Survival in an Airstream

An Airstream isn't just a way to get out and explore the country—it can also be a lifeline.

Wildfire season is already underway here out west. New Mexico, for example, is experiencing some of its worst wildfires in history. Severe summer storms and hurricane season are only a few short months ahead. 

Those of us who own Airstreams are fortunate to have a perfect escape pod: a complete and tiny house on wheels.  

I've been reminded by this many times, as Airstreamers tell me stories of how they were spared the worst of a natural disaster because they had an Airstream. Many of these stories came from friends in the southeast who escaped Hurricane Katrina, as well as those who were forced to evacuate because of wildfires, floods, and even ice storms.

An Airstream survival story during Katrina

This condensed version of an article we ran in Airstream Life magazine in 2006 illustrates just how important it is to be prepared to use your Airstream in an emergency:

Roger and Brenda Roelfson of Pascagoula, MS made a last minute decision to take their Airstream along when time came to evacuate ahead of Hurricane Katrina’s arrival in 2005. “Usually I leave it at a ranch which never floods,” said Roger. “But the radio said the traffic was already horrendous. I said ‘Let’s take the Airstream so if we get stuck at least we can have a meal and a place to stay’.”  That turned out to be a smart choice:  in the next day, their house was flooded above the second story and utterly destroyed.

For their first night, they parked the Airstream in a church parking lot in Wiggins, MS, but with trees falling all night, they were still not safe. They spent the first night, with their dog, sleeping in the church.

The next day, the Roelfsons went back without their Airstream, to see if they could get into town, but there was no way back. They relocated the Airstream to a Wal-Mart that had been destroyed because they had heard FEMA would have water trucks there. As it turned out, FEMA wasn’t there, but the Roelfsons had a home base to work from so they stayed.

Conditions deteriorated rapidly. “As soon as it got dark, people started looting,” said Roger. “The police station was wiped out, so they [the police] were set up in their parking lot on a card table. We went over and told them about the looting, and the police came down and captured a couple of guys. They took their guns but let them go – there was no place to put them.”

Meanwhile, Roger and Brenda had their own concerns. After four days, their Airstream began to attract unwanted attention. It had electricity, a toilet, and a shower. The Roelfsons recharged their batteries by idling the Suburban, and with a 54 gallon tank of fuel their electrical supply was ensured for days. Fresh water was coming in from FEMA at that point. But their neighbors weren’t so lucky. There were still no toilets for five days. Roadside ditches became open sewers.

“People were coming up for days and asking to use our shower, asking if we had water. I don’t mind helping anyone but we had a line of 35 people. Then later they got a bit irritable. We were living la vida loca, relatively speaking. They were still in tents.” Many people didn’t have shoes, either.

After five days at the Wal-Mart, fuel for the truck was running low, and they decided to leave.  Their home and everything they owned outside of the Airstream was gone, forever.  Roger had lost 55 pounds.  “We had no idea where to go, we just had to go away,” said Roger.  They ended up in a campground in Opelousas, MS for five weeks, and then towed the Airstream to Colorado. 

In the aftermath, the Roelfsons lived in Salida, CO. They still had their Airstream.  “I’d have been sick if I’d lost that Airstream. I worked on it two years,” said Roger. And thanks in part to their Airstream, they still have each other. 

Stay stocked and ready to go

In the midst of a major catastrophe, an Airstream can be the most valuable survival tool you own. All you need to do is keep it lightly stocked and ready to go on short notice. That includes keeping things like these in the Airstream at all times, or in a place where it's ready to grab at a moment's notice:

  • water in the fresh water tank (if not winterized), OR have a plan to fill the tank at a reliable source as you depart
  • a small quantity of bleach in a sealed bottle in case you have to rapidly de-winterize and/or disinfect the water system
  • a basic set of tools in the Airstream (tire changing kit, tools for simple repairs)
  • spare phone charger and chargers for other devices you rely upon (laptop, tablet, electric razor, smart watch, etc)
  • "emergency" non-perishable packaged food
  • First Aid kit
  • a small quantity of clothing and related items appropriate to the typical risks in your area (rain jackets, warm clothes, boots, sunscreen, etc)
  • sheets, blankets, towels
  • trash bags, resealable water bottles, soap, other long-lasting household supplies
  • full propane tanks

You may want to add other items to the list, depending on your personal circumstances. Basically, we try to leave whatever we can that (a) we don't need at home; (b) isn't valuable to a thief; (c) won't perish (or be devoured by rodents) while in storage.

This is all in addition to the stuff you should have ready to go at home. Make a list of all the critical things you need to take along when you have to leave at a moment's notice. Things that you may not be able to replace easily in a regional disaster. That way you'll be able to grab them quickly when you're stressed and distracted. These may include:

  • purified drinking water
  • prescriptions
  • contact lenses and solution
  • prescription glasses
  • important documents and ID
  • laptop
  • chargers for laptops, mobile devices, tablets
  • emergency cash
  • jewelry
  • pet food, leash, medications, supplies
  • personal security
  • CPAP machine
  • generator or CarGenerator

Keep your Airstream lightly stocked and your 'bug out' list handy and you'll be more prepared than the majority of folks if a natural disaster strikes.

Photo credit: NASA on Unsplash

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