As we prepare to relegate the tumultuous year 2021 to history, we confront a sobering question: Is our RV lifestyle doomed? Is it sustainable? Is there hope for an RV future?
Since the Westward Migration that began in the colonial period and lasted well into the 20th century, America has been a nation on the move. Pioneers left the eastern coast and eventually spread the population all the way to the Pacific shores 3,000 miles west. We have never quit the trail, the road, or the interstate highway.
As technology and affluence matured, we created a lifestyle and an entire industry out of road travel – first automobiles and trucks, and then motor vehicles in which we could live. Though we generically refer to the industry and lifestyle as built upon “recreational vehicles,” or RVs, there is much more involved than recreation. More than one million people live full-time in RVs. More than 11 percent of U.S. households – 9 million – own an RV.
As many of us built our style of living around spending as much time as possible on the road, multiple public policy issues arose. For instance, the availability of adequate dedicated campground space has not kept pace with demand. RV parking on public lands, i.e., dispersed camping, has triggered controversy. Staying overnight in the parking lots of commercial businesses like Walmart and Cabela’s, etc., has been curtailed due to overuse – and abuse. Local governments are now increasingly seeking to regulate the RV owner’s private property in terms of RV parking. Collectively, we have grappled with these issues and arrived at more-or-less acceptable solutions. However, in early 2020 the world was suddenly plagued with a pandemic that changed lives across the globe and which profoundly affected the RV lifestyle.
When the initial reaction to the COVID-19 contagion spawned social distancing, isolation, and closures of schools and businesses, many individuals and families sought alternatives to a life spent sequestered at home. People sought the freedom and adventure of the open road – an impulse Americans have been following since the days of the Frontier West. They sought open spaces, far from the contagious crowd. Campgrounds suddenly had to turn away campers. RV dealers sold out of new and used RVs. RV manufacturers struggled to keep up with the demand amid shortages of workers, raw materials, and components resulting from supply-chain constraints due to the pandemic.
By the spring of 2021, the RV industry news was abuzz with reports of overcrowded campgrounds, difficulty with campground reservations systems, reservations not being honored upon arrival, as well as buyers waiting months for new RV deliveries and repairs to poorly manufactured or defective new coaches. In addition, gasoline and diesel fuel prices dramatically rose. Walmart ended its well-known policy of allowing RVers to park overnight in many of its store parking lots. Searchlight Pictures released Nomadland with Frances McDormand playing the lead in the story of “A woman [who] in her sixties, after losing everything in the Great Recession, embarks on a journey through the American West, living as a van-dwelling modern-day nomad.” “Quartzsite” became a household word.
The RV Industry Association (RVIA) says there is a 170-percent increase in first-time RV buyers. In 2020, there were 430,412 new RV units shipped. There are expected to be 507,200 such shipments by the end of 2021.
Imeet lots of people who live a wide array of lifestyles on the road. Sleek million+-dollar Class A Prevost and Foretravel coaches stand in stark contrast to the thousands of older Class A’s, Class B’s, C’s, fifth wheels, and travel trailers in camp. There are van conversions and pickup campers, pop-ups, and tent trailers. The RV “demographic” covers most of the entire economic spectrum. We all suffer in one way or another the inconveniences and privations of the RV lifestyle.
I hear many travelers just barely avoiding the “elephant by the campfire”: Will we be able to keep traveling if campgrounds become unavailable; if boondocking becomes regulated out of existence; if gas or diesel prices rise another dollar or two a gallon; if our RV insurance cost increases another 20-30 percent; if one or both of us contract the virus; if we can’t buy food, or it becomes so expensive we can’t afford it; if we have a major mechanical problem? All these questions and more are on every RV traveler’s mind, even if they do not wish to acknowledge them. Before the pandemic, some of the questions were there, but there was less apprehension overall.
There is hope, though … always hope.
I think back to some of the worst economic periods of the 1970s and ’80s when deep economic recessions stalked the land and drove gas prices to record highs and interest rates on homes and business loans to penurious levels, some above 20 percent. The economy, for a time, seemed to grind to a halt. There were massive layoffs and high unemployment. There was economic and political unrest. I saw a man shot at a service station in Las Vegas due to a dispute over a place in line to get gas. Unemployed people could not find work before their modest unemployment benefits expired. Nevertheless, there was an underlying, persistent thread of optimism across America. There was hope.
Slowly, the economy began to recover. Interest rates came back down, and the staggering inflation rates receded. Gas prices and mortgage interest rates moderated, and though they never returned to the levels seen in the halcyon days of the 1960s, they returned to relative affordability. I see the same thing for the RV lifestyle in the months and years ahead.
CAMPGROUND OWNERS ARE ALREADY responding to the increased demand on their properties by rearranging camp layouts and investing in newer, better technologies for campground reservations systems. It will take time for the campground problems to diminish, but there is hope for a better time ahead.
RV manufacturers will eventually catch up to the supply-and-demand-related issues that have dogged them since mid-2020. They’ll have to. Buyers will demand improvements in both product quality and after-sale service.
Local, state, and federal governments are all working to address the issues of where to park all the RVs – be it on private land, in dedicated parks, on the public lands – and whether those public lands can be reserved or not. (These issues will be part of an upcoming series of examinations of legal issues that affect RVers.)
The marketplace will push fuel prices back toward relative affordability, though this is arguably the one factor in the RV lifestyle that is the most difficult to forecast. What I can predict, though, is that there are and will be more alternatives in powering RVs in the immediate future. We can count on that, given the exciting developments emerging daily from the alternative energy technologies. Look for more electric, solar, hydrogen, and other energy sources to flourish in the months and years ahead. These advancements have already happened in the aerospace and passenger-car spaces, and the RV industry will not be left behind.
Americans have always looked down the long open road toward that far horizon and gained a sense of hope for the future. Our time will be no different.