Recreational vehicle makers often boast how their RVs and trailers can feel just like home. Besides their cleverly packaged bathrooms and kitchenettes, when you park your rig at a campground you can find something else that will make you feel you never left home: neighbors.
Often lots of neighbors. Sometimes noisy ones. Just like at home.
That’s why a lot of campers these days are enjoying the seclusion of “boondocking,” or camping away from traditional campsites. And away from all those other campers.
“You drive around. You find yourself a spot, you don’t have any services of any sort,” said Amanda Watson who’s been living in a 1998 Safari motorhome with her husband for eight years. “That’s what I consider boondocking.”
RV’ing in general has become increasingly popular over the past few years. And that’s been especially the case recently, with the coronavirus keeping people away from shared lodgings. Now, even once-secluded spots are getting less secluded, especially if it’s near a cell-phone tower. Not having running water or sewer access is one thing, but apparently no one wants to be away from the Internet.
“We have discovered, particularly in the Southwest where the land is really wide open and the cell signal travels far, that we have gotten a good cell signal in some really remote places,” Watson said.
It’s a trend that has spawned numerous small startup companies, like Opus, Polydrops and EarthRoamer, to make trailers and recreational vehicles designed for venturing far from paved – or even unpaved – roads. Traditional RV companies, like Winnebago and Airstream, have also taken notice and are now turning out trailers and camping rigs with bigger, knobbier tires and more ground clearance to clamber over rocks and ruts.
Some homeowners rent out campsites that are often just easily accessible spots on their private land. But if you want to get to places that are more remote and away from drivable asphalt or gravel roads, you’ll want a rig designed for that.
Compact size is also important. You don’t want something that’s difficult to maneuver around boulders or between trees on the way to your secluded campsite.
About three years ago, California architecture student Kyunghyun Lew set out to design a camping trailer light enough to tow behind his wife’s Mazda3 or almost any SUV. He designed the Polydrop trailer, now available in four different styles from about $14,000 to $20,000, all of which resemble a space pod from a 1970’s science fiction movie. With air conditioning and heating, it offers a comfortable place to sleep. A fold out kitchenette is also available and Lew says he is also working on a built-in toilet. For now, campers will have to improvise.
Another company, Opus – founded in the United Kingdom but with its US headquarters in Pittsburg, California – offers rugged folding camping trailers. Advertised as “Tough Luxury,” most Opus models are designed as, essentially, a tent in low-profile metal box riding on knobby tires.
They come in various sizes, some with just enough room for two to sleep or big enough for four or six. Prices start at about $20,000. The tents inflate – they have an inflatable frame – in a couple of minutes, according to the company. The trailers have slide out stoves for cooking and also offer refrigerators and freezers. They also have water tanks that hold enough clean water to last several days.
Opus offers a hybrid model, too. For a starting price of $47,500, it’s more like a traditional metal-bodied camping trailer with a cloth-walled extension that unfolds from the roof for extra space.
Meanwhile, traditional RV companies have responded to the growing popularity of boondocking with their own models. Airstream recently introduced the Basecamp 20X. Costing nearly $50,000, it is a more rugged version of the company’s futuristic looking compact aluminum trailer. It joins the smaller Basecamp 16X, which costs a little over $40,000.
These versions have greater ground clearance, more rugged tires and a redesigned back end that allows them to be towed up steep inclines without scraping the ground. There’s also more protection on the windows to keep them from being broken by tree branches.
These trailers allow people to get further into the woods and those pretty lakeside spots.
“It’s more like what we put in our brochures,” said Airstream CEO Bob Wheeler.
Winnebago, meanwhile, recently unveiled the Revel, a new off-road-oriented version of a traditional Winnebago motor home. With prices starting at about $175,000, it has all-wheel drive and more ground clearance and is also relatively compact for easier maneuvering.
As they showed off prototypes of the Revel, Winnebago designers realized they were dealing with a different sort of customer. Usually people want to know how big of a TV they could fit in an RV.
“We were hearing things like ‘Can I leave the TV out? Do we have to have a TV?,” said Chris Bienert, product manager at Winnebago.
What customers really wanted was to leave out as much as possible to make room for more of their gear.
For those who want to go even farther afield, there’s EarthRoamer. This Dacono, Colorado-based company modifies Ford Super Duty trucks, turning them into massive go-anywhere camping rigs that look like they just drove back from the apocalypse.
This level of “go anywhere” does not come cheaply. Prices for EarthRoamer’s smallest truck – which is still pretty huge – start at $590,000. With options, the average price approaches $700,000. Prices for the larger model – definitely huge – start at $1.7 million.
These custom-built trucks come with carbon fiber camper bodies and have huge lithium batteries and solar arrays so they can stay off the grid for weeks at a time. They also have very high ground clearances – the smaller truck rides more than a foot off the ground – for getting over uneven terrain and strong diesel engines.
One company you’d think would be really unhappy with this whole boondocking trend would be Kampgrounds of America. KOA rents out a whole lot of those campsites with their convenient amenities.
Not so, said Whitney Scott, vice president of marketing for KOA, because, at some point boondockers will have to come out of the forest. Sooner or later, she said, they’ll want to empty their sewage tanks and do some laundry.
Also, it’s just nice to take a break from totally roughing it.
“Sometimes that little store down the road with a chocolate bar can be a great thing to have,” she said.