It's a heartbreaking feeling, hitting a piece of road debris and damaging your lovely Airstream.
We just finished up a 3-month, 12,000 mile summer tour that took us from Arizona to Maine. In the final week, while cruising down I-40 in New Mexico, the road was suddenly peppered with scraps of a truck tire.
Tothie was driving and I was in the right seat coaching her because she's still relatively new to towing. She knew a car was in the left lane, so she didn't feel safe swerving the rig a foot to the left to avoid the chunks of debris.
The truck wheels rolled right over the tire chunks, flipped them up, and they whacked the stone guards of the Airstream. Result: two dented stone guards.
[Insert big sigh here]
What could have been done to avoid this? And what would we do now, to fix the damage? Here are a few tips to navigate this, should you ever find yourself in this unfortunate situation.
Learn how to avoid the problem
Obviously the best approach is to avoid getting in this situation at all—if possible. One way to reduce your risk of being caught off guard by tire shrapnel is not to follow tractor trailers too closely. Because if one has a tire blowout in front of you, you'll only have a split second to react.
In our case, the tire blowout had probably happened long before we arrived on the scene, so there was a long "debris field" on the highway. That was a warning that Tothie didn't notice until it was too late.
So a second avoidance tip is, if you spot a tire chunk or two on the road, be on your guard that there may be larger pieces just ahead. Often where there's one, there are many. So slow down and be prepared to change lanes.
Ensure your towing rig is set up optimally
It would be great if towing classes were offered all over the country so that we could all practice emergency maneuvers in a controlled environment. Since they aren't, it's up to you to ensure that your rig is set up properly (which means the brake controller and weight-distributing hitch are dialed in for optimal performance).
If you get caught off-guard by debris, you may have to make a sudden lane change or hit the brakes hard. You should feel confident that the rig will do what you want when the rubber meets the road.
Both of my books talk about the need to weigh your Airstream as a step in ensuring that the weight-distributing hitch is set up correctly. People tend to skip this because it's intimidating and complicated–but it's really important. And honestly, after the first time you go through the process of weighing your Airstream, subsequent weigh-ins will be much easier.
Emergency maneuvers also require good "situational awareness"—which means understanding what's happening around you. Are you comfortable evaluating your position relative to other vehicles, with the mirrors, the backup camera, and your view out the windows? If not you may need to make some adjustments to your seating position or mirrors.
Use avoidance strategies
A small course correction is far better than making a full lane change at highway speed. This requires some finesse. If you can evaluate the debris as you approach it, you may be able to find a way to avoid the bigger chunks by straddling them or slaloming gently through the field.
- Try using this technique used by mountain bikers: mentally draw a line through the debris that minimizes the risk of hitting something big. You will find it's much easier to pilot the Airstream through when you are following that imaginary line.
- Don't accelerate ahead of other traffic. Your rig can slow down much more quickly than it can accelerate, so let others pass while you buy time to think your way through the problem. Besides, if you do have to run over debris, it's far better to do it at low speed.
Stop and evaluate possible damage
If you think you've hit something—or something has hit you—take the first opportunity to check the Airstream. In our case, our truck's rear wheels went directly over two chunks of truck tire. While we were fortunate that the protruding metal wires in the chunks didn't puncture our tires, we ran out of luck after that.
Pieces of tread tend to get flipped up after you roll over them. This means a heavy piece of metal and rubber whacked into our Airstream's stone guards at 65 MPH. That's enough to put a sizable dent into the aluminum of an Airstream, and even enough to dent the much stronger stainless steel stone guards.
The bigger concern is damage to the Airstream's soft underbelly or tires. Having a Tire Pressure Monitoring System is helpful here, to identify leaks that may result. You also want to inspect carefully for any pieces of underbelly or other gear that might be damaged and dragging on the roadway.
Get professional help for evaluation and repair
If the Airstream's wheels hit something significant at speed, like a curb, the axles may be bent out of alignment. You probably won't be able to see this but it will show up later as uneven or rapid wear on the tires. The axle alignment can be measured and corrected by an Airstream Service Center, and it's wise to have it checked out in this case.
Obviously if you spot some other damage you'll want to have that repaired as well. This might include damage to the tires (in which case you should consider changing the tire on the spot—do you have the tools handy?) or as in our case, damage to the stone guards.
We're pretty lucky. The stone guards can be removed easily and probably bent back into shape. Once we clean them up most people will not notice the small hints that we once played chicken with a truck tire.
Don't play the blame game
This last tip may be the most important, at least for your relationship. Don't give in to the temptation to point out who was driving or what they did wrong. Accidents happen. If it wasn't you, it could have been.
In the heat of the moment, seeing bent metal that ruins your beloved Airstream and feelings of shock and dismay crashing down on you, it's easy to say something you'll regret later. Try to remember that damage can be repaired and that someday this little episode will be just a memory. It's trite but true: what's really important is that you're both OK.
We had been married for 6 days when Tothie hit the debris. She apologized and I told her not to worry (even though it was a little painful to see the damage). We got back in the truck and continued to our next campground destination, marriage intact. A little damage to your Airstream is not worth the kind of damage to your relationship that an all-out-fight or seething resentment can cause. Airstreaming is fun, and it can still be even if you pick up a "souvenir" from the road once in a while.