Colorado National Monument Tunnel

Ferries and tunnels and bridges, oh my

Your Airstream can go almost anywhere there’s a road, but sometimes it might not feel that way to you. Often newer owners ask about “special” circumstances, such as tunnels, bridges, major cities, and ferries—wondering if there’s something they don’t yet know.

Really, there’s no great magic about taking your Airstream wherever you want, with just a few precautions. Here are some of our top tips to help prepare you for confident towing on nearly any road.

Tunnels and bridges

Towing over a major bridge or through a tunnel can be a thrill. Most of the time there’s no issue at all—just hitch up and go—although you might be facing a much higher bill at the toll booth.

Occasionally you’ll find a sign warning vehicles with hazardous loads to exit before a tunnel. These generally apply to large trucks with loads of gasoline, acid, and dangerous gases. The tunnel and bridge authorities aren’t interested in the 14 gallons of propane you’re carrying.

There are a few tunnels Airstreams shouldn’t enter. Generally this is because of height restrictions, but like low train trestles, the clearances are always well marked in advance.

A few antique one-lane bridges (like covered bridges made of wood, and iron bridges) can’t handle the weight of your rig, either. You’ll find these in the countryside on lightly-traveled roads, so encountering them isn’t common.

Keep an eye on the yellow caution signs before trestles, small bridges, and tunnels, and you’ll avoid any hazard.

Note that the height limit signs usually refer to the lowest point of a tunnel, which in the case of an arched tunnel may be the edges. For example, the three tunnels in Colorado National Monument have clearance of 11.5 feet at the edges, and 16.1 feet at the center. Even a 12-foot tall motorhome can easily traverse these tunnels as long as it stays off the road edge.

Don’t be afraid of tunnels and bridges! They can be great fun. A favorite of many Airstreamers is the Chesapeake Bay Bridge/Tunnel, which combines the two in a unique way. You’ll go both under the sea and over it, and there are man-made islands where you can pull off to watch cargo ships passing right over the tunnel you just towed through.

Ferries

Airstream Ocracoke NC FerryTaking a ferry is another great experience with an Airstream. If a ferry takes vehicles, it usually can take a truck and trailer as well, although sometimes you’ll need an advance reservation.

Ferries often require that propane be turned off while in transit, and they’ll let you know if that’s the case. You will probably also be directed to a particular lane before boarding the ferry, so the crew can organize the vehicles while loading. Just follow their instructions, board slowly, and the rest is easy.

Long ferries, such as the five hour trip from Cape Breton Nova Scotia to Port-aux-Baseques Newfoundland may not allow you access to your Airstream while traveling, so plan ahead for what you want to take with you. But most ferries, like the Hatteras-Ocracoke ferry to North Carolina’s Outer Banks, leave you with unfettered access. There’s nothing like relaxing in your Airstream as it floats across the water!

Great ferry trips for your Airstream can be found on Lake Champlain between New York and Vermont, and on the SS Badger crossing Lake Michigan. Many shorter ferries can be found around the Great Lakes, to the Outer Banks, and across rivers all over North America.

The only downside of traveling by ferry is the cost. Most ferries charge by the foot of length, and the prices runs up quickly on longer trips. Travel trailer owners should be prepared for a little sticker shock if they want to travel across Lake Michigan or to Newfoundland. Check the cost, schedule, and limitations online before you go—every major ferry has a website.

Major cities

Taking your Airstream trailer into the heart of the big city? It’s possible, but think twice before you commit. Some places like Manhattan and downtown San Francisco are just not made for trailer towing. You may have seen promotional photos of Airstreams parked in improbable spots in major cities, but that’s because they pulled it in at 3 a.m. with a police escort.

Usually it’s far better to find an outlying RV park to drop the trailer first. There are exceptions: a few cities have urban cores that can still be navigated by a travel trailer, and there are a few rare urban RV parks still operating. But for the most part there’s little reason to take the risk of wrangling a trailer through the center of town, so why bother?

Dirt roads and off-road

Dirt roads? Yes, of course. Your Airstream will be fine, but don’t go too fast and consider getting stone guards for your tow vehicle to reduce the damage from rocks that get kicked up by the rear tires.

Airstream Nevada Dirt Roads

Even light off-roading is possible if the trail is reasonably level. You’ll have to be your own judge of conditions, and keep in mind that if you don’t know what’s ahead, you may have to back out. That’s a nuisance, but far better than getting stuck. Keep an eye on obstacles that might catch your spare tire, holding tanks, or dump valves.

Two popular trips to be wary of: the long gravel roads found in Alaska (such as the Dempster Highway), and the dirt roads leading to Chaco Canyon Culture National Historic Park in New Mexico. For the Alaskan trips people often rig up temporary rock guards on the entire front of their Airstream, using cardboard, plastic shields, and other items. (Read “North to Alaska” in this issue to learn more. ) For Chaco’s seemingly endless miles of washboard, there’s no substitute for just going slowly.

Low clearance and tight spots

We mentioned clearances in the bridge and tunnel section, but it bears a little repeating because this is an issue that crops up in other places as well. Never tow under a roof or canopy (such as at a bank, drive-thru, or parking garage) without checking the clearance first. The only exception is gas station canopies, which are sized for tall vehicles.

Train trestles are often a bit low, so take special care to check for “Low” signs whenever you are approaching one.

Parking garages are a definite NO. Even if the ceiling clearance is high enough, the turns required inside are too tight for trailers. Motorhomes are too tall. The same goes for drive-thrus—don’t even bother trying. Just park elsewhere and walk over instead.

These might seem like elementary cautions, but people get caught in low clearance traps all the time. There are even websites dedicated to chronicling how often it happens, such as 11foot8.com and plenty of videos on YouTube as well. Now that you have a better idea of what to avoid, you can watch a few examples rather than being one!

— By Rich Luhr