One Friday night in February, I found myself sitting on my sofa browsing Craigslist. This had been the norm for several months, as I was searching for a vintage travel trailer.
I came across an ad for a vintage Yellowstone Trailer that was about 15 minutes from me. I emailed the seller, and made an appointment to go look at it over the weekend.
I was nervous when I pulled up to the house. She was sitting to the side, had a yellow stripe across her, and had a screen out of one of the front windows. My husband had concerns. I did most of the talking.
We started with this:
Took three weekends, and now have this:
The title says she’s a 1955 Yellowstone, but my research shows that she is at least a 1963. We’re not doing a frame-off restoration, but we’re “fixing-it-up,” meaning we’re doing new paint, new flooring, new cushions, new curtains, backslash, staining the interior wood, and reinforcing some of the interior.
She gets lots of attention, for sure. Since we’ve had her, lots of friends have asked about going camping with us, finding their own trailers, and one friend even joked, “how much per month to, uh… live here?” Haha!
I put together a guide to help anyone who is starting a search for a vintage camper.
1) Plan for what you want, and be prepared to take two steps down
You have two options: hold out for your dream camper, or be prepared to accept one that isn’t exactly the desired ambition. My dream trailer is a 1957 fully restored Shasta. I found one while searching: on eBay, 2,000 miles away, and with the price tag of $16,000.
I knew that while I really wanted a fully restored trailer, finding one was proving to be a challenge. During my six-month search, I only found one camper within a drivable distance that was fully restored, and it sold minutes after being posted on Craigslist.
I could have held out, sure. However, I’m impatient. I wanted it for camping, not showing off or taking to rallies. I found the best one I possibly could in six months and went for it.
2) Makes and Manufacturers of Vintage Campers
Tin Can Tourists has a wiki listing of trailer manufacturers.
3) How to search the Internet for a Vintage Camper
I’m shy. I’m not the type of person to drive around and look for things that may or may not be for sale. If I lived at home near my dad, sure, maybe we’d hit the road and find a camper in a week or two. But me, a business woman living in the suburbs? Not so much.
The Internet became my best friend for searching for a vintage trailer. I started with the obvious: Craigslist, and went from there.
The obvious is to search for “vintage,” under Recreational Vehicles. Knowledgeable sellers will almost always use “vintage” somewhere in the title of their ad. Be wary of using “vintage camper” or “vintage trailer,” as adding words may limit your search. Another term is “canned ham,” which is a generic term for the vintage aluminum trailers. It’s not as commonly used as vintage. Be aware of ads that read “vintage-inspired” or “in the style of…” These are almost always not a vintage, and are merely reproductions. Remember to use quotation marks when searching for a phrase.
Another word to search for is “restore” or “restored.” Be careful when using this, as it often results in ads for people who restore campers (though that may not be a bad thing, depending on your budget and preference).
Also search for the make/manufacturer itself. This one may or may not be useful; depending on the size of the area you reside in/are searching. If you search for “Shasta,” it’s very likely you’ll pull up at least one or two vintage trailers. However, Shasta is still made today, so you’ll find new campers as well. To really dig, you can try terms like “Shasta 1500,” “Shasta Compact” (Compact was a model), or “Vintage Shasta.”
Try searching for specific years. I found a beautiful 1982 trailer by searching for “1982” in Recreational Vehicles on my local Craigslist. It’s work, but I came across more trailers by searching this way.
A third-party website is Search Tempest. If you’re willing to travel for a camper, Search Tempest allows Craigslist searches to be set up by mileage and zip codes, instead of a single location.
eBay may or may not work; depending on your location and your willingness to travel. I used eBay as a pricing resource, and not as a method of actually finding trailers. I was unsure about towing a trailer from several states away, so eBay wasn’t an option for me.
Another place I reached out were yard sale and barter groups that have gained local popularity on Facebook. These have really taken off in my area. I used the group search feature, and would search for “camper.” I got a couple of leads, but no solid hits.
Obviously, when dealing with anyone met online, or through classifieds, take a family member or friend with you for safety.
4) Vintage Camper Groups, Resources and Information
I first discovered vintage trailers online a few years ago, but didn’t really think much until the trailer craze recently starting springing up on Pinterest. A quick research yielded trailers were inexpensive, not terribly hard to find, and when restored, very attractive.
As I started searching for my own, my research into makes and models delved deeper into groups for trailer aficionados like myself.
One such group is Tin Can Tourists. This organization has resources for identifying trailers, and detailed photos of makes and models. When I purchased an uncommon make that I wasn’t familiar with, the Tin Can Tourists website had a detailed wiki description, along with photos, and vintage ads. They also have an active Pinterest community, where followers can browse thousands of trailer and camper photos.
Another organization is Vintage Trailers Campers, which publishes a bi-monthly magazine. This group is also very active on Facebook, and I found fellow page fans to be friendly and helpful when I posted a question before purchasing my Yellowstone.
5) Towing Capacities
In 2012, I got a huge idea that I was going to by a bass boat. After a couple of kayaks and a few dolphin cruises, I found out I have painful seasickness. I had, however, already bought a truck to tow said boat with.
It’s a lightweight truck with a maximum towing capacity of 3,500 pounds, and we keep it well below that. Still, we’ve never towed anything before, and it’s scary. The hardest part has been getting our trailer in and out of the driveway , as we have to drive down a hill onto our street, and then up a slope into our drive.
Check what your vehicle can safely tow, and don’t exceed that. I was fortunate: my seller was very knowledgeable and showed us exactly how to hook our trailer up. Always check the trailer itself and make sure it can be safely towed.
6) Things to Look for Before Buying a Vintage Camper
Kelle, who runs the website, Little Vintage Trailer, has a fabulous article detailing items to look for and be aware of before making the purchase. One thing that I’d add: she notes water damage as number one. My Yellowstone didn’t have any on the surface that we saw. However, we we got it home, we noticed some water spots under a cushion. It was nothing major, but we didn’t see it before because we didn’t pick up the cushion. Make sure to check for damage behind cushions and bedding, too. Look under everything.
7) Make a Budget, and Estimate Repair Costs
We had a “restored” budget and a “needs some TLC” budget. After viewing the trailer and seeing what it needed, I negotiated with the seller to fit my exact budget.
A big consideration is how much work you’re realistically willing to put into the trailer. Look at the work it needs, and then multiply your labor time by three. After purchasing, you’ll likely always find small things here and there that can be improved.
8) After Purchasing Your Camper
By far, the biggest thing that’s helped me: Don’t run out and buy a lot of unnecessary things after you purchase your trailer. I know, everyone gets excited. It’s so easy to fall in love and oooh and aah over curtains, fabrics and paints. Don’t. Save all of that for later. We’ve spent a total of $80 so far: new floors/backsplash, exterior paint, interior stain and one strip of interior wood.
9) Everything Won’t Be Perfect
Unless you’re a carpenter by trade, or have experience in home repair, your first trailer may not look perfect. That’s completely okay. I’ll admit, I had some reservations about putting work into mine. I had visions of Daniel and I arguing over nails and hammers and who controlled the wood stain better. Thus far, the arguments have been few and far because we’re not going for perfection or a professional look. We just want something fun for the campground. This has helped tremendously, not only on the quality of the camper, but on our own sanity as well.
All the above helped me tremendously when searching for my camper. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – the vintage trailer folks have been some of the nicest and friendliest groups I’ve met online. Are you looking for a camper? How long have you been looking? Leave your comments below; I’d love to hear your search stories.
(This post originally appeared on my previous blog in March, 2014).