RVers rewrite budget rules on the slopes

When Mitchell Magid and Gord Westfield took to the slopes at Whistler, B.C., in December, their experiences after the sun went down and the lifts stopped formed a tale of two skiers.

Mr. Westfield (not his real name), a Toronto investment advisor, retired to a room at the Listel Hotel Whistler that, on special, cost $106 a night, plus taxes. Mr. Magid headed to lodgings that were about 70 per cent less. During peak season the gap in their outlays would have been even bigger: Mr. Westfield’s room goes for as much as $449 a night; Mr. Magid’s accommodations remain well under $40 per night.

Mr. Magid wasn’t staying in a youth hostel or a dive on the edge of town. He unwound in his 32-foot Fleetwood Bounder recreational vehicle, which he parks all winter at the Riverside RV Resort & Campground about 1.4 km outside Whistler Village.

A retired engineer and widower from Florida, Mr. Magid is part of a small but growing number of RVers who are rewriting the budgeting rules of winter recreation.

Luxury on a budget
Mr. Magid turned to the RV in order ply his favourite winter sports while sideslipping past high-priced lodgings. In retiremt, his income has dropped to US$25,000 a year. So in 1995 he bought the Fleetwood Bounder for about US$50,000 and now lives in it year-round.

“I had lived a typical life: a three-bedroom, two-bath home,” Mr. Magid says. “But I changed my lifestyle so I could afford to live within my means. The motorhome provides me with that social level.”

While Mr. Magid’s circumstances may be unusual, he’s hardly alone in his RV habit. The Recreational Vehicle Association of Canada says that total RV sales grew more than 10 per centin 2003. That’s up from what Statistics Canada says was already a record-breaking year in 2002. And Baby Boomers aren’t shy to spring for the best. They’re driving into the sunset behind the wheels of 40-foot diesel monsters with flat-screen televisions and queen-sized beds. Some of these “land yachts” sell for as much as $360,000.

Tom Kummerfield, who owns True North RV in Sidney, B.C., says that during a sale last fall, cars lined the streets as dozens of people roamed the lots. “You’ve got your Boomers that have got their homes paid off and they’re looking for something else to do,” he says.

Having made the investment, owners are keen to get the most out of their vehicles. While the Riverside campground in Whistler had 10 RVs parked long-term last winter, this season the number is already up to 16. Diane Batten, editor of Beaverton, Ont.-based RV gazette, says she was getting so many inquiries about campgrounds open in the winter that in the October 2003 issue she published a directory of winter facilities. Readers, she says “take [the RV] skiing and use it as an on-site chalet.”

Winterization counts
The RV manufacturing industry has certainly noticed the trend. Terry Mullan, president of Strathroy, Ont.-based manufacturer Glendale Recreational Vehicles, says that while six years ago fewer than 20% of its vans were winterized, today it’s around 90%. “Our septic tanks are heated and insulated now. Before, it would have been an option,” he says. “We’re very sensitive where our water lines go” so the water doesn’t freeze in cold temperatures.

“[Our units] have thermal pane windows, more insulation…. It’s becoming standard because people are using them year-round.”

Mr. Mullan leads by example, bundling his family of six into a 31-foot Royal Classic and heading to Blue Mountain Ski Resort near Collingwood, Ont. Forget about staying in one of the resort’s Snowbridge townhouses that rent for $389 a night; the Mullans hunker down in the parking lot for free. “[An RV] gives you the last-minute flexibility of just going up, compared to trying at peak times to book a chalet,” he says.

Rent – at a bargain
If you don’t own a motorhome, you can always rent one. A 24-foot vehicle from Globetrotter RV of Bolton, Ont., rents for $940 per week in the winter, which includes 1,000 km of mileage. At Toronto Camping Centre (TCC) in Woodbridge, Ont., RV winter rentals average $105 a day, including 100 km daily.

Winter is also the best time for RV bargains. Last spring, Globetrotter was selling a three-year-old, 24-foot Corsair model for about $46,000. This winter the vehicle costs about $10,000 less. At TCC, a 31-foot Fleetwood Tioga motorhome that sold for $95,000 in the spring can be had for $70,000 now.

Of course, a compact world on wheels in the dead of winter is not for everyone. Apres-ski for Mr. Magid includes shoveling snow off the roof of his vehicle and making sure the water pipes haven’t frozen. In fact, some “all season” RVs are not up to the task of a full frontal winter assault. Supposedly winterized units can suffer frost damage and propane heating systems can produce mildew.

Those who rent may also find getting dinged extra changes. At Globetrotter, these include $70 a person per trip for plates and cutlery and $45 for a colour TV and VCR. TCC charges a $150 “check-out” fee and a $55 winterizing fee, plus a $2,000 security deposit.

Worse still, the chill RV owners feel at some resorts is not from the wind. Many facilities don’t like massive vehicles clogging their parking lots. Rules vary: While the Big White resort southeast of Kelowna, B.C, allows overnight parking for a $10 fee, Talisman Mountain Resort northeast of Toronto reserves the right to deny permission. At Blue Mountain, meanwhile, overnight RV parking is “actively discouraged,” says the resort’s marketing executive Paul Pinchbeck. “But some people sneak in…. We may get to that point [of towing] if parking is at a premium.”

Beware the fines
Former Whistler mayor Drew Meredith recalls an uneasy relationship between RVers and the town during his term in the late 1980s. RV owners happily paid the $15 tickets for illegal parking, especially since the town didn’t have a tow truck big enough to tow the vehicles away (parking fines are now $75). At the same time, there were no services to speak of, like dedicated power for the vans.

Mitchell Magid, for one, is glad to accept the occasional inconvenience for the savings. He gets a 25 percent discount as a long-term resident at the Riverside campground. “The benefit of cold-weather camping is affordability,” he says, “which allows me to ski a full season in a world-class ski resort.”