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Camping gone wild: Surge keeps going in RVs and camping during the pandemic

The surge in RV sales and an increase in camping keep building during the pandemic.

Even mid-week, there were plenty of campers utilizing Point Grove Campground at the confluence of the Iroquois and Kankakee rivers in Aroma Park. Credit: Dale Bowman
Even mid-week, there were plenty of campers utilizing Point Grove Campground at the confluence of the Iroquois and Kankakee rivers in Aroma Park.
Dale Bowman

There’s a campground, rather peculiarly, in downtown Gibson City in Ford County along Route 9. We pass it several times a year on our way to the whimsical Harvest Moon Twin Drive-In.

The campground has been busy. One night my wife and our daughter thought it was packed to capacity.

This year, this 2020, is different.

Something is happening with people, camping and RVs during the pandemic. Part is related to schooling and working remotely, part to staycations and part to safety.

The Point Grove Campground, at the confluence of the Iroquois and Kankakee rivers in Aroma Park, is far busier than usual.

“We usually have a couple of electric sites open here or there but this year every electric site was taken from as soon as we opened through the Labor Day holiday,” emailed Vicki Winn, one of the hosts. “Our primitive sites were also pretty full. Lots of campers elected to use those sites and run generators for their campers. Lots more tent campers, too.”

Whether the impacts are lasting or short-term will not be known until after the pandemic.

“A dealer survey released this month suggests retail growth in the mid-thirties percent range in August—similar to July 2020,” emailed Phil Ingrassia, president of National RV Dealers Association (RVDA). “Dealer inventories are down to 20 to 30 percent of where they usually are at this time.”

That means units are flying off the lots.

As to rentals, he replied, “Rental agencies are reporting big increases – but we don’t have good data on that because it’s hard to measure on a month-to-month basis.”

The RV Industry Association reported “the highest July shipment numbers in four decades” on total RV shipments of 43,035 units, up 53.5 percent from 28,044 in July 2019. Towable RVs totaled 39,160 units for the month, up 56.6 percent from last July.

Considering the trends during the pandemic, expectations for RVs (these were at the Boat Show in January) should be high if outdoor shows are allowed to be held. Credit: Dale Bowman
Considering the trends during the pandemic, expectations for RVs (these were at the Boat Show in January) should be high if outdoor shows are allowed to be held.
Dale Bowman

At the beginning of September, Ken Wilson, long-time fishing guide on Lake Shelbyville, said, “You see all kinds of new campers. Millennials are buying Class Cs [motorhomes] and they are homeschooling out of the RV. They can do their lessons in the campers while the parents work remotely.”

He said it’s possible to make a circuit of campgrounds around Rend Lake, Lake Shelbyville and Carlyle Lake.

Working and good Wi-Fi is key.

That may explain why Rachel Torbert, deputy director for the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, emailed, “Our staff aren’t aware of more people working/remote learning while camping.”

I love our state parks, but Wi-Fi accessibility at many is limited or non-existent. I say that as somebody who has camped and worked remotely for many years.

“The advantage of staying at a private campground, most already have excellent Wi-Fi,” said David Basler, RVDA vice president.

Walter Freeman is executive director of the Illinois Campground Association. He and his wife Karen own the Benton KOA.

“Campgrounds are seeing more kids and people requesting the Wi-Fi,” Freeman said. “There has always been people working remotely. But our numbers are up and our long-term numbers are up.”

He thinks those renting month-to-month are probably up 50 percent.

“We are hearing from all parts of the country that they are seeing an influx of people,” Basler said. “[Most of] our campgrounds close between Labor Day and the first of November, but many of them are thinking of extending their [season].”

Freeman pointed out the appeal of the safety of RV travel, social distancing inherent in camping and people camping don’t need to rely on public facilities.

“The other thing is nobody wants to be in a plane,” Freeman said. “The safe way to travel is in an RV, then you’re not in a hotel room. People would rather travel that way and they can bring children.

“We’re seeing more on staycations, we’re seeing a lot more of that.”

Freeman’s KOA is open year-round, but he said many seasonal parks in Illinois are extending their season. In part that is to make up for spring restrictions, but also because of demand.

When asked what he would suggest for the new RV campers, Freeman said, “Adjust your expectations. You are camping, you are not in the comfort of your home. Make sure you have a campground with Wi-Fi, working Wi-Fi, and the amenities you need. If the kids are with you, the Wi-Fi is going to be important.

“No. 1, just enjoy it while you can.”