Photograph by Alexandra Keeling
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Due to pandemic-related travel restrictions, vacationers this summer are mapping out road trips in RVs, campervans, and trailers.

Photograph by Alexandra Keeling

Vacationing by RV this summer? Here’s what you need to know

Get on the road with tips for renting the right rig and advice on campgrounds open now.

Travelers are gearing up for summer getaways, but with more than 20 states reporting spikes in COVID-19 cases in June, vacations involving air travel and large gatherings are likely to remain on hold. If you’re driven to distraction by wanderlust, here’s a tip: Take a spin in an RV.

The pandemic has fueled interest in recreational vehicles—RVs, campervans, and travel trailers. As a result, motor home sales and rentals have dramatically ramped up. While industry-wide data has yet to be fully compiled, RV dealers that reopened in early May report monthly sales are up 170 percent year over year; bookings through rental site RVshare for the Fourth of July weekend are up 81 percent over 2019.

What’s more, the duration of rentals has increased. “We have seen an uptick in the amount people are spending because the average rental period has increased,” says Jon Gray, of peer-to-peer booking site RVshare. “Instead of a long weekend, renters are booking for an average of seven to 10 days.”

The dip in gas prices—expected to remain low throughout the summer months—is helping to make 2020 the Year of the Camper. “People know it’s the only safe way to travel,” says Gigi Stetler of RV Sales of Broward in Florida, and founder of RV Advisor, a member-driven advice site.

Navigating the nation with a trailer in tow takes some planning, but the learning curve should not scare travelers from wheeling away. Here’s what you need to know to get comfortable with a campervan.

Getting in gear

Start by looking into booking companies. Go RVing and Cruise America will connect you with rental centers in the U.S. and Canada that offer a range of vehicle sizes. RVshare and Outdoorsy are peer-to-peer booking sites offering everything from popup trailers to motor homes.

Most rental companies charge a daily rate, which averages $165 for an RV or camper, according to a study by Go RV Rentals. Some also charge a fee per mile traveled. If you’re looking for eco-friendly models, TRA Certification has a list of brands that are certified green, from parts to practices.

In addition to the daily rate, first-time renters should think about additional costs—gas, food, and campground fees, to name a few—to avoid unpleasant surprises down the road. Vehicle options abound, and many renters advise to pick an RV with a bathroom. Especially during the pandemic, renters should insist that their RV has been thoroughly cleaned and disinfected. RVshare, for example, has partnered with TaskRabbit to offer professional cleaning services to camper owners.

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In 2016 Jessy Muller bought a 1978 Dodge Commander, she named “Mander.” Since rehabbing it, she’s been driving it across the United States.

Most rentals do not require a special driver’s license. Ahead of booking make sure to ask about rental insurance and roadside assistance plans. Take advantage of a quick RV training session before revving up. If you plan on bringing along a furry friend, check the pet policies specific to your rental. Perhaps most important is to book early. As for incidentals in peer-to-peer rentals, “you should speak to the RV owner about what they keep on board for their renters, such as linens and cookware,” suggests Gray.

Owning the road

For Aaron Levine, owning a home on wheels has been a longtime dream. “I fish, hike, love being in nature,” he says. For him, the attraction of owning a camper is the freedom and mobility that goes with it. During the pandemic, the Phoenix, Arizona, resident finally locked down a deal on a new 28-foot-long Gulf Stream travel trailer. “It’s a way to stay active—and to stay away from people,” he says. The outdoor enthusiast has already taken his trailer on the road twice and plans a summer of trips.

If you’ve fallen in love with the idea of a home on wheels, you might want to go in for the long haul. Levine suggests road-trippers take their time and do their research, especially since prices can range from a few thousand dollars for a previously owned folding or “pop-up” camping trailer to well over $500,000 for a top-of-the-range, Class A motor home.

“Buy something that you know is going to work for you and your family,” says Levine. “Think about the activities you’re going to do.” If your plans involve regularly traversing hairpin mountain passes or embarking on day-long hikes, a campervan or truck camper would best fit the bill. Conversely, 45-foot motor homes equipped with cooking appliances and large wastewater holding tanks work well for large family get-togethers.

Newbies should try to support local dealers, as it will help mitigate maintenance complications down the road. “Do business with your local dealer, because you’re going to need them for service work,” says Stetler.

Where to go

The RV boom is taking off just as the country’s 18,000 campgrounds are re-opening, albeit with restrictions. Because states are at different stages in their response to the pandemic, those restrictions vary from campground to campground. As sites re-open, they’re likely to book up quickly.

Those headed to national parks will find limited capacity among the National Park Service’s 8,585 motor home pads, though NPS officials say they’re “continuing to increase access on a daily basis.” At Yosemite National Park, which recently reopened, only two of 10 campsites with RV facilities are open, as of June 15: Upper Pines (RVs up to 35 feet long, trailers up to 24 feet) and Wawona Horse (93 RV and trailer pads). These open sites don’t have hookups, which means no water, electricity, or access to dumping. Campsites with hookups tend to be more convenient, but cost more.

In Yellowstone National Park, the Tower Fall campground and Fishing Bridge RV Park are closed for the year. But Madison, Bay Bridge, and Grant Village campgrounds are open, with the remaining seven sites scheduled to follow suit on June 19 and July 1.

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Alexandra Keeling and her dog Rocko enjoy California’s sun-soaked Oceano Dunes State Vehicular Recreation Park from the comfort of her teardrop travel trailer. Since planning her solo trip across the country in 2018, Keeling has been on and off the road for more than a year.

Be sure to follow all park guidelines, especially during these pandemic times. “We encourage all visitors to recreate responsibly by following the guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to reduce the spread of COVID-19 and follow “Leave No Trace” principles when you visit,” says Cynthia Hernandez, National Parks Service spokesperson. For a full list of open campgrounds, check individual park websites.

Operators of privately owned campsites are welcoming campers with discounts and assurances of strict physical distancing rules, but that means doing away with services that, for many, make them attractive alternatives to national parks: dining facilities, playgrounds, dog boarding, and communal fire pits, as well as fewer staff on site.

Whit’s End Campground in West Ossipee, New Hampshire, is currently open only to New Hampshire residents and out-of-staters who have self-quarantined for 14 days. The site’s swimming pool and common areas re-opened on June 15, and though holiday weekends are busy, there’s good availability throughout the summer, according to management.

The Grand Canyon Railway RV Park in Williams, Arizona, has 124 RV spaces and reports availability throughout the summer months. Some facilities, such as kenneling and communal fireplaces, are closed, so campers should call or email for the latest updates.

A short drive west of Zion National Park in Utah, Zion River Resort reports high occupancy at its 122-space campground for the coming weeks, but from mid-July availability increases. Management says a typical year would see many camping enthusiasts from Europe starting in July, but that’s not likely this year, opening up more options for U.S. travelers.

No matter where you go, be adaptable when plans change and mishaps happen, says Alexandra Keeling, who’s been traveling the country with her “tiny tin can” trailer for more than a year. “Road life will always throw you a curveball. It makes traveling so much more fun when you can go with the flow,” she says. “I’ve made some of my favorite memories in places I never planned to be and some of the toughest blows put me in the position for some of the greatest experiences.”

Stephen Starr is an Irish journalist and author who reported from the Middle East for a decade before moving to Ohio. Find Stephen on Twitter and Instagram.