For my wife's birthday in late October, I had planned to surprise her with a trip to Florida. But when Airstream said there was a Basecamp X trailer available for Autoblog to test out in Michigan, Cat said she'd rather spend a long weekend in the fall colors of Northern Michigan than in the potential eye of a hurricane. So I raised my hand, bought a 2-5/16-inch trailer ball and mount for Autoblog's long-term 2018 Honda Ridgeline loaner, got the flu, and threw the car seat, some bedding, pots and pans and DayQuil in the truck for a weekend of camping in the rain and cold with the fam.
Scrambling on a Friday morning to make sure we had far too much stuff than we'd need, and ensuring we have our large son Wollie's haul from the office Halloween party at hand for sustenance, we loaded into the Ridgeline, and hit the highway to Grand Rapids. After a couple hours, we arrived at Woodland Travel Center, where the friendly folks there gave us a tour of the slick, shiny Airstream Basecamp X trailer, which is essentially the same as the standard Basecamp, but with a lift kit and some other goodies that make it ready for more rugged terrain.
It ain't huge, with an overall length just over 16 feet, but somehow it seems larger on the inside than on the outside. The first thing you see when you walk in is the door to the bathroom directly across from you. It contains a porcelain toilet and a shower with a removable head, which also features a pass-through to the exterior to spray down your large son outdoors if need be. Toward the front of the interior is a counter with a small sink and a two-burner stove. Above is elastic netting for storage. Below is a small refrigerator, a mini but mighty optional microwave, and a lot more storage for dishes, utensils, towels, and food. We were surprised by the number of spaces in which you could tuck things away.
Look toward the back, and there's another door to the rear and a pair of bench seats facing each other along the sides of the camper. Two small tables on aluminum legs (hidden under the benches) screw into the floor in the middle. With the shorter set of provided legs, the tables support flaps that fold out from the benches. A couple more flat planks, which can serve as a fifth seat at the far end of the tables, complete the unfolded surface, and the pads on the benches fit together to cover the entire area, turning the entire rear of the trailer into a sizable bed (see Senior Editor Alex Kierstein's review of the standard Basecamp for a series of photos showing the transformation). Officially, the Basecamp sleeps two, but looking at the nice spread before us, we knew that two plus one large son would be no problem.
We were slightly worried about the chill of Northern Michigan in the fall. Our Basecamp trailer had a furnace that runs off the two propane tanks up front, but the swaths of bare aluminum inside and out didn't look promising in terms of insulation. The friendly folks at Woodland Travel Center didn't seem worried, telling stories of below-freezing nights spent cozy inside. Anyway, Cat, not one to mess around when camping in Michigan, regardless of the season, packed a ton of extra blankets. We were ready.
Our hosts topped off the 22-gallon freshwater tank, showed us how to turn on the heat, the A/C (we wouldn't be needing it), the water pump and the water heater. They told us what would run on battery (pretty much everything, plus this thing had solar panels on the roof), how to hook it up to electricity and water, and how to deploy the stabilizer jacks. Then we just had to pull the Ridgeline around, hitch it up, and we were good to go.
Before we headed out though, we had to take a look at the hip, futuristic Airstream Nest in the showroom, and get a demonstration of its app-controlled multi-color LED interior lighting — with disco mode.
The first night
Seeing the Basecamp attached to the Ridgeline was extremely satisfying. I mean, just look at them — it's like they were meant to be. Now, it was time to see how the Ridgeline enjoyed towing a 16-foot, 3,500-pound (GVWR), lifted trailer. We headed up U.S. 131 out of Grand Rapids, to begin our trip to our first destination: Hartwick Pines State Park near Grayling, Mich.
We got in after dark, with a cold rain falling around us, and there was nobody manning the entrance to the park. I picked up the yellow registration phone at the empty station, and booked a site with the 30-amp power source the Basecamp requires. There wasn't a water hookup at the site — those had been removed for the season, so I was interested to see how much water we'd use, and if I'd have to refill the tank on our three-night excursion.
I found our site, backed the trailer next to the electricity hookup and parked. I managed to get it fairly level, and it only needed small adjustments from the hitch and side stabilizer jacks. I didn't even bother to disconnect the trailer from the truck — we weren't going to be driving anywhere until we departed in the morning. I was happy not to have to spend more than a few minutes in the damp.
We had packed the Ridgeline pretty full of supplies — lots of spare, warm clothes, plenty of blankets, cookware and food. Expecting rain, we put most of that stuff either behind the driver seat in a big, soft pile on the floor next to Wollie, or into the hidden trunk space under the pickup bed. The only thing we left open to the elements was our cooler tied securely in the bed. Essentially, there was a lot of me bringing items into the trailer, my wife grabbing what we needed out of them, and then me moving things back to the truck to free up living space in the Airstream. After that first night, though, there was a lot less shuffling involved.
As my fever returned, I took some medicine and had some ale as we fired up the burners. By the time we sat down to eat, the furnace and the cooking had gotten the camper nice and toasty. I cut up an onion on a paper plate for garnish for the chili and hot dogs, and we had a nice little family dinner in the Airstream. Afterward, I put the leftovers in the fridge (whose latch was a little tricky to open, a small price to pay to keep the contents inside as you drive).
Cleanup is a little tricky in such a confined space, and most tasks proved to be one-person jobs by default. I switched out the legs on the tables to the lower height. Unfolded the wood flaps on the bench, fit all the bench cushions together like puzzle pieces, and the rear half of the trailer was transformed into a sizable bed. Cat arranged the sheets and blankets while I finished tidying. Then, with nothing left to do out there in the woods, the three of us snuggled up.
There was more than enough room for two adults and a large pre-schooler. In trying to keep with the boy's normal bedtime routine, I read to him. Having forgotten childrens' books, he asked that I read to him from the "newspaper," which was actually an issue of The Economist. With all the lights off except for the handy reading lamp above, he fell asleep as I read to him about recycling efforts in Taiwan. I followed suit soon after.
I awoke in the middle of the night shivering, and not just because of my fever. I had accidentally set the timer on the furnace, which turned off. The air in the trailer was cold and humid as I groped for the thermostat. The Airstream was comfortable again within minutes, its two heat vents near the floor pushing out the chill with ease. One of the vents happened to be at the foot of the port side bench directly below my part of the bed. The experience was better than any heated blanket I had ever used.
Michigan's tunnel of trees
The next day, taking off was easy. We danced around each other as we changed clothes in the little trailer, then secured everything — cookware on hooks, or in the sink (which folds down and closes), dirty laundry bags in the washroom, snacks closed in the cupboards and various sundries tucked in the elastic netting overhead. Then we turned off the heat and water pump, unplugged, lifted the stabilizer jacks, and hit the road.
We headed to Petoskey, arced around Little Travers Bay up toward Harbor Springs, and stopped for an early lunch. We admired the fall scenery in this quaint Lake Michigan town, and Wollie tagged along as I took some photos, until he was distracted by a bird. A passing jogger shouted her praises of the shiny Airstream as I downed some more DayQuil and got re-situated in the Ridgeline. Bellies full, we hit the road again, turning north up M-119 toward Michigan's beautiful Tunnel of Trees.
Surprisingly, the narrow winding roads were no problem for the Ridgeline and the Basecamp. The trailer isn't much wider than the truck. Normally when towing, I'm used to checking my mirrors constantly to ensure I'm not encroaching on the centerline. Not so, here. If the Ridgeline fit, so did the Airstream.
The Ridgeline also behaved beautifully with a load at the rear. On smooth roads at speeds under 50 miles per hour, I hardly noticed it back there — the truck tracked nicely with the trailer attached, and tucked into turns with confidence. There was no sway, no side-to-side heft when steering. Driving over undulations, I did feel the trailer bounce a bit, and the three-inch lift probably exacerbated that, but it wasn't so upsetting as to trigger my wife's motion sickness, thank goodness.
With the Ridgeline and the Airstream feeling perfectly mated to one another, I was able to relax and enjoy the scenery. This part of Michigan is brilliant in the fall. The trees were bright yellow and orange, splashed with green from the occasional stand of evergreens. It really is like driving through a tunnel, with the flaming canopy passing overhead. Much of the trail tracks along the lakefront bluffs, and the elevated view of gloomy lake Michigan is a stunning contrast to the bright foliage. Cat and I had decided where we wanted to retire, and Wollie seemed pleased with the idea, as well.
Eventually, after a brief, chilly stop at a sandy beach, we made our way back to I-75 near Mackinaw City, where the speed limit is 75 miles per hour. Here, at highway speeds, was the only time I noticed any drawback to towing with the Ridgeline. Above 50 or 55 miles per hour, the naturally aspirated V6 works hard to maintain speed. It has little trouble accelerating, but the truck keeps the revs high as it fights the additional weight and drag of the trailer. We were covering a lot of ground, granted, but these high-speed sections saw the tank begin to empty quickly. We stopped for gas daily, and at the end of the trip, I calculated an estimated 12 miles per gallon while trailering. That's considerably less than our long-term Ridgeline's overall average of just shy of 21 miles per gallon, but not all that surprising.
Crossing the mighty Mac
After a rainy afternoon wandering around the mostly deserted Mackinaw City, we made our way across the mighty Mackinac Bridge to Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Earlier, we had seen a sign warning of high winds on the bridge, and telling RVs and vehicles with trailers to reduce speed. Thankfully, our crossing was uneventful, apart from the breathtaking view of the straits.
In St. Ignace, we found our way to Straits State Park, and set up camp at a site within spitting distance of the water, with a view of the bridge. Here, I disconnected the Airstream from the truck, parking the trailer parallel to the beach for the best view. Mostly unfamiliar with the establishments this side of the straits, we decided to head into town for a meal. Eating the Burrito del Muerte — one of the spiciest meals I've ever been served in public — at Jose's Cantina (highly recommend) helped clear up my congestion.
Back at the campsite, with nothing to do and no meal to clean up after, we stood in the fall chill and admired the serenity of the Great Lakes in the fall. The bridge lit up the gloom around it. Few cars crossed it. No animals stirred. The waves lapped at the shore as the family a few campsites down tossed hatchets at a piece of wood. We retired to the Airstream, and were just a few paragraphs into another Economist article before my son and I were sound asleep, leaving my wife to her own thoughts in the warm, quiet camper.
The next morning, I hooked the Airstream back up to the Ridgeline. The convenience of the rear-view camera when lining the ball up to the trailer felt almost decadent. It was great to not have to do the backup-park-check-repeat routine, or inconvenience my wife to guide me back (which inevitably still means me getting out of the vehicle numerous times to check for myself). Hatchet guy came by and was asking all about the Basecamp. He seemed impressed with the amenities it provided in such a small package. Frankly, I was too. At a starting price of $37,400 for the Basecamp, it ought to be well appointed. You can get more space for less money elsewhere, but the Airstream experience is undeniably upscale.
We headed back across the bridge and meandered around Northern Michigan until we eventually made our way to William Mitchell State Park in Cadillac. We got there before dark, and were able to take our time getting situated. A group of people assembled right by our campsite seemed odd, until we found out they were there for a Pokémon raid (well, it was still kind of weird). We fielded a number of questions about the trailer again. Over the course of the weekend, I got really used to the inquisitiveness and amazement of onlookers at the site of such a shiny, small, and well-equipped camper.
Exhausted, I skipped dinner and retired early. My wife and son weren't far behind. The next morning, we did our final cleanup, and packed everything back into the truck before starting the drive back to Grand Rapids to drop off the trailer.
After three nights in the Basecamp, we still had 8 percent of our fresh water left. We hadn't come close to reaching max capacity of the blackwater tank. I'm not sure how much of our propane was left — or how much we had started with, for that matter — but we were plenty toasty all weekend, despite temperatures averaging about 40 degrees that weekend.
Despite being ill throughout the trip, hitting the road with my family warmed my soul, though the frequent stops at the pump were fraught with guilt. I see the allure of camping in RVs or travel trailers: the freedom of movement with many of the comforts of home. Still, it was nice to return my actual home, where all my pets live. I was glad to park the truck, stretch my legs, and nurse my fever from the comfort of my own bed.
For our weekend trip, the Ridgeline was a fine companion for the Basecamp, with enough power to haul it, and the ease of driving of a midsize pickup. Ideally, we'd pick something with a bit more power and towing prowess if we were traveling with the trailer consistently, if only for a larger fuel capacity and a calmer experience for longer jaunts at the upper end of highway speeds. For less frequent trips, or ones with less driving, we wouldn't sacrifice the day-to-day ease and economy of the Ridgeline. It's up to the task, and together with the Basecamp, the adventure is a blast.