RVs are back and bigger than ever

RV sales are back and bigger than ever
RV sales are back and bigger than ever

In the ultra-modern age of virtual reality, online shopping and hot yoga, the old-school pastime of RV touring just happens to be booming.

Sales of recreational vehicles are at genuinely never-before-seen record levels. And buyers are getting younger. The RV category includes both motorhomes and trailers of all sizes.

Last year, 430,000 recreational vehicles of all kinds were sold, according to the RV Industry Association, an increase of 15% over the year before. And sales have been rising year after year following a one-year decline in 2009, during the financial crisis.

Some of that has to do with low gas prices and easy credit.

But ironically, the flood of new technology -- smart phones, 4G data connections and so forth -- has also helped drive the trend. It's made driving around the country for weeks at a time a much less daunting prospect.

Related: Enjoy that road trip! Gas hasn't been this cheap in years

And now the people who grew up with technology are now reaching RV-buying age. More than half of RV buyers are under the age 45, according the RV Industry Association.

People like Gerrad Archibald and his wife Krista, both 39, are helping to pull down that average age. For seven months, they've been connecting the dots between America's national parks in a BMW SUV towing a small Alto pop-up trailer.

"It's like a jewel on the campground," Krista said of their tear-drop shaped trailer. "Everyone wants to see it."

gerrard krista archibald trailer
Gerrard and Krista Archibald have been touring America's national parks in their pop-up trailer.

It was perfect for them, they said, because it's small and easy to tow but still has an indoor cooktop, so they can make food when it's raining, and it has hard metal sides to keep bears out. (Bears like to help themselves to food when campers are away.)

Airstream has been chasing younger campers like them with its new Basecamp trailer. It takes the classic shiny aluminum Airstream look and wraps it around a compact trailer with a cool retro-modern interior.

Related: Americans are going deeper into debt to buy cars

"[Saying] that Basecamp has been a runaway success is an understatement," said Airstream CEO Bob Wheeler. "Our original production plans were 10 a week. We're now making 25 a week. We have a wholesale backlog out until the end of this calendar year."

Trailers like the Basecamp are relatively inexpensive, with prices starting at under $40,000. Motorhomes, the luxury condos of the road, are a different story. Prices for those can easily reach six figures. That points to another big factor in the rise of the RV lifestyle, which is that loans are easy to get.

"You can see terms as long as 20 years," said Winnebago CEO Micheal Happe. So it is more like investing in a second home than it is investing in another automobile."

winnebago vista lx
Prices for the Winnebago Vista LX start at over $130,000.

Rising motorhome sales are a boon for automakers, too. Ford Motor Co. (F), for instance, makes the chassis, engines and transmissions for most of the motorhomes sold in America. That business has been booming, Ford says.

And Kampgrounds of America, with its famous KOA RV campgrounds, reports that business is the best its ever been in the company's 57 years.

Now the industry is working on exports. As of now, the vast majority of RV's exported from the United States never go farther than Canada. But industry representatives are working hard to get China into camping.

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