Americans have always embraced the open road, but now campers, the iconic symbol of middle-class success, are gaining ground with a new audience.
Millennials not only are traveling the country in them but also are renting camper trailers through Airbnb for a few days of rest and relaxation in a pretty setting. Many promote their peripatetic existence through #vanlife, #homeiswhereyouparkit and #campervan on a multitude of Instagram accounts.
This is one thing millennials can’t be accused of killing, it seems.
More than 1.4 million households started camping for the first time in 2018. Of this group, 56% are millennials and 51% identify as nonwhite, according to the 2019 North American Camping Report, an annual independent study supported by KOA, or Kampgrounds of America.
More than 78.8 million households camped at least once in 2018, an all-time high.
According to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, RV shipments saw their second-best year in 2018, with 483,672 units.
Classic campers, pop-top vans and RVs also are coming along for the ride. The insatiable appetite of some millennials for all things vintage, as well as a desire to escape the modern-day rat race, is helping to fuel their popularity. Motorhomes, camper vans, caravans, pop-up campers, travel trailers, VW buses and truck campers are tricked out and exhaustively photographed for millions of social media followers.
Organizations like the Tin Can Tourists, a national group celebrating its 100th year in 2019, draw collectors looking for vintage camper style and design.
“I like the design, the shape of the unit, to the fabrics used inside, to the woodwork,” said TCT member and hall of famer John Truitt regarding vintage travel trailers. “I like how it reflects past eras of design and workmanship.”
Truitt said the TCT group is seeing more interest from younger members, many of whom are in their late 20s and early 30s.
Lauren Albrecht of Holly, Michigan, became fascinated with vintage campers because of her grandfather’s old Avion camper. The 26-year-old is in TCT with her parents and is “obsessed with all things vintage.”
“It’s cool to see the trailers restored,” she said. “That’s the most fun aspect of our group besides the people we camp with. Everyone is so creative, and they really care about preserving the history of these trailers.”
Edward Byrnes 38, of Commerce Township, Michigan, first became aware of TCT after a member walked by while he was working on a 1959 Fan trailer in his driveway. Byrnes and his girlfriend, Jessica Neff, ended up going to their first TCT rally at Camp Dearborn in 2017.
“One of the reasons Jessica and I got together was our affinity for vintage campers,” he said. “After the rally, we were hooked and attended as many rallies as we could.”
When the couple goes camping, Byrnes said, he enjoys the “smell of campfire smoke in the air, making memories and enjoying the company of other TCT members.”
RV brands are taking notice in the demographic shift and are designing trailers geared toward people in their 20s and 30s.
Perhaps the most iconic of all the RVs on the road is Airstream, resembling a gleaming silver bullet.
Airstream, which had its fifth consecutive year of growth last year and has seen a 218 percent growth in sales over the past five years, offers a compact RV called the Nest. Weighing 3,400 pounds, the midsize trailer offers a two-stove burner, microwave and bathroom. Users can also change the colors of the interior lighting with a smartphone app. Prices start at $45,900.
Volkswagen, celebrated for decades for its quirky Bus, offers a new California Camper Van for sale in Europe and is set to sell an electric version of its microbus – the I.D. Buzz – in 2022.
Can’t afford to own a camper or RV? Airbnb offers travel trailers to rent. Spend the weekend glamping in Los Angeles in a 1969 Airstream Globetrotter. Located in the San Gabriel Mountains, campers can take in the sights of L.A., such as the Hollywood sign and the city skyline, for $236 per night.
For something more rustic, an Airbnb listing offers a vintage Airstream in Wimberley, Texas, near San Antonio and Austin. For $130 per night, the RV includes a hot tub, outdoor shower, patio grill, fire pit and a selection of Western movies.
RV camping clubs likely date back to the Tin Can Tourists, which started at a park in Tampa, Fla., in 1919. These early campers braved dust and mud to drive their Model Ts or Tin Lizzies across the U.S. before the interstate highway system was built. They camped by the side of the road, heated tin cans of food on portable stoves and bathed in streams.
Truitt has been a part of Tin Can trailers for about 16 years. He found out about the group while doing an online search for a small vintage trailer. Truitt eventually bought an Airstream that was owned by TCT President Forrest Bone, who invited him to a rally.
Truitt likes the friendly environment of the organization, as well as the bond forged through vintage trailers and collectibles.
“The trailers are a starting point for conversation,” Truitt said. “We get more interested in the person and each other than our stuff. There’s no hoity-toity. You agree to have a good time and be a good time.”
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