Rolling Across Death Valley in Our Four Seasons Land Rover Discovery…with an Airstream Basecamp in tow
By: Aaron Gold | Photography by: Robin Trajano
May 29, 2018
Instructions for my first assignment as an Automobile staffer were pretty basic. “Take the Disco,” said editor-in-chief Mike Floyd. “Hook up an Airstream to it, grab a photographer, and go do something Land Rover-y.” And that was it.
Twenty hours later I was behind the wheel of our Four Seasons 2017 Land Rover Discovery, running from a rainstorm I desperately hoped would end in Death Valley, as that was pretty much what I promised our photo editor would happen. My wife, Robin, was at my side, my dog, Lexi, was sleeping fitfully in the back seat, and an Airstream Basecamp trailer—which looked pretty small in the pictures but freakin’ huge once hooked up to the Land Rover—was trailing behind.
The diesel-powered HSE Luxury Discovery and I were strangers, but it made a good first impression. I liked the clean and contemporary cabin, high-quality materials, and feel of the switchgear. The view out is superb (aside from the wall of aluminum and glass filling my rearview mirror), and I was impressed that after nearly 19,000 miles there were none of the squeaks and rattles I expected from a well-used British car. And nothing beats the smooth ride of an air suspension.
Not all was perfect. I never thought it was possible for a seat to have too much thigh support, but I had to tilt the cushion forward to avoid restricting circulation to my thighs. Another strange quirk: The Land Rover has two welcoming places for my right elbow (center console lid, fold-down armrest) but none for my left; the armrest is too low, the window ledge too high, and both meanly padded. Still, it proved a comfy chariot.
It was also proving to be a competent tow vehicle, though to be fair, the Airstream Basecamp, $35,900 to start and $38,550 as tested, wasn’t much of a challenge for the Disco and its 3.0-liter turbodiesel with 254 horsepower and 443 lb-ft of torque paired to an eight-speed automatic. Designed specifically to be towed by smaller SUVs, the Basecamp weighs around 2,600 pounds empty with a max gross weight of 3,500 pounds. Its 7-foot width meant it was only a few inches wider than the Land Rover, and although it was a bit tricky to back up—the shorter the trailer, the twitchier it is—its size meant we could pull full-lock U-turns almost anywhere we pleased.
The Basecamp represents a middle ground between tent trailers and full-on travel trailers. Inside there’s a small galley with a half-height fridge, sink, and two-burner stove. The tiny shower stall is also home to the toilet. The bulk of the living space is taken up by two facing couches, which convert to a double bed, with small tables between them. There’s an air conditioner and a microwave, but the trailer must be plugged in to power to use them. Everything else runs on liquid propane or batteries, the latter charged by optional solar panels on the roof. The Basecamp sits high on its single axle, making it a perfect trailer to do the Land Rover-y things my boss requested.
Happily, the rain tapered off as we headed up Route 395 toward the Searles Valley. Somewhere between Boron and Trona, towns named for the materials they mine, our photographer—also named Robin—called to say he found a place to shoot photos.
“It’s a dirt road off the main highway,” he said. It turned out to be both way off and way dirt. I wasn’t terribly worried about the Discovery, but it was clear we were dragging the Airstream through places most people would not take a trailer; the bemused expressions on the faces of Jeep drivers heading the other way confirmed this. The Basecamp brochure boldly says “built for adventure.” I hoped Airstream’s copy writers meant it.
Our photo session went well, including some rather ace trailer maneuvering. (Both Robins might disagree, but I’m sure I never actually hit the rock, and their frantic yelling and arm waving were more of a distraction than anything else.) After chasing the dog around a bit—she and photographer Robin got on famously, though she seemed to think his camera was an object of evil that needed to be barked at and possibly eaten—we tip-toed through the dirt back to the main highway.
As we started to climb the Panamint Range, the Discovery finally began to show vague signs of realization that it was dragging a ton and a half of Airstream in its wake. Gasoline engines never let you forget you’re towing a trailer, but diesels make it hard to remember. The diesel Discovery is rated to tow 7,716 pounds, and although I’d be hesitant to tow a much longer trailer (the Discovery’s short wheelbase would be a stability concern), I have no doubt it can haul that kind of weight up the hills. Our average fuel consumption was 21 mpg, pretty friggin’ incredible considering we had a trailer in tow. That gave us a cruising range of roughly 450 miles, perfect for Death Valley, where those “Last Chance Fuel” signs really mean something.
A smorgasbord of bad surfaces started with washboards that I feared would vibrate the Discovery to pieces. I crept along, hoping that the cacophony of rattles were from our luggage and not bits that were bolted to the chassis.
The sun was low in the sky by the time we entered Death Valley proper. Our original plan had been to camp in the middle of nowhere, but finding the perfect bit of nowhere in the dark struck me as a phenomenally bad idea, so we stopped at the first campground we saw. This turned out to be a good idea, as converting the Basecamp for night use was a lot more work than expected.
First, everything on the seats—and in our case, that meant everything we brought—needed to be chucked outside, followed by the couch cushions. The table legs must be changed out for shorter ones (the shortened tables support the bed), the benches opened and folded out, and the cushions rearranged to form a bed. “I don’t know how you’re supposed to do this in the rain,” my wife said. We decided the optional patio tent ($1,500), which attaches to the side of the trailer, is a must-have.
The cushions are about as thick as prison mattresses and slightly less forgiving, a problem we solved with a $20 air mattress. This left gaps between the rectangular mattress and the rounded walls, but that was OK. They proved useful for glasses, e-readers, and the like—the Basecamp doesn’t have any bedside storage.
The next morning brought a fantastic view of the mountains through the Basecamp’s panoramic front windows and a knock on the door from photog Robin, who spent the night at a nearby hotel. (Two people and a dog is the Basecamp’s limit, unless you’re very, very friendly.) We unhooked the trailer, left wife Robin and Lexi behind to sleep in, and headed down Cottonwood Canyon Road, a smorgasbord of bad surfaces starting with washboards that I feared would vibrate the Discovery to pieces. I crept along, hoping that the cacophony of rattles were from our luggage and not bits that were supposed to be bolted to the chassis.
“The ride might smooth out if you go faster,” Robin suggested.
“How much faster?” I asked.
“I dunno,” he said. “Try 60.”
Washboard soon gave way to sand, and I eagerly spun the Land Rover’s Terrain Response dial to the sand setting. Did it work? I have no idea. The scientific approach would have been to stop and see how much traction we had, but if the Discovery did get stuck, I’d get the triple play of a long walk, an embarrassing phone call, and an irate photographer. Instead, I kept up my speed, and the Rover easily floated over the sand.
Cottonwood Canyon turned out to be a phenomenal photo spot, but as we headed back to camp along the boulder-strewn trails, I was starting to think we weren’t really making much use of the Discovery’s off-road abilities. Just then I heard the first rock scrape the underside. Turns out I had somehow dropped the Discovery’s air suspension from off-road to normal height. Oops. I guess we were making use of the Disco’s significant off-road abilities after all, but the Land Rover makes it all feel so effortless.
Back at camp it was time for lunch. Wife Robin had stuffed the fridge, and I figured she was primed to put the galley to the test.
“What’s for lunch?” I asked.
“Sandwiches,” she replied.
“You’re not going to cook?”
“Sandwiches,” she repeated. “And if you don’t want a sandwich, there’s dog food in the cabinet.”
“I thought we’d try the cooktop,” I said.
“I used it to boil water for coffee,” she said. “It worked, which you should be able to tell by the fact that the kettle is not wrapped around your head.” She is not, as you might have guessed, a morning person.
Photos made and sandwiches eaten, photographer Robin headed home while Robin and I hooked up the Basecamp. Our destination: the Alabama Hills, filming site for numerous Westerns and a place we’d always wanted to visit. It’s also BLM land, so you can camp anywhere. We expected total isolation, so you can imagine our surprise when we found ourselves smack in the middle of a Greater Los Angeles Airstream Club rally, sharing our seclusion with 20 other Airstream trailers. Seriously—we had no idea this would happen.
They welcomed us with open arms, and we joined them for a potluck dinner, where they explained the Apple-like appeal of their aluminum Twinkies. (Short version: Nostalgia, quality, and camaraderie wherever you go.)
We parked in an isolated spot some ways away and settled in for the night. The Airstreamers had warned us that the heater blower motor really sucks down battery power. Thankfully, Robin had brought enough blankets to cover an entire Alabama hill, so we were toasty warm without mechanical assistance.
The next morning, I realized we’d barely made a dent in our water tank (not for lack of trying on that dirt road), so I decided at long last to try out the Basecamp’s shower. Trying to soap up with a toilet in the way is tricky enough, but with the water rapidly alternating between hot and cold, I gave up. After my aborted attempt at getting clean, it was time to pack up the Basecamp and head home.
On the way back to Los Angeles, it occurred to us that the Discovery and the Basecamp combined to make the perfect go-anywhere vacation machine. We had taken a reasonably comfortable motel room on wheels just about anywhere we pleased. If that isn’t a Land Rover-y thing to do, I don’t know what is.