By Brooke Constance White
Imagine being able to move your home from place to place. To wake up one day in Moab and fall asleep that same night in the Grand Tetons, all from the comfort of your familiar bed and pillows. That’s the dream—no need to buy a second house (or maybe this is your second home), you can just start the engine and drive it to a new locale for a change of scenery. That’s the beauty and freedom that is the trending #vanlife and #rving lifestyle. Look up those hashtags on Instagram and try to not start daydreaming … we’ll wait!
Mobile living was prominent on social media prior to COVID-19 as the nomadic lifestyle gained traction, but when you add a pandemic that forces people to socially distance and wear masks, the idea of being far away from other humans while still being able to travel and explore became much more enticing.
Similar to other travel-related industries, late March and April were dismal for the RV world—most factories had closed, said Monika Geraci, a spokesperson for the RV Industry Association. In May, factories began cautiously reopening but the future was still uncertain. Uncertainty was not an emotion felt for long, however.
“June was the industry’s best month in almost two years and then July had the highest number of shipments, which is the number of RVs and campers that are shipped from manufacturers to dealers … in four decades and was a 54 percent increase over July 2019,” Geraci said.
Several months past these recording-breaking months, the RV industry stats look more like a checkmark than a V shape, Geraci said, noting that this increase can be attributed to two waves.
The first wave happened in May as states began reopening and people were looking for opportunities to travel after being quarantined at home for two months. During this first wave, people wanted to get outside and enjoy the great outdoors while still being able to stay socially distant and control their environment. Cooking their own meals, having their own private bathroom and bedroom that they can access without having to interact with others in a hotel lobby or at an Airbnb was a desirable travel situation for most. Add to it a pretty sizable dip in gas prices and low financing interest rates and suddenly RV and campervan travel sounded like the perfect escape from COVID-19.
“RVing has allowed people to still safely and confidently travel whether it’s to a local campground or on a cross-country trip,” Geraci said, adding that freedom and control are the two main reasons people have steered away from air travel and hotel and resort stays, and [are] gravitating towards RVs and campers.
The second wave is being driven by individuals seeking to use RVs as mobile offices and school rooms. The pandemic has caused a huge shift in the modern workplace and many expect that telecommuting will continue long after COVID-19 is under control, Geraci said. Employees who used to work in an office can now set up their RV up as a professional office. They can participate in a Zoom meeting from just about anywhere in the country.
“In August, we started seeing road schooling becoming a thing. At no time in history have you had a situation where you have so many people working remotely and children distance learning so they can work and learn from their family room or the kitchen table of their RV,” she said. “Additionally, the second wave is made up of families who want their children to learn about this country firsthand … this provides an excellent opportunity for families to hit the road in an RV and discover our country’s historical sites in person.”
Although the industry will not be able to completely erase the eight weeks that manufacturers and dealers were closed, if the trajectory that followed continues, it’s likely this year could still be comparative and even likely surpass previous years. Based on shipments, the RV Industry Association is projecting that 2020 will surpass 2019 by 4.5 percent. This means they’re projecting to ship 424,400 units this year compared to 406,070 last year. The association is also forecasting that 2021 will be their best year on record with 507,200 units shipped. This would be a 19.5 percent increase over projections for 2020. Previously, 2017 was their best year on record with 504,600 units shipped.
“This really speaks to the increase in demand that we’re seeing and the fact that we’re projecting it will be more of a long-term trend,” Geraci said. She said that the RV industry is one of the few that is experiencing a real recovery after the COVID-19 shutdown in March and April.
According to an RV Industry Association survey conducted in May 2020, 46 million Americans said they had plans to take an RV vacation sometime within the next 12 months. A similar survey in 2019 showed that 25 million Americans planned to take an RV vacation.
“That’s a lot more people who are considering RV travel this year,” Geraci said. “Between the increase in demand and the fact that the inventory on dealer lots is so low, our manufacturers will be building rapidly through the next year to meet the increase in demand and to fill those dealer lots back up.”
RVS PROVIDING PANDEMIC RELIEF
Although the industry was on pause for two months, RVs and campers were not simply sitting in driveways and lots. Many were actually being used for emergency response and crisis management, which has long been a customary use in the RV and camper owner community, Geraci said.
RVs were loaned out so that frontline medical workers could quarantine away from their families in the driveway of their home. Other RVs and campers were used as mobile testing sites, isolation units, command centers and overflow beds in case hospitals were overwhelmed.
At the beginning and height of the pandemic in March and April, RVShare, a peer-to-peer online rental company, turned their cancellations into relief bookings offering discounted or free stays for frontline medical personnel and temporary housing for essential workers who needed to keep working but also wanted to protect their families from COVID-19 exposure.
This use of RVs and campers during the pandemic really speaks to the community that is RVers, Geraci said.
“It truly is a community and it means looking out for one another,” she said. “I’ve heard from people who just started RVing that there is always someone in the community who will help you out if you need it.”
A CLASS FOR EVERY LIFESTYLE
If you’re wondering about the different classes of RVs and campers, here’s a little cheat sheet:
- Class A RVs are the big-rig RV motorhomes that are usually somewhere between 20-45 feet in length. These usually sleep between eight and ten people and some feature bunk-house style sleeping that is particularly fun for parents with a lot of kids or for grandparents to take their grandkids on an adventure. These are also great for snowbirds or people who plan to live in them for six months or more at a time as they can be quite luxurious and spacious.
- Class B RVs are the campervan style—think Sprinter van. They’re often very agile vehicles but aren’t as spacious. Perfect for young professionals or a couple without kids who enjoy getting outside and or camping off the grid in less populated areas.
- The Class C RVs are pretty much right in between Class A and B when it comes to size. They’re built into a regular truck or van chassis but often have a larger cab, overhead design and more space for amenities such as a bathroom, full kitchen and a separate bedroom. Although they are much smaller, Class C RVs often have similar amenities to the Class A RV. They can generally fit four to six people comfortably, sometimes even up to eight.
While most RV types are still down year over year due to factories being closed for two months in the spring, the campervan is the only type of RV that has outsold others year over year. And while it only makes up a small portion of the industry, it’s up nearly 50 percent in shipments this year, Geraci said. This growth is indicative of the fact that the fastest-growing age range for first-time RV and camper buyers is under 45.
When it comes to the towable classes, there are pop-up or foldable trailers, travel trailers, toy haulers, fifth-wheel trailers— think Airstreams or teardrop style trailers. These are some of the most popular travel trailers you’ll see on the road no matter where you’re traveling. Depending on the size, many have large beds, kitchens with fridges and stoves, and small bathrooms. You can even find trailers that have furnaces and air conditioning, hot water heaters, outdoor shower hookups, rear entry and many other amenities. Like a house, some research will help in the search for the RV, campervan or trailer that best fits your needs, wants and desired amenities.
NAME YOUR PRICE
Between RVs and travel trailers, there’s also the price difference to consiter. On average, you can purchase a travel trailer that you pull behind a truck for somewhere between $11,000 and $40,000, whereas an RV can range anywhere from $10,000 to $300,000. Some of the higher-end luxurious motorhomes can cost anywhere between $500,000 to $2 million. Sprinter vans, another mode of adventure increasing in popularity, are usually somewhere between $30,000 and $150,000 depending on how they are outfitted.
Keep in mind that you don’t need a special license to drive most motorhomes. If you’re driving any vehicle under 26,000 pounds—as most RV classes are—you can legally drive with a regular driver’s license in all 50 states. That doesn’t mean everyone will feel comfortable driving a 26,000-pound, 40-foot motorhome. A Class B RV is the easiest to drive due to its driving flexibility and compact size. They also have good steering grip and the driving experience is similar to driving an SUV or minivan. Sometimes they even drive similar to a regular vehicle.
MAKE YOUR RV WORK FOR YOU
With job loss and economic stalemate brought on by the pandemic, the current economy is requiring many to look for supplemental income sources. To help with this, RVShare is encouraging RV owners to rent vehicles out when they’re not using them as a second income.
“Renting out an RV or campervan is definitely an up and coming marketing,” said Maddi Bourgerie, director of communications and PR for RVShare. “With 42 percent of our customers saying they’d consider working remotely from an RV, taking advantage of their kids flexible school schedules, and using this strange time to their advantage to get out and see new places, we think more and more people will be renting out their vehicles for this kind of usage.”
Once you own an RV, renting it out on websites like Outdoorsy and RVShare can earn you $60,000 or more in annual income. RVShare saw a 1,600 percent increase in bookings in May 2020 compared to last year and are bringing in three times more business than they did in 2019.
“We reached a big milestone this year actually,” Bourgerie said. “We were founded in 2013 and in the last six years, we’ve had one million days of RV and camper rental travel books. We reached two million days in 2020 so that the second million took less than a year.”
At Outdoorsy, an online platform that connects RV and camper owners with people interested in renting a vehicle for a vacation, one of their highest-earning RV owners made $1.3 million from renting out multiple vehicles between March 15 and Sept. 15 in 2020. April Cumming, a PR specialist for Outdoorsy, said most of their owners can expect to make about $3,200 a month from renting out their RVs or campers, which is a creative option to earn supplemental income for many who may have lost their jobs due to COVID-19.
“People are really prioritizing their finances and their health these days and are finding that it’s much cheaper to live in an RV because you really do save a lot of money when you think of all the expenses that you no longer have to consider,” Cumming said.
“We’re really trying to target the RV or camper owners who are out there who don’t realize they can list their vehicles and start making extra income if they want to rent out the vehicle when they aren’t using it.”
Will Casella, the owner of Explore Rentals, a Bozeman-based company that rents out campervans and truck campers, has seen a huge increase in demand locally. He doesn’t think the trend will continue indefinitely, however, not only because RV and camper use is seasonal, but also because he believes people will eventually be ready for the comfort and luxury of a hotel once more.
“I think people will have done it and then be over that type of travel once they feel more comfortable flying and staying in other people’s homes and at hotels again,” Casella said. “The second we don’t have to wear face masks every day, there’s going to be a ton of Sprinter vans for sale.”
GLAMP ON WHEELS
While you can certainly enjoy a camping experience with increased comforts in an RV or camper, the gadgets and technology that you can add to it are virtually endless—think glamping! Many motorhomes have luxury mattresses, high-end recliners, sleeper sofas, LED lighting, hot water holding tanks, a washer and dryer, air conditioning, heat, TVs mounted to the outside, slide-outs that can nearly double the amount of living space and full showers.
Bourgerie said she expects to see more amenities in the coming months, such as wifi and more working space to sit and plug in a computer as more and more people work and learn from the road.
Another trend that Casella noticed was that people were making reservations on much later notice than usual. Unlike with air travel where you buy flights and book hotels in advance, there’s a lot more flexibility if you are driving your living space to get to your vacation or destination.
“The biggest increase is in the calls from people who are wanting to sleep in a van,” Casella said. He said Explore Rentals were receiving so many requests for vans with minimal amenities that could be slept in, they added a rental that is just a bed in a van with no other amenities. This bed-in-a-van rental has been rented out almost as much as their truck campers, which are infinitely more comfortable to camp in.
“Rentals are usually tapering down when it gets to September but [this year] it just seems to be building momentum,” Casella said. “People delayed everything until they couldn’t bear it anymore and now they just have to get out of town.”
Although Outdoorsy struggled in March and April, Cumming said the company leadership saw the possibility that things could swing back in their favor as people were itching to get outside.
“We saw this hope on the horizon and our leadership team had the foresight to know that if we stuck through it, we could potentially own the travel space in a way that we had not before,” Cumming said. “We were designed for social distant travel. There’s no getting stuck in a tight elevator or narrow hotel hallway with anyone else.”
Outdoorsy saw a 400 percent increase in rentals over Labor Day weekend from last year and 90 percent of their bookings in September were made by first-time visitors to their website. They saw a 350 percent increase in year-over-year growth in September, and from their lowest booking day in March to their highest booking day over late July, they saw a 4,500 percent growth in bookings.
While it’s a scary and tumultuous time for many, Cumming said camping is a great way to be able to disconnect and recharge. “You can work and still have connectivity and free wifi at a KOA campground while you’re outdoors and exploring,” she said. “We’re not seeing the similar dip that we typically see in the fall and we think it’s going to stay pretty steady.”
INFLUENCERS HIT THE ROAD
Even the celebrities are catching on. Just about every day in the summer it seems that one celebrity or another was posting something on social media about purchasing a camper or taking a vacation in an RV. On “Live with Kelly and Ryan,” Jimmy Kimmel talked about how he purchased an RV for his family and took them on a vacation to Idaho. Justin Beiber and Hailey Baldwin, and Christina Aguilera also posted about their RV travels.
Geraci said that once people experience RV life, they usually fall in love with the active outdoor lifestyle and the freedom that comes along with it. If social distancing is something that sticks around for a while as the country works to get COVID-19 under control, an increase in RV and camper travel will likely continue, she said.
“Who knows how long it will take to get back to what was considered normal before and people are traveling in the ways that they traveled in the past,” she said. “Right now, no one knows when that will be.”
According to a special report on camping and the effects of COVID-19 from Kampgrounds of America, nearly half of all leisure travelers who camp say they will be replacing one of their canceled or postponed trips with a camping trip.
This survey also reported that 39 percent of campers are interested in becoming a full-time RV-er or living the “van life.” More than half of campers say they are now somewhat or likely to consider purchasing an RV with the cleanliness of accommodations at hotels or resorts and the use of communal facilities as primary factors.
Although inventory at RV dealerships is pretty slim at the moment, Geraci said they haven’t heard about any spikes in pricing. Dealerships are reporting that they’ve got orders for RVs and campers into manufacturers that are sold before they even hit the lot, but prices are staying level. It’s never been a better time to buy, she said.
“It’s a good problem to have because we’re trying to meet the increased demand,” she said, adding that shipments are likely to stay high through the rest of the year to fill in the inventory and make up for the two lost months. “Our manufacturers are working very closely with component suppliers to make sure we’re meeting this need and increased demand.”
As the increased demand continues, it’s becoming more clear that it isn’t just a fad caused by being pent up for two months— people are falling in love with the freedom they get through RV travel. For most, it’s the easiest, cheapest and safest way to see the world, and it’s a trend that seems as though it’s here to stay.
Cumming said that although there is no way to truly predict what will happen with the pandemic, Outdoorsy is hopeful that 2021 will be “the year of travel.”
“People didn’t use the vacation budget that they allotted for 2020 travel so we think they will be booking incredible road trip vacations in 2021 and 2022,” Cumming said. “As the potential for risk gets lower and our desire for getting out decreases, those are going to collide. I think road trips are going to continue having this renaissance movement because it’s just not in human nature to want to be contained or cooped up—we need the outdoors and open spaces.”