If you ever get the chance to go to Burning Man when this COVID-19 madness finally goes away, do so.
While there, you’ll see everything you expect to and everything you don’t — insanely creative art installations, wild costumes, fascinating people of every persuasion, an impromptu Daft Punk performance in a dive bar — and at the end of an eighteen-hour day, toasted by the high-altitude sun, frozen by the desert night and battered by dust storms, you’ll want nothing more than to take a shower, cook yourself a hot meal, turn on the A/C and slip into a soft bed.
You won’t be able to do any of these things in relative comfort, however, unless you have a recreational vehicle (RV) at your disposal — and if you’re going to Black Rock City, you really should have an RV at your disposal, despite the fact that roughing it in a tent is considered the true test of a ‘Burner’.
The RV in American Culture
Other than being near-essential Burning Man items, RVs are becoming hugely popular in the United States, where interest in them has doubled in the last ten years. This is not to say that they haven’t always been part of American culture; indeed, the fascination with mobile homes has always existed, with the first RV commonly considered to be the Pierce-Arrow Touring Landau, a luxury motor vehicle that was launched in 1910 for the well-heeled traveler.
During the roaring twenties, when money found its way into the pockets of more people, many took to travel and camping in a big way, and pioneering trailers like the Auto-Kamp emerged to cater to them.
As the country’s interstate highway network developed, an ever-increasing number of people hit the road, and the popularity of RVs grew, despite the Depression and World War II. With the American economy booming after World War II and gas prices easy on the pocketbook, the RV industry really came into its own, with now-legendary names like Airstream and Winnebago hitting the market. RV design evolved over the decades, with everything from small, bare-bones trailers to gigantic, lavishly kitted-out palaces on wheels becoming available.
Popular culture in the US has embraced the RV lifestyle as well. The writer John Steinbeck decided to head out in search of the real America in 1960, and he did it in a camper truck that he named Rocinante, after Don Quixote’s horse; the 1962 book Travels With Charley: In Search Of America (Charley was his pet poodle) became his account of his journey.
President John F. Kennedy used a sleek Airstream trailer as a mobile office while out inspecting military facilities in the New Mexico desert, something that Airstream fans remember fondly even today.
RVs played significant roles in the movies too, appearing in films of every genre, from Lucille Ball’s 1953 film The Long, Long Trailer to the madcap The Blues Brothers (1980), the animated classic The Incredibles (2004) and the indie favourite Little Miss Sunshine (2006); more recently, Brad Pitt’s character lived in a trailer in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (2019).
In the 110 years that have passed since the Pierce-Arrow, RVs of all kinds have come to represent those most American of ideals — freedom, individuality, adventure, self-sufficiency and the open road. In 2018, an estimated 1 million Americans lived in RVs full time, not merely because they were cheaper than buying a brick-and-mortar home but out of choice.
Millennials (and those even younger) are taking to RVs in a big way, and, even during the current pandemic, the demand for RVs has gone up exponentially, with consumers looking at them as safe ways to simultaneously isolate and travel.
Given this background, we decided to closely study the American RV market and find answers to two main questions:
- What are the life aspirations and anxieties of RV owners, across RV segment types?
- How do the different kinds of RVs cater to these aspirations and anxieties?
- We extracted over 2,000 RV-related conversations from Twitter and Instagram, via hashtags like #rvadventure, #fifthwheelliving, and #traveltrailerlife.
- From RV-related communities on Reddit, a further 1,000 conversations were extracted
Analyzing the text and image data, nine different categories of RV owners and users were identified, across three classes of RVs — travel trailers (no engine, towed by a vehicle), motorhomes, and fifth wheels (larger travel trailers that have bi-level floor plans and slide-out elements).
Culture AI Readings: What were the emotions detected?
The key emotion that was found among them was tension. On the one hand, Americans crave freedom — they want to escape the pressures of modern life, and one way of doing this is to “…turn to the RV lifestyle as a way to seize back control and assert the American Pioneer attitude,” according to the critic James Twitchell, in his book Winnebago Nation: The RV in American Culture.
On the other hand, they also want to enjoy the comfort of all the mod cons while they’re getting away from it all, and thus RVs are now seen as immersive experiences, rather than just functional vehicles.
The drivers for freedom are self-discovery (“finding out who I am”) and self-sufficiency (“leaving convention behind to be truly free”), while those behind comfort are craft (wanting a transformative experience) and function (the utility of the RV).
Insights from different Age Demographics
Among owners, those in the 21–44 age bracket are on a journey to find their authentic selves, and are thus interested in self-discovery and craft.
45–65 year old owners have a new zest for adventure, and want self-discovery paired with functionality.
Medium-income owners in the 65+ age group want independence, and are looking for self-sufficiency and functionality, while higher-income 65+ owners also want self-sufficiency, but they want it combined with craft.
RV Class: Travel Trailers
Within this RV class, owners can be divided into wilderness conquerors, hardy bluebloods and small town explorers.
The first lot are the rough-and-ready, adventurous sort and skew male. Their interests range from lifehacks and beer to the great outdoors, RV renovation and 1980s nostalgia. For them, life is all about escaping into the wilderness whenever possible. They’re weekend warriors, working hard during the week so that they can get away later on.
This is their chief aspiration: to become true explorers and immerse themselves in nature, to connect and conquer. They fear being trapped in the mundanities of daily life, and becoming soft when surrounded by modern comforts. For them, an RV is a way to take the breather they so desire, and to express their true selves by roughing it out.
These guys don’t have a gender skew, and tend to be married. They believe that life is about escaping from the oppressive frivolities of modern life. They like customizing their trailers, are fans of hunting, and like to get their hands dirty, seeing these as reflections of the true American way of life.
They’re interested in hard liquor, DIY crafts like leatherwork and consider themselves to be patriots. They have a desire to express their American roots through the domination and exploration of nature, and they fear becoming ‘soft’ urban types who are afraid of getting their hands dirty. This group finds RVs to be a way to exert control and domination over their environment and self, via customization and travel.
Small Town Explorers
People in this group are lower income, largely married as well as retired. They are extremely patriotic, and want more utilities within their trailers, since they want to camp off-grid. They have a burning desire to capture the highlights of the American way of life, and seek out small American towns and the quintessential small-town experience.
They love country music, historic American sites and taking a stand on things they believe in, and their aspiration is to rediscover their history. They don’t want to live unfulfilled lives or become “sellouts,” and they look at RVs as a way to tick off bucket-list items, while contributing to the American way by traveling domestically.
RV Class: Motorhomes
This RV class can be subdivided into introspective pathfinders, passionate discoverers and loving patriots.
The pathfinders skew single, but don’t have a gender skew. They want a nomadic life of nonstop discovery and adventure, and, since they are dealing with the realities of becoming responsible adults, they seek relief from these stresses.
They love pets, nature parks and DIY RV hacks, and they want to go on a magical journey that allows them to discover their inner selves and assert their independence. Their fear being trapped by the stresses of modern life, as also the inherent instability of the unfamiliar. RVs provide them a way to escape their harsh realities and responsibilities, even if just temporarily.
People in this group have no gender skew, are married, and have older children who are either in college or traveling with them. They want to escape the obligations of modern life, and as a “sandwich generation,” they want to dive into the world previously left unexplored (due to familial or work duties).
They seek financial independence and an exploration of the self by breaking away from the conventional and pursuing their passion. They fear being trapped by societal and familial obligations, and feeling resentful towards the people they love. For them, an RV offers the space to discover the hitherto unexplored, and is a reflection of “the road not taken” attitude that they have.
These folk are largely married and have no gender skew. They strongly believe in American values, and want to create important memories with people they care about. Mainly low income, they are more conservative and want to connect with extended family.
They support American brands and want to find kindred spirits. As a life goal, they want to build meaningful relationships and immortalize their lives by upholding American way. They fear being forgotten by the people they’ve left behind, and not being honored for the sacrifices they’ve made for their country. In their RVs, they feel able to connect with the people they love and they view them as symbols of freedom.
RV Class: Fifth Wheels
Among this group, the different segments are the adventurous rulers, the slow life dreamers and the independence seekers.
The rulers skew male, and include families with young children. They want to discard the pressures of modern society and focus on the essentials of life, mainly family and freedom. They’re the ones driving the tiny house movement; they believe in personalization; they have steady jobs.
Their interests range from minimalism and parenting to RV personalization and entrepreneurship, and they seek to build their own “kingdom” and be fully present for their tribe (especially their children) and their needs. They fear losing the balance between adventure and stability, and getting the worst of both worlds. Their RVs allow them to build their own communities and live life as they please.
Slow life dreamers skew male, and are largely married with older children, either in college or traveling with them. All they want is to embrace a slower and simpler life and work on their passions, since their children have grown up and they have the time. They want financial freedom and are into hiking, fishing, small towns and sightseeing.
Living in the moment is important to them, and they fear losing touch with their inner selves. Their RVs let them remove the distractions of modern society, and allow them to focus on family and self-discovery.
Independence seekers are mainly married, conservative, older, and have no gender skew. They value self-sufficiency, seek adventure, and want to spend their retirement years meaningfully, all the while standing up for their values.
What they don’t want at any cost is to waste the rest of their lives in discomfort and selling out to “the Man”. When they get into their RVs, they’re discarding the clutter in their lives and embracing freedom and adventure, asserting their independence and still focusing on the people they love.
Regardless of their age, gender and place on the social ladder, RV owners essentially want the same things: freedom, individuality, adventure and self-sufficiency.
With interest in RVs doubling over the last decade, and with the industry seeing an uptick even during the pandemic, it wouldn’t be an overstatement to posit that the sector is almost recession proof, and that it will continue to grow as long as Americans are, well, Americans.