The coronavirus has sparked a surge in RV or motorhome purchasing and rental, and enthusiastic camping and “glamping” bookings as Americans attempt to escape months of quarantine for a summer break while avoiding flights and keeping their distance.
The pandemic, which continues to rage across the US, has made many traditional holiday activities either impossible or unappealing, putting millions off flying abroad, going to crowded resort hotels, group holidays or cruises. But experts say the apparent lower risk of transmission in the open is making outdoor holidays in demand – and attracting new fans.
Camping and glamping booking services report huge spikes in business, with some 400% busier than the same time last year, following the reopening of states for business. RV companies said business is “booming” in rental and sales.
Meanwhile, outdoors retailer REI said it has seen record growth in its camping department in the last six weeks as people rush to buy equipment.
“This is the time of year when many of us would be thinking about maybe air travel and destinations,” said Paul Calandrella, general merchandising manager for camping at REI.
“And that inability to access our normal modes of travel – in addition to just the pent-up energy of being stuck at home – has turned people’s attention starkly towards camping. And whether that’s in the back yard or a first ever trip in a rented RV, it is literally just going crazy on us right now.”
Bestsellers include tents, sleeping bags, camping furniture and cooking equipment as well as “luxe” items such as big camp beds and power systems.
Calandrella said he expects demand to continue beyond 2020 as a “multi-year trend”. He said: “We keep saying internally we can’t un-see the impact of the pandemic.”
RV parks and campgrounds account for $25.6bn of the US economy, according to the National Association of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC). Campers spend over $31bn a year on camping gear, accessories and vehicles, found an Outdoor Industry Association report.
And despite the pandemic, camping is considered by the US public to be a relatively safe option.
The 2020 North American Camping Report, published in May, examined the effects of Covid-19. It found that 46% of all leisure travellers said they considered camping the safest way to travel once restrictions were lifted.
Anand Subramanian, chief executive of booking platform Tentrr, which lists over 800 campsites in America, said it has grown 900% this quarter compared to last, and 400% compared to the same time last year.
The biggest increase was in sites within a two-hour radius drive from cities. Subramanian said: “Due to Covid, people are looking for near home outlets to get a break. rather than hop on a plane or go on a cruise.”
Booking platform Hipcamp, which lists over 300,000 camping experiences, said following a “devastating” spring, when they were encouraging people to cancel, hosts are now earning triple what they were last year.
The founder and chief executive, Alyssa Ravasio, said they were also seeing lots of people who have never camped before. “It’s really exciting for us to see so many people decide they want to get outside. I think it’s a big moment for our culture. Very transformative.”
Glamping Hub, which specialises in “luxury” camping accommodation, saw “record-setting months” in May, June and July, and 100% growth in many areas.
Ruben Martinez, the co-founder of the site and of the American Glamping Association, said they are seeing “huge spikes” in people looking for weekend breaks from cities.
“It’s something that is very obvious and very palpable, the amount of demand that’s there.”
Mike Gast, vice-president of communications at Kampgrounds of America (KOA), said:
“Everybody wants to get outside … they’re pretty much racing to get out there. We’ve had several campgrounds that have been filled to the max.”
About 20% of their campers this year are first timers – which he predicts will lead to increased numbers next year. “Camping is just a really low barrier-to-entry activity. If you’ve got a $40 tent from Walmart you’re in business.”
He added: “If you can’t cruise, if you’re not comfortable flying, maybe this isn’t the year for a trip to Vegas. So what are we going to do? We’re going to give camping a go.”
David Basler, vice-president of membership and marketing of ARVC, said it’s set to be “the summer of the RV”.
“We are hearing from many of our members that this summer is shaping up to be the best in recent years,” he said.
Cruise America, which rents and sells RVs, said domestic business is “booming”, with particular growth among families and 21- to 29-year-olds.
Randall Smalley II, assistant vice-president of global marketing, said:
“Summer camps are shut down for children, so parents are cooped up and losing their minds, so to speak, and they just want to get outside.”
RVshare, which connects RV owners with those looking to rent, said business is “three times the rate of last year” but that people are leaving it until last minute to book.
Danielle Ali, 32, a social media manager from Austin, Texas, usually prefers holidays with “room service and housekeeping”. But at the end of May, she went on a five-day RV holiday on the Gulf coast with her husband Kyle, 34, a recruiting lead at a tech company, and their children Sadie, six, and Hank, three, and their dogs Scooby and Pickles.
“The silver lining for us with the pandemic is it’s made us be a little bit more open-minded and creative.”
She added: “We looked at Airbnbs, rental houses and stuff. But there’s still so much that’s not in your control in terms of where the location is or what you might need and so it felt like [with an RV] we had more control over being socially distanced.”
Middle school principal Shakira Rice, 47, and her husband Billy Rice, 48, a firefighter, hired an RV for the first time in June – prompted in part by coronavirus. They drove from their home city of Atlanta to Destin, Florida, where they spent three nights on the beach. Now they are such converts that they are already planning their next trip and considering buying their own RV.
At first she had concerns about what it might be like RVing as an African American family. “So we were pleasantly surprised when we met the couple, they were also another African American couple, we just happened to rent from. And so that opened up a conversation of some of the concerns I had.”
She added: “It was such a wonderful experience … Hopefully the lesson that all of us have learned through this pandemic is the power and the importance of quality time with the people you love. The RV life and the camping life, glamping life, it almost forces you.”
The National Park Service said 330 of its 419 sites are open, but that some facilities and services may be limited. It said it is monitoring facilities, including campsites, to ensure they “comply with current public health guidance” and is encouraging visitors to “recreate responsibly” and follow Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Covid-19 guidelines.