Freedom. That’s what drives recreational vehicle enthusiasts, all 30 million of them.
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They go where they want, when they want, stay as long as they want and do whatever they want.
From tents and fishing rods stuffed in camper shells to 45-foot diesel behemoths with built-in spas they redefine the experience of living.
“Rich or not, these are the happiest people I’ve ever known,” said Nancy Poulin, manager of Lake Tahoe KOA (Kampgrounds of America). “Exploring, camping, connecting with others, they just love the whole way of life. And one another.”
She notes RVing isn’t exclusive to retirement. According to a 2011 Recreational Vehicle Industry study, today’s typical RV owner is 49 years old, married, with an annual household income of $62,000 — higher than the median for most households. One in 12 U.S. vehicle-owning households now owns an RV. That’s more than 8 million vehicles.
Poulin, whose family owns and operates the six acre, 60 space park, watches as new generations come into the motorized camping experience.
“Our customers are all over the board in terms of age and experience,” she said. “We see many young families with just tents and poles. A few will rent an RV to find out what feels right.”
Placerville businessman Wilbur Howe, owner of C&H Motor Parts, has a lifetime of experience with camping.
As a youth he herded cattle from Shingle Springs to the summer grazing fields of Stumpy Meadows near Georgetown. Overnights were common.
In time he advanced to camper shells and trailers, then became an RVer.
“It’s amazing, convenient and liberating,” he noted. “Take care of it, it’ll take care of you. RVs require care and maintenance, like anything mechanical.”
Howe’s 45-foot Monaco Camelot is the latest of his eight trailers, fifth wheels and RVs that go back to the early 1970s. He sold or traded most, but keeps his 11-year-old Outback (a pull trailer) securely parked nearby.
“It’s always useful,” Howe said.
Despite fuel costs and an economic slump, RV ownership is on the rise for a host of reasons.
A 2009 Outdoor Recreation Participation Report cites 64 percent of enthusiasts enjoy getting away more often, 47 percent like spending more quality time with family, 44 percent use the RV to escape stress, 42 percent enjoy traveling more inexpensively and 38 percent enjoy getting away without advance planning.
Placerville car dealer Ron Thompson loves travelling and sightseeing. His 43-foot Monaco diesel pusher has four slide-outs and a turbo power plant that delivers 525 horsepower.
“If you want to experience this magnificent land, do it right,” he smiled.
He is planning some extended exploration in the coming years. The founder of Thompson’s Toyota stepped up from a smaller, older unit.
“You have to find what suits you by experience,” Thompson said.
Choosing a recreational vehicle is an educational journey by itself. It is both a home purchase and a vehicle purchase.
For the prospective full-timer, it is a life-style commitment. The would-be RVer has to come to grips with the overriding question, why and how will I use it? Sightseeing, camping, visiting, living on the road, maybe even professional reasons.
Armed with a plan, he can calculate the real cost of ownership — after digesting the vehicle’s sticker price. But for travel-minded foothill adventurists, paradise awaits.
Despite the variance in age range, most Placerville area trekking aficionados are retired couples wanting to visit the relatives in Seattle, the rally in Texas or Arizona’s Grand Canyon. The more adventurous nomads target Canada and Alaska.
Harold and Betty Knutson of Placerville have driven to Alaska twice on the Alcan Highway in their 1989 Sunrader motorhome.
“We caught and canned salmon, met some wonderful people,” Betty enthused. “The trips usually lasted two and a half months and covered about 10 thousand miles. We loved every mile.”
Harold, a retired shipbuilding project manager, runs his finger across a U.S. map.
“We’ve driven all over the country, including annual trips to Florida. It was always comfortable and reliable. “Last year they sold the Sunrader with 180,000 miles on the odometer.
Most RVers are like the Knutsons, seeking the adventure but preferring a travelling home in contrast to a guest bedroom with the kids or a budget-gobbling motel.
Tom and Deb Wenn, full-timers (live year around in the motorhome) for the past seven years, know their priorities.
“RVers get the best of many worlds — home ownership, sight-seeing and travel, and visiting family. But most of all, we enjoy the real friendships we’ve developed in the park system,” Tom said.
The couple took early retirement, bought a 38- foot Cruisemaster 4 and stay six months in the Tahoe area, and six months in Arizona and other warm places. They haul a compact car.
Western Slope explorers have some amazing and rare options for their geo-curiosity.
There is the unmatched Sierra Nevada range with the centerpiece Lake Tahoe, the 1,149-square-mile Yosemite Park, and the legendary 300-mile drive from Carmel to the Humboldt Bay, including San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge.
The cost of RV ownership is more than just maintenance, fuel, insurance and campground fees.
Storage of larger units, when not in use, can be pricy. On the road, living costs vary with life style.
Wear and tear is expected but occasional replacement of utility and comfort systems should be taken into account. Paying a substantial amount down or buying for cash forecloses the possibility of investing those dollars anywhere else. And the units depreciate.
On the other hand, the full-timer may also get rid of certain expenses from the existing budget such as mortgage, utilities, insurance and property taxes on a house or condo.
RVs have evolved from crates-on-wheels to artistically impressive steel and fiberglass or aluminum sculptures. Through aerodynamic shapes and improved power plants, the latter-day beauties deliver engineered performance such as improved climbing, efficient braking and decent gas mileage.
Wenn advised climbing slowly on long grades, and using turn-outs when available, although he installed a Banks power booster at the time of purchase and “never had a problem with grades.”
He smiled. “Gets you onto the freeway and up to speed faster, too.”
He and Deb have also learned the importance of tire pressure and plastic interiors.
“When you’re on a bad road, the vibration and shaking can test every seam and joint. Plastic, not metal, is your best friend,” Wenn said.
Thompson and Howe have no issues with long grades, the Cummins turbo diesel engines and Allison transmissions are designed for the haul.
Living space is premium and true creature comfort is a mandate. But construction quality is as important as construction materials. Kitchens and bathrooms have to work all the time and rain leaks are intolerable.
High-end Class A coaches and top-shelf fifth wheels typically carry the best workmanship and materials.
RVs cost from under $4,000 to over a million. The big diesel pushers sail down highways looking like futuristic movie props while their fifth-wheel cousins roll easily behind robust pickups, ingeniously mounted to the truckbeds by a single arm.
When stationary, many have slide-out rooms, pop-up roof features, pull-out decks and patio covers. The big units must fit into uniform camping sites, sometimes a challenge to the nearly 40-foot land yachts that roam from park to park.
The affable Poulin remembered a gentleman from Newport Beach who showed up at her campground in a 45-footer with four slide-outs.
She chuckled, “He was the most gracious man and we were able to get him into a space. Our trees can get in the way of that size RV. We’ve received many celebrities and their relatives over the years, and their vehicles are usually are in the 40-foot range.”
Size is always a trade-off. Twenty-footers can zip in and out of city parking, fit almost any park and resist crosswinds easier than their super cousins. The shorter the rig, the more the maneuvering options are available. A 28-eight foot RV can sometimes go where the 38 footers don’t dare.
Ask Roger and Mary Pierce of Placerville. The retired couple travels several times a years to Southern California, and once in a while to Sturgis, South Dakota.
The main attraction is California’s banana belt, a warm, fog-free coastal sliver 100 miles north of the Golden Gate Bridge.
“We never thought we’d be RVers,” chuckled Mary. “We started out pitching a tent in Tahoe. As we got older the ground got harder, and one day we saw a used RV for sale, and said ‘why not?’”
“Not right away, though,” added Roger, “We revisited it three times. Finally we ran out of reasons not to spring for it. That was a few years ago and it is still the best $5,000 we ever spent.”
The coach is an 11-year-old 28-foot AlumaLite which sleeps six, has a bathroom, kitchen and room to be active.
“Comes in pretty handy as a guest house too. We had five visitors in it for a week, they loved it.” The rig is powered by a Chevrolet 442 cubic inch engine. Roger beamed. “Only 54 thousand miles on it after all these years.”
“That will change,” said Mary. “We want to travel the entire country and spend extra time in Nevada.”
Maintenance for the motorhome is “about the same as a car,” according to Roger, “Except for details like flushing the waste water system. Travelling is comfortable, maneuverability is good. We fit in just about every park.”
There are over 13,000 privately owned parks and campgrounds, as well as 1,600 state parks catering to RVs.
California state parks have length limits, although many RVers are often granted an extra degree of overhang. Manager Poulin likes to keep the length at 36 feet but will accommodate larger if the trees allow.
Motorhomes, travel trailers, fifth wheels and toy haulers constitute most of the market for RVs.
Camper shells on pickups are the low end while large “toy haulers” configure the high end. These contain a built-in garage for their “toys” such as motorcycles, all terrain vehicles and specialty equipment. Toy haulers come in almost every size; from a small 23-ft camper, to a 40-ft behemoth.
A totally decked-out toy-hauling fifth wheel can include king-size beds, full bathrooms with garden tubs, a full kitchen with solid surface countertops, microwave ovens and big flat screen satellite TVs.
RVs generally dock at parks or campgrounds. KOA is the largest park system in the country, while Thousand Trails is smaller and considered more exclusive.
Parks are generally more accessible to freeways and towns, usually furnish lots of amenities such as a clubhouse and recreational facilities. Guests park there for a night or two, then roll on.
On the other hand, campgrounds are sometimes more remote, and offer hiking trails, fishing, campfire areas. Vacationers typically spend at least a week in campgrounds.
According to the RV journals and Internet blogs, finding filling stations that can handle big rigs is another challenge. So-called travel plazas, even those near well-travelled expressways, may not always accommodate larger units. Diesel powered rigs have it a bit easier by being able to use the truck pumps, but gassers need to plan their routes carefully and maybe carry extra fuel in case they run low away from the mainstream highways
The Thompsons, Howes, Knutsons, Pierces and Wenns all acquired their RVs for slightly different motivations, but they are unanimous about one thing — the warm and wonderful travellers they are meeting along the way stand out as the most memorable attraction of the entire experience.