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Tuesday, May 28, 2024

Alachua County RV parks: Finding friends and financial freedom on the road

Local residents reminisce on their camping experiences

Alachua County resident Catherine McGuire dreamed of living the ‘van life’ since van lifestyles videos started trending on TikTok during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

But between juggling a full-time job in North Carolina and running a charity, the 34-year-old was stuck.

“I had a lot of ties tying me down in North Carolina,” she said.

Everything changed when McGuire moved back to Gainesville to take care of her late father while he was sick, she said. McGuire wanted a way to find herself after his death, so she decided to make her dream a reality and bought a used camper.

“For me, it’s given me that freedom that I haven’t been allowed because I’ve taken care of so many people,” she said.

McGuire is one of many people who began buying campers in the years following the pandemic. 

Total recreational vehicles sales reached 600,240 in 2021, surpassing the highest year recorded by 19 percent, according to the RV Industry Association’s market report

More than half a dozen RV parks and campgrounds exist in and around Alachua County alone — upward of 1,100 in the state — according to campground review organization RV LIFE Campgrounds.

The rising cost of living became a large factor in McGuire’s decision, she said. With a fully remote job, there’s nothing keeping her in the city.

“The cost of apartments here in Gainesville is ridiculous,” she said. “Not just here, everywhere.”

Her camper is still a work-in-progress and needs some interior design renovations, McGuire said, but she enjoys the do-it-yourself aspect of the project.

“I got lucky enough to find one that doesn’t really need a ton of actual mechanical, hard labor work, it mostly just needs the cosmetic kind of reconstruction, which I’m fine with,” she said.

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Local dealerships had to accommodate the lifestyle’s cultural boom as well.

Nick Schmidt works for Sunshine State RVs, a dealership in Gainesville. His store saw double or triple the amount of sales since 2019, he said. 

“Ten years ago it was just retired couples and now it’s a lot of people that work from home,” Schmidt said.

Campers buying vehicles using alternative energy became the biggest trend, he said. Lithium batteries and solar panels in newer models allow RVs to store energy and recharge anywhere, rather than traditional models that needed to be plugged in to charge.

“They’re not dependent on being at specific campgrounds, where they can really just be wherever they want,” Schmidt said.

For campground owners, the new influx of people required greater accommodations, both for nomadic workers and vacationers looking to have fun.

Gainesville RV Park, located at 17500 N.E. U.S. Highway 301, features a fishing pond, an onsite gym and a pavilion for events.

Jennifer Johnson, Gainesville RV Park area manager, said campgrounds like hers allow everything from vacations to parenting on the road.“You can home-school your children and show them historic landmarks at the same time,” she wrote in an email.  “You're not tied down to a piece of land, you can just hook up and go to the next adventure.”

While a majority of attendees are long-term residents, Johnson said, the national-level, annual National Hot Rod Association drag racing event Gatornationals tends to bring in the most temporary campers.

Vacationers found events like Gatornationals to be valuable social experiences.

Some RV owners decided to make the switch to the vehicles long before the pandemic. 

Rob Long has owned a camper for eight years and lived in Alachua County for 15 before he moved to Bradford. Long’s wife got him into RV vacationing, he said, due to the freedom of being able to bring more of their possessions anywhere they go.

“You can be at the beach with everything of yours, you’re not staying in a hotel or whatnot,” he said.Traveling by RV also lets Long’s family bring along their two dogs — Dottie, an Australian Kelpie and Buddy, a Terrier mix  — without fears of hotels not allowing them, he said. 

The family picked out a larger camper to give the dogs some extra space to roam.

“We always take our dogs with us. We refuse to go anywhere that does not accept animals,” Long said. 

Long and his wife originally used the campers they’ve owned for couple vacations, but after stumbling on a Facebook group five years ago, they’ve found friendships on the campgrounds as well, he said.

The group hosts annual ‘rallies’ — where dozens of fellow campers host potlucks and meet each other. Some events have seen upward of 50 attendees, Long said.

“It’s more of a camping family now than anything,” he said. “You meet everyone from totally different walks of life.”

As far as local camping venues, Long recommended Paynes Prairie Preserve State Park, though he tends to travel outside of the county more frequently.

“It’s about the camaraderie and the experience and whatnot, so it’s always fun,” he said.

Contact Aidan Bush at Follow him on Twitter @aidandisto.

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Aidan Bush

Aidan Bush is a third-year journalism major and the Spring 2024 Engagement Managing Editor of The Alligator. In his free time, he likes to listen to music and go kayaking.

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