Upgrading from tent or car-camping to a new or classic travel trailer

Classic lines of a new T@B trailer, owned by our friends the Lewises, at Redwood National Park.

A sleek Casita trailer, at Bryce Canyon National Park.
A-liner Ranger trailer, a hard-sided pop-up, at Death Valley National Park.
Classy old Shasta trailer, shot at Fallen Leaf Lake, CA.
Vintage Airstream trailer and its equally classy tow vehicle, Fallen Leaf Lake, near South Lake Tahoe.
Author’s ’64 Serro Scotty trailer with Yosemite Falls in background.

Is it time to upgrade from tent or car-camping to a new or classic travel trailer?

The classic silver Airstream, pulled by an equally gorgeous 50’s woodie wagon, rolls through the Fallen Leaf Lake campground, and nearby campers ogle as the polished duo make their way to a campsite near ours. We’ll learn later the owner is from the Bay Area and has lovingly rebuilt both the trailer and tow vehicle some 10 years earlier.

Over the last dozen years, we have studied both new and classic small travel trailers, those under 20 feet in length. Today’s retiring baby boomers and smaller families have discovered small trailers as an alternative to tent camping. For us baby-boomers now retiring, many have aged out of the desire to set up a tent and sleep on the ground. A side benefit, our little trailer is packed, ready to go and stored beside our garage – it’s easy, quick to “hit the road”!

Let’s consider why a small trailer, then we’ll share some of the options. Small trailers share special qualities; they’re easy to maneuver into tight campsites (many national park and national forest campgrounds, built many years ago, don’t accommodate today’s giant fifth-wheel trailers, often approaching 40 feet in length). Small trailers are easy to store (some even fit in your garage) and can be towed with many four-cylinder and six-cylinder autos/SUVs, yielding good gas mileage.

Several additional pluses come with small, retro travel trailers; they’re cool, and if purchased properly, they will retain much of their value over the years – they won’t depreciate as quickly as do the boxy, non-descript trailers that proliferate in campgrounds. Finally, these small trailers are hard-sided campers – your spouse will no longer worry about bears tearing through a tent.

Classic campers, generally those built in the 1950s to the 1970s, offer much of the same attributes, plus, they’re even cooler than retro trailers. Bought wisely and well-maintained, many of these classic trailers actually will appreciate, should you later desire to sell them.

For a twosome, or a family with several kids, modern retro and classic trailers can be found in the range of 13 to 20 feet, with room for up to four, even five.

Here’s a recap of our favorite new trailers, classically-styled. They include the A-liner, T@B, Casita and R-pod – offering standup room, sleeping for 2-5, inside cooking/eating facilities, and often a bathroom and/or shower.

Downside: they’re more expensive, in the $16,000 to $30,000 range (new), won’t fit in a garage (with exception of the A-liner) and a larger six cylinder tow-vehicle is required (resulting in reduced miles per gallon). Find a lightly used model and save.

They include:

A–liner trailers: A modern version of the tent trailer, with hard-sides for bear-proofing, sleeps four.

T@B trailers: Classic teardrop shape, owned by friends in Sacramento just purchased for a bit over $20,000, sleeps 2-4 adults.

Casita trailers, slick, fiberglass trailers with virtually all the amenities, sleeping up to four adults.

For true classics, Airstream, Serro Scotty, Shasta and other models can be found throughout the west. Check websites and Facebook sites of Tin Can Tourists and varied classic trailer groups for insight. Ready to buy? Watch your newspaper and put up daily searches on both eBay and Craigslist for “classic travel trailer” and see what pops up.

When you find the Classic you like, be prepared for some serious inspection. Water and dry-rot damage can be papered over; repairs like this can be expensive and time-consuming.

Six years ago, I found our ‘64 Serro Scotty trailer for sale in Oceanside, thinking it needed merely paint and tail-end rebuild. I finagled the price down to $900 – but soon discovered extensive dryrot necessitating a full re-build. After 700 hours of work, and another $4500 the trailer is finished, thanks to help from two handy pals and my spouse. I’d avoid a project like this again; easier to have searched longer and found a trailer either in better shape, or fully rebuilt, and paid $7000 or so.

Here’s a sampling of beautiful classics we’ve seen in recent years, offering quality, collectability and proper “coolness quotient”:

Airstream: Aluminum trailers with the iconic shape, starting with the tiny Bambi and offering a number of slightly larger trailers that can be towed with mid-size vehicles. They are the talk of a campground, generally the most expensive.

Serro Scotty trailers: Made in the late ’50s to the ’80s with basic construction (making them easiest to rebuild), they also offer the classic canned-ham profile. Our 64 Scotty Sportsman provides room for 2-3, featuring a double bed in back, small dinette seating for four that converts to another bed, and center cooking area with small sink and two-burner stove. We built a Porta-pottie into one of the dinette seats – strictly for emergencies!

Shasta trailers: Classic “canned hams”, Shastas were originally built in southern California, so lots of them throughout the west. They sprouted the Shasta wings in 1958, continuing through the mid-80s.

For more information: A-liner, aliner.com; T@B, nucamprv.com; Casita, casitatraveltrailers.com; a variety of classic trailer web sites offer insights into buying/rebuilding, including Tin Can Tourists, tincantourists.com and Serro Scotty trailers, nationalserroscotty.org. To purchase used, scan newspaper classifieds, craigslist and eBay for “retro trailer” or “classic trailer”.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com, follow at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in your world!

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  • Blog Author

    Tim Viall

    Viall is a local travel writer who retired in 2012 after 10 years as executive director of Stockton, CA's, Emergency Food Bank and six years with the Downtown Stockton Alliance. Previously, a 21-year career in daily newspapers helped shape his ... Read Full
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