The RV road trip is near death

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By Chuck Woodbury
EDITOR, RVTRAVEL.COM
I have learned more about RVing in the last six months of full-timing than in the last ten years of RVing part-time in a smaller RV. I’ve written recently about the need for more campgrounds to accommodate all the new RVers. But I now believe I was looking at this wrong: It’s not a lack of campgrounds, it’s just way too many RVers.

I do not believe this is actually a campsite, just a good spot for a PR photo.

Yahoo Finance ran a story last week, saying the demand for RVs is “insatiable.” Why? Baby Boomers are retiring en masse and buying RVs en masse. The fact is, the word is out that traveling or even living in an RV in one’s retirement has many advantages over buying a second home, and is typically more affordable.


Visit Arizona or Florida in the winter to see the evidence. If you’re a young RVing family, good luck finding a place to stay: Most parks in these areas require guests be at least 55 years old.

February’s survey of manufacturers conducted by the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA) found wholesale shipments continuing the strong start to 2017 with a monthly total of 39,428 units. That represents a 9.7% rise compared to 35,929 units in February 2016, and an 8.6% gain over last month’s very strong total of 33,859. These RVers will now compete for the same campsites as you and me.

Image from an RVIA commercial. Scenes like this are hard to find in the real world.

The RVIA is relentless in its promotion of RVing. It’s doing a great job. RVs are flying off the lots. RV makers and dealers are peeing their collective pants, they’re so happy.

But the image that the RVIA is promoting is misleading. Look at the top two images. These are used in advertising by the RVIA to create demand for RVing. How often can you camp in such places? An RV park is much more likely to be like what you see in the photos below — row upon row of RVs with little space between rigs. Read the story I wrote about one of my recent neighbors to see what can happen in such a chummy environment.

Northern California RV park with many full-timers and seasonal residents.

A SPONTANEOUS RV ROADTRIP is all but dead. The idea of going where you want, when you want is nearly impossible unless you are far from popular tourist destinations or hole up often in rest areas, truck stops or Wal-Mart parking lots. Forget showing up at a popular National Park expecting to find a campsite. Heck, you probably won’t find a campground within 20 miles in the prime tourist season.

Montana KOA in busy summer tourist season.

All but entry level and low-end RVs are more suitable for “living” than camping. This especially applies to RVs favored by retirees and, increasing, Millennials who combine RVing with their work. These RVs can have every convenience — two bedrooms, two baths, heated floors, residential refrigerators with ice makers, big screen TVs, fireplaces, built-in washer/dryers and dishwashers, outdoor kitchens and televisions, and with Toy Haulers, a garage in back to store an ATV, motorcycles or small car.

Yes, there are small, inexpensive RVs for weekend trips and they, too, are selling like hotcakes, mostly to young families. But even most of these have bathrooms with showers, and heating and air conditioning. For families who buy these typically inexpensive RVs, making a reservation well ahead of a planned camping trip is essential unless they camp away off the beaten path.

This Thousand Trails campsite near Hershey, Pennsylvania, offers a good amount of space. There are many such parks, but you better have a reservation.

RVs ARE STILL WONDERFUL for mobile living. Gail and I love our RV and the ability to “travel with our home.” But we have abandoned the idea that we can leave one campsite and easily find another decent one that evening without making a reservation, typically weeks or even months ahead in popular areas. We don’t like staying in parking lots.

For RVers who stay in one place for a month or two, then move to another . . . well, that’s just a couple of reservations to worry about. But for anyone who likes to travel around, pulling off on a whim to see the World’s Largest Ball of String or a giant dinosaur statue, that’s next to impossible without often resorting to a stay in a parking lot.

What I am presenting here is what I believe is a new RVing reality.

Scenes like this one at a Tombstone, Arizona, RV park are not that unusual, with sites a few feet apart.

Keep in mind that there are nearly 60 million more people in the USA than 20 years ago. We’re all sharing the same, limited recreational space and it’s getting more crowded all the time as more people want to “experience” nature. I witnessed this the other day in Zion National Park, where the campgrounds in and around the park were booked solid, and it’s only March, which a dozen years ago would have still been the off-season.

CHANGING TIMES. OTHER EXAMPLES
•A friend of mine is hiking the Pacific Crest Trail — a rugged 2,659 trail from Mexico to Canada through the Sierra Nevada and Cascade mountain ranges. Few people attempted it until recently, after the movie “Wild” debuted. There was actress Reese Witherspoon with her backpack in beautiful nature. Even with her many hardships, it looked like a marvelous, challenging adventure. Ever since then, my friend reports, there are more fair-weather hikers attempting it (most soon quit). Some toss their trash and beer cans along the way. The purity of the experience is spoiled.

•When I was a young travel writer, people would beg me to not write about their favorite places. “Then everybody will know and it will be ruined.”

•When Money Magazine runs a cover story about the best small towns to live in America, then a flood of new residents arrive. Real estate prices go up. Many new arrivals do not understand small town living or the local culture. I recall a story about a Los Angeles man who bought a small ranch in rural Colorado that was directly in the flight path of the local airport. After he moved in, he sued the city over aircraft noise.

With the RVIA spending millions each year to fuel demand for RVs, and with our robust economy, the number of new RVers will continue to explode. The result will be more campground crowding and an increased need to make reservations, often a year or more ahead. 

At Yosemite, even now, all reservations from May through September in the five most popular campgrounds are booked within minutes or even seconds the first day reservations become available. Here is what the park advises:

“For your best chance of getting a reservation, be sure your clock is set accurately and start the first few steps of the reservation process at www.recreation.gov before 7 am Pacific time.”

So many people. . . so little space.

Oh, it’s still easy to camp without reservations, but only away from popular tourist areas. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management campgrounds abound (more in the West than elsewhere). For RVers not afraid of dirt roads and no phone or Internet access, reservations are not necessary. And there are millions upon millions of acres of public lands where “boondocking” is free, in the wide open spaces where a next door neighbor may be miles away. No reservations required.

What I am trying to say here is that while RVing is still wonderful, it’s harder to be spontaneous when doing it. For “planners,” those who like to plot a trip well ahead, this is probably okay. But for people like me, who are spontaneous and detest planning, it’s far more challenging to travel at our own pace, where what we see and what we do each day are always a surprise awaiting around the next corner.

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Tracy Rivera

Hi Chuck,
I met you in a little state camp ground off the Colorado River this past January. (With our Blue heeled Diego) We both were commenting we were lucky to just drive in and find a spot. We are “full time”, Snowbirds in a truck camper and headed back to Alaska now. Yes, we have learned we need to plan a little to camp, but what the heck. It’s worth it! We are “living the dream.” Thanks for all your great advice on this site.

Sue Daniel

I thought we were the only ones watching RV travel go to the dogs.We have traveled in RVs over 40 years including 6 years full time in 30 ft TT with no slides in the late ’90s. we now have a new trailer set up in a lovely park 100 miles from our home so have the best of both worlds but miss the going. The highways are not fun anymore, used to enjoy the ride to get to somewhere but now is too nervewracking.We thank our lucky stars that we got to see so much and never had a wreck and only broke down once in Custer State Park in South Dakota. So so true about most people having no respect for others anymore.

Chris Potter

Its not just the campgrounds: hotels and motels are filling up too. Just five years ago it was possible to walk in and get your choice of several rooms. Now it is necessary to reserve several several weeks in advance.
As Chuck observed, in the more popular areas, there no longer is a “Off-Season” or even a “Shoulder Season”; its either the “Crowded Season” or the “Insanely Crowded Season”
It is largely the boomers who are to blame. (I’m one too.) Understandably, everyone wants to get some enjoyment out of life before they get too old. A friend in that National Park Service tells me the crowds will peak in the early 2020s, and be lower again by around 2030. But by then I’ll be either too old to travel, or passed on.
I can fondly remember being in places boondocking where we could safely say we were the only humans within miles, in the late 70s and early 80s. (The countryside outside of Moab, Utah would be an example.) Now many of these exact same places are crowded with dozens of people. Even a lot of places that used to be quaint little towns are now crowded with tourists. Its difficult to have any sort of a unique personal experience any more. And we’ve lost a lot of the personal freedom that came with having open space.
Oh well, Paradise lost.
Chuck, I appreciate your telling the situation the way it really is. You’re keeping to higher journalistic standards. Too many other blogs are just “Happy Talk”; which is a disservice to the public, which should have a right to know what is really happening.

Karen

Chuck is rare — a blogger who pulls no punches and will give you the bad along with the good and everything in between. Since it is so rare, people who are used to infomercials and press releases masquerading as blogs aren’t used to such candor and it makes them uncomfortable, so they lash out at the messenger. Whether you are a full timer OR weekender or a once-a-year camper, you know that like everything else good, it also has its downside. People who don’t camp almost never read about the challenges, so we need people like Chuck and his team to educate them! On a smaller scale, I do the same. If someone in the office says they want to buy their first RV, I ask them things like, “Where are you going to store it? How often are you going to use it? What would you tow it with? Do you know you have to reserve way ahead for most campgrounds? Do you know how much campsites cost?” The average camping virgin is clueless because all they know is it was fun as a kid. Many think campsites or free or $5, which is as laughable as a spring training baseball game that costs $20. They have this idealized fantasy of what camping is, and although I love our “Marriott on wheels,” I am quick to school them on the reality. How often have you heard someone say, starry eyed, “when I retire I want to buy an Rv and travel the country”? I don’t want a friend spend 5 or 6 figures on a new motor home only to give it back to Camping World for half of what they paid a year later, barely used. Marcus Lemonis can afford that, but most of us can’t. We have met amazing people at campgrounds and we’ve learned a lot of things. We’ve also met people we would be happy to never see one again, but that’s one of the beauties of camping: you can love them and leave them. I don’t want a sanitized camping fairy tale–that’s what the fiction section is for. I want articles about the good, the bad, the ugly and the just plain weird. It’s the totality of the experience that makes camping (and life) interesting for me. As I write this, I am looking out the window of our RV camped at a Corps of Engineers park in Florida. When we checked in, there was a truck and trailered boat in our site, a first for us.

Frank T

Thanks for the article. I have only been RVing for 4 years and I have noticed the crowds. I do not mind it as long as people are respectable. Kids are kids, especially the young ones but someone commented on the rudeness. They learn it somewhere. I like my glamping conveniences. Each person will find there meaning of RVing and I think it will open up. There are many that jump in not knowing and then not liking what they find.

Jason Odom

Exactly what you describe is what drove my wife and I to Vanabode instead of using a typical RV. It just makes more sense. We almost NEVER check into a campground, and spend 5-7 months straight on the road.

Craig&Kathleen

Hi, Chuck. Just want to offer our support & encouragement. We surely appreciate your perspective & totally relate to this & most all your articles & observations. We’ve certainly experienced the crowding you talk about & we agree it’s a very different experience today versus even 10 years ago. The new reality does require a reset of expectations & honing of planning skills that we might have thought could be left behind along with the cranky boss & the overstuffed in-box. That said, since retiring a year & a half ago, we feel extremely fortunate in our full-timing lifestyle. With lots of research & homework (which is how we discovered YOU, & month+ reservations made well in advance (9 months to 2 years out) we’ve loved just about every park & site we’ve temporarily called home, from Colorado Springs to the Great Salt Lake ; from Wilsonville & McMinnville, OR & to Bothel, WA and all over the beautiful Olympic Peninsula – & now on the Oregon Coast – oh, it’s just been heavenly! We look forward to more of your intelligently articulated insights, Chuck, & we’ll be watching for your book!

Mike

You seem so unhappy Chuck. Perhaps it’s time to sell the motor home and keep your office open in Washington. You appear bitter at best about the RV lifestyle. I believe you traveled extensively before full-timing, so what did you think was going to change? You should be blessed to be able to live wherever and whenever you want with the woman you love in a new motor home. How cool is that? I’ve been full timing for 12 years and have been blessed every second of it. I’ve even been invited to a Cummins employee picnic and made awesome friends while “off line” waiting for a repair. That’s part of the adventure. For me that beats sitting at home all day waiting for the cable guy! I’m so sad for all the folks who are missing out on the great adventures that await RVers if you’re willing to look beyond the immediate situation. Go back to writing about travel adventures instead of the industry. It won’t change, but you can. Enjoy life!

David McIntyre

Chuck one issue you fail to address is the lack of respect and common courtesy of the general public. Why? It used to be if a child misbehaved you could give them a good slap on the ass. Try that nowadays and you might find yourself behind bars!
Kids lack respect for authority, their elders and their fellow man and they grow up to be the same way as adults. That’s one reason road rage is so prevalent. You never heard about that in my younger days [I’m 65].
It will be about three years before I get my first RV. If things keep going like they are now I just might drop the RV thing altogether!

Gypsy

I have RV’d for 27 years, full-timing for the last 14 of them. I have not averaged even one night per year at a pay campground, but I have camped in beautiful places. Most of the time I’ve had access to cell phone and Internet services. It CAN be done.! Be adventurous! Get solar panels and hit the road. Look for dirt roads on public land. BTW, I’m a 75-yr-old woman, traveling alone.

J French

In the Texas / Louisiana area which we spend a large amount of time, reservations are required for “Resort” type areas in season or weekends.
Since we never stay in these swimming pool / Casino / manicured Park settings which are becoming frighteningly expensive – we seldom need to reserve space unless meeting others for a group type getaway.
State Parks, small local campground & lake campgrounds where you can fish with a small boat are our preferred stops generally a week at a time or longer & we seldom camp during the summer (June thru August) when the kids are out of school.

Doug Baker

Hi Chuck, Great article, but unfortunately too true!. We have been RVing for almost 30 years; truck camper, 25 ft Class C, 31 ft Class C. Always towed our Jeep. Now want to downsize and stop towing so looking at Class B rigs. We understand it will be a “step down” in living, but should be less expensive to travel. Wife arises early & I stay up late at night. We really would like a rig with two separate areas so we may settle for a smaller Class C. Considered not having a coach, bu we are not quite ready to “pack it in.”

Scott Malan

Thoughtful article Chuck. Has motivated me to contribute, again. My parents converted an old school bus into a camper in the early 60’s (they were much handier than I am) and our family travelled all over the US and Mexico. They went on to own several rv’s. Yes, a lot has changed.
Now that I am fully retired I’m picking up a new fiberglass travel trailer made by a Canadian company that keenly focuses on quality- Escape. So I look forward to your ratings endeavor.
For some folks bigger is not always better. This will be my third rv, I’m downsizing from Winnebago MB Sprinter, which was nice, but just a lot to take care of. While much has changed, your newsletter, efforts focusing ing on quality, and giving voice to important issues others aren’t, will help keep and nurture what’s good about RVing that draws many of us to it. Keep up the good work.

Bill

Another difference we see is more and more people – maybe millenials, but not all, are using RVs as permanent housing. Many RV parks are nearly full of long term residents, some of them construction workers and others who may be in an area for a few moths to a year or two. We also see that in some military campgrounds, with active duty personnel living in their RVs and banking the remainder of their housing allowance. In many places that is against the rules or against the zoning code, but enforcement is lacking or unpopular.

Walt Huntsman

I would be perfectly happy to boondock nearly all the time. My wife, however, not so much. I suspect full-time RV life, when we get to that point, will be a struggle for us. Perhaps your piece about the overcrowding of RV parks will convince her to look at my idea for more boondocking a bit more favorably.

Bill Lampkin

Crowded RV parks, mostly. Difficult to get reservations; Yes, for Fri and Sat, but much easier for the rest of the week. Example; we traveled from our home in N. California thru Idaho, Montana, Canadian Rockies, B.C, including Vancouver Island, Wa. and Or. last summer, starting June 15 and arriving home the middle of November. We traveled in our beautiful 2005 Beaver 40′ motorhome. We never once boondocked or stayed overnight at a Walmart. We made reservations for Banff, Lake Louise, and Jasper National Parks in May. We were in Banff NP for Canada Day holiday, the busiest day of the year. We actually stayed another 4 days in Banff as someone else left their site early. Crowded? Yes. Could we get reservations one to two weeks out? Yes. Is it all gloom and doom? NO! BTW, the Canadian Rockies should be on everyone’s list of must do trips-Awesome!

kamwick

At one time I seriously contemplated selling everything and setting off in a small condo-sized rv, to live fulltime. Requires real space, and nowadays planning considerably far ahead. Plus, I really like Change/moving about and find the packing up/hitching/driving a large vehicle thing to be so tedious. So, someday, when the cats have gone to kitty heaven, we’d like to get a simple small camping van and take off on a long road trip. When unable to find a boondocking site or campground, we’ll simply park it at the side of the road.

As for the rest of modern RV problems, I think fulltiming in a large rv will become a housing alternative for many young people out of necessity. That’s pretty much going to fill up available space in rv parks. Hopefully the demand will result in more park availability for those folks. But I don’t want to be one of them.

Bob Thompson

Methinks the ability to be totally self-contained (solar or wind powered) may be becoming more important as time passes. I wonder if global warming will eliminate the off-season of March and April. Too warm to be only for the hardy. RGV movers and shakers have been talking about lower ocupancy rates recently. Curious.

Mary Burge

Good morning Chuck,
Rving is like a lot of other things in life….you have to prioritize and compromise. Seriously. What do you have to have and what would be nice to have and what do you want to pay for that in time and money. Really tedious stuff. In fact, work. Once you hammer out your “mission ” statement . You can develop your OST’s ( objectives, strategies, tactics)
Write them down and when you are not in a happy place , review your position relative to your mission statement and OST’s and see where you have veered. You should spend at least as much time on YOU , INC. as you would spend on a paying job.
Example of practical application: you have an objective of going to Hershey, Pa. again? What are you trying to accomplish? How would you like it to be different then last time? That’s not until September so you have time to impact that event now. If it is more important for you to be spontaneous than you have to accept the results of that. Maybe a real slow trip would allow you to spend the day slowly meandering only 100 miles a day and if you get into camp early great and if you get into camp late great but regardless you will have the site you reserved and have seen everything you want. Remember you will always be on plan B anyways. Regards

Bob C.

I just finished reading your April 1 post on campground and RV park crowding. No April Fools joke, for sure! My wife and I have been RVing for 26 years. No full timing, but many 4-5 month long trips, coast to coast. We starled out by using our RV (a VW Westfalia campervan) to “camp”. Over those years we gradually clhanged to using our rigs as “Mobile Homes”, currently with a 31 ft travel trailer to provide creature comforts as we travel from A to B.. After retirement almost 20 years ago, we travelled almost exclusively in the off seasons, never summer. All those years we rarely made advance reservations. I just finished planning a trip to Texas (from WA state) and made reservations for all but one night! As you say, RVing has changed! On this forthcoming trip, I will be checking to see if I really needed to do so.