This article is part of our new series, Currents, which examines how rapid advances in technology are transforming our lives.
Since marrying in 2016, Brittany Garrett has had to live apart from her husband, Isaac, during some of his deployments in the U.S. Navy. After leaving the military in February, however, the couple embarked on a long-discussed plan for nonstop togetherness. They sold their home in Virginia Beach and set out across America towing a 22-foot trailer behind a heavy-duty vehicle (first an S.U.V., then a pickup truck). Ms. Garrett, 26, described the past few months as an opportunity to catch up with her husband for “all the lost time when he was gone.”
“We are in our mid-20s with no children,” said Ms. Garrett, who works remotely as a recruitment manager for a child-care agency. “We didn’t need a two-bedroom, three-bathroom house. That was something society makes you think you need at that stage of life. So we downsized.”
Even before the Academy Award-winning movie “Nomadland,” about a peripatetic R.V. owner, got people talking about life on the road, the Garretts joined the growing number of households that own an R.V. According to Monika Geraci, a spokeswoman for the RV Industry Association, the number is up to 11.2 million in North America. Over the past decade R.V. ownership has increased 26 percent and sales of new R.V.s in March broke all records, with a little more than 54,000 shipped to dealers in North America.
Dealers and online marketplaces report there is also a huge demand for used campers, trailers, buses and vans. And for the new models the innovations just keep on coming, according to Bob Wheeler, president and chief executive of Airstream Inc. His enthusiasm is evident when he talks about what might be the next big things: rollout awnings with embedded solar panels and technology that will allow gray water to be reused.
“The pace of change is accelerating,” Mr. Wheeler said. “All we can do is try and anticipate and design systems that can be flexible.”
Cary Alburn, a retired lawyer from Colorado who has been camping since he was a teenager, notes the progress with wonder. “The explosion of technology in R.V.s over just a few years is almost shocking, especially to those of us who’ve been R.V.ing for so many years.”
Mr. Alburn, 77, remembers a time when batteries provided little more than a trickle of power and bathing and dishwashing water was dumped into the woods as a matter of course.
“We’ve evolved so much on the coaches,” said Dave Simso, owner of Dave’s RV Center in Danbury, Conn. “You are never anywhere where you don’t have everything you need.”
That may be the case for the ultra-luxurious Newmar brand R.V.s which start at just under $200,000 and can go up to $1.3 million. But Mr. Simso’s son, Dave Jr., the company’s general manager, says even manufacturers of moderately priced R.V.s have always tried to keep up with new products — even when “new” meant microwave ovens and DVD players.
A robust aftermarket allows buyers of older models to update their units. Interest is largely focused on three areas; internet, portable power and what John Tinghitella, president and owner of RV Designer, which supplies replacement hardware for R.V.s, calls the “icky” subject of toilets.
“At home you never think about it,” said Mr. Tinghitella, who is also a member of the RV Industry Association. “We hit flush and have been doing that all our lives, we have zero expectations of seeing it again.”
This is not the case while on the road — giving rise to an array of toilet innovations.
For the most part, the Garretts park their trailer in campgrounds and hook up to a sewer connection for their gravity flush toilet. Otherwise, a holding tank must be emptied at a dump station. “That’s my job,” Mr. Garrett said; his wife finds the process “gross,” as do many others.
The couple is considering switching to a compostable toilet that requires keeping liquids separate from solids. Other options include a cassette toilet that captures everything in a container that is removed, emptied and put back in place, and incinerating toilets that burn the waste in a metal container just below the seat.
Owners of older R.V.s are also looking for robust portable power. Many campgrounds have power outlets at each site. But for “boondocking” — staying in places without electricity — some sort of power supply is needed for lights, heat and charging electronic devices. Gas-powered generators can do this, but make noise and emissions so upgrading from older technology batteries to lithium-ion is a popular alternative.
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Grant Walters, regional sales representative for Pleasure-Way Industries, a Canadian manufacturer of the smallest category of R.V. known as Class B, said his company began installing these quick-charging and long-lasting batteries in 2016.
“The decision was one of the better moves we’ve made in recent years,” Mr. Walters said, allowing owners to use their vans anywhere.
“The Class B provides a base camp for backcountry camping,” he said. “It’s conducive to use by people who are active kayaking, bike racing, mountain bikers.”
Karen and Ray Abramson of Westport, Conn., bought a lightly used Pleasure-Way camper van in 2019, already outfitted with lithium-ion batteries and solar panels for recharging them. “We can be totally self-sufficient for probably five days,” Mr. Abramson said.
There is more involved in making the switch than swapping old lead acid batteries for new lithium batteries, though. Specific chargers are recommended for lithium both for charging by 120-volt AC power and also when they will be charged by the vehicle’s alternator, according to guidance issued by the Seattle-based manufacturer Dakota Lithium.
“Not all the onboard chargers on R.V.s or tow-behind trailers are capable of charging a lithium product,” said Jeff Barron, lab manager at Interstate Batteries. Then there is the cost. Lithium batteries are four times the price of lead acid ones and charge controllers can cost an additional $2,000, Mr. Barron said. Dakota Lithium’s chief executive, Andrew Jay, estimates a small system would cost about $1,500, and its most popular, which includes solar panels, is $3,000.
The pandemic is widely considered to be fueling the present popularity of R.V.s, but even before the global shutdowns, digital nomads were taking their work on the road and not just young professionals. The Abramsons — he’s a C.P.A., she’s a tutor — are in their 60s. When they got their camper van, they promptly added a second desk behind the driver’s seat so both could work while traveling.
“There are many people who want to keep it simple and get away from the complexity of their home lives, but everyone wants connectivity,” Mr. Wheeler said.
Airstream’s higher-end campers and trailers, like those from other manufacturers, come with Wi-Fi and cellular antennas and there are several companies active in the aftermarket. These antennas boost reception from a cellphone tower or Wi-Fi access point, whether it’s a campground or a local Starbucks. But they can’t improve slow speeds. That’s an infrastructure problem and it has been exacerbated by the “exponential increase” in the number of people taking to the road and expecting home quality internet, said Andy Mikesell, who works in dealer services at Winegard Company, which makes and sells R.V. antennas to dealers and consumers.
“The real trick to the whole thing is to get all the different parties to work together, and campgrounds have to put in better network capabilities and install better servers,” he said.
For consumers used to on-demand internet at home, without having to give it much thought, getting mobile connectivity can be complicated. In 2019, Leigh and Tom Mundhenk of Ocean Park, Maine, bought a new Leisure Travel Van. Throughout their first nine-week getaway they never fully understood how to use the factory installed cellular booster because it came with several different data plans.
“There are a lot of different options and we are not tech savvy at all,” Ms. Mundhenk said. Mr. Mundhenk added that the couple is still trying to figure out what kind of a plan they would need.
Connectivity frustration is practically universal, said Neil Balthaser, a retired tech worker who runs Ultramobility, a YouTube channel for R.V. owners. That’s because mobile internet access relies on cell service that may be hard to get off the beaten track.
“It’s a gimmick when you think about it — your coach isn’t going to get any different Wi-Fi than your cellphone,” he said.
Several different companies offer satellite internet but setting up the receiver can be time consuming. Starlink, Elon Musk’s company offering internet via an array of satellites, is intended to make connecting easier, but it is not yet available.
For R.V.ers who find technology is either too old or too new or too icky, Ms. Garrett’s first four months of full-time R.V. life suggests there are more upsides than downsides.
“It surprised me that I enjoyed it and it has brought me as much peace as it has,” she said from San Diego. “Simpler living, that’s the peace I was referring to. Less stuff, more life.”
By Christine Negroni