With her husband in tow, Danielle Dickinson used to enjoy roughin’-it camping escapades. “But as we’ve gotten older, sleeping on the floor of a tent is not as comfortable,” the 37-year-old says. Still, when cities started buckling down for the pandemic in 2020, the Stillwater resident’s work as a hairdresser and insurance agent slowed, and she soon began to crave an inexpensive return to the unfettered outdoors.
So, she started researching recreational vehicles (RVs). Nice idea, but they looked pricey, so owning one would not be the goal. Eventually, she stumbled upon Minneapolis-based Voyager Campervans, a company that refurbishes light commercial vehicles as mini, self-contained, mobile hotel rooms. The seasonal rates for a three-day rental hover around $115-$150.
Soon, Dickinson and her husband were on the road to Two Harbors. They reached Burlington Bay campground and opened the back of their campervan for straight-on views of Lake Superior’s rocky shore. In the morning, as Dickinson slept on the van’s convertible bed, her husband made coffee and breakfast on a pull-out cooktop.
“I would definitely say the van is more like glamping,” she says. “You have an actual mattress that you’re sleeping on, it’s more cushiony, you have the four walls that are waterproof—and we did have some rain on our last trip.”
It also emerged as a relatively COVID-safe way to travel. In fact, as public-transportation services braced for epic downturns in the spring of 2020, RVshare, a nationwide RV rental service, reported a surge in bookings by 650% within about a month. And in April of 2021, the company reported an almost 850% spike.
Thus, RV providers have stood to profit. Winnebago, an industry leader for motorhomes and travel trailers, reported a fourth-quarter revenue bump of almost 40% in 2020, in part citing “record consumer interest.”
The hook feels obvious: Anyone looking to avoid densely populated urban areas can squeeze their party into an amenity-stocked, 30-foot vessel and launch into America’s wilds. It’s also an evergreen option with fresh millennial appeal: An RV can turn a vacation into a roguishly chic lifestyle, for days or weeks.
Or, if you’re like 51-year-old Jason Sprayberry, founder of Minnesota-based RV rental business RVThereYet.com and owner of the trailer-focused CamptasticRentals.com, it’s an excuse to hole up on the Baja coast. When I speak by phone with Sprayberry during the winter of 2020, he has been roving Mexico for two months and is stationed at an RV park.
“RVing became the alternative to the Disney vacation or flying anywhere,” he says. “You didn’t have to use public restrooms, you had your own showers and bed, refrigerator, and could go anywhere you want.” Working arrangements expanded, too. “Everyone’s having to work from home, so as long as you can get an internet connection, you can work from anywhere.”
In 2020, Sprayberry says, about 25-30% of his customers intended to work on the road, compared to practically none the years prior. (Most use hotspot connections, he notes, and many RV parks advertise free WiFi.) Among the 50 or so units he counts at the Baja park, he guesses 60% are “digital nomads”—remote workers unanchored yet plugged in. (The other 40%, he adds, are probably retirees.)
RVThereYet.com has roughly 50 family-owned units, which rent out for about $150-$300 a night—comparable to many hotel rates. One popular model, the Mercedes Sprinter, drives like a minivan, but behind the front two bucket seats you’ll find a sink, a stovetop, counter space, couches, a toilet-shower combo, and a queen-size mattress. An elite, tech-integrated version of the Sprinter, called the “Luxury Mobile Office Sprinter Van,” debuted last year—a flagship of the Indiana-based Midwest Automotive Designs rental service, aimed at execs on the go.
Sprayberry says 80% of his customers were first-time RVers in 2020. But business was booming well ahead of that. What started as a move to rent out his personal “adventure camper”—which he had deployed for mountain biking, kayaking, and fly fishing—has become a high-trending enterprise: He kicked off RVThereYet.com in 2018 and says he has seen year-over-year growth of 400%. It’s a no-strings-attached deal, he explains. “Instead of buying your own RV, having the insurance, the maintenance, the storage, all that stuff … you can just go get one for whatever amount of time you want, and then you’re done.”
He also credits the rise of such Airbnb-like websites as HipCamp.com and FreeCampsites.net. They have eased access to off-the-grid, drop-in camping—what regulars call “boondocking.” Also, within the past five years, millennials have entered the market and fueled an interest in smaller, more maneuverable campervans, as seen in the “#vanlife” phenomenon on social media. In Sprayberry’s words, it’s like putting wheels on the “tiny home” movement of the mid-2010s, which sold extreme downsizing as an energy- and cost-effective virtue. “As soon as you type in ‘#vanlife’—dude, on Instagram, or even Pinterest, or Google, or just anything, there are a whole bunch of people who are just making their living blogging about this lifestyle,” he says.
As seen on Instagram, the campervan isn’t just the “Class B” of RVs; it’s the bohemian class, usually no larger than a FedEx truck. A popular way to photograph the interior is from the front, with the back doors thrown open, to frame a parcel of splendorous nature—a beach, a forest, an ocean sunset—within the personalized confines of the van. “There’s a whole slew of people who have figured out how to leverage these RVs—that are really just vans converted to RVs—to live this life of freedom,” Sprayberry says.
Grady Linder helped “build out” his first campervan in 2017. Back then, Linder worked for a Minneapolis coffee brand and was roaming the country on a marketing campaign. “It took me back to the ways we traveled as a kid, with my family of seven and our dog,” Linder, who is now 36, recalls. “We’d always take road trips. It’s really the only cost-effective way to travel with that many people.”
Soon, he was scrolling through online campervan rentals in Australia and New Zealand. “I thought, ‘This should exist in the U.S.,’” he says. “There’s so many cool things to see, both in Minnesota, but also the national parks, and the vast differences of climates and geography.”
Linder’s company, Voyager Campervans, now has about 25 vans in service, covering Minneapolis; Austin, Texas; Nashville, Tennessee; and Phoenix, Arizona. A Voyager van sleeps two on a pull-out bed, with modular kitchen amenities. (New vans will sleep four, he says.) A solar panel and auxiliary battery keep things running when the engine isn’t. Whether you’re thinking cheaply or environmentally, the gas mileage beats out Winnebago-style “Class A” 30-footers. “With a traditional RV, you’re getting 8 miles per gallon,” he notes (although “Class A” mileage can reportedly notch up to 13 miles per gallon). “Whereas, with our campervans, you’re getting 28 miles per gallon on the highway.”
Sprayberry says his medium-size “Class C” rentals attract families itching for week-long getaways, many with parents who need to work on the road. While Linder’s average customer is in her mid- to late-30s—typically, an urban millennial couple, “a lot of dogs”—customers range from their early 20s up into their 80s.
For at least one Voyager customer, a campervan would have been ideal years ago when she more regularly attended music festivals. “It would help with noise, it would help comfort-wise,” Danielle Dickinson says. Someday, when schedules align, she wants to try it out at the Hinterland Music Festival in Iowa. (The fest is August 6-8 in 2021.) “It’s definitely in the cards,” she says. “It would be the perfect place to test it out.”