Living the RV life

  • Article by: DOUG SMITH , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 9, 2012 - 12:33 AM

Sales of recreational vehicles are on the rebound, with the biggest growth among families with kids, and of lighter models that can be towed by more vehicles.

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Rick and Brenda Allanson of Edina are longtime RVers. They are on a trip to the Black Hills of South Dakota.

When Rick Allanson and his wife, Brenda, gather with friends or relatives, it's often at their 30-foot travel trailer, not at their Edina home.

Except in winter, an RV park on the Mississippi River north of the Twin Cities is their home away from home.

"Everyone loves to come to the campground to barbeque, have a campfire and make s'mores," Rick Allanson said. "We're there almost every weekend. It's a getaway."

A getaway on wheels.

Longtime campers, the Allansons are passionate recreational vehicle enthusiasts.

And they are not alone.

Nationwide, about 8.9 million households own RVs -- the highest ever -- according to a 2011 University of Michigan survey. That's up from 5 million 30 years ago.

In Minnesota, about 150,000 trailers and motorized recreational vehicles were registered in 2011. And that doesn't include pickup campers, which aren't tracked because they don't need special license plates.

RVs are ubiquitous at Minnesota campgrounds: Half the campers at Minnesota state parks "rough it" in some type of recreational vehicle or trailer. And the number of RVers here and nationwide is expected to remain steady or grow as the nation recovers from the Great Recession.

Manufacturers cranked out 252,000 RVs last year -- the highest total in four years but still well below the 390,000 shipped in 2006. And Minnesota's RV sellers are optimistic they will find buyers at the 45th annual RV, Vacation and Camping Show, which opens this week in Minneapolis.

"Last year, we had the best year we've ever had," said Jeffrey Pearo, business manager at Hilltop Trailer Sales in Fridley. "We're expecting this year to be as good, if not better, than 2011."

Breaking a stereotype

If you think RVers are all gray-haired retired baby boomers, think again.

"There are plenty of retirees who are RVing, but many are families with children," said Kevin Broom of the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association.

Said Pearo, "I would say the biggest portion of our business is younger families."

The average age of an RVer is 48, and 39 percent had children under 18 living at home, according to that University of Michigan survey. The largest gain in RV ownership over the past five years was among those age 35 to 54, and they make up nearly half of all RV households. Still, 3.6 million baby boomer households have an RV.

The Allansons are in their mid-50s, and their four kids are grown. They bought their first travel trailer eight years ago, and now park their trailer from April to October at a seasonal campground near Otsego on the Mississippi River.

"Even in traffic on Friday nights I can get there in an hour," Rick Allanson said. "We go up Friday after work and come back Sunday. We fish the Mississippi for smallmouth bass, walleye, catfish and giant carp. We also do a lot of kayaking. And the campground has swimming pool and shuffleboard."

Their RV has all the comforts of home: a sofa and two chairs, table, refrigerator, oven, microwave, air conditioning and heat. "Last year we got a TV," he said.

And unlike a cabin, the Allansons' camper can be towed from their retreat to other campgrounds, including the Black Hills, their favorite destination.

"Minnesota has an unbelievable number of great campgrounds, including some right here in the metro area," he said.

Easier to tow

Pearo said the latest trend in RVs is lighter-weight trailers that can be towed more efficiently and with smaller, cheaper vehicles.

"We have a 23-foot Koala trailer that weighs 3,200 pounds," he said. "A conventional 23-foot trailer weighs about 4,400 pounds. Manufacturers are using more composite materials and are cutting weight from frames. It makes them easier to tow, with better gas mileage, but the biggest factor is they are towable by more vehicles."

The hottest sellers are in the $20,000-to-$30,000 range.

Meanwhile, the Allansons have bigger plans.

"I think next year we're going with a fifth-wheel," Rick Allanson said. "It's bigger, the ceilings are taller. People's mouths just drop when they see one.

"Camping has come a long way."

Doug Smith • dsmith@startribune.com

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