Airstreamers often talk about the desire to "disconnect" when they head out on the road, but they rarely do it. Think about it: There you are in your Airstream in a beautiful place, yet you are checking Facebook, texting photos of the trip to family, and streaming music on Pandora.
Don't feel guilty about it – we are the same way!
But last weekend we had the opportunity to really and truly disconnect. It was "forced" upon us while staying at the Bonita Canyon Campground at Chiricahua National Monument in southern Arizona. I say "forced" because there is no cell service anywhere in the campground, most of the park, and, for at least a 10 mile stretch as we approached the park.
I'm talking nada, zilch, zippo. The cell signal icon on our phone screens was literally flatlined:
Thing was, even though we knew we were going to be camping in a place with little to no cell service, we were still kinda surprised at how many ways it impacted us. It was an eye-opener about just how much we do indeed stay connected during a typical Airstream trip. The weekend turned out to be blissfully relaxing, but here's what you need to think about when you venture beyond phone range.
1. You can't send or receive text messages
Ok, this one is obvious. No cell signal means no phone service and no text messages.
But given how connected we all are these days, if you're planning to be disconnected, you should probably tell close family members and friends to expect not to hear from you for a few days. Lest they report you missing when they don't hear from you.
For example, I wished I had told our cat sitter and my brother we'd be out of range for three days, so neither would worry when they didn't receive replies to texts. I did sit outside the Visitor Center the first evening to grab the wifi and let both of them know the situation, but next time I'll do it in advance.
Yes, there was wifi at the Visitor Center, but it didn't reach very far beyond the door. And if you're thinking it would be no big deal to pass by the Visitor Center a few times a day to stay connected, you would not be entirely correct. At Chiricahua National Monument, it's a 1 mile round trip walk from the campground, or a drive in the car.
While you might be willing to go that far to send a text, sometimes the distance is much longer. For example, at Arches National Park the Visitor Center is 18 slow miles from the Devils Canyon campground. At Big Bend National Park it's 36 miles from Cottonwood campground to park headquarters. I can't see any reason to trek or drive that far for a text.
2. No Interneting, emailing, laptopping, or online shopping
Your hotspot won't work if it has no tower to connect to. But imagine the possibilities! Hiking, birding, biking, conversing, reading, playing cards or board games, getting a few small maintenance projects done on your Airstream.
We live online as much as the next guy. But we promise you will love the break from screens and keyboards. You might even finish that book you started months ago.
Chillin' under the trees with our books and binoculars
3. Monitoring apps won't work
If you count on a monitoring device to keep a pet from overheating when you are away from the trailer, or if you monitor your trailer with Airstream Connect, neither will work when you're disconnected. Which means you need a back up plan for running whatever it is you usually count on while connected. Or just go without it.
4. Google maps, Waze, other mapping apps? Nope
If digital mapping apps usually get you where you need to go, you might want to buy a paper road atlas or GPS.
As I mentioned, the cell service dead zone extended far beyond the park's campground. Sure, if you're headed to a national or state park there will likely be signs. But once you're in the area, you might like to know what's around you, and you may need to drive in and out of the park. A paper map or GPS will work when Google doesn't.
5. You'll have to go old school to get weather reports
The camp host walked by each day to report the percentage chance of rain and severe weather. The weather was also on a monitor at the Visitor Center, if we wanted to hike over.
We found this delightfully retro, and it also allowed us to engage in conversation with the camp host.
But the point is, you won't be able to check the radar or the weather forecast on your mobile device. This is important if you plan a remote hike. While Airstreaming disconnected you'll need to resort to pre-2000 methods to get your information, like Visitor Center signs and camp host knowledge.
Given that it's nearly monsoon season in Arizona and a severe storm was likely, we used the following old school weather forecasting methods: listened for cicadas (they foreshadow rain), watched for cumulus clouds and thunderheads, took note of humidity and wind shifts. Plus the aforementioned camp host updates.
6. You need to pack paper versions of digital tools
For me this meant that I couldn't use phone apps like eBird to track and count the birds I spotted, or Merlin to identify birds. Chiricahua National Monument is a birder's paradise so I planned ahead for this one.
Before we left Tucson, I visited the park's website to download and print the birding checklist (most national parks have these). Plus, I packed my Sibley Guide to Birds book. Using a pen to check off the birds I saw was joyfully nostalgic, as that was the way I learned how to track birds years ago.
The Bonita Canyon Campground at Chiricahua National Monument
For his part, Rich was unable to access the New York Times crossword puzzle, a daily favorite. He had not brought a paper crossword puzzle book, so he had to do without.
7. Your Airstream will be quieter
I like to stream classical music in the morning while sipping coffee, and make breakfast to the sounds of my Miles Davis and Jazz Essentials stations on Pandora. There was no Mozart or Miles on this trip, leaving me to listen to the noisy Mexican Jays in the trees outside our trailer. (Which was delightful and often humorous.)
If we had planned ahead we'd have downloaded some music so we could enjoy these travel routines. Next time, we will.
8. Like to watch movies? Better bring DVDs
Rich chuckles when he tells me about new Airstreamers who don't understand why Airstream still puts DVD players in new trailers. If you like to watch movies while curled up in your Airstream, you should be happy about this. Without wifi and good bandwith, streaming isn't an option. So movies aren't either.
Plan ahead for disconnected trips by packing a few of your favorite DVDs. If donated your collection years ago, pick up a few in a bargain bin before your next disconnected adventure. Rich always has an assortment of Bond, sci-fi, rom com, and an old classic on board.
9. Instagram and Facebook will have to wait
We aren't big users of social media so this wasn't very difficult. But if you use these sites to regularly stay connected and communicate, being without them is something to plan ahead for when you are out of cell service.
I had kind of hoped someone would notice the implied irony of the Instagram post of our campsite with the comment No wifi weekend #offthegrid. But our new Instagram account has so few followers, no one noticed.
Maybe you are thinking that all of these "hardships" would have been moot if only we had Starlink or satellite Internet options. But keep in mind two things: First, Starlink needs a 30 foot wide sky width to work. The tree cover of every campsite in the Chiricahua campground doesn't provide even close to that amount of sky. And that's the case with many remote spots.
Second, having a satellite Internet provider or Starlink carries with it setup charges and/or monthly fees. So unless you are full-timing or you go on a LOT of remote Airstream trips, neither are very cost effective. The occasional Airstream disconnected traveler (like us), will probably choose to simply live without.