By July 2020, Aaron and Hillery Levine were itching to break out of their pandemic routine.
A few months into working “pretty traditional desk jobs” from their rented New Jersey townhome, they realized that even the local excursions they took with their toddler had stopped offering a reprieve from daily stressors. “There’s only so many times you can go to the same rectangle of grass in the same neighborhood,” Hillery, 37, told Insider.
Both of them — Hillery’s a scientist, and Aaron, also 37, is a structural engineer — were slated to work from home for the foreseeable future, and their 2-year-old daughter’s daycare wasn’t opening for the fall.
So they “impulsively” bought an Airstream, put most of their belongings in storage, and hit the road. They’re not alone: Thousands of other young professionals freed from offices — from the InStyle editor Laura Brown to Spanx’s founder, Sara Blakely — turned to RVs last year for coronavirus-safe travel and remote work.
After more than seven months on the road, the Levines Zoomed with Insider from inside their shiny, 30-foot Airstream parked near Death Valley National Park in California, sharing their real-world tales of a lifestyle that is often romanticized on Instagram. Sure, they’re having an unforgettable experience with their toddler and their tiny dog — from frolicking in tide pools on the Oregon coast to watching the sun set over campfires in Arizona — but there are also challenges to being a nomad, from the down-and-dirty bathroom business to leaking pipes.
It started, as so many flights of fancy do, on Twitter. The couple saw some tweets last summer about living full time in an RV, and it sparked something within them. Aaron said all he could think was, “Well, that’s how we could make our lives more interesting.” Both enjoy hiking and traveling, and with the pandemic putting so many aspects of their “regular life” on hold, it seemed like an opportunity too good to ignore.
“We did a lot of research, but it happened very fast,” Aaron said. “Pretty impulsively, actually,” Hillery added. In August, less than a month after starting their search, they purchased both a used Airstream and a pickup truck to tow it.
They originally tried to buy an RV from a local dealer, only to find that there was no inventory. “They told us we could put in an order for a new one and get it next year,” he said. They resorted to searching in online communities such as Craigslist, Facebook groups, and RV Trader to source used vehicles. They sent out countless unanswered messages to strangers before landing a used Airstream Flying Cloud 30FB that was posted on RV Trader and was sitting in Maine.
They felt lucky to nab an affordable vehicle: The model typically retails for upwards of $100,000 — and because of demand, older models are selling for about that much, too. Plus, they were jockeying around the resale market with other millennials like themselves who were eager to hit the road after the first tense months of lockdown.
Between the hefty price tag on their Airstream and their Ford F-250, along with the necessary accessories, such as a generator for when they camp in a place without electricity hookups and multiple kinds of gas, the Levines said they are spending more right now than they did in New Jersey. “There are cost-benefit trade-offs,” Aaron said. The big costs — the Airstream itself — and the smaller costs, such as higher phone bills to support data usage for remote work, are worth it to them to have their great American adventure.
The process of preparing to leave, from research to tying up loose ends at their jobs to moving out of their townhouse, took about a month. They pulled out of their driveway in October and headed west, with extended stops in Michigan and Colorado to visit family. By the holidays, they steered the Airstream south to warmer climes in New Mexico. They stayed in Arizona for a little over a month, hitting everything from Sedona to state parks outside of Tucson.
Both reduced their working hours to make their own version of #vanlife possible. They knew from experience early on in the pandemic that handling both full-time jobs and full-time childcare was “really, really stressful” — and that was without the Airstream and constant travel. “I think if we were working full time now, we would just have fights over whose meeting was more important,” Hillery said.
Now, the Levines work roughly 40 to 60 hours a week between the two of them, trading off working hours and childcare responsibilities. One may use a cellular hot spot on an iPhone to support Zoom calls and daily work in the morning, while the other takes their daughter for a hike or other outdoor activity. In the afternoon, the toddler takes a nap, and then they switch. “It’s super equitable,” Hillery said, adding that they feel “lucky and privileged” for their “flexibility.”
Around New Year’s, they crossed the border into California, their favorite leg of the trip thus far. One highlight: Ten days in a beachfront RV park in Malibu that has starting rates of $100 per night — for that Pacific Ocean view shared with neighboring multimillion-dollar mansions — and books up months in advance. While that may not sound like a total steal when #vanlifers can camp on certain government land for free, consider that even the smallest beachfront condos in that area go for $445 a night.
They also hit other California favorites, such as the winery haven Temecula and the scenic Joshua Tree National Park. “It snowed in Joshua Tree when we went, which apparently never happens,” Hillery said. “We were so lucky to see this weird Dr. Seuss-like landscape with incredible rock formations and trees just covered in snow.” As winter turned to spring, the Levines continued their trek through California, Nevada, Utah, and Oregon.
They describe their experience so far as magical — and from the full campgrounds they encounter, they can get a sense of just how many others have been lured by the same perks.
Over 430,000 RVs were sold in 2020, up 6% from 2019 despite an industry shutdown that lasted for two months at the outset of the pandemic, the RV Industry Association reported. Garry Enyart, the association’s chairman, said he expects the RV market to get even hotter in 2021, forecasting more than 500,000 RV shipments.
“Interest in the RV lifestyle,” Enyart told Insider, “is literally off the charts right now.” He attributed the initial hype to the vehicles’ built-in social distancing; they are self-contained units whose operators have ultimate control of their surroundings. There’s the added bonus of nostalgia: “It’s so Americana,” Enyart said.
The RV rental market was similarly crazed. RVshare, an Airbnb-like platform for renting recreational vehicles, saw tremendous growth last year. Even though there was a stark drop in rentals early in the spring of 2020, by summertime, the company was pulling in triple the bookings it did in 2019, said Jon Gray, RVshare’s CEO.
At the start of the pandemic, Gray said, RVshare was a “primarily leisure business in a world where there was no leisure travel.” But as Americans settled into the flexibility of working from wherever, he added, bookings started to stretch far beyond the once typical rental period of a long weekend or weeklong vacation.
And while newcomers have found that the benefits of living and working from an RV are real, varied, and plentiful, RV life isn’t always the easy, breezy adventure it looks like in a colorful Instagram grid.
For the Levines, first there was the issue of adjusting to a much smaller space: Downsizing from the multistory townhome that they’d lived in for four years to tighter quarters was a process. The family gave up their lease, donated scores of old sweaters, and rented two large storage units in New Jersey, planning for an eventual return to stationary living at the end of summer 2021.
The Airstream is about 30 feet long and 9 feet wide, with a queen bed in the front and bunk beds toward the rear. And even though it’s a tinier space, the upkeep is much more involved. Preparing the Airstream to go anywhere, for example, is at least a half-day process, Hillery said. Securing toddler toys to stay put on bumpy roads, cleaning and tidying the living area, dumping water tanks, getting gas for both their small electric generator and their pickup truck amounts to “an intensive effort,” Aaron added.
They were prepared for that effort. The Levines put in countless hours reading and watching YouTube videos on how to live on the road and how to operate their new vehicles. “Even learning how to back up the trailer was complicated,” Aaron said.
Traveling also requires a good bit of planning and research to know where to set up camp, whether or not they’ll be able to plug into power, and even what the weather will be like. That’s where apps and websites with crowdsourced comments about campsites come in handy.
But even the best-laid plans sometimes go awry while living in the Airstream.
One time, a bumpy road dislodged a pipe in the Airstream’s water system, which created an outdoor leak that caused the family to live without a fresh-water system for two weeks. Before they could get it fixed, they had to heat water on the stovetop and even “take awkward baths” by pouring cups of water on themselves.
The family is also literally chasing the sun — their Airstream isn’t winterized, so they need to stay in more temperate climates to ensure that none of their pipes freeze. The family stays about a week at any given campsite or national park and moves the Airstream on the weekends so as to not interrupt their workweeks.
“We started staying places only a few nights, but moving is really a lot of work, so we’re trying to do it less and less,” Aaron said.
“The weather determines our life a little more than normal,” Hillery said.
About a month into their time on the road, they were trapped by a windstorm in Nebraska but didn’t have enough propane to stay put any longer. Aaron drove two hours away in their pickup truck to procure more propane. Another time, unexpected wintry mix in Utah turned their mountain-view campsite into a mud pit. They packed up and went to find a parking lot to sleep in instead.
When the Levines decided to move into an Airstream to ride out the pandemic, they “basically knew nothing” about living in an RV, Aaron said. They’ve had to be resourceful and adaptable as they learn the ropes. He joked, “Now we know slightly more.”
The challenges are worth it, they said. Hillery added, “I feel like we’ve done years’ worth of travel in just a few months.”