Part 5 of the Luxury Travel Trailer Series
The decision to purchase a luxury travel trailer has a host of distinct advantages, including a deep connection to the space you call home. Almost by definition, a travel trailer enables endless experiences and destinations for exploration and adventure. This connection is simply not possible with a traditional brick and mortar home anchored to one address.
Travel trailers have a unique opportunity to connect the owners to the outdoors in powerful ways. The missed opportunity to enrich lives is one of the most extensive failures I see in an industry designed to get people outside. While not necessarily a make-or-break requirement, I would question a travel trailer’s very success that does not connect the traveler to the outdoors. To me, this feels akin to a home without a roof or windows – what’s the point?
As a classically trained architect in California, I have enjoyed the traditional and modernist values that architectural thought has influenced my design approach into the mobile world. I have thoroughly explored the concept of connecting with the outdoors and the techniques and features that enhance this experience. I believe we have to look no further for answers to some of the world’s greatest mysteries than to Mother Nature.
Societies are growing increasingly exhausted from indoor life. Sprawling cities filled with millions of people take the very humans that inhabit these metropolises and wear them down. I see hordes of people, busily navigating concrete urban landscapes, unknowingly craving more.
Nature brings peace. Even just to sit in the elements of nature and embrace the healing properties can unwind years of city dwelling. After all, why are beach and mountain vacations so darn popular? The Eastern High Sierra Nevada mountains was my childhood home in California. I was deeply influenced by nature from a very young age. In college, I continued this Great Outdoor path to the Central California Coast where and I continued to focused my attention on the interplay between nature and architecture.
I spent my final year at architectural school focused on the design of a nature retreat center. I’d like to share an excerpt from my architectural college thesis, “The Healing Powers of Nature.”
Nature has become synonymous with the modern-day vacation. It seems to be where we can abandon our worries and difficulties that plague our everyday lives and find reconciliation and refuge. I have discovered, quite inexplicably, that we as humans have an innate tie with the natural world. Nature is that from which we came, and by returning to it, perhaps we can find greater peace and understanding of the very core of ourselves. There’s a very simple yet stark contrast from our modern way of life – full of distractions, distress, and countless gadgets. This contrast emphasizes a natural setting’s peacefulness and brings into question what words of wisdom may be found in that silence?
So many of our recreational activities take place in a natural environment. Even more evident today is the complete lack of nature in the area surrounding many of our technological age homes, what we call “the urban environment.” Ironic, isn’t it? By coming in contact with that which we are fundamentally part of, we come closer to discovering the truth of what really matters.
But it’s not just this comparison between what used to be and what exists now in our world. I see this current-day existence as a type of temporary refuge. I question whether or not nature possesses revival. Is it possible to rewind years of city living and become whole again?
Holistic health is more than just a mental break from our lifestyle but also a physical reconditioning and awareness. The architecture that allows us to experience nature should then reflect these ideals. The architectural intervention may repress no aspect of the surrounding site but embrace it fully. The landscape must exist in harmony with the tectonics of the built form. The context must inform the design so that the user can appreciate the site on a year-round basis. The feeling of a place is lost by drawing a distinct boundary between the user and the site. Our minds grow distracted and distanced.
A continuous socially enriching involvement between man and nature must occur, a spiritual union between architecture and nature. The honest acceptance of place and context must then also translate into an honesty of built form. In this way, architecture may possess healing properties. Architecture can become a daily vessel for health with a harmonious connection with nature. Architecture is medicine.
Written over a decade ago, I look back and see so clearly why I gravitated to designing mobile spaces. Through my own experience, I have found a travel trailer can act as that very vessel that enhances this deep connection to nature. With this in mind, it is vital to select a travel trailer that connects you more to nature. What an opportunity!
Here are the five points to consider when shopping for a travel trailer to help bring you closer to nature:
One of my favorite concepts in architectural design is the relation of indoor to outdoor space. Modern technology and remarkable inventions have given us things every day that we now take for granted. We can experience nature in some of the harshest environments possible while still being extremely comfortable with most of our needs met.
A properly insulated building with a robust air conditioning system allows us to thrive in even the hottest desert environments. Indoor heating will enable us to live in the coldest Alaskan winter. Windows and glass walls will allow us to open up our protected home and take in the outdoors. The features and technologies at a designer’s arsenal are many. All share the same goal of existing in all types of climates within nature. When successfully executed, the connection with outdoor spaces is to such a degree that the very lines that distinguish indoor to outdoor space are blurred. Windows can erode these lines altogether. The result is an architectural space that feels deeply connected with nature.
While relatively simple to do in a brick-n-sticks home, a mobile application offers unique challenges. For example, rooms that are adjacent to outdoor patios on the same level with large floor-to-ceiling walls of glass that make the connection to a physical outdoor space possible are becoming increasingly common in residential construction. When it comes to searching for what recreational vehicle to buy, this one may be the most difficult requirement right out of the gate. Most travel trailer companies I found don’t embrace the concept of indoor-outdoor living space. I’ve seen the only connection from inside to the outdoors is through the only way to enter the trailer –- through the front door. A single access point is the industry standard.
When interacting with an outdoor space, cooking, or sitting around a campfire, the only way to access the unit is typically down a flight of stairs and through a narrow entry door. Modern-day trailers embrace the concept of fold-down decks and other practices that extend indoor living space to the outdoors. Large patio sliders enhance this access and visual connection. The key idea here is embracing an easily accessed area from the indoors to the outside. Look for ways that a trailer opens up to the outdoors to form a visual and functional connection. It is a missed opportunity to bring your travel trailer to a national park, only to live in a glorified box with no connection to the outdoors. Living in a small box in some vast wilderness is the making of “cabin fever.”
When compared to a traditional residence, travel trailers are significantly smaller, and that’s no surprise. After all, campers need to be towed behind a vehicle to get from point A to B. There’s a limit to how large the space can be, so the techniques to open up the space that embraces the outdoors becomes all the more critical.
For over a century now, we have welcomed outdoor access with increasingly larger windows and walls of glass. These windows create a more spacious feeling. When an RV is limited to a mere 200 - 300 sq. ft., windows are seemingly magic features that make a small space big and draw the eye outside. I’ve never entirely understood it, but most recreational vehicles on the market today or are virtually dark boxes with small or oddly placed windows.
I have traveled in million-dollar motorhomes that lack a single window on the entire side of the unit. It may sound simple, but it can be a real challenge to find an RV with lots of well-placed, large windows. Not only does the amount of windows matter, but where are the windows placed, and what is outside is key to creating a space that connects you with the outdoors.
The four sides of a travel trailer are very different from a functional perspective, and what you may be looking out of on one side of a trailer might be very different from the other.
With a few exceptions, the entry door of an RV is almost always on the same side. The entry door is typically on the passenger side when connected to a truck, called the “curbside.” Because of the entry door, the curbside will always be your private space – the space that you interact with most. You’ll find barbecues, a fire pit, tables, etc., on the curbside. When parked, views very commonly open up to the curbside as well – the same with the trailer’s rear. When backing up to a site to call home, expansive views are very commonly out the back. Windows that open up to the curbside and rear should be plentiful and strategically embrace that side of the unit.
On the other hand, the street side (or driver side) of a travel trailer is typically considered the “service side.” This side is where all connections to utilities are located – think waste hoses, electrical, and water connections. When staying at an RV park, there is very little to look at on the streetside (except for your neighbor parked a mere 5-10 feet away.) The only thing in between you and them is a bunch of utility connections. Not exactly a great side to look out for depending on how you’re traveling.
In residential construction where the home has a foundation, we can design to be site specific. This means if there is something less desirable on one side of the house, we don’t put a lot of windows there. However, when it comes to a trailer, things move. What’s outside today might not be there tomorrow. That being said, there are specific design concepts that are common no matter where you travel, and these need to be considered.
Earlier, I spoke about the functional connection between indoor and outdoor space. If the RV you are searching for has an indoor-outdoor area like a fold down patio deck, it is a wonderful feature. How this deck is used and where it is located is extremely important and can make or break how the deck is used, or if it is ever used.
The fold-down deck is a great way to extend the indoor space to the outside. A fold down patio is on the same level as the interior and allows the owner to access the outdoors easily. All too often, I find the deck spaces in terrible locations with minimal connection to the indoors. This design concept is most common on what’s called a “toy hauler.” It’s probably most prevalent on this type of unit because the concept of a fold down deck evolved from what was previously just a pull-down ramp for motorcycles, ATVs, and other motorized toys out back You would fold the ramp down and roll up your motorcycle to be stored inside the unit when traveling (makes the indoors of your trailer smell like grease and gas, but that’s beside the point.)
While it is great to see that the ramp is serving another purpose, the reality is the ramp is directly adjacent to the storage area or garage. In marketing materials, you will see the entire family is enjoying the patio with a round of drinks or lunch, but how will that ever be used if the space that it’s directly adjacent to is a cargo area? That’s like moving your backyard patio at home to the front of the house directly in-front of your garage door. Seems silly, right? Just how many times would you use that patio to enjoy an outdoor meal?
Most importantly, when a full down deck is present, there must be two things. First, this is an excellent opportunity to open up the inside space dramatically. I love the idea of a large patio slider directly behind the fold-down deck. This allows an entire wall of the trailer to be opened up and blur the distinction between indoor and outdoor space, but you need to carefully consider exactly what space is inside looking out. Second, what is next to that patio, and how is the deck area to be used? Just because the trailer touts a fold-down deck as included on the specification list doesn’t mean it will serve any purpose for you. In my decade of living in small spaces, I have found that I use a deck for two distinct purposes: dining and cooking.
Cooking outdoors is nothing new to camping or trailers in general. Almost every campground or RV park I’ve visited has a fire pit that will cook a meal quite nicely. This can be fun as an idea but in practice unfortunately, is not functional at all.
If you plan to cook outdoors in most RVs, you need to enter and exit through that tiny entry door and step down three or four precarious steps to even get to your cooking area. Imagine carrying a tray of food or sharp cooking utensils up and down that stairwell. Let’s hope your shoes aren’t slippery! I vividly remember a time when I was carrying a cutting board full of food and lost my footing while walking down those stairs. Both my hands were full and not holding onto the railing. I tripped and was able to immediately catch myself, but the cutting board (and its contents) flew about 10 feet out onto the dirt. Suffice it to say. We had to change our dinner plans.
This is what I love about a fold-down deck. The outdoor cooking space may be raised to the same level as the indoor space. So, in your search, ensure that a patio deck is set up with cooking facilities and is directly adjacent to the kitchen area. An extensive patio slider access to and from the deck becomes seamless and is effectively an extension of the kitchen itself.
Next to cooking, and almost more utilized than cooking itself, is the activity of dining (or even just lounging). There’s something special about hanging out and eating outdoors. Just like in residential design, if an outdoor dining area is too far away from the kitchen, it will hardly be used. Ok, maybe it will be used for special occasions, but from a day-to-day living perspective, it just doesn’t work. Outdoor spaces that aren’t easily accessed from the indoors simply don’t get used. Be sure your fold-down patio is an excellent option for dining and is easily accessible to the space you usually plan to hangout inside your trailer. (Probably not the toy garage.)
For this reason, if a trailer has a fold-down deck, it becomes almost unnecessary to have a dedicated indoor dining area. Of course, there will be times that you need to eat indoors so make sure that a dining area exists. With an integrated outdoor patio, the indoor dining table should not be the only purpose of the space. I love a lounge area that easily converts to a dining room table if needed when it’s too cold to eat outside.
Who doesn’t love being comfortable? I have many friends who purposely “follow the sun” in their recreational vehicle. Yet, even these goals are not always realistic or attainable. All too often when traveling, it is not always sunny and 75 where you are. When it gets too hot or too cold to enjoy the outdoors, it is equally essential to be in a comfortable indoor space with all the doors and windows closed. I Iove spending time outdoors and want my travel trailer to be designed to extend the times that I can use the outdoor spaces. What if it’s raining and 55 outside? Will I still be able to enjoy dinner on the patio deck area?
In its simplest form, the outdoor area should have a highly adaptable cover to be used in a variety of climates. These covers come in all shapes and sizes and the most common undoubtedly is a patio awning. I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with patio awnings and could write the article entirely on that subject, but the long and short of it is that awnings break. From a warranty perspective, a large piece of fabric is effectively a wind sail and is highly likely to be caught in the wind when it is extended. Awnings are expensive, and when they do break, they are not easily repaired.
I prefer the more simplistic approach of a patio umbrella, taking a cue from a home’s traditional patio design. Umbrellas are simple, effective, and easily replaceable if they get damaged. On a fold-down deck, I recommend finding a trailer that has an integrated umbrella support system so you may easily install and move around an umbrella depending on where the sun is. This same umbrella may cover a dining table. This allows you to utilize the space when it is raining outside, too. I love the experience of enjoying a meal outdoors undercover in light rain.
While this is not an exhaustive list, this represents my experience for some of the features to look for when searching for a travel trailer that embraces the outdoors. Just because a trailer is designed to hook up and tow to a remote location, doesn’t mean your experience will be well connected to nature when you get there. A lot of these design features are subjective and need to be carefully considered as it relates to your own beautifully unique lifestyle. A trailer that is designed to connect you to the outdoors will result in a healthier and vastly more enjoyable traveling experience.