Winter Rving grows as motorhomes become cozier

When John Sankey is driving through the countryside with his recreational vehicle (RV), he’s not necessarily admiring blooming trees, scenic lakes and the crackling of a campfire on a warm summer night.  
More likely, Mr. Sankey, a field naturalist from Ottawa, Ont. is navigating “black” ice, hunkering down for the night in a snow-banked parking lot or slowing during a winter whiteout.

In fact, Mr. Sankey’s most memorable evening in his RV was about four years ago in Norwood, Ontario when the temperature dipped to minus 35 Celsius with wind gusts to 80 km/hr wind.

“The RV is out at least every other day year-round. It’s really nice to whip out and turn the furnace on, then have a nice warm vehicle to drive an hour later,”  says Mr. Sankey, a 30- year veteran of year-round, cold weather RV use who drives a 17-foot Unik, built on a Dodge chassis.

“I visit family in Guelph, Toronto, Kingston, Stroudsburg PA, Hudson and St. Jovite, Quebec – at least one visit each month… I’m not interested in hibernating…” says Mr. Sankey

And while it has been somewhat lonely doing “off season” RVing, Mr. Sankey might beetting more company these days as a growing number of RV users don’t believe it has to be gorgeous summer weather to enjoy their compact world on wheels. 

“I know that every now and again I’m hearing more… enquires about winter time use,” says Don Mockford, Executive Vice President Canadian Recreational Vehicle Association. 

And the non-summer traffic is noticeable at RV parks which have been traditionally quiet during fall and winter.

“The winter activity is getting greater,” says Cheryl Bysong, manager of the Delux RV Park, about 6 kilometres from Denver, CO.

“I don’t know whether [RV users] are braver; or its baby boomers who have a different attitude entirely…A few years ago people could pretty much drive in.  Now you [should] have a reservation.”

And evidence of growth is also apparent at the retail end of the RV industry.  Jim Forrester, owner of Toronto Camping Centre, Inc., an RV sales and rental outlet, has been noticing a new generation of buyers.

“[Year- round use] is growing.  There’s more people getting into recreational vehicles and doing full-time RVing,” says Mr. Forrester.

Don Ferguson, president, Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association of Canada expects RV sales in 2002 to increase by 15 to 20 per cent over 2001.

“People are finding new ways to use their RV – that’s what it’s all about.  [They are] extending the season, making it longer [and] trying to find ways to use it all year round,” says Mr. Ferguson, who is also the principal of St. Thomas, Ont.-based Ferguson RV World.

Mr. Ferguson estimates that adding winterized features can add $5,000 to $10,000 to the price tag of a recreational vehicle.

And the increased use of RVs is not just driven by tourists. Corporations are buying or renting vehicles as an alternative to using a hotel. 

“A lot of the people we get in this park are entrepreneurs.  They are coming in for a [trade] show…We’re also finding an upswing of construction companies where the company itself will buy a 28-30 foot RV, place it in a park like this and house part of their crew,” say Ms. Bysong.

And the RV manufacturers are listening.  Until recently, one had to place a special order if one wanted a vehicle that provides comfort in winter.  Now most RVs come with standard features that can handle the harsh weather.

“Most manufacturers, especially the Canadian manufacturers, have a winterized option,” says Don Mockford.

A case in point Glendale Recreational Vehicles of Strathroy, Ontario, Canada largest manufacturer of recreational vehicles – including travel trailers and motor homes – located about 35 minutes from Sarnia, Ontario.

“Five years ago less than 20 per cent of our products were winterized, now it’s close to 90 per cent,” says Glendale president Terry Mullan.

For example, the 27-foot 280 Royal Classic motor home comes with vacuum bonded Fiberglass exterior side walls with 1-inch solid block Durafoam insulation, a seamless rubber roof filled with 2 ½ inch fiberglass batt insulation, truss rafters and plywood sheeting.

And Mr. Mullan leads by example, by bundling his wife and four children into a motorhome that he parks at the slopes at Blue Mountain, near Collingwood, Ont.

“Halfway through the day you stop right at the motor home, have a nap, relax; the kids can get something to eat and then it’s back up again,” said Mr. Mullan.

Mr. Forrester also leads by example – in the extreme. He’s been living in a motorhome for 13 years and he doesn’t cheat by heading to Florida during the cold months. 

His home is a fully equipped 37-foot $160,000 Fleetwood Bounder.  Features for survival include double pane windows and a holding tank of fresh water heated by a furnace.

And if the trend of all-year RV use continues, it boads well for the Canadian RV industry which is estimated to be worth about $2 billion per year.  After all, potential buyers of recreational vehicles often shudder when asked to pony up $75,000 for a vehicle that may only be used a few weeks per year.

“I would expect the [participation] numbers to go up and more sales for the industry,” says Don Mockford.

But if the traffic should continue to increase, Mr. Sankey isn’t too worried about a new generation of tourists scaring away the owls.

“It wouldn’t bother me at all… That’s when I value knowing my wilderness areas,’ says Mr. Sankey.