RVs: Life in the slow lane

If you’re old enough to remember when the only alternative to white bread was a loaf of brown, you’re old enough to remember the trailer-home caravans that once meandered along narrow country highways.

Times, however, are a changin’. Today’s supermarket bakery sections are now a browsers’ delight. And motor homes, instead of being a preserve of retirees with time on their hands, have become an alternative lifestyle for boomers and their children, as well.

This isn’t to say those endless convoys of days gone by have disappeared. Ernie Hamm, the Langley, B.C.-based executive vice-president of the Recreational Vehicle Dealers’ Association of Canada, says they’ve actually increased. But with campsites becoming crowded, a typical caravan might now constitute only 25 units, rather than the 50 or more that travelled together in the 1960s. And with wider roads, the convoys no longer are the curse to other motorists they once were.

Organized convoys, however, are just part of today’s RV (recreational vehicle) community. One can still pay a fee to a club to organize a tour or arrange overnight accommodation. But the bulk of today’s motorhome travellers have taken to movi out and about – like Ray Parker, who recently wrote a book called RV Having Fun Yet?.

Getting adjusted to mobile living quarters took Parker some time -such as figuring out what had happened when he heard crashes and bangs in the back of his new home minutes after pulling out of his driveway.

“Had I blown a tire? Had the transmission fallen into the street? Did I run over a moving van? “I looked back down the aisle and saw drawers of canned goods hurling onto the floor, closet doors slamming wildly and dishes clattering like a quake in a china shop.

“It dawned on me we hadn’t packed in proper RV fashion.” After some trial and error, Parker has become something of a veteran.

Don’t think travelling by motor home can be done on the cheap. Buying your own unit can run from $4,000 for the least expensive folding camp trailer (a lightweight unit with collapsible sides that fold into a trailer but provides kitchen, dining and sleeping facilities for up to eight) to a cottage on wheels starting at $200,000 – with all the bells and whistles imaginable.

A mid-range trailer towed by a bumper- or frame-mounted hitch with kitchen, toilet and sleeping facilities capable of sleeping four to eight can cost $10,000 to $40,000. (One advantage of the latter is they can be unhooked and left in a trailer park, freeing up owners to run errands or do a bit of sightseeing.)

A one-piece motorized mini-motorhome, on the other hand, with amenities limited only by one’s imagination and budget, can run from $50,000 to $75,000.

Like Parker though, only a few individuals are aware of how much gas it takes for motor homes to have a decent cruising range. As he recalls, “I hardly expected my first gas up would suck the station dry.”

To truly enjoy living in a motor home, one has to select a vehicle with care. And before buying, it’s a good idea to rent a unit.

Rental prices vary. Some firms charge by the day, some by the week and some over three-day periods. One Toronto-area firm charges close to $700 for a three-day trip in a 24-foot unit – fully equipped with a microwave and other kitchen equipment, air conditioning, a shower or tub – during the high season (July 1 through Aug. 15). In the shoulder seasons (May 11 to July 1 and Aug. 16 through Sept. 10), the cost drops to around $500, with the rest of the year costing approximately $300. That, however, includes 800 kilometres and insurance.

Motor homes once were a way of getting from A to B, and docking in a trailer park cost only a fraction of the rate of a hotel room. But today, rather than wintering in one location, Canadian snowbirds are using their units to move from one sunny site to another during the winter.

The vehicles are also becoming more popular on Canadian roads, largely because a rising number of working parents have turned to RV vacations as a means of seeing more of the country and spending more time with the kids. In fact, there are estimates that as many as one million RV owners call Canada home – more than twice the number during the 1970s. Private operators, together with federal and provincial governments, have also responded to the trend, opening more than 4,000 trailer camp grounds to satisfy the demand.

Manufacturing is also on the rise. One major shift is from motorized units to towable types, particularly the so-called fifth-wheel trailer dragged by a full-sized pick-up truck with a special mounting in the bed that adds stability and safety while towing. Defying concern over job cutbacks and static wages, sales now top 30,000 annually. And there’s good vibes about the future – consumer enthusiasm at the big winter RV shows indicate that sales will likely continue to rise as more boomers near retirement.