There's something about s'mores, ghost stories and olive-hued canvas tents that taps into our deepest collective subconscious. Your childhood camping adventures may have involved a ripstop nylon, instant pop-up -- or a hotel -- but there wasn't a soul who saw Wes Anderson's recent "Moonrise Kingdom" and didn't sigh with nostalgic delight over the Khaki Scouts' olive drab, plaid-lined tents.
Camping speaks to our frontier past, the days of wagon trains and wilderness encampments. So when Airstream designer Wally Byam -- a Stanford Law School alumnus, by the way -- began sketching out plans for his first DIY travel trailers in the 1920s, the concept took off like wildfire. By the '50s, his company's silver, capsule-shaped Airstreams were one of the nation's most iconic products, with big caravan rallies popping up in this country and abroad.
The Airstream has made a major comeback in recent years -- and whether the comeback has fueled a vintage camping trend or it's the other way around, one thing's for sure: It has become increasingly easy to rent a retro trailer for a weekend, whether it's an Airstream, a teardrop camper or a refurbished vintage VW bus. Ready-to-rent on-site Airstreams are popping up in KOAs and other campgrounds. And the Autocamp, Santa Barbara's "boutique Airstream lodging" concept -- a downtown pod of five fully decked-out trailers -- is expanding to San Francisco, Los Angeles and Ventura Beach this year.
So it was only fitting that when we took a retro teardrop camper out for a recent weekend spin, what should we run into but an Airstream rally with more than 80 silvery campers -- vintage models from the 1960s, as well as up to the present -- glinting in the sun, smack dab in the middle of our Russian River campground.
We'd picked up an adorable teardrop in Penngrove, near Petaluma, where Vacation in a Can's Joe and Leslie Kosareff refurbish, build and rent out these tiny retro trailers. Joe grew up camping in Oregon and at Lake Tahoe; Martinez native Leslie spent her childhood vacations at Lake Shasta. But sleeping on the ground becomes less comfortable as one ages -- and yes, some people would say it was never very comfortable in the first place. So Joe set out to find a middle ground, something small and non-RVlike, but with an actual bed. He found it in that darling of the Great Depression, the teardrop-shaped camper.
Popular from the 1930s to the '60s, these little trailers are 4 to 6 feet wide, 8 to 10 feet long and light enough that you can park your car, unhook the camper and just pull it into place. The campers are making a big comeback now, so much so that the Kosareffs can barely keep up with the demand, and other teardrop manufacturers are springing up across the country.
Teardrops are a cozy camping option for two snuggly people. There's plenty of room to sit up inside, space for stashing some clothes and gear, and the foam mattresses range from 74 to 79 inches long. If you, like me, have issues with elevators and claustrophobic spaces, it's helpful to leave one of the little doors ajar during the night.
The best part, besides the ease of getting up in the morning, is the tidy camp kitchen in back, which Joe and Leslie have equipped with everything from really good knives to pots, pans and tableware, and the work surfaces are counter height.
If you thought the pictures of teardrops were cute, wait until you see one in person. Campers kept wandering into our site, eager to take a peek inside the adorable trailer -- and we kept wandering over to the Airstream encampment to chat with the most sociable assortment of people we've ever encountered. They meet twice a year at rallies like this -- a throwback to the 1950s, when Byam's caravan club gathered in spots all over the world. Byam took one such caravan from Cape Town, South Africa, to Cairo, Egypt.
This particular group was eager to offer peeks inside their trailers, which ranged from meticulously redone Flower Power-era models to land yachts with glass shower doors and flat-screen TVs. In fact, Airstream-hopping is de rigueur. Everyone was peeking inside everyone else's. By nightfall, the trailer awnings were slung with retro twinkle lights -- some with tiny Airstream covers -- and a massive cocktail party was in full swing.
We meandered back to our own quiet campsite, tucked among the trees, for a camping cocktail party of our own.
Camping's popularity may ebb and flow, but it's the fifth most popular outdoor pursuit in America, where some 49 percent of the population frolicked outdoors last year, and 11 percent -- 22 million people -- went camping, according to the Outdoor Foundation's annual survey.
Want to join them? Here are five of our favorite campgrounds, all within a two-hour drive:
Anthony Chabot Regional Park: Shaded by massive eucalyptus trees, this Oakland hills campground is a hidden treasure -- and mere minutes from civilization. It's a great spot for first-time campers, who can choose from among more than 60 tent campsites ($25) and a dozen RV/trailer spots ($35). Details: 9999 Redwood Road, Castro Valley; www.ebparks.org and www.reserveamerica.com.
Big Basin Redwoods State Park: Founded in 1902, this lovely spot in the Santa Cruz Mountains is California's oldest state park and a prime spot for tent camping. Its more than 145 sites ($35) are shaded by old-growth redwoods. There is an RV dump station but no sites with RV hookups. Details: 21600 Big Basin Way, Boulder Creek; www.parks.ca.gov, www.bigbasin.org and www.reserveamerica.com.
Casini Ranch Family Campground: There are RV campgrounds aplenty along the Russian River, but tent campers will want to head for Duncans Mills, where this private family campground features beaches, playgrounds, a general store (which carries everything from sunscreen to wine), and a wide range of campsites for tents ($45 and up) and RVs ($53 and up). Check the campground map online before booking a specific spot. Details: 22855 Moscow Road, Duncans Mills; www.casiniranch.com.
New Brighton State Beach: Perched on the bluffs above the Pacific shore, just minutes from downtown Capitola, New Brighton has easy beach access and more than 100 family ($35), RV ($50) and group campsites. The summer junior ranger program is one of our favorites. Details: Take the New Brighton/Park Avenue exit off Highway 1 in Capitola; www.parks.ca.gov and www.reserveamerica.com.
Samuel P. Taylor State Park: You'll feel like you've traipsed off into the wilderness at this state park, which offers 59 family campsites ($35) tucked among the redwoods -- just 15 miles west of San Rafael. Note: Water restrictions have closed the RV dump station. Details: 8889 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Lagunitas; www.parks.ca.gov and www.reserveamerica.com.
Your turn: Tell us about your favorite Northern California campgrounds by shooting an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Vintage Camper rentals
These days you can rent vintage campers of every variety. Here's just a sampling:
Vacations in a Can: Rent a teardrop camper from the Kosareffs' Penngrove shop for $175 per night. There's a two-night minimum and additional nights are $80 each from April through October; prices are lower in the offseason. Details: vacations-in-a-can.com.
VW Safari: This rental company offers vintage VW campers for $1,230 per week during the high season for a 1970s era Westfalia; prices are lower, with two- or three-night minimums during the off season. The company is in Southern California, but arrangements can be made for a San Francisco start. Details: www.vwsurfari.com.
Airstream: A number of rental outfits offer vintage and new Airstreams, including Elite RV Vacations in San Jose ($825 to $1,025 for three nights, www.eliteairstreamrentals.com), and KOA's Santa Cruz/Monterey Bay campground (koa.com/campgrounds/santa-cruz). Find information on Santa Barbara's Autocamp -- and get on the notification list for details on upcoming locations -- at autocamp.com.