As most Americans hunkered down in their homes to avoid COVID-19, Dawn and Roger Haas hopped in their RV to make a 1,100-mile trip to see family in the Ozarks. Instead of staying at campgrounds along the way, they spent nights at orchards, wineries and ski areas where they were able to pick apples, sip chardonnay and hike through beautiful scenery.
In the recreational vehicle, the couple had all the technology they needed to stay connected, a safe way to travel and a socially distant place to stay when visiting. Those options are making RV life more attractive than ever — especially to retirees — during the pandemic.
Get up to speed on RV lingo
You don’t have to restrict yourself to campgrounds, and many places to park can be had for free. (Search for apps that will help you find those locations.) The more interesting spots where RV bloggers Mike and Jennifer Wendland have stayed include an alpaca farm, an alligator ranch and a golf course. Turns out some parking practices have their own names:
• Mooch docking: staying in a friend or relative’s driveway and plugging into their electricity.
• Crack docking: Staying at a Cracker Barrel parking lot.
• Wal docking: Staying in a Walmart parking lot.
The “lifestyle is exploding mostly due to COVID,” says Mike Wendland. He and wife Jennifer Wendland, both retired journalists, are on the road about three-quarters of the year. The Wendlands blog, host a podcast and YouTube Channel, and manage a Facebook group for 45,000 RV-enthusiast members.
There’s more to traveling in a recreational vehicle — sometimes called a motor home — than just driving a house on wheels and hooking up at a state campground. A whole culture and lifestyle has been built around the practice. With today’s technology you’re not too far from answers to any of your questions about the best places to stay, where to find a laundromat in a particular town, or how to fix a flat tire.
Whatever your interests or reasons for taking to the road, you can find an RV group to join. On an adventure with your children? Link up with others who are “roadschooling” their kids along the way. Many RVers are on the road doing service projects and charitable works. There are communities for 55-and-older and retiree RVers, luxury resort-style communities and of course the traditional camper communities.
“Every night at a campground a whole new community forms; people build a fire, set out their chairs. The hunger people have for positive community, that’s what brings so many people to this lifestyle,” Mike Wendland says.
Explore the RV lifestyle
The Haases got interested in the RV life after Roger, now 56 and a retired engineer, survived a severe heart attack about 20 years ago. The couple decided they would retire early.
Dawn, 53, who worked in instructional design, wanted to pare down their lives. Roger spent a year researching RVs before buying. “We went to a lot of RV shows,” he says. They opted for a “fifth wheel,” a trailer-type RV, which is hitched to a pickup truck or other large vehicle. They bought a diesel-powered Ford F250 in order to “leave a smaller carbon footprint.”
Their rig, Dawn says, has 13-foot ceilings, lots of windows, a bedroom with a closeable door, a kitchen with a double sink, plenty of counter space, an island, two pantries, and slides that push out so the 37-foot RV has about 400 square feet of livable space.
COURTESY DAWN HAAS
Dawn Haas picks apples at an orchard where she and her husband parked their RV during a trip from New York to the Ozarks in Missouri.
With their three children grown and moved away, the Haases sold their five-bedroom house in 2019 and purchased a small ranch house in Macedon, New York, with an RV pad. This way, Dawn says, if the coronavirus is an issue, they can move into the RV and “isolate if people visit.”
Although the Haases had traveled in RVs before, they’re relatively new to the lifestyle. They became members of Harvest Hosts — a network of people who allow RVs on their property at no cost. Now when they travel they can choose to stay at participating orchards, farms, wineries, breweries and attractions rather than a state park or camping area. Dawn reminisces about spending a night on a Missouri farm, “looking at the stars and listening to distant coyotes,” and another at a ski hill in Ohio where they took in the view as they went up and down on the lift.
Eventually, Dawn says, they want to be able to work together as a couple to supplement their retirement income and have been looking at workingcouples.com, a website with job listings located all around the country. They like the idea of running a campground one day.
Travelers who are mission driven
Some RVers become roving volunteers through religiously affiliated groups or other organizations that connect them with communities in need.
Anne and Max Armstrong, retirees from Remlap, Alabama, didn’t want to “spend our retirement waiting for happy hour every day. We needed a purpose,” Anne says. She’s a retired nurse practitioner and he’s retired from heading up emergency management efforts for their home county. Through their Methodist church, they joined Nomads On a Mission Active in Divine Service, which connects volunteers with community service projects around the United States. In January 2020, the Armstrongs were in the Florida Keys working on homes damaged by Hurricane Irma, and in November they headed to Hattiesburg, Mississippi, for post-tornado disaster relief.
“We want to help make life a little better for someone else because we’ve been so blessed,” Anne says.
Mary, 67, and husband Dave Vandeveld, 81, have been RVing for 22 years. She was an obstetrician and gynecologist and he was an entrepreneur and social worker before they retired and began working as administrators for Care-A-Vanners, a program from Habitat for Humanity International which “helps local Habitat affiliates accelerate their building programs and do post-disaster rebuilds,” Mary says. They do their office work from their RV.
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How much does an RV cost?
Since the March pandemic-induced travel restrictions, there’s been a boom in sales of RVs, and it’s actually difficult to purchase one. “It’s not unusual for people to have to wait a year or more for an RV to be built,” Wendland says. (It is possible to find RVs to rent through websites such as Outdoorsy.com.) When people can get them, “We’re seeing most of the action in small, lightweight towable trailers and camper vans.”
The Haases’ fifth wheel and truck together cost them about $150,000. But you can spend between $25,000 to $300,000 for an RV, depending on its amenities — like fireplaces, laundry facilities and full-size gourmet appliances.
“You shouldn’t think of entering this lifestyle as downsizing your life,” Dawn says. “You’re downsizing your home, but the costs of doing this are not to be sneezed at.” In addition to the vehicle, you’ll need to factor in fuel, campground costs, internet and insurance.
As Wendland says, the “romance of the lifestyle has blinded many people to the realities of it.” He and Jennifer do a live YouTube show on Sunday evenings. “The most common question we get is for advice on getting started, to which I say, ‘Don’t sell your permanent home until you make sure you want to live this lifestyle.’”
Ways to Connect When on the Road in an RV
Care-A-Vanners, sponsored by Habitat for Humanity International
Harvest Hosts, a network of more than 600 hosts who invite self-contained RVers to stay on their properties for free
Boondockers, a web platform that lets members arrange overnight stays with each other for free while traveling through an area. Many offer electric and water to guests for RVers who prefer hookups.
RVillage, an electronic way to connect with other RVers. Members (free to join) can find each other on the road to make connections.
FMCA, (formerly the Family Motor Coach Association) and Escapees are like AAA for RVers offering education, roadside assistance, community and travel benefits for members. Escapees has a subgroup called Xcapers, for younger RVers who may still be working and raising families.
This listing of RV clubs covers just about every taste and interest.
This list of books that are good resources for those interested in the RV lifestyle can be helpful.