America's baby boomers, seeking new ways to get away from it all, have helped RV sales skyrocket in the last year.
The $10-billion recreational vehicle industry, which ranges from spartan $3,600 trailers to cushy million-dollar-plus motor homes, is thriving. Sales were up 17% last summer, and dealers expect continued expansion this year. Growth can be found everywhere, led by Southern California, the country's largest RV market.
Baby boomers, hitting their 50s in large numbers, are driving the gains, according to a University of Michigan study. The average age of an RV buyer has fallen from the low 60s to 49. The study also found that nearly 1 of every 12 families that drive has an RV -- that's 7 million households.
RV rentals also surged last summer, with increases as high as 40% over the previous year. Many people advise novice RVers to rent rather than buy for their first experience and allow at least a week to see if they enjoy the lifestyle.
RVs come in two basic types: units that can be towed by a car or truck, and motorized vehicles, which are self-contained and have an engine. Most rentals today are mini-motor home or motor home units, but trailers are sometimes available.
The least expensive towable RVs are folding camping trailers (priced from $3,600), which can sleep four comfortably and, in most cases, can be pulled behind the family car and unfolded at the campsite. Some have toilets.
Truck campers, which slide onto the bed of a pickup, have living and sleeping units that can accommodate up to six people; prices start at about $4,500. Truck campers can tow motorcycles or a second vehicle, such as a boat, on a trailer.
The mini-motor home can resemble a van, with convertible multiuse furnishings such as seats or dinettes that unfold into beds. Or it can be truck style, with a bed installed over the cab and additional beds that fold out from a sofa or dinette in the living area.
A van conversion may not have bath facilities, but a mini-motor home always has a toilet, sink and shower.
A full-size motor home usually has a queen- or king-size bed, a full bathroom and an additional sleeping area converted from a sofa or dinette.
Motor home prices begin at about $45,000; vans styled for living and sleeping start at $35,000. Van conversions, custom interiors created to order, usually begin at about $28,500.
Self-contained RVs do not need external hookups every night; the propane-fueled stove, refrigerator and heater operate wherever the unit is parked.
Holding tanks keep a supply of fresh water and can store the water from the sinks and toilet for two or three days before it's necessary to dump them. Commercial campgrounds usually offer a facility for sewage dumping at most campsites; parks and forest campgrounds generally provide one central site instead.
Campground directories list commercial and public campgrounds in national and state parks, as well as those provided by the U.S. Forest Service and Army Corps of Engineers.
When shopping for an RV, visit dealers in the area and attend local RV shows advertised in newspapers and on TV.
Directory listings: Many RV dealers also rent units. Check your local phone book and compare prices.
Altman's Winnebago, 22020 Recreation Road, Carson, CA 90745; (310) 518-6182, http://www.altmans.com.Cruise America, 2233 E. 223rd St., Carson, CA 90810; (800) 327-7799 or (310) 522-3870, http://www.cruiseamerica.com.El Monte RV, 12818 Firestone Blvd., Santa Fe Springs, CA 90670; (800) 367-3687 or (562) 404-9300, http://www.elmonte.com.
Go RVing: A coalition of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Assn., Recreation Vehicle Dealers Assn., National Assn. of RV Parks and Campgrounds (ARVC) and leading state RV and campground associations. Go RVing has travel tips and lists of nearby RV dealers and campgrounds. (888) GO-RVING (467-8464), http://www.gorving.com.
Camping World (a retailer for RV supplies): P.O. Box 90017, Bowling Green, KY 42102; (800) 626-3636, fax (270) 796-8991, http://www.campingworld.com.Buying or renting RVs: National RV Dealers Assn., 3930 University Drive, Fairfax, VA 22030; (703) 591-7130, fax (703) 591-0734, http://www.rvda.org; and Recreation Vehicle Rental Assn. (same address, phone, fax and Web site). Recreation Vehicle Industry Assn. (RV manufacturers, shows and clubs): 1896 Preston White Drive, Department M, Reston, VA 20191; (703) 620-6003, fax (703) 620-5071, Attn. GoRVing, http://www.rvia.org.Dealers, campgrounds, rental units, parts: RVUSA, 1111 S.W. 17th St., Ocala, FL 34474; (800) 297-8872, fax (352) 622-6479, http://www.rvusa.com.
Kampgrounds of America Inc.: KOA, P.O. Box 30558, Billings, MT 59114; (406) 248-7444, fax (406) 248-7414, http://www.koa.com.National Assn. of RV Parks & Campgrounds: A trade association representing the commercial RV park and campground industry in the United States. 113 Park Ave., Falls Church, VA 22046; (703) 241-8801, fax (703) 241-1004, http://www.gocampingamerica.com.National Reservation Recreation Service: A joint program of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service and the Army Corps of Engineers. P.O. Box 140, Ballston Spa, NY 12020; (877) 444-6777, http://www.reserveusa.com.
Woodall's Campground Directory: Woodall Publications Corp., 2575 Vista del Mar Drive, Ventura, CA 93001; (800) 323-9076, fax (805) 667-4468, http://www.woodalls.com.