This piece is part of our new series, Currents, which examines how technology is rapidly changing our lives.
Isaac Garrett’s deployments in the U.S. Navy have necessitated that Brittany Garrett live apart from her husband on a number of occasions since their marriage in 2016. It wasn’t until February of this year that the couple decided to implement a long-discussed strategy of constant companionship. Towing a 22-foot trailer behind a heavy-duty vehicle, they sold their Virginia Beach home and embarked on a cross-country road trip (first an S.U.V., then a pickup truck). Ms. Garrett, 26, viewed the last few months as a chance to make up for “all the lost time when he was gone” she had been separated from her husband.
Ms. Garrett, who works from home as a recruitment manager for a child-care agency, said, “We are in our mid-20s with no children.” “A two-bedroom, three-bathroom house wasn’t necessary for us. That’s what society tells you to do at that point in your life. Consequently, we have reduced our workforce.”
“Nomadland,” the Oscar-winning film about a roving RV owner, didn’t even come out until after the Garretts joined the ranks of those who own an R.V. There are now 11.2 million recreational vehicles in North America, according to Monika Geraci, a spokesperson for the RV Industry Association. R.V. ownership has increased by 26% in the last decade, and in March, sales of new R.V.s broke all records, with slightly more than 54,000 shipped to dealers in North America.
Used campers, trailers, buses, and vans, according to dealers and online marketplaces, are also in high demand. Bob Wheeler, Airstream’s president and CEO, says the company’s new models are getting better and better all the time. What might be the next big things: rollout awnings with embedded panels of solar power and technology to reuse grey water. His enthusiasm is evident.
Mr. Wheeler said, “The pace of change is increasing.” It’s up to us to anticipate and design systems that are adaptable, as one researcher put it.
An experienced camper like Cary Auburn, a retired lawyer from Colorado, marvels at the progress. For those of us who have been RVing for many years, the rapid advancement in RV technology is startling.
According to Mr. Auburn, the days when batteries provided only a trickle of power and water was flushed away in the woods were long ago.
Dave Simso, owner of Dave’s RV Center in Danbury, Connecticut, said, “We’ve evolved so much on the coaches.” It’s impossible to find yourself in a situation where you don’t have the resources you need.
Newmar brand RVs, which start at just under $200,000 and can go up to $1.3 million, may be an example of this. However, the general manager of the company, Dave Jr., the son of Mr. Simso, says that even manufacturers of moderately priced RVs have always tried to keep up with new products — even when “new” meant microwave ovens and DVD players..
Older models can be upgraded thanks to a thriving aftermarket. Most of the attention is focused on internet, portable power, and what John Tinghitella calls the “icky” subject of toilets, the president and owner of RV Designer.
According to Mr. Tinghitella, an RV Industry Association member, “At home you never think about it.” When it comes to hitting the “flush,” we’ve been doing it for as long as we can remember.
While travelling, this isn’t always the case, leading to a wide range of toilet innovations.
To use their gravity flush toilet, the Garretts typically park their trailer in a campground and hook up to a sewer connection. Otherwise, a dump station is required to empty the holding tank. According to Mr. Garrett, “that’s my job.” His wife, like many others, finds the process “grotesque.
Requiring separate liquid and solid waste disposal, the couple is considering a compostable toilet. Additionally, cassette toilets and incinerators can be used to dispose of waste in a container that can be removed, emptied, and returned to its original location.
Portable power is also sought after by RV owners who have older vehicles. There are a number of campgrounds that include power outlets at each site. Some sort of power supply is required for lighting, heating, and charging electronic devices while “boondocking” (staying in places without electricity). Lithium-ion batteries are a popular alternative to gas-powered generators because they are quieter and emit less pollution than older technology batteries.
When it comes to Canada’s smallest category of RVs, known as “Class B,” Pleasure-Way Industries’ regional sales representative Grant Walters says his company began installing the fast-charging and long-lasting batteries as early as 2016.
According to Mr. Walters, the decision to allow van owners to take their vehicles anywhere was “one of the better moves we’ve made in recent years.
As he put it, “The Class B serves as a great home base for exploring the backcountry.” “Active kayakers, bike racers, and mountain bikers will enjoy it.”
They purchased a lightly used camper van in 2019 that was already equipped with lithium-ion batteries and solar panels for charging them. Mr. Abramson estimated that “we can be totally self-sufficient for about five days.”
Switching out old lead acid batteries for new lithium ones isn’t as simple as that. Dakota Lithium, a Seattle-based manufacturer, recommends specific chargers for lithium batteries when charging them with 120-volt AC power or the vehicle’s alternator.
According to Jeff Barron, the lab manager at Interstate Batteries, not all R.V. and tow-behind trailer onboard chargers are capable of charging lithium products. That leaves the matter of price. Charge controllers for lithium batteries can cost an additional $2,000, according to Mr. Barron. Andre Jay, the CEO of Dakota Lithium, estimates that a small system would cost around $1.500, while its most popular, which includes solar panels, costs $3,000.
Even though the pandemic is widely believed to be fueling the current popularity of R.V.s, digital nomads, and not just young professionals, have long travelled for their jobs. The Abramsons, a C.P.A. and a tutor, are both in their sixties and have been married for more than 30 years. A second desk was installed behind the driver’s seat of their camper van so that they could both work while on the road.
“There are many people who want to keep it simple and get away from the complexity of their home lives, but everyone craves connectivity,” Mr. Wheeler said.
Wi-Fi and cellular antennas are standard equipment on higher-end Airstream and other manufacturers’ campers and trailers, and a number of companies sell aftermarket upgrades. Antennas like this one can help you get better reception from a nearby cell tower or Wi-Fi hotspot, whether you’re camping or at a Starbucks. Slow speeds, on the other hand, will remain unaffected. In addition, the “exponential increase” in the number of people travelling and relying on home-quality internet has exacerbated this infrastructure problem, says Andy Mikesell, who works in dealer services at Winegard Company, which manufactures and sells RV antennas to both dealers and consumers.
In order to make it all work, he said, “campgrounds need to improve their network capabilities and install better servers.” he said.
For people who have grown accustomed to instantaneous internet access at home, getting mobile connectivity can be difficult. The Mundhenks of Ocean Park, Maine, purchased a new Leisure Travel Van in 2019. Because it came with so many different data plans, they never really figured out how to use the factory-installed cellular booster during their first nine-week vacation.
Ms. Mundhenk lamented, “There are a lot of options and we are not at all tech savvy.” A strategy for the couple’s future is still being worked out, according to Mr. Mundhenk.
According to Neil Balthaser, a former tech worker who now runs a YouTube channel for RV owners, frustration with connectivity is nearly universal among RVers. Cell phone service may be difficult to obtain if you’re travelling off the beaten path.
The coach’s Wi-Fi will be the same as yours, “so it’s a gimmick when you think about it,” he said.
It can take a long time to set up a satellite internet receiver from a variety of providers. However, Starlink, Elon Musk’s plan to connect the world through an array of satellites, is not yet available.
Ms. Garrett’s first four months of full-time RV life suggest there are more benefits than drawbacks for RVers who find technology to be either too old or too new or too icky.
In San Diego, she said, “It surprised me that I enjoyed it and that it has brought me as much peace as it has. That’s what I meant when I said “simpler living.” “More life, less stuff.”