Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Camping, Car Camping, RVing, and Trailer Park Living

We tend to think of "camping" as one thing, but it means different things to different people.

We just came back from our last (final) trip in the Casita - it will go up for sale on eBay shortly.  It is now 20 years old and a little long in the tooth - "well loved" I would say.   Our new Escape is being made as we speak.  It will be nice not to hit my head on the door frame all the time.

It struck me, traveling throughout Florida (from Jacksonville to Key West, from Fort Lauderdale to Fort Myers) that what people call "camping" means different things to different people.

The hard-core hikers and explorers are taking everything they own on the backs, and they often want equipment that is high-performance, light weight, and durable.  When you are even just a few miles out in the wilderness, you can't just walk back to your car for something.   These are the kinds of folks buying tiny tents and down-filled "mummy" bags at REI or even more serious camping stores.  Sometimes you see them in a regular campground, but rarely.

Car camping is an entirely different thing, and what most Americans do.   You load up your camping "gear" in your car and drive to a State Forest, check into a "campsite" and then back in with your car.  You open the trunk and dump all your crap out and "camp".   You build a big fire and roast marshmallows and enjoy "the great outdoors."   Most of this type of equipment is very inexpensive and can be found in the aisles of Wal-Mart.

Coleman makes a lot of car-camping gear.  It is cheap, sturdy, and heavy - not suited for hiking into the back county.   My only gripe with Coleman gear is that whoever designs it, makes it so it folds up three possible ways - with only one way being "right".   We have Coleman chairs, a camping table, and two (now three) Coleman stoves or grills (cheap at the thrift store - sometimes new-in-the-box!), and they seem to have a correct way to fold up and an incorrect way - and it is often frustrating to figure out what you did wrong in folding it - every time.  Most Engineers put a tab on one side of a component or make the component asymmetrical, so the components only fit together one way.  Coleman seems to favor design aesthetic over practicality sometimes.  And the stuff is heavy.  Car-camping only!

They also make the unfortunate "Coleman Lantern" which is falling from favor (Thank God!).   The lanterns put out more candlepower than a lighthouse, but unlike a lighthouse, the light is of no use.  It merely blinds the user, along with people from five adjacent sites.  It also attracts swarms of mosquitoes and gnats.   Why anyone would want one is beyond me, and perhaps others have figured this out, as they seem to have disappeared from campgrounds and the retail shelves.   More subdued lighting seems to be the norm these days.

Now, some folks who are "car campers" end up making the mistake of buying serious camping gear.  They think, wrongly, that the experience of car-camping in the State Park is going to be better with "serious" camping gear from REI or whatever.   But the tiny tent that was designed for Mount Everest and 40-below temperatures is going to be cramped and uncomfortable in a State Park.   The guy next door with the $99 gigundo tent from Wal-Mart can actually stand up in it, and it has a porch, even.  Creeping expertism raises its ugly head.   Just because restaurants use giant stainless steel gas ranges doesn't mean you need one for your own home.  Leave the expert equipment to the real experts - consumer-grade stuff is perfectly acceptable, cheaper, easier to use, and often better, for us consumers.   Just realize you aren't special and move on with life.

For car-camping, the $99 tent will do just fine.  Leave the Mt. Everest tent to the explorers and Sherpas.

RVing is related to camping and then again, not.   We have a small RV - 17 feet and are "moving up" to a whopping 21 feet.   Serious hikers and explorers would turn up their noses at our rig - but then again, they wouldn't mind a hot shower after five days on the Appalachian trail.   But smaller RVs can fit into more bucolic areas - State Parks, and campsites on the beach, where often tenters only dare.   Small RVs can actually travel without sucking down gas with two straws.   A "big rig" might get only a few miles per gallon - even with diesel fuel.  Our average mileage on this last trip (about 1800 miles) was 16.2.   I suspect the new trailer will be slightly lower.

Larger rigs tend to travel less, and when they do travel, don't leave the beaten path for very far.  When you are driving a 40' diesel-pusher motorhome, towing a car on four wheels (which means you can't back up) you plan your stops, often relying on a special RV-GPS that lists e-z on and e-z off stops off the Interstate.  We stayed in one "campground" near Venice, Florida, and one of the reviewers complained that it was not "big-rig friendly" and that it was a whopping seven miles off the Interstate!

Clearly there is a huge gulf between the guy hiking the Appalachian trail from Maine to Florida, and this guy in his bus motorhome.  One whines about driving seven miles, while the other can easily walk that in a day.  Yet both are lumped under the category of "camping" and yet have nothing in common.

Getting back to the campsite in Venice, it was a typical RV park in Florida.  About one third of the sites were occupied by "full timers" in park models.  These were people either living full-time in the park, or using these park models as winter homes and "snowbirding".   Note that a "park model" as the name implies, is for an RV park, and is distinct from a "trailer home" or "mobile home" which, despite the name, are often immobile.   Park models are RVs that are designed to be parked for long periods of time.

About 1/3 of the sites were occupied by large RVs - 5th wheel trailers and Class-A motorhomes that were being used as winter homes for snowbirds - mostly Canadians.   Some were left in Florida for the summer, others were driven North about this time of year (the great migration of the snowbirds is underway - stay off I-95 if you can!).

The remaining fraction were people like ourselves, staying for only a few days, in rigs designed for exploration and travel - smaller trailers, Class-B or Class-C motorhomes, and even one brave couple in a tent!    Of course, I am not certain that the couple in the tent were there by choice.  And that is one issue with camping or "RVing" that isn't talked about a lot - in many campsites and campgrounds, whether they are State Parks or private parks, there are a certain number of people who are basically one step away from homelessness.    They might be living out of their car or truck, or living out of a clapped-out RV.   Maybe they fell on hard times.  Maybe they have a drug habit.  Or maybe they decided to go "full time" RVing without figuring out what the end game was.

It happens.  People sign up for a 15-20 year loan on what was a fabulous "RV coach" motorhome, and they tow a brand-spanking new Saturn behind it.   15 years later, they still owe more on the loan than the resale value of the coach, and Saturn has been out of business for a decade.   They have run out of money, and are parked "full-time" in one RV park, and the motor on the "diesel pusher" doesn't start anymore, as the bank of batteries needed to run the coach are shot, and they can't afford the hundreds of dollars to replace them - or the thousands needed to replace the tires.

Of course, only a few years ago, they were going to splendid "RV Resorts!" which were no more than a half-mile from the Interstate and big-rig friendly.   They were manicured within an inch of their life, and the folks staying there could kid themselves they were the "upper crust" of the RV world.   But in order to keep out the trashy and homeless, they have rules.   Coaches can't be more than ten years old - sometimes only five.   And of course, no sleeping in a tent, the back of your car, or even the back of your truck!   Some don't allow truck campers or even trailers.   You have to set standards.

Problem is, the couple with the brand-spanking new coach and Saturn tow-behind find themselves locked out after a decade, and unable to afford to upgrade to a newer coach.  Unless you have a bottomless well of money, there is an end game to this.  And if you have a bottomless well of money, well, why are you in a trailer park?

For us, RVing is a way of traveling, not a way of living - at least at the present time.   I see folks who are living in park models and think to myself, "well, that's not such a bad way to live!"   There are parks in Florida, which are over-55 parks, which are well-maintained, clean, and tidy, and limited to full-timers or snowbirds living in park models.   When the Hurricane comes, they can just go out and buy a new one.   As an inexpensive lifestyle choice, maybe it is not a bad one.  But when such a choice is forced upon you and you end up in the park where your motorhome ran out of gas, it is perhaps, less than ideal.

Sadly, the boating world isn't much different, although the spread in terms of money is much greater.   Motorhomes might top out at a million bucks or so - that it just entry-level pricing in the world of mega-yachts.   And yet at the other end of the spectrum are near-homeless people living in 17-foot sailboats, without plumbing or air conditioning.  Both might be parked at the same marina - although it is not very likely.  Yet, both fall under the category of "boating" generally.

I am not sure where I am going with this, only that I am not sure I want to be the couple living in the tent (full-time) or the couple in the fabulous motorhome, living full-time.   Exploring the world and having your own house (and bathroom and kitchen) nearby is fun.   When it is a lifestyle choice, it is one thing, when it is thrust upon you, yet another.