Rentable Camper Vans and RVs Pick Up New Fans in the Pandemic

Their usual international clients can’t get here, but rental companies are seeing plenty of interest from locals.

By Margaret Seiler August 13, 2020

This Winnebago, seen here near the Alvord Desert, was local attorney Michele Stone’s mobile office for a week.

“I can do my job from anywhere, as long as I have a couple of screens and internet connectivity,” says Michele Stone, a Portland attorney who was already working remotely before the pandemic started, as general counsel for a group of senior living communities. When a trip to Tanzania with her teenage son was canceled by the coronavirus and her usual work-from-home days were suddenly complicated by remote learning schedules, she started planning a solo getaway to both get some work done without interruptions and unplug and unwind—without worrying about potentially contracting or spreading the novel coronavirus.

The solution, which 47-year-old Stone says would have totally horrified her 20-year-old self? An RV.

“I needed to get away, and I needed to feel safe, not only for virus issues but as a single woman traveling alone, and I wanted to be able to change my mind,” Stone says. “Having a bathroom was important to me because I wanted to be really, really mobile.”

The roads weren’t entirely clear for Stone on her Eastern Oregon RV trip.

She picked up a 33-foot 2021 Winnebago on a Monday at Happy Campers RV in Bend, (which saved on the time, mileage, and gas) and headed east, having made a reservation for her first night at the Steens Mountain Wilderness Resort near Frenchglen. As a first-time RVer, Stone got a mini-lesson in the Happy Campers parking lot and was careful to not go down any roads where she didn’t know she’d be able to turn around. She brought a web booster and had confirmed she’d have internet access, so she never missed her regular 7 a.m. work calls or other meetings. During one conference call, she was petting goats in Denio, Nevada. She had another meeting partway up an old mining track on the Pike Creek Canyon trail above the Alvord Desert. When work was done, she had music, wine, her own meals, candles, tequila, her two cats, and plenty of hot springs to explore before the RV was due back on Friday.

Stone isn’t the only Oregonian trying out a self-contained traveling home for the first time.

“We’re running at 100 percent capacity right now,” says Steve Knepper, president of Cruise America’s independent Mt Scott Motors location on SE 82nd Avenue. “Fifty percent of our business is usually international customers, and right now we have zero. But the difference has been taken up with local customers.”

Most summers, Knepper says, his Cruise America location’s 50 to 60 motor homes are rented out by travelers from Germany, the Netherlands, France—those civilized places where month-plus vacations are the norm. Troutdale-based Roamerica, which rents camper vans stocked with gear, also generally relies on a nonlocal clientele. In a normal year, says cofounder Gretchen Bayless, Roamerica picks up international and out-of-state travelers at PDX all summer and sends them off to explore Oregon’s exotic-to-them natural wonders.

The vans, mostly Ford Transits and either two-wheel or four-wheel drive, come with sheets, pillows (but bring your own because they’re small, my 11-year-old advises after we tried out a van for a night in the Mount Hood National Forest), Rumpl blankets, camp chairs, a roll-up table, headlamps, a propane stove, basic kitchen gear, a French press, complimentary Brew Dr. Kombucha cans, and Intent coffee pourover packets, so travelers just need to bring clothes and food. There’s no bathroom, but a camp toilet and disposal bags are available as add-ons (or you can use campground facilities or just dig your own hole). There’s a sink, a fridge, and room to sleep up to four people. While the boxy, bouncy vans might not be for rugged off-roading, they can still take you well off the grid, and any spot large enough to park a car can be a destination.

The back for a Ford Transit rental from Roamerica; the interior of a van for sale from Axis Vehicle Outfitters; and some of the gear that comes with a rental (Modelo not included—BYOB)

In March, the company shut things down, canceling and refunding or rescheduling spring-break reservations and even selling off a few of its rental fleet. “We didn’t feel it was responsible to add to local travel right then,” says Bayless, who lives in Hood River with husband (and fellow cofounder) Taylor and two young children.

Once Bayless and her team developed protocols for sanitizing and disinfecting the vans and gear, though, she says they realized their service might be one of the safer local travel options. They even suggest renters order groceries to be delivered to Roamerica’s office so they won’t need to enter a store. Since restarting rentals in June, Bayless reports Roamerica is getting interest from locals who might have their own camping equipment but want to try something new, and are willing to spring for a plusher camping experience after costlier vacation plans have fallen through. Roamerica sister company Axis Vehicle Outfitters preps custom vans for sale, in case any of these new renters get hooked.

And getting hooked is certainly a possibility. My own kids keep asking when they can sleep in the “bunk-bed van” again, and Stone is all in after her first RV adventure—it might not be another work trip, though, as her son is eager to come along next time. 

In addition to Oregonians switching up vacation plans or looking for temporary mobile offices, Knepper says people have rented Cruise America RVs to pull their parents out of care facilities and bring them home, and to get a one-way rental to move to a new town and have a place to quarantine when they arrive. For the vacationers, Knepper estimates about half are going to the coast, with the rest headed for Central and Eastern Oregon, the Columbia River Gorge, and national parks like Crater Lake and even farther-off Yellowstone. But fewer customers are going out of state than in a usual year, Knepper says, and trips are generally shorter. Most RV rentals charge for mileage, and Roamerica charges for distances beyond 125 miles per day. While fees (which vary by vehicle choice and time of year), insurance, gas, and taxes can make a van or RV rental cost as much as a higher-end hotel room, it’s also a rental car, a private cabana, and a safe escape from the masses. And for those used to standard car camping, there’s the added bonus of not having to dig your gear out or air out a moldy tent afterward. 


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