We’ve heard from a number of travelers who are wondering whether an RV trip in the American West this summer will allow them to socially distance while seeing some of the most beautiful parts of our country. So we called Dan Wulfman, founder of Tracks & Trails, to get some up-to-the-minute intel. Dan has spent more than 25 years creating soup-to-nuts RV trips that include the vehicle rental, campground reservations, driving directions with interesting waypoints, and reservations for horseback riding, whitewater rafting, and more. In fact, Dan was traveling by RV himself as recently as March, when his family’s spring-break plans were interrupted by a cascade of national-park closures.
Dan is not confident that the carefully crafted itineraries he’s known for will come off without a hitch this summer, so he has advised all of his travelers who had trips booked over the next three months, or who are now trying to plan something last-minute, that they should postpone for 2021. And he’s actually recommending that they start planning those trips now, as campgrounds are already filling up for next summer in places such as Yellowstone and Grand Teton. Here’s what else we learned that travelers should think about before hitting the road:
Many RV-friendly destinations are still off-limits.
While some parts of the country are starting to open up, stay-at-home restrictions are being lifted on a state-by-state—and sometimes county-by-county—basis; places that are open now may have to close if a second wave of COVID-19 hits. Many national parks are still closed, or have only reopened portions of their roads, trails, and services. And it’s unclear if social distancing is even possible at the iconic sites that so many RVers want to visit, from the boardwalk around Old Faithful in Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon’s South Rim viewpoints. Check to see if your intended destination is both open and welcoming visitors. (Last weekend I tried to fill up my bike’s water bottles at a campground less than 20 miles from my house in northern California and was told in no uncertain terms to go home—even though my county allows for outdoor recreation by foot and bicycle.)
You may have to sleep in a Walmart parking lot.
If you don’t yet have reservations—and even if you do—your options for where to bed down each night will be limited: Many national and state park campgrounds booked up long ago for the upcoming high season, and few travelers are bothering to cancel their reservations, since they’re so hard to get but relatively cheap. Even some of the parks that currently allow day visitors remain closed for overnight camping. There are organizations that help you park on private land, but those too will be subject to local restrictions, which may ebb and flow over the course of the summer. And while some private RV parks are technically open, their fire pits, pools, playgrounds, and restaurants remain closed—so there isn’t much to do once you get there.
It’s hard for a novice to plan a successful RV trip at the last minute.
A scrappy, experienced RVer can probably monitor which parks and campgrounds open up in the coming weeks, jump on whatever last-minute availability appears, rent a vehicle (options range from Cruise America‘s large fleet to platforms such as Outdoorsy and RVshare, which connect renters with private RV owners), and pull together a pretty good trip this summer. But newbies don’t know which RVs drive like an SUV and which feel more like a semi truck, and will be far less prepared if things go wrong (as is likely, given the current circumstances). Sure, you can “boondock”—parking on open land without water, electric, or sewer hookups—but what happens if your holding tank overflows?
Don’t expect luxury.
Are you now wondering what a “holding tank” is? That’s where an RV stores the wastewater from the sink and toilet, and those tanks need to be emptied every few days. It’s not a messy process—you simply hook up a hose to a campground’s dump station—but there’s no butler who will come do it for you. On an RV trip, you’re also responsible for the grocery shopping, the cooking, the cleaning, and of course the driving. This kind of trip is meant to be an adventure, not a day at the beach (unless you manage to find a campsite near a beach that’s open for sunbathing).
Activities that require anything but your own two feet may not be available.
Some of the companies that run the seasonal activities many travelers love to take part in out West—rafting, horseback riding, jet boating, canyoneering—are not staffing up this spring like they usually do, since many have not yet received word on when they’ll be able to resume operations. That means that, even if they do end up running trips in the coming months, they may have to devote their few remaining guides’ time to the outings that have already been reserved.
Despite all of these caveats, having a private sanctuary that only you and your family enter is an appealing option to some of us who are ravenous to travel. Just keep in mind that undertaking an RV trip this summer is going to require a generous dose of flexibility and a mindset that, whatever happens, you’ll simply be happy that you’re not still at home.