Restoring a vintage camper can be a great DIY project and a good way to own an off-grid vehicle on a budget. But beware of these hazards when restoring a camper trailer.
As more people begin to camp and fall in love with affordable, easygoing outdoor vacations, many will upgrade from tent camping to a travel trailer. However, when they see the price tag of a brand new trailer, it’s likely they’ll look to cost-effective alternatives such as restoring a vintage camper.
There are a plethora of resources out there for restoring an old travel trailer. However, these do-it-yourself guides overlook some of the hazards that come with vintage camper restoration projects.
Things such as carbon monoxide, asbestos, and water damage can pose serious health risks if not dealt with properly. It’s important to know some of the most dangerous hazards before one dives into a restoration. Cutting corners is never worth risking the safety and health of yourself and those around you.
Old Camper Hazards: Tips for Restoring
One of the most common hazards in campers is carbon monoxide (CO). Although this may not be an issue during the restoration process, it can be deadly while camping. Each year, at least 500 people die of carbon monoxide poisoning in RVs and campers.
Some signs of CO poisoning include dizziness, nausea, intense headache, confusion, and sleepiness. When you undertake a restoration project, it’s paramount to ensure that CO-emitting appliances are properly functional.
The most common cause of CO poisoning in campers derives from equipment failure. Usually, exhaust from a camper’s generator that leaks into the living quarters is the culprit.
Thoroughly inspect any exhaust pipes. If broken, repair them before use. If the generator is housed in a storage compartment, it’s imperative there are no leaks into the living quarters. Campers should avoid generator use while asleep, if possible.
Another cause of CO poisoning can come from the exhaust of nearby vehicles. While camping in close quarters, this poses even more of a risk. Never allow vehicles to idle unattended, especially if you plan to remain inside your camper.
One other common source of CO gas build up in campers and RVs is propane gas appliances that are unvented or faulty. A buildup of liquid propane (LP) gas poses a risk not only for CO poisoning but also a risk of explosion.
Propane lines can easily succumb to dry rot when stored for long periods of time and not inspected, especially on vintage trailers and RVs that have not been used for several years. LP gas is heavier than air and will sink as low as it can. That means that tanks stored inside the camper or RV there should always have a vent at the lowest point.
It’s pertinent to make sure all CO-emitting equipment is up to date when you restore your vintage trailer. Not only during the restoration process is this important, but one should have propane systems, generators, and appliances inspected annually by a certified RV technician.
Regularly replacing old propane and CO detectors is beneficial in avoiding CO poisoning as well. Always make sure they are functional and install them in the proper places. Because propane is heavier than air, the detector should be installed at the baseboard level. Carbon monoxide detectors are often paired with smoke detectors, which you should also have in your camper.
Photo credit: Steve Walser
Asbestos in Vintage Campers
One of the best parts of buying a vintage camper or RV to restore is the ability to completely redo the interior. You can’t go out and buy a brand-new travel trailer with a customized interior without spending a fortune. By gutting and redoing the interior of a vintage camper, the options are endless. However, removing old parts and pieces comes with its own dangers. Restorers should be prepared to protect themselves against exposure to harmful substances and know what to look for.
Before asbestos was partly banned in the United States in the 1980s, it was used in many building products. Asbestos is a group of silicate minerals that can cause mesothelioma, lung cancer, and asbestosis. When breaking up tile, asbestos can easily become trapped in the abdomen if inhaled or ingested and lead to the development of peritoneal mesothelioma. With mesothelioma usually having a life expectancy of 12-21 months after diagnosis, exposure to asbestos is nothing to take lightly.
Typically, you will remove the floor and any old tile when restoring a camper. Old vinyl tile often becomes worn and dull after years of use. Both the tile and adhesive could contain asbestos if the camper is older than 1980.
Asbestos could also be present in loose-fill insulation. Although batt-style insulation is most common in campers, take precautions against inhaling this material.
If your vintage camper is large enough to be equipped with drum brakes, take care if you perform a brake job yourself. Brake pads and shoes often contained asbestos because of its incredible heat resistance and strength.
To mitigate your risk of inhaling or ingesting asbestos, one should wear a high-quality organic respirator and Tyvek suit during the demolition phase. It’s also important to double bag asbestos-containing products in a minimum of 6mm plastic. Before leaving the worksite, remove the Tyvek suit. Immediately wash clothing that was worn, and shower to reduce the chances of asbestos fibers embedding themselves into furniture or other household items.
Photo credit: Ken Ratcliff
Water Damage and Mold
Another important part of any restoration project is inspecting for water damage. Travel trailers, both vintage and brand new, are known for springing leaks. Even the smallest leak can result in an immense amount of damage to the structure of the camper. If left unrepaired, this could cause the camper to collapse in on itself.
Possibly more dangerous is the presence of mold. Mold loves moisture, and if water has penetrated the camper shell, you can be certain mold won’t be far behind.
Once you’ve torn out the walls and old insulation in your camper, carefully inspect the wood framing for damage. If any soft spots, black spots, or wet spots are present, you will need to repair them. You can do so by removing the old framing and replacing it with new material. You can sister the new framing to any old framing that hasn’t succumbed to damage.
However, you should remain cautious to make sure the new framing is strong and structurally sound. If you’re not sure how to do so, it’s important to seek professional help in reframing your camper.
Remediating Mold in a Camper
You can remediate mold in a multitude of ways. The first step is to discard any porous material with mold such as cloth or carpet. You can attempt to get rid of mold with white vinegar, but often bleach and soapy water will be the best solution. If the mold is resilient to these treatments on wood framing or interior features, they may need to be removed entirely.
If mold is present, it will certainly need to be dealt with. By allowing mold to grow, you risk serious health side effects. Mold can cause wheezing, coughing, and itchy eyes. With prolonged exposure, mold can also cause more severe chronic lung illnesses from infection.
Get Out and Enjoy It!
Now that you have your vintage camper clean from harmful toxins, customized, and freshly painted, it’s finally time to take it out on the road. Once you have your camper, it will be hard to not want to take it out right away. However, getting out for a weekend at camp isn’t worth the risk of lifelong or life-ending hazards that should be dealt with first.
A vintage camper should be something that fills you with nostalgia and joy — not itchy eyes and wheezing. Take the time to restore your vintage camper safely and properly so you can enjoy it for years to come.