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Contributed photo by Brianne Lee / The Lee family's RV is seen at Harrison Bay State Park.

As people look for ways to get out of town this summer while maintaining social distance during the COVID-19 pandemic, Chattanooga area recreational vehicle retailers and renters are seeing increased interest in RV camping from people who are trying it for the first time.

Amy Shoemaker, owner of How We Roll RV in Cleveland, Tennessee, and the website rentalrving.com, said this year the business has been contacted about rentals by more younger and first-time campers, who tend to ask more questions and request recommendations for the best places to go.

And it's not a trend unique to this area. Shoemaker said only about half of her customers are local.

According to a survey by market research company Ipsos for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association on travel in light of the COVID-19 crisis, 20% of U.S. respondents said they are more interested in RV travel as an option for recreational travel in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Of the 46 million Americans who plan to take an RV trip this summer, 51% reported current health concerns increased their interest in RV camping.

A May 11 report sponsored by Kampgrounds of America predicts camping and road trips will likely be the re-entry point for a third of leisure travelers, based on the responses of 4,000 residents of the U.S. and Canada. The camping market, which accounted for 11% of all trips prior to the pandemic, is expected to grow to 16% of leisure travelers' trips in 2020.

"People seem to want to go camping," said Marisol Curtis, business development center administrator at Camping World of Chattanooga, which she said has seen a surge of people buying campers for summer travel.

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Chattanooga area RV travel on the rise

Raccoon Mountain Campground, which has remained open throughout the pandemic, is nearly booked every weekend through the summer, said employee Teri Upham. The business has received so many calls that the campground recently added an extra phone line, she said.

Chattanooga residents Brianne and Daniel Lee bought an RV last year both to use themselves and rent out to others. It's already booked through mid-July and reserved for some dates in August, September and October as well. "Once all the parks started reopening, everybody was like, 'Let me get out of the house,'" said Brianne Lee. "There's no greater way to social distance than to get out in an RV."

Last weekend a Chattanooga woman who'd never camped in an RV before rented the RV to spend the weekend with her nieces at Chester Frost Park and loved it, she said.

The Lees took their children MaKayla, 14, Braylen, 10, and Tatum, 1, on their first trip for a week over spring break in March 2019. They loved the experience so much that they became members of the private campground in Alabama where they stayed.

"You talk about kids forgetting that Wi-Fi exists — they forget about TVs, they love mom and dad again, everybody's eating together," said Brianne Lee of RV camping. "It's just a great family experience, just kind of getting away from everything that they're actually used to."

RVs are typically rented through online platforms similar to those used to rent vacation homes such as Airbnb. Lee said they deliver and set up their RV for renters due to its weight and the towing equipment it requires, but many options are available online for those who want to take weekslong, cross country trips or spend a few days near the beach — from class A motorhomes to converted Mercedes Sprinter camper vans to tow-behind trailers.

For those considering an RV purchase, Lee said they have the added bonus of serving as a place to stay for visiting guests.

They can also serve as a portable quarantine. While the parks were closed during the pandemic, the Lees loaned theirs out to front-line workers who wanted to stay near their families without exposing them to the coronavirus.

Contact Emily Crisman at ecrisman@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6508.

Tips for first-time RV campers

*RV camper Brianne Lee recommends bringing lots of bug spray, or even a portable electric mosquito killer. “They like to camp too,” she joked.

*For those who buy an RV, Lee suggests purchasing inexpensive sets of cookware, dishes, grilling equipment and other frequently used items just for the RV so you don’t have to lug them in and out for every trip. Otherwise, “it’s like moving out of your house every time you go camping,” she said.

*Join RVillage, an online platform Lee describes as “like an RV Pinterest,” to learn skills such as maximizing storage on board your RV, as well as to find hidden-gem campgrounds and to connect with other members.

*To find a campsite, Amy Shoemaker of How We Roll RV in Cleveland, Tennessee, recommends reading reviews of private campsites at rvparkreviews.com, or searching for open public campsites at recreation.gov.

 

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