By Chuck Woodbury
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.