Meet some happy campers.
Sales professional Bennett Prescott, 36, and his family usually spend summers adventuring far from their home in Wallingford, Conn. His job keeps him traveling more than half the year anyway, while his 38-year-old science-teacher wife, Selena Gell, gets time off. Last year, the couple, with toddler Jacob, made stops in Fire Island, NY; Oregon; Italy and Norway.
But as coronavirus risks loom for the third month and protests crop up across the country, a mobile retreat in rural America seems like the ideal escape. So in May, Prescott and Gell booked a 32-foot-long RV through rent-from-owner listings site RVShare. On Saturday, they packed camping gear, cooking supplies, their bikes and pup Edison into their new house-on-wheels — a Class A 2015 Thor Motor Coach Ace 30.2 — and headed west.
“I’m a lot happier on this trip, where we have a lot of distractions and goals to look forward to and beautiful places to stay,” says Prescott, who is avoiding stops in major cities as riots ripple through them in response to George Floyd’s death last week at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. The family, wearing masks and staying far from others to prevent virus transmission, has a flexible itinerary. “We’re going to plan as we go. It’s thrilling.”
Akin to protected bubbles, RVs allow for easy movement while maintaining social-distancing and quarantine-like conditions. Their allure during the pandemic and civil unrest is undeniable: RV rentals have increased 1,000 percent since April, while RV sales jumped 600 percent in the same time period, according to the RV Industry Association and Kampgrounds of America (KOA). More than 25 million Americans will go RVing this summer, estimates the association, which also found that 80 percent of recent buyers are first-time owners.
Indeed, Prescott and Gell’s six-week-long trip — on a route that will take them to Gell’s family in Rockaway Beach, Ore., and back via California, Colorado, New Mexico, Texas, Louisiana and Georgia with stops at the Grand Canyon and Utah’s Arches National Park — marks their first foray into this type of travel. One of their first overnight stays, at Greene Eagle Winery in Cortland, Ohio, was blissfully quiet. “There’s nobody here across 60 acres,” Prescott says.
While Prescott and Gell have experience backpacking and car camping, they were still getting accustomed to handling their somewhat “ungainly” RV rental, which has proved “bouncy and loud” during five-hour stretches on the highway. “It’s much better when it’s parked,” Prescott jokes. “The mornings are great. You wake up in your little house on a winery, let the dog out, make coffee. It’s really lovely.”
“We expect RVs to continue to gain traction as a preferred method of travel while consumers are seeking flexible options and a unique way to experience the outdoors,” says Jon Gray, CEO of RVShare. Its rental prices — comparable to other popular companies like Cruise America and Outdoorsy — generally range from $50 to $100 per night for a pop-up trailer to $175 to $275 per night for a Class A vehicle like Prescott’s.
Meanwhile, Janine Pettit, 60, grew up camping with her family and had high hopes of instilling a similar passion in her husband Rick, 66. “That’s not what happened,” jokes the Princeton, NJ-based empty nester, although Rick occasionally meets her on her travels. So, in 2007, Pettit began organizing trips for solo women, founding the Web site GirlCamper.com and blogging for advice-oriented Go RVing.
Pettit tows a 2019 19-foot Off Road Max teardrop trailer by Xtreme Outdoors for weekend trips to the Poconos, the Jersey Shore or Camp Taylor in Columbia, NJ. And she’s looking forward to driving to Kennebunkport, Maine, in August — all while wearing her mask in public and cleaning her hands often. Campground spots are spaced at a safe distance apart, Pettit notes, and her “little house on wheels” is completely self-contained with a bed, kitchen, toilet and shower.
It was in Yellowstone, standing before a waterfall, that she had an epiphany about national parks: “They’re for everyone, whether you’re in a Class A or a van.” The equalizing power of the great outdoors could offer solace during turbulent times, she adds.
“RVing and camping is going to be a route that’s so important to people until our country finds its way. People are stressed and need to get out in nature. It’s healing,” says Pettit, adding that the RV community is known for welcoming all comers, including her interracial family. “When you’re outside, you can decompress and restore. Nature takes you out of a state of trauma.”
Aspiring road-trippers, be warned: With many campgrounds closed or operating at a limited capacity in response to the coronavirus, reservations are filling fast. An increased demand for RVs is also making them harder to secure. Pettit advises either advance planning or remaining ready to pounce if last-minute cancellations arise.
You don’t need to worry about renting, though, if you buy your own house on wheels. Entrepreneur Jesse Itzler, 51, and his wife Sara Blakely, 49, founder and CEO of Spanx, caught the RV bug last year. Along with their four children, who are all under age 10, they camped across Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, visiting state parks along the way. “I love being outside,” Itzler says. “You can pull over and jump into a watering hole anytime. It’s a great way to keep the family contained and see the country with the freedom to create your own timeline.”
So in April, Itzler took the plunge and purchased a 35-foot 2020 Thor Magnitude Super C Class for summer travel from their Atlanta home. That month, they drove to Florida with stops in Clearwater Beach, St. Augustine and Savannah, Ga. With their kids still in school remotely, Itzler describes their sojourn as “one-part home school, one-part ‘Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure’ and one-part summer camp.” Later this summer, the family plans to drive up the East Coast to Connecticut and then out west to Michigan and Montana.
Itzler, who grew up in New York without much driving experience, has also had to confront the less glamorous underbelly of the vehicle: the power, septic system and water tanks. “I’m not super handy,” he admits, “but the learning curve is part of the fun.”
“We’ve contacted friends and encouraged them to rent RVs and meet up with us this summer,” says Itzler. “There are benefits to flying. I love that privilege. But RVing is literally like having a vacation home on wheels. Home is wherever you park. The party is wherever you park.”
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