My findings on the Open Road of Life
by Meghan McHugh, under the advisement of Dr Lorie A. Tuma
Hi! My name is Meghan. I am a senior at Grand Valley State University (GVSU) and I am getting ready to graduate. Look out world, here I come! My last year at GVSU took place around the same time that our new Recreation emphasis was approved. As such, I was fortunate enough to take a few classes in recreation and learn more about the industry’s contributions and challenges. I also had time to focus on some of the disparities that continue to prevent women from taking the big leap – going out there, on their own, travelling down those roads, taking photos, meeting new people, making camp, and troubleshooting “stuff” as it happened along the way. I wondered how many women were actually doing this? Were there hundreds? Thousands? Was I just one of the tens-of-thousands that also wanted to go down that road? Well, this [in summary] is what I learned….
According to a 2018 survey, an estimated 6% of women in the United States camp solo. Most are recent college graduates, retirees, and empty nesters who have discretionary time and money. They are adventurous, courageous, and – they want to “go places and do things” (as Janine Petit, GirlCamper extraordinaire would say). They believe solo camping provides them with opportunities to see the country, clear their minds, and avoid distractions. Omg, I NEED that!
As I continued my research, I learned that travelling the open road and solo camping makes women feel independent and empowered. It allows them to make their own decisions, and it creates a generous sense of community that is often demonstrated by proactively offering guidance to other women who also want to camp solo. And who wouldn’t what that? Independence. Empowerment. Generosity. Well, …. me! After all, I was getting ready to graduate from college. I had just completed my last internship. I had one more year ahead and the end was in sight. I wanted that independent feeling, — the one where the wind blows through my hair, and I bask in the #vanlife euphoria. Trust me, I was ALL IN. However, as I continued to read about the open road, I became more concerned.
According to the “other research”, travelling and exploring [on your own] [as a woman], can have several drawbacks such as troubleshooting repairs, experiencing isolation, and remaining safe. Okay, wait. What? I spent a few days thinking about this, and then I called in for backup. In my attempt to learn more, I approached my professor (Dr. Lorie Tuma, Grand Valley State University) and asked her if she would allow me to complete an independent study. I explained how important it was for me to understand some of these challenges. I told her I wanted to use her research and leverage it against the statistics provided by others to further develop my ideas. She agreed and gave me a very specific agenda. For the next semester, I was to join a Facebook group for women who camp, ask questions in forums, and she told me I needed to visit RV dealerships and mega camping stores. And, I was to ask specific questions about every concern I had about the open road.
Well, I eagerly accepted her offer and embarked on a semester-long journey that would change my outlook on this industry – long term. The following is, in summary, what I learned.
Women have always been inclined to help each other solve problems. However, when it comes to the camping solo, they remain the masters of their science. If something breaks, many women who solo camp know exactly how to fix things. In fact, many solo campers can complete the most complex tasks imaginable: They know how to pack bearings, remove and install new refrigerators, and hook up electrical lighting. In addition, if for some reason, they don’t know what to do, they turn to YouTube, consult other women in Facebook groups, and engage in conversations around the campfire to share solutions and ideas. Make no mistake – women help women, often.
In the forums and within some of the Facebook groups, I asked women how difficult it is to create long-term meaningful and trustworthy relationships as a solo camper. Although many admitted their tendency to overshare too much information, they also realized this was not the safest thing to do when camping or travelling solo. As a result, they have become very good practitioners at limiting the amount of information they share. However, in retrospect, they find it also limits their ability to create long-term meaningful and trustworthy relationships. A double whammy!
I asked women for specific tips on strategies for protection. I was worried…well, maybe just concerned that I would be able to protect myself out on the open road. Dr. Tuma encouraged me to further this by visitingRV stores and dealerships to inquire about specific tools and rigs that are built with safety features in mind. This proved to be very beneficial because I learned that some ultra-lightweight campers offer auto lock features and are easier and faster to hookup in an emergency. As I perused the forums and Facebook groups, from these sources, I assembled a list of tips such as using pepper spray, bear mace, and loud horn or noisemakers. More aggressive suggestions included the use of firearms, mounting small cameras outside the RV, keeping keys next to the bed at night, pointing the vehicle toward the nearest exit, and using motion-sensor lights. Who knew?
One additional thing I learned, that I hadn’t anticipated was – the power of social media and its role within the journey on the open road. Ironically, social media has played a huge part in helping women to become more independent and courageous. Women who admitted they generally do not have many close friends, join online camping groups to “make friends” and they post discussions online in an effort to share ideas and seek advice. I know this is true because I joined a women’s camping Facebook group to post my own questions to the forum and within minutes, maybe even seconds – several women gave me advice. And for the record – it was GREAT advice. I had no idea that social media could bridge this kind of gap.
Call to Action
Although it seems redundant that solo women campers continue to experience concern out on the open road, during this independent study, I found that many women do still fear to go alone not only on public land but at campgrounds as well. According to a survey conducted in 2016, more than 83 rapes occurred on public land. In the same year, 16 murders occurred on Park Service land. And if these statistics are not alarming enough, some of the YouTube videos in which women describe their experiences boondocking on either kind of land, are indeed a call for concern. Trust me, there were days when I just couldn’t watch anymore.
After spending weeks reading the literature, talking to industry experts, and conversing with women online who are indeed travelling down the Open Road of Life, I have come to the conclusion that information is power. This experience has provided me with a new respect for women who are out there, roaming the roads, exploring this nation, and seeking respite from their stressful lives. I now understand some of the risks we [women] take in pursuit of adventure, and at the same time, I so admire the women that find ways around those risks. In addition to this, I have learned that making repairs, forming companionship, and remaining safe is relevant to whatever adventure women choose to embrace.
However, I must add — it wasn’t until the 11th hour of this Independent Study journey, that I realized – that when women share experiences and best practices online, they connect unconditionally. They do what they can, to share what they know. And by doing so – they learn how to be warriors on the open road. And this revelation trumped everything for me. Because after 16 weeks of Independent Study, I finally realized that the solution to remaining safe on the Open Road of Life lies in personal intuition and collective empowerment. These women not only trust each other cautiously, but they also trust themselves carefully. And as such, my obligation is to pay this mindset forward. I need to pay forward my findings, my feelings about being scared on that open road, and I need to pay forward a philosophical pursuit for life and word of thanks to all the women who so graciously share their best practices with the rest of us. Through this experience I realized – it takes guts to tell your story. And it is the “better woman” that puts it out there so the rest of us don’t have to experience, the worst of it. If I am to succeed in this industry, I need to respect those that know this industry – those that live in this industry.
I want to thank every solo camper [woman] for her resourcefulness, camaraderie, and bravery because I have come to the place where I honestly believe, that solo camping – is not so much the challenge, as it is the journey. And with a little help from my friends (online and other), I will respectfully and courageously take my place — on the “Open Road of Life”.
Tuma, L.A., Dr., Gonzales, S., & Packer, M. (2019). Women Who RV: Confidence, Camaraderie, and Comfort in Camping. Journal of Tourism Insights. Retrieved from https://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1082&context=jti&z=1527767593&preview_mode=1&login=2498174