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Before You Buy A Vintage Camper

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Buying your first camper can be fraught with unknowns. Should you buy a new trailer or an old one and fix it up? Is it better to fix it yourself or hire a pro? Should you buy a vintage camper or a classic camper? What is the difference? A new book helps you find answers.

Crystal McCullough shows her book 'Before You Buy a Vintage Camper'
Crystal McCullough shows her book ‘Before You Buy a Vintage Camper’

Crystal McCullough wrote her new book Before You Buy a Vintage Camper about finding, choosing, assessing, buying, and figuring out what to do with an old camper to help people navigate what she has gone through. The book is the perfect road map for people getting into the world of vintage campers because it helps potential buyers discover what questions they should be asking themselves and sellers. She offers advice on how to assess a camper’s condition, shares information about some of the tools and parts you might need to fix up the trailer, and even how to get it home legally and safely after you purchase it.

Before You Buy a Vintage Camper includes advice she wishes she had before getting into her first camper project, Crystal told us. There are several great restorers to hire to customize a camper, and a lot of DIY information available on how to renovate and glam up old campers once you have one, she says. But she felt there wasn’t enough information to help people prior to buying. Many people—including her—buy an old camper with the best of intentions only to get it home and be overwhelmed by all the work and money needed to get it where they want it. She said most guides she found on buying old campers have only one page or a 10-point bulleted list describing what you need to know before buying a trailer, lacking the specifics of the pitfalls to avoid and questions to ask.

“There’s information, but it’s tough to find and weed through all of it,” she says. Her goal with the book is to take the mystery out of the buying process and give people some tools to better manage their expectations.

Before Crystal Bought a Vintage Camper

Crystal caught the old camper bug ever since going to a vintage trailer rally with her sister, Diane, in 2012. She looked into buying one, but renovated and restored campers were beyond her budget. In 2014, her brother, Tom, finished turning a retired shuttle bus into a custom class C camper/toy hauler for his business. Even though he said he never wanted to do it again, she said that’s when she got the idea that she could afford a used camper if she worked on it herself. Plus, his declaration of never wanting to do it again made fixing up an old camper an irresistible challenge to Crystal’s self-described obsessive personality.

A post renovation shot of Zola, Crystal's vintage Camper and her dog, Dawkins.
A picture of the interior of Zola after renovation, and Crystal’s cute dog Dawkins.

Crystal is a writer and editor who started her career in national consumer computer magazines in the late 1980s. She’s authored several how-to books on personal computers and orchestrating 5K runs, among other topics, so she is used to doing her own research when it comes to a project.

“I’ve done a lot of different things, and a pattern throughout my life has been to become fascinated with solving a problem or challenge that I’m facing, then becoming obsessed in finding or making a solution, learning all I can about it because there are few or no resources about it, and then making it or teaching what I’ve learned via classes, articles, books, and so on,” Crystal said. She is currently contracting as a full-time copywriter for LinkedIn Learning.

It took her a year and a half to find the right first vintage camper, a 20-ft-long 1972 Airstream Argosy she named Zola. Since buying that one, Crystal has bought eight campers and sold five.

“I keep telling myself that I’m not going to buy or sell any more, but who am I kidding?” Her personal projects are from-the-frame-up rebuilds on Zola, and another Airstream Argosy she calls Zack, a 1976 28-footer.

Crystal doesn’t consider herself a professional camper renovator or restorer. She continues to work as a full-time writer, and on the side, helps others with their camper purchases, fixes, and rebuilds, teaching them what she knows and learning along with them if it’s something she has never done before. She has helped with window installs, electrical wiring, and pitched in to help new owners troubleshoot issues. She is fascinated by the process, enjoys the work, and loves helping others with their vintage campers or any other trailer. Writing a book about what she had learned so far was a natural next step.

Sussing Out the Systems

When Crystal got her first Airstream Argosy, she assumed she could clean it up, put on some paint, and go, maybe taking a couple months of weekends at the most. She learned quite quickly that the vintage camper needed to be gutted and rebuilt, something she didn’t know a thing about. Because she had to learn as she went along, the process took over two years to make Zola campable. From the start, though, there were a couple of things she knew she wanted: to get a composting toilet because she didn’t want to deal with sewage, and to go all electric, powered by solar panels as much as possible. At the core of that system, she knew she needed a reliable battery.

“I saw what old lead-acid batteries did to my campers [Zack and Zola], and that’s a key part of what made me realize how extensive Zola’s damage was,” she said. In both cases, the subfloor under the battery compartments had disintegrated and the steel outriggers on the frame were corroded from the leaking lead-acid batteries.

The first major purchase Crystal made for Zola is a BB10012, and all of her systems center around it. Battle Born Batteries kept coming up in search results and camper forums, she says, especially in discussions about putting together mobile solar systems. Some people recommended AGM and gel deep-cycle batteries, but she didn’t like the fact they were still full of toxic materials and needed so much care. She liked that lithium batteries take less maintenance and babysitting, weigh significantly less than other batteries, and have a longer lifespan. They are perfect for vintage campers.

“It was an investment for me that I’ve never regretted,” she told us. Crystal enjoys getting off the grid and is amazed at Battle Born Batteries for their large energy storage and ability to last. She says they are easy to trust and she doesn’t have to worry about them. She now has three BB10012s in Zack and plans to add at least two more.

Three Battle Born Batteries and a Victron Multiplus Inverter Charger inside Zack, a vintage camper.
Crystal adds three Battle Born Batteries and a Victron Multiplus Inverter Charger to the electrical system of Zack, her 28-foot Airstream Argosy.

Zen and the Art of Camper Renovation

Crystal shares some of her personal story in the book, too. She tells us that for her, renovating a vintage camper is like a form of meditation and therapy. In the book, she wrote that working on campers gave her permission to examine the object, get inside it, acknowledge its faults, remove the rot, and work hard to build it back up again—much like the process she has experienced in therapy.

“Searching for just the right camper and searching for answers in therapy are both really hard work,” she wrote. “Both can be emotional, stressful, exciting, and rewarding.” The camper, she says, is tangible evidence of progress when you put in the work.

There are plenty of intimidating and frustrating parts of renovating a trailer and just as many potential setbacks. In her book, Crystal tells the story of when she neglected to properly winterize a water pipe in Zola, which resulted in it bursting and causing significant water damage. It was crushing, she said, but she begrudgingly forced herself to acknowledge the extent of damage, and then start tearing out and rebuilding again. The disaster was an opportunity to add some improvements, like a new coat of interior paint, a three-burner propane cooktop (a steal at $60 on Facebook Marketplace), and a solar panel that had gone missing during a road trip. And she learned more in the process.

“It’s those sorts of things that can start with frustration but can end really beautifully,” Crystal said.

That feeling of accomplishment persists. She said there are still times where she walks into her trailer, flips the lights on, and thinks, “Hey, I did that!”

So, if you think your road to Zen leads to buying an old trailer, check out Crystal McCullough’s book Before You Buy a Vintage Camper. It will save you a lot of frustration on your way to finding your own (or building your own) little slice of heaven.

Here is a gallery of Zola and Zack.

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