Although leisure traveling has come to a standstill during the COVID-19 pandemic, people are still traveling within the country for work, family emergencies, and other urgent matters. To us and many of those essential travelers, RVing remains (without a doubt) one of the safest ways to travel in the United States during the pandemic, which explains the increased demand for and sales or rentals of recreational vehicles such as motorhomes or travel trailers. A couple we know bought a travel trailer in order to visit safely with family, in another state, who were healing from COVID. We’ve heard of families renting RVs in order to travel across state lines to attend COVID-related funerals because they felt it was safer to RV than to fly and safer to stay overnight in an RV than in a hotel.
When the pandemic first hit, campgrounds were closing or limiting occupancy to avoid gathering crowds. Now months later, campgrounds, national, state, and local parks, and hiking trails are all open again and becoming popular places for individuals and families to safely distance while lessening stressors of everyday and quarantine life and increasing vitamin D intake (both of which probably boost their immunity and decrease likelihood of contracting COVID). I remember when national parks closed at the beginning of COVID in early April 2020. We were just leaving the Capitol Reef Fruita Campground in southeastern UT. Capitol Reef, and other national parks in the area, later re-opened in May with restrictions to keep visitors and park staff safer. We’re really glad people are now traveling for leisure and doing it as safely as they can. Before COVID, close family friends had planned to fly to Maine and camp at Arcadia National Park during summer 2020. They wanted to maintain some semblance of normalcy for their family during the pandemic so instead of canceling altogether, they rented an RV from Maryland and drove directly to Maine. They tested negative for COVID just before heading out, avoided public bathrooms and heavily congested areas along the way, stayed physically distant from other campers, and still got to enjoy the sights and hikes of Arcadia National Park before heading home once school started. Before traveling to other states, research their restrictions and guidelines. You may have to test negative for COVID three days before state entry or quarantine for 14 days once you are there. Campgrounds may have their own guidelines or restrict common facility usage. Though these guidelines may not be strictly enforced, you should still know what you are getting into, just in case.
As before COVID, booking campgrounds is relatively easy. When planning to camp at a national park, we usually book through recreation.gov. At state and local campgrounds, we search for their websites and go through their online booking system. Sometimes there is a booking fee. You can get around the fee if you show up in person using the first come, first serve (FCFS) option but you risk not getting a spot if others show up and select the FCFS spots before you do. We avoid the FCFS system at popular parks during holiday weekends. You may get lucky with a spot but these spots are usually taken by campers who stayed the night before or who show up extra early (sometimes dawn) to claim a spot. If possible, check out the campground maps especially if you have particular preferences such as being near water spigots, the bathrooms, or empty fields/beach/hiking paths. Prior to booking, you may want to check out a particular campsite’s photos and specifications. We look out for driveway length and levelness. If sites don’t have hookups, we try to get a site that doesn’t have a lot of overhanging trees so our solar panels can charge without hindrance during the day. If you are worried about contamination from commonly used spaces, having an RV makes it easy to avoid those spaces like bathhouses, washrooms, and such. However, we have used public bathhouses on occasion and have to admit that they are cleaner now than they were before. Some are cleaned regularly multiple times a day on a schedule (for example, every two hours). Others are cleaned thoroughly once a day usually mid-day (12-2pm or 2-4pm). Bring your own cleaning supplies if you want to do some extra cleaning before you use the facilities. Wearing a mask in the bathhouses is a must except when showering.
For the most part, campsites are fairly distant from each other. We have stayed at sites near the bathhouses and hiking paths (sometimes busier because of these conveniences). Other campers tend to walk on the walkway respectfully keeping their distance from our campsite. Surprisingly, we still manage to make friends and chat with our camp neighbors from a safe distance. Often folks are there for the same reason we are, which is to get away and enjoy nature for a short time in their RVs or tents. There are some campgrounds where sites are closer together. We’ve experienced this at Kampgrounds of America (or KOAs) where our awning ends where the next campsite starts. We haven’t stayed at any during the pandemic but hope they are spacing out campers so they’re not on top of each other in the campground. If this is something you’re not comfortable with, you may want to call the campground office to ask about spacing and distance. With more people wanting to avoid air travel, nearby camping has become a great option for vacations. Recently, we’ve heard of camping horror stories of families and groups who are “partying” at campsites until the wee hours of the night. When the partying becomes too disruptive or goes on past posted quiet times (usually 10pm), other campers have the right to report to the camp hosts or park staff. Groups may be asked to leave even if it is in the middle of the night. There is nothing inherently wrong with celebrating late into the night, if this is something you intend to do, you may want to select a more remote and secluded campground that is ok with this. Other campers will thank you in advance for not disturbing their peace and quiet.
Hiking in popular areas can be a challenge. Sometimes there are newish hikers who may not know the etiquette of hiking. And then there are others who don’t always wear a mask. We try to be as safe as possible considering all of the possible scenarios we can come across during hikes. We always hike in a small group of four. We form a single line if there are others around so we don’t take up the whole path. This was a huge issue when we would go on walks and groups of people would rudely take up the whole path. Once, Chris had to let a group of four women know they shouldn’t be taking up the whole path. It wasn’t a nice confrontation. Going up, we will always let other faster hikers pass us as soon as we safely can. Going down, we yield to folks going up and move to the far side of the path if it’s safe to do so. If we are alone, we’ll take our masks off so we can breathe properly. If the paths are busy, we keep our masks on. When passing other slower hikers, we always move to the far side of the path and keep our masks on. These rules have worked for us so far. There are probably rules that work for other families. Please share them with us so we’re better informed! Park staff are getting savvy about safer hiking practices as well. On a weekend hike in the Great Falls, MD area, the staff made the trail one-way so we didn’t have to worry about oncoming foot traffic. There were still a couple of people not heeding the one-way traffic signage but maybe they had a legitimate reason. The couple of people we ran into sure beat the dozens of people we would normally encounter going the opposite way on any other given day. For us, hiking and biking remain great ways to connect with people during the pandemic. We have done playdates with our kids and their friends to go bike riding. It gives them something safe to do outdoors while maintaining physical distance.
Structured activities during RV outings are a hit or miss so plan ahead. For example, when traveling to Assateague, we had wanted to stop by the Harriet Tubman Museum. Unfortunately, it has been closed during the pandemic. Similarly, we wanted to visit George Washington’s birthplace in Virginia. The park is open but the facilities were closed. For crowd control, many activities are now available by reservation or appointment only, so you would need to plan for these in advance. During Columbus Day weekend, we planned a Saturday morning hike to Sugarloaf Mountain. When we got there, we couldn’t even drive up the mountain since the parking lot was full. All of the hundred+ parking spots were taken. Our plan B was to enjoy the open outdoor seating at the nearby winery which we found out, when we arrived, was by reservation only. Luckily for us, someone canceled and we got their table. Now we know we should call places in advance and reserve if necessary.
The pandemic put an end to our year-long RV excursion in May 2020 when we headed back from the west coast to MD. Thankfully, it didn’t end RVing for us permanently. Since we’ve been home, we’ve RVed to visit family in other states and parked (and slept) on their driveways for 2-3 weeks before heading out to our next destination or home. We’ve enjoyed several 3-4 day-trips to MD’s shores and VA’s Blue Ridge Mountains. RVing during the pandemic has been a huge treat for us. We’re able to get out of our house for an immersion in nature which always boosts our mood, clears our mind, and gets us moving (either hiking or biking). For all of these reasons, RVing has done wonders for our mental and physical health during the pandemic. If you’re considering RVing, try it out by renting a small motorhome or travel trailer first on outdoorsy.com or cruiseamerica.com (we did this twice before we bought our own travel trailer and upgraded to a motorhome) and see if it’s a viable travel option for you. We would recommend joining facebook groups for like-minded campers and motorhome owners for tips, resources, and support. You may end up making friends for life, like we did on our RV adventures.