There is, however, more to this than a shortage of RV parks. There are countless campsites available every night. But they are either in unpopular tourist areas or along dirt roads where there may be no cell service and no hookups. When surveyed, 25% of RVtravel.com readers reported that cell service was “critical” to where they chose to camp. Another 64% said it was critical, but not essential. Those RVers, I suspect, will never or seldom camp somewhere too isolated to even receive a cell signal. That rules out thousands of Forest Service and other government campgrounds.
In other words, it’s not just about a shortage of campgrounds that has caused a need for reservations. It’s also about a shortage of campgrounds that meet the requirements of the many RVers who wish to use all the creature comforts their RVs afford, which most often means at least an electrical hookup.
When we asked our readers how far they would travel to a campground along a “good dirt road,” nearly 60% of the almost 3,000 respondents said a mile or less. That, too, rules out thousands of primitive (and often beautiful) campgrounds.
Many RVers need power to run all the electronics they have come to rely on, including residential refrigerators which can only operate on electricity, not propane. So unless the RVer has a sophisticated solar setup, an inverter and a big bank of batteries, he or she can’t stay for long without hookups.
Last summer, we asked our fulltime RVer readers how long they could live in their RVs without plugging into electricity. Two-thirds reported they could last “a few days, but less than a week.”
Did you read our recent article about KOA opening a new RV park near Maine’s Acadia National Park? Don’t bother to show up with your RV: You are not welcome. The entire “glamping park” is permanent “glamping” tents that rent for $218 to $315 a night. And it’s not like this is a new location for KOA. It was a traditional “campground” for nearly 50 years. Now the RV sites are gone, replaced with luxury tents.
KOA has every right to do this. It may turn out to be a big money maker. If so, you can bet other KOA parks will do the same. And, of course, so will other independent campgrounds. But how does that help you and me find a place to stay when every RV park in the area has already been booked for six months or longer?
RV parks across the country are already removing RV spaces in favor of “glamour” accommodations — cabins, cottages, tents, yurts, treehouses, tee-pees and cabooses. Expect this to continue.
Where will they stay?
Depending upon who you ask, there are 13,000 to 15,000 commercial RV parks in America plus another plus 1,600 state parks that cater to RVers. At first, that seems like a lot of places. I believe that figure is misleading.
Off the top of my head, based on my many years of RVing, I would like to ask you some questions to help you determine how many of those parks might be, or not be, available for you. Get out your calculator. Okay. . .
• How many are in the area where you plan to camp? Do you do most of your camping in Oregon, Indiana, Georgia, etc.?
• How many are so dumpy you would not want to stay there? (For example, rule out any with a rating of 2.5 or fewer stars out of five.) I’d guess that’s about 25% of all parks.
• Are you younger than 55? How many are 55+ parks, where younger RVers are not welcomed.
• How many are a long drive away from where you want or need to stay?
• How many charge $75 or more a night, when your budget doesn’t permit that?
• How many are already reserved for the dates you want to stay? (In a popular tourist area many, if not most, may be booked a year ahead.)
• How many are occupied or nearly occupied with seasonal RVers (snowbirds in the winter)?
• How many are essentially “trailer parks” where RVers live year-round?
• How many do not offer Wifi or adequate Wifi, if that’s important to you?
• Is your RV older than 10 years? Some parks won’t allow it – too old.
• Do you have a dog? How many do not permit dogs or have restrictions on size or breeds?
• Is your RV 45 feet or longer, plus a tow vehicle or dinghy behind a motorhome? How many sites are off-limits because your RV won’t fit?
• Do you need to 50-amp service? How many only offer 30 amps?
• How many are open the time of year you want to travel?
• How many don’t allow campfires (if you want to roast marshmallows with the grandkids)?
• How many do not have a swimming pool, if that’s important to you?
If you think long and hard about those questions, you’ll realize that you may be severely limited in where you can stay that fits your needs. Twenty years ago, sites were much more readily available in most parks.
New RV parks and resorts are being built, but slowly. Many of them, a high percentage, from my observations, are “resorts”, where the RVer buys a lot for six figures or more (often far more) and then pays annual homeowners dues. Some have attached cabanas or casitas. Some are for motorhomes only. Others are available as rental spaces similar to traditional RV parks, but the price tags are commonly $100 or more a night.
Twenty years ago I never made a reservation, never had to. I remember a newspaper reporter who was writing about me asking what my biggest decision of each days was. I told him it was whether to turn left or right when I departed the campground! I had no reservations ahead so I could travel any road I wanted, and take the fork in the road that looked the most interesting. I would check my watch at about 3 or 4 in the afternoon and then start looking for an RV park or campground. I almost always found one with an available space within a couple of hours.
Back then an RVer could truly “go where you want, when you want,” without a reservation. The RV industry still promotes that message in its advertising, but it is no longer true. The slogan should have been retired 10 years ago. It’s far easier today to find a hotel reservation on the fly than an RV park, at least a decent one.
I grew up 20 miles outside of Los Angeles in West Covina, in what was then the rural San Gabriel Valley. The town’s population was 4,000 when my parents brought me there at age 1. My home was surrounded by orange groves. My buddies and I would walk a quarter-mile to the hills behind us to play. We built a raft on a small pond. I grew up a “country boy,” not a “city boy.”
The chamber of commerce could well have advertised “move to the country,” where the pace of life was slow and the air clean.
When my family moved away 16 years later, every orange grove was gone, replaced with tract homes and shopping malls. The air was often so smoggy that our school would cancel physical education classes. Two-lane Garvey Boulevard into Los Angeles was now the San Bernardino Freeway (now I-10). The hills where my friends and I played were covered with high-priced “view” homes. The population was 60,000 (and growing).
The West Covina chamber of commerce no longer had the right, ethically, to use the same “move to the country” slogan. And it didn’t. The “country” was gone.
Just like West Covina, the landscape over time has changed in the RV community. The RV industry has no right to continue advertising that with an RV you can “go where you want when you want.”
From GoRVing.com, where the industry promotes RVing:
“Take control. You decide when and where to go and what you want to take with you…. Your schedule is your call when you’re behind the wheel. Make unplanned stops along the way when something catches your eye. Stay as long as you like or hit the road earlier than planned.”
Nonsense! Not true in 2020 (it was in 2000)!
There are too many RVs these days and too few places to stay. The day of spontaneous travel is over. Today, reservations are the name of the game.
Today, travel with an RV can still be magical. But it’s no longer something you can easily do spontaneously, unless you’re willing to stay in Walmart parking lots when you can’t find an available campsite. For RVers who prefer to carefully plan their trips, plotting out stops and how long they will stay, then RVing today can still be a wonderful way to live.
Next: How fifth wheel trailers have ruined RVing.