On the open road
By Michelle Talsma Everson, January 2021 issue.
To schedule a video interview with Alexander Long is an exercise in pandemic era juggling — at least on his end. First, he needs to make sure that he and his husband’s four kids and one dog are all in or around the RV. Then, he needs to find a quiet spot — like many stay-at-home parents. Then, it’s a crapshoot to see if the video will work because he’s using a hotspot and the majority of his internet capability is used for his husband’s job, which he does from their tiny bedroom in their RV.
During our interview, he was in Quartzsite, but has plans to travel west to Southern California depending on their COVID-19 travel restrictions. In October 2020 he and his family of six bought a travel trailer to live in full-time. His husband works full-time telecommuting and Alexander “road schools” the kids.
“Traveling in an RV or travel trailer was something of a dream my dad and I used to talk about,” he shares. “My dad passed away a couple years ago. COVID-19 took away all the obstacles preventing us from actually doing this: my husband began working remotely, the kids were now being homeschooled, our habilitation and respite provider for our children with special needs is also in quarantine. We were isolated. Seemed like the perfect time to be isolated elsewhere.”
According to the RV Industry Association, 20 percent of Americans surveyed in the summer of 2020 have been more interested in RVs as a recreational travel option. Nearly half of those surveyed who planned to take an RV trip said health concerns had increased their interest. Many of these RV goers live in their RVs full-time. In fact, the RV Industry Association cited more than a million Americans live in RVs full-time — and that was a 2018 statistic. Obviously, many have to do so because of finances but a lot of RV enthusiasts do so out of choice, as well.
On The Road Full-Time
Alexander shares that he and his family plan to live on the road full-time for at least a year. They do have a storage shed in Mesa, though, when they’re ready to return to “normal” life.
“We sold our house two months ago and have now been in the trailer for two months and spent a total of eight days boondocking (when you’re off the grid),” he explains. “We spent time up in Northern Arizona in the snow and are on our way to Southern California. We’ll be heading north when the weather permits.”
Lauren Strait, a freelance travel writer and blogger specializing in RV travel, says that there are many benefits to traveling in an RV during the pandemic, including: your own bathroom and bedding; digital detox; connecting with nature; exploring the in-between destinations; creative camping meals; a freer schedule; and it’s more affordable than many people would think.
Alexander though notes that, while there are perks, there are definitely learning curves.
“It’s been difficult figuring out which places to get water from, many places are closed for the season or closed due to COVID-19. We make sure to call ahead now,” he says. “We’ve made mistakes along the way, but we’re just learning to walk. We know we have some great adventures ahead of us … it’s the new American dream.”
As for having a family in such a small space, Alexander says it was an adjustment, but it’s been worth it. “Without a house to manage, our time together has become more coordinated and peaceful,” he explains. “Yes, it’s a small space inside, but our adventures are mostly outdoors and we’re spending better quality time together.”
In fact, it was on the road that his kids had memorable experiences. “Our first experience in snow was amazing,” he says. “My kids had never seen snow before; they watched it come down like magic and disappear before it hit the ground. These kids are making memories.”
Like Alexander and his family, Mark Ng and Danielle Connell, who have been together nearly three years, also recently went from regular living — in this case, an apartment in Uptown Phoenix — to a small travel trailer 24/7. They, too, have been on the road since the fall and are able to do so because Mark telecommutes.
“I’ve always really enjoyed traveling, even before COVID-19,” Danielle says.
“Once COVID-19 hit, traveling in an RV or travel trailer seemed like the only interesting plan,” Mark says with a laugh. “Everything else was broken and hotels are still risky.”
After moving out of their Phoenix apartment and spending some time at a family vacation home in Michigan, their first real travel trailer try was only an hour away from their home base.
“Everything that could go wrong went wrong,” Danielle says. Which, to the adventurous couple is kind of a theme: expect things to go wrong (they’ll turn out okay anyways). Plan, prep, research and go slow if you can. It creates resilience, they both believe. “When you expect the awful and get through it, you experience a lot of wonderful,” Danielle says.
On the road (they’ve travel to several states and keep track of them on a “We Sleep Around” pin board) they have had some amazing adventures. They’ve stayed at a bee farm and eaten fresh honey. They’ve made and eaten fresh cheese. They collect stickers of some of their favorite places and, with COVID-19 safety precautions in place (masks, social distancing, etc.), they’ve seen friends old and new as they’ve gone across the country.
For those thinking of hitting the road full-time they advise that you do your research and that everyone on the trip know how to do all the things. They found YouTube to be a helpful resource. When we talked right before the holidays, they were planning on spending time in Phoenix before moving on. They’re not sure how long they’ll be on the road full-time, but they hope to always have that travel bug as an integral part of their lives together.
“While we’re in a really small space, we’re definitely conscious of our alone time; actually, more so than we were in an apartment,” Mark says.
“It was challenging at first, but now we have the whole world as our backyard. How can you beat that?” asks Danielle.
While some families can pick up and head on the road 24/7, for many of us, RV or travel trailer life is more of a vacation mode of travel. Even then, though, there are still many perks.
Mick and Red T. often have adventures with their family in their RV. “Our family needs to get away from the hustle and busyness of the city,” Red says. “Camping is a socially safe way to enjoy nature and get out of the house and relieve quarantine fatigue. We were camping before the pandemic, but we’ve been a lot more mindful of where we camp since the start. This year we’ve used our trailer for day trips and weeklong trips. We’ve camped in the Mogollon Rim/White Mountains, the Coconino National Forest, and the Sonoran desert when it gets cold. We’ve avoided doing a lot of tourist destinations because of COVID-19. We travel with our trailer to have a safe restroom, full kitchen, and a place to eat that’s sanitary.”
Since they were camping before the pandemic, they have noticed an influx in fellow campers.
“The increased number of people camping (whether in a campground or dispersed camping boondocking) has made finding a remote location challenging,” Red shares. “With the rampant forest fires closing the Tonto National Forest locally, everyone who normally camped there had to go further north. Camping in a trailer means having the creature comforts of home — ice cream in the freezer, air conditioning in the too hot summer, and a flush toilet.”
Red describes preparing for these trips as “controlled chaos,” but says it is well worth it.
“Some of our favorite memories are stargazing and seeing the Milky Way with our eyes, falling asleep to the sounds of coyotes singing to each other, and waking up to stunning vistas with gorgeous sunrises,” she recalls.
“Don’t wait to start camping because you need to have the ideal rig or specialized gear. Start small, day trips, and work your way up to overnight camping. Renting a RV is a great way to learn what you actually need for your needs before you buy. Life is short and way too unpredictable to wait for that perfect moment,” she advises.
To learn about what life is like on the road, I checked in with Lauren Strait, a freelance travel writer and co-founder of Strait Talk Travel, a family blog and resource she maintains with her husband and twin boys. Here is an overview of her favorite RV apps:
This app is for finding free campsites on public land as well as a directory of reviews for established campsites. However, its greatest power lies in finding new campsites not otherwise documented.
This app has tens of thousands of places to camp, from swanky RV parks to free remote destinations, vetted by a team of full-time travelers and reviewed by their 275,000+ members.
This app filters campsites and lodging according to your travel needs, including price, group size, structure type, pet-friendliness, amenities (from toilets to outdoor kitchens), and access to activities such as hiking, fishing, and surfing.
This is the ultimate camping app, with over 500,000+ user-submitted locations, reviews and tips across the U.S. The platform is free to use on the web, iOS and Android, with additional functionality available in the paid PRO version.