The joy of the campervan

Whether it’s a cute Winnebago or an ultra-luxe “apartment” on wheels – the FT’s North American correspondent Patti Waldmeir adores an RV. She tells of her life on the road

Get your motor running… as many as 10.3m American households own a recreational vehicle
Get your motor running… as many as 10.3m American households own a recreational vehicle | Image: Getty Images

I love campervans. There’s a hole in my life that can only be filled by loading sheets and blankets, hiking boots and cooking pots, dogs and firewood into a “recreational vehicle” (or RV, as we Americans call them) and driving straight to the nearest national park. A love of the RV lifestyle got a grip on my soul early on. It was the 1960s. My mother could never be too far from a hairdresser – and you couldn’t have hair like Jackie Kennedy bedding down in a tent. So we’d all pile instead into a rental Winnebago, with the avocado-toned appliances and the mustard-gold shag of the day, and head for the lakes and rivers and woods and rapids of the Michigan of my birth.

That was 50-odd years ago, but even then, caravan camping was nothing new in the US: RVs have been plying American roads for as long as there have been cars. Today, the US RV Industry Association estimates that as many as 10.3 million American households own a recreational vehicle. 

My ideal form of travel usually involves a horse. At least a day’s journey from civilisation. And a big dose of either altitude or wild animals. But when I finally got the babies I had always wanted (I have two adopted daughters, now 18 and 20), I knew they wouldn’t put up with my favourite holiday (living in a tent with Tibetan yak herders at 12,000ft in central China). So I sought instead to recreate the idyll of my Michigan childhood by driving them around the world in an RV. We hit the Australian Gold Coast and the slopes of New Zealand’s Mount Cook by RV; toured the Dingle Peninsula and the Game of Thrones film sets of Ireland and Northern Ireland; we drove across Death Valley, around the Grand Canyon and down the avenues of Las Vegas in a 25ft campervan. I even tested out a few RV parks in China. 

In 2013, Patty Waldmeir and her two daughters toured the world in a UV
In 2013, Patty Waldmeir and her two daughters toured the world in a UV | Image: Patty Waldmeir

When they were pre-teens, my girls and I bonded in our shared vehicle: lock two tweens in a vehicle for a fortnight, with no WiFi and scarcely room to turn around, and it’s amazing how they start talking. It wasn’t always all deep and meaningful communication, but at least it wasn’t silence. I bribed them by stopping every few days in the car park of a McDonald’s – in Brisbane or Queenstown or Galway or Los Angeles – to poach the WiFi. I even gave in to the elder child’s lifelong obsession with the boy band One Direction, circling the RV outside the band’s concerts in Las Vegas one year so she could get an autograph, and even chasing the One Direction merchandise bus up the Gold Coast in the RV so she could buy some swag.

So when the youngest recently left home for university, it seemed natural to do my grieving in an RV. As soon as she’d gone, I booked a 19ft rental campervan and set off for the most remote part of the US that is within a day’s drive of my home in Chicago: the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. It’s that bit wedged between Canada, Wisconsin and Lake Superior, which is all green on Google Maps – all green because it is all forest, with only a glancing acquaintance with pale-grey areas like towns. 

I dubbed it my “empty-nester tour”. Those babies I had once pined for had now launched into the world as adults. I had recently begun working part-time for the Financial Times after nearly 40 years of round-the-clock service. And I had just lost my closest sibling. I wanted to lick my wounds, but also to celebrate this new phase of my journey – not to mention revelling in just being alive.

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When it comes to renting or buying an RV, there’s a huge variation in the size and luxury of what’s available. You can head out in something the size of a Greyhound bus, which comes complete with a marble-lined, open-plan kitchen/sitting room, widescreen TVs and king-size bed. A little bit of me craves one of these, even if I would never be able to drive it. For my empty-nester tour, I settled for something more bijou: a 19ft RV with a double bed above the cab, for $70 a day plus mileage. The rental agent assured me it would not be much harder to drive than a pick-up truck – not knowing that our family car is a Honda Subcompact, and the idea of driving a pick-up truck terrifies me. 

My eldest daughter Grace, 20, who had been our RV engineer-in-chief since she was 12, made it very clear she thought I could not handle a campervan without her, with its tangle of sewage drainage pipes, apertures to fill with water, petrol and cooking gas, and blocks to park on to level the vehicle. Initially, it looked like she might be right. I set off during a ferocious Chicago rush hour, lurching blindly across seven lanes of traffic, and cut the turn too wide: all the RV’s drawers fell open, the dogs slid across the van and tubs of soup and cottage cheese spilled from the fridge, splattering onto the kitchen floor. I couldn’t stop to clean up – I was marooned in the middle of a motorway – but the dogs went straight onto kitchen-patrol duty. By the time we arrived at our first campsite, the floor was clean and the dogs didn’t need dinner. 

Then I faced the challenge of how to park the vehicle – without Grace to guide me between tree trunks – under low-hanging branches and just close enough to Lake Superior to avoid tumbling off the sand dune and into the water. My rental RV had no reversing camera, no rearview mirror and only limited visibility from side mirrors. So I chickened out and pulled in headfirst on that first night – which certainly violates the norms, if not the actual rules of RV camping.

Patty’s daughters, pictured camping near the Grand Canyon
Patty’s daughters, pictured camping near the Grand Canyon | Image: Patty Waldmeir

In the morning, I faced a further problem: I couldn’t figure out how to back up, but worse, I couldn’t even release the handbrake. Eventually, an older gentleman in pyjama bottoms wandered along on his way to the long-drop and got me out of my predicament (who knew that the button marked “release” on the left below the dashboard was what I needed?).

The incident reminded me of a time when, on our family RV tour of Dingle, I’d failed to engage the handbrake, leaving my then 16-year-old in the vehicle while her sister and I went off to book a campsite. We came back to find the caravan slowly rolling away – with her in it. We leapt in front just in time to avert a collision with a parked vehicle. She has not forgiven us.

The trip was also a reminder of the incredible community you find among other campers: there’s no friendlier crowd on earth than campervan enthusiasts, who will fall over themselves to help you out. And if I have trouble parking my RV, which I often do, I’m not too proud to let someone else just do it. That’s how I met Tom Reeser, who was in the middle of a 13,000-mile journey across the US in his caravan. I couldn’t manoeuvre into an embarrassingly large parking spot at a waterfall in the Upper Peninsula, so he and his wife talked me through it, dictating every turn of the wheel until I was parked.

Patty Waldmeir beside a Thor Tuscany in Elkhart, Indiana, where 80 per cent of the camper vans made in the US are produced
Patty Waldmeir beside a Thor Tuscany in Elkhart, Indiana, where 80 per cent of the camper vans made in the US are produced | Image: Patty Waldmeir

Why would they want to spend nearly six months in a 25ft box, touring the US from top to bottom and east to west? He says they love to travel, but don’t want to sleep in a different bed every night: “We didn’t want to carry suitcases in and out of hotel rooms, sleep in strange beds, have strange pillows, and go out to eat every night.” Eloise Hoyt, owner of a pop-up A-frame trailer that she describes as “the smallest camper you can possibly have”, says she loves RV camping primarily because it allows her to maximise her time in nature: “If we stayed in motels, we would spend essentially 12 hours in the motel, plus all the time you spend in restaurants. In the RV you’re basically outside all the time – the whole vacation we’re outside in nature.”

I endorse all that but go one better: during my recent trip, I found campsites so close to Lake Superior that I could hardly sleep for the crashing of the waves. That’s worth any amount of poop-dumping, grey-water monitoring, and sleeping above the cab in a bed so close to the ceiling that I bang my head every time I wake up. Campervans are as close to nature as you can get – without actually getting wet when it rains.

So now, with the kids gone, I’m considering getting my own RV as a consolation prize. After years of driving by camper dealerships without stopping, I’ve started touring the lots to find just the right RV for me, the dogs and occasional daughters.

Patty’s daughters pictured on holiday in Ireland in 2018
Patty’s daughters pictured on holiday in Ireland in 2018 | Image: Patty Waldmeir

In November, I even made a pilgrimage to the self-proclaimed RV capital of the world, Elkhart, Indiana, which says it produces 80 per cent of the campers made in the US. My first stop was a visit to the RV of my dreams: the Furrion Elysium, a concept vehicle that is nicer than my flat at home and comes with its own gas fireplace, wine rack, induction cooktop – and a helicopter and hot tub on the roof (the helicopter retracts into the body of the RV for travel).

I looked around the Thor Tuscany – list price $460,000-$478,000 – which boasts a fireplace and twin recliners (though it omits the personal helicopter). But teardrop and pop-up mini-trailers, which can be had for under $10,000, are probably more my style. And I can’t see why I’d need a helicopter if I already had a 40ft RV.

These days, Elkhart and the industry are going through a rough patch. RV sales have been booming for several years, during which the RV craze spread from people my age to millennials, who are now estimated to make up around 40 per cent of RV camper owners. But thanks, in part, to Donald Trump’s tariffs, which have increased the cost of imported components, wholesale RV shipments are forecast to fall by 17 per cent this year to 401,000, down from a high of 504,000 in 2017, according to the RV Industry Association.

“Lock two tweens in a vehicle for a fortnight with no WiFi, and it’s amazing how they start talking”
“Lock two tweens in a vehicle for a fortnight with no WiFi, and it’s amazing how they start talking” | Image: Patty Waldmeir

Since a drop in RV shipments has been an early indicator of past recessions, economists are asking whether the humble campervan will be a canary in the coal mine this time too. And, of course, the fuel consumption of even the smallest self-drive RV is shockingly high – the rental camper I took to the Upper Peninsula averaged 10 miles per gallon of petrol. Someday, even America’s RV boom is likely to run up against a green backlash.

But RVs have been part of my life for as long as I can remember. I can imagine my long-dead mother in one like it was yesterday. From bonding with pre‑teens to grieving with dogs, RVs have been there for me, and I envisage an even bigger role for campers in my future. I can’t imagine a better way to spend my dotage than in a campervan on the shores of Lake Superior, with or without helicopter, with or without gas fireplace – and with or without the ability to park it without assistance.

This story was originally posted on 6 December 2019.

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