows function” approach that dictates a lot of what we do. With Basecamp, it was really about marrying that iconic, Airstream design with a trailer that was small enough and light enough to be pulled by many SUVs.

Q: This is the most accessible product you have in more ways than one. What was the motivation behind it? Was it purely a younger audience?
A: There’s a cultural shift happening right now away from oversized and overstated, well, almost anything. We see it in the “asset lite” lifestyle, the tiny house movement, and elsewhere. We like to say “small is the new big.” And the RV industry has followed the same trends. The basecamp checks all these boxes: less expensive, lighter, less intimidating, easier and less complicated. We were shooting for a hitch-it-up-and-go product. These things appeal to millennials, sure, but it’s more about mindset than age.

We see a lot of Airstreamers using the Basecamp as exactly that — a base camp for their adventures. They’re out rock climbing or kayaking. They’re bringing along their bikes. So accessibility for us also meant a livable travel trailer that supported your outdoor lifestyle. It needed a rear door big enough to fit the kayaks, the bikes — whatever gear you were bringing on your adventure.

Q: How much does it weigh? What special features had to go into the build to make it so light?
A: The base weight is 2,585 pounds, which is light enough for many SUVs to pull. Our designers found creative ways to maximize the space. The dinette converts to a bed, the bath serves the dual purpose of shower and bathroom, and you can access the shower through a hatch outside so you can wash off muddy boots or gear. Lots of elements in Basecamp serve double or triple purposes, which helps cut down on the weight.

It’s really all about having everything you need, and leaving out things you don’t need. A/C is optional, allowing you to carry more gear if you want. The netting we used in some of the storage areas is much lighter than traditional cabinet doors, and the cabinetry itself is made out of Lite Ply material that’s both durable and light.

Basecamp, in the wild. Photos by Airstream.

Q: How does the interior compare to other models? What steps did you take to pack everything in to make such a small space comfortable?
A: With Basecamp, the interior was really dictated by the exterior design. We wanted this really beautiful piece of industrial art, with the aluminum body, panoramic windows, and that tapering shape. The magic of the interior layout comes from locating spaces where you normally stand up – the kitchen and shower – where the height is greatest. Then logically the sleeping and eating area located itself near the back of the trailer, where the roofline sloped a bit.

Once those elements were set, our design team found creative ways of fitting everything else in, from a functioning kitchen with a stainless steel sink and a 2-burner cooktop, to the microwave and refrigerator. The toilet is porcelain and the fixtures are stainless steel. You really feel the comforts of home. It’s spacious, but not too big. The goal was the create something that people could come home to, without leaving the woods, or the boulders, or the edge of the lake.

Q: There is a lot of tech — for example, energy efficiencies — built-in. Can you talk about why that’s important to provide and how you managed to fit it in?
A: The fact is that even when people want to get away, often they still want — or need — to stay connected. Being connected enables many people to get out more, and stay out longer. If they know their devices are charged and they can access their email, they might be able to stay one more night and not have to play catch-up when they get home.

So in addition to 110-volt electrical outlets, Basecamp’s got USB charging stations too. When you’ve been enjoying the outdoors all day, you can still come back, take a shower, have a great meal, and then kick back with a movie on your tablet. It’s also solar ready, with a dedicated plug you can hook up to solar panels to keep your battery charged.

Q: The recent reawakened love of “van life” must have been exciting for your team at Airstream. How much did it invigorate the development process for Basecamp?
A: At Airstream we’ve been paying close attention to the van life movement, but we see it as a mindset and not necessarily about the van itself. We think of it as a nomadic lifestyle — the ability to get out, enjoy the world, and enjoy the beautiful things this country has to offer. We talk to people all the time who live full-time in their Airstreams, whether in a 30-foot Classic or a 16-foot Sport. Instead of valuing “stuff,” they’re putting their value in the experiences that having something like an Airstream can help them realize.

I love seeing how people are renovating vehicles, creating their own spin on #vanlife. A lot of the satisfaction comes in building their van out from the wheels up. Some folks may not want to renovate a van or a trailer, but they still want the experiences of a nomadic lifestyle. We really feel Airstream enables them to get out and have those adventures.

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