On the Road Again: American RV Travels in the Time of COVID-19

January 29, 2021 Updated: February 1, 2021

RVing is one of the most intriguing lifestyle choices you can consider. It appeals to travel buffs because it is the equivalent of a home on wheels that can take them to any destination they want to explore. It has financial advantages, too: When done right, living in an RV is often cheaper than renting an apartment or paying a house mortgage.

Full-time RVers can avoid the cold of the winter to camp in sunny areas to avoid the inherent costs of winterizing the RV. Maintenance costs occur throughout the year; then, there are fuel costs, campground fees, insurance premiums, and the list expands depending on personal needs and travel plans.

Since the global COVID-19 pandemic began restricting travel in the United States, many people have chosen RVing as a full-time living alternative. It offers a kind of mobility few other people get to experience. Those who already live life on the road get to witness the pandemic’s impact on society in different ways. Full-time RV nomad Shari Voigt was an eyewitness to some of these occurrences:

“When we made our spring migration from Arizona to Wisconsin this year, it was surreal. Rest areas closed, playgrounds taped off, totally contactless check-in at RV parks, but the strangest thing was passing by Gallup, New Mexico. They meant business when they said the city was closed. All entrances into the city were barricaded, with plenty of police and flashing lights,” she wrote in an email.

She went on to describe how social RVers usually are, and how strangers stop to engage in cheerful conversations like old friends.

“But since COVID-19, we are all keeping to ourselves for the most part,” she noted.

Shari and her husband Gerald rushed back home to Wisconsin last spring to reunite with their family.

“We took the shortest route from Arizona to Wisconsin and made a mad dash across the country this spring. It is not a fun way to travel, but we were anxious to reunite with our family, and because of COVID-19, our options along the way were limited,” she wrote.

gerald and shari voigt
Gerald and Shari Voigt. (Shari and Gerald Voigt/usa-rvnomads.com)

Later in the fall, the couple chose a trip to the Badlands and the Black Hills of South Dakota. Here, the mighty outdoors offers plenty to do and see: abundant wildlife and beguiling scenery, best explored on a Jeep drive on the backroads.

This past October, Shari and Gerald’s plans to head to Wyoming and Utah changed because of the fire season that polluted the air. They traveled south instead: “We went south through Colorado, spending almost a week in Colorado Springs, then a one night stop in Santa Fe, another stop in Deming, New Mexico, before arriving in the tiny town of Benson in southeastern Arizona. Since then, we’ve bounced from park to park and are currently in Cottonwood, Arizona, near Sedona. A few times each week, we take a different forest service road into the mountains, and we’re having a blast exploring by Jeep. Other than that, we’re playing it by ear, with no real concrete plans for the winter other than trying to strike a balance between working and exploring new places.”

New places enrich the soul with startling wonders when you know where and how to look at nature, people, and their communities. While COVID-19 may have crippled the freedom to travel for many of us, RVers can still explore the road and see the world. Some campgrounds may be closed to stop the spread of the virus, but RVers can choose dispersed camping on federal public lands, also known as “boondocking,” or camping outside designated campgrounds. For those with a sense of adventure, these sites often open new horizons of exploration, but finding them requires skill in research and planning. Boondocking also means no access to facilities such as toilets and showers—this is pretty much the cheapest and wildest way to camp with an RV.

Camping on public lands administered by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and the National Park Service is another way to save. These sites may have some facilities while still giving campers the possibility to enjoy wildlife and nature without spending a dime.

Life on the open road. (Shari and Gerald Voigt/usa-rvnomads.com)

First-timers should do their due diligence before adventuring on the road to find a free campsite. Almost every state in the United States offers excellent such opportunities, subject to rules and regulations. As a veteran RVer, Shari Voigt has advice for beginners:

“There’s a learning curve to traveling with an RV. Be patient with yourself. You’ll have some head-smacking moments, make some stupid mistakes, but if you can laugh it off as newbie mistakes, you’ll enjoy the journey a lot more.”

Shari is well-familiar with campsites that charge a fee, too. These sites usually offer a whole suite of amenities that go beyond showers and restrooms to swimming pools, laundry facilities, live entertainment, and much more. Even a choice of premium sites can be affordable for RVers, as Shari pointed out: “Traveling is less expensive with camping memberships. As full-timers, we have several to choose from. If you’re just getting started, look into Passport America. It’s inexpensive and offers half-price stays, but there are restrictions at some parks, and not all parks honor it. If you’re going to a park that honors it, it can pay for itself in a couple of nights.”

The Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention advises caution and urges RVers to consider travel restrictions before starting the trip. RVers should also beware that they could be required to make fewer stops for food or bathroom breaks. At gas stations, drivers should disinfect gas pump handles and buttons with disinfecting wipes prior to and after use.

The RV lifestyle during the pandemic makes sense if you want to escape overpopulated areas, and not worry about sanitary issues in hotel rooms and public spaces, or public transportation logistics, canceled flights, and hygiene along the way. RVers can also store and cook food safely without worrying about sanitary conditions in restaurants. They are solely responsible for cleaning and disinfecting their RVs thoroughly. The advantages go on.

As Voigt explained in her email: “The RV lifestyle is what you make of it. There are both challenges and advantages. I don’t think it’s any more challenging because of COVID-19, and there are a lot of people who took to this lifestyle BECAUSE of COVID-19.”

Once the statistics come in, we will know how many people chose the RV lifestyle because of COVID-19. In the meanwhile, according to the RV Industry Association, 2020 has seen the highest monthly total sales of RVs since October 2018. In June 2020 alone, there were 37,439 units sold, a gain of 12.9 percent compared to June 2019.

RV dealers reported that about 50 to 80 percent of their customers in 2020 were first-time buyers, compared to 25-35 percent in 2019. The hashtag #vanlife trended the whole summer, with more than 6 million shares and rising. These statistics suggest that RVing is now a nationwide phenomenon poised to become a mainstream lifestyle choice for even more Americans.

A former military journalist, Mihaela Lica-Butler is a senior partner at Argophilia Travel News. Besides her work as a PR pro and travel journalist, she spends her time writing children’s fairy tales and cookbooks.