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America's On The Tow: Small 'towables' and 'toy haulers' boost RV sales

Category: RV News
Source: The Register-Guard
Publish Date: Tuesday, March 6, 2007
Summary: Noted growth in sales of towable RVs

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By Mike Stahlberg
The Register-Guard
Published: Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Long known for being constantly on the go, Americans also are becoming a people on the tow - at least as far as camping weekends and vacations are concerned.

Sales of towable recreational vehicles in 2006 were the highest in 30 years, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, an industry group based in Virginia. Motorized RVs accounted for only 14 percent of all RVs shipped to dealers last year.

Helping boost sales was strong demand for a relatively new type of travel trailer, as well as for entry-level camp trailers, including tiny teardrop-shaped models that are a throwback to the 1940s.

Both categories drew lots of interest at the recent Eugene RV Show, which featured the largest display of recreational vehicles in the show's 39 years.

A good number of the units on display were of a style that didn't even exist a few years ago. That would be the "sport utility trailer," more commonly known as the "toy hauler."

A SUT is a travel trailer that doubles as a garage on wheels and can be used to transport All Terrain Vehicles, motorcycles, small boats or other bulky "toys" to the campsite.

Typically, the back wall of an SUT can be lowered to serve as a loading ramp. After the "toys" are unloaded at the campsite, sofas and beds are lowered from the ceiling or the walls and carpet is unrolled. Presto! The cargo area is now a living area or bedroom.

Amenities such as kitchen, dining area, toilet and shower are usually in front of the SUT's cargo area.

Toy haulers have become "a very popular kind of model" since their introduction six or seven years ago, said Kevin Broom, the RVIA's media relations director. "They've been selling very well, especially with younger, active people."

Due to the large number of ATV owners in Oregon, toy haulers "are incredible popular around here," said Dave Weinkauf, who - with his wife, Judi - has managed the Eugene RV Show for the past 27 years. "We started seeing those about five years ago, and now pretty much every dealer has sports utility trailer" line.

Alan Donley of Paradise RV said the toy hauler "is really the most popular product, probably, on the lot because it's self-contained and people can not only carry all their goodies, they can lock 'em up in there."

And any amenity available in a traditional travel trailer or fifth-wheeler is also available in a toy hauler, Donley said, including showers, skylights, full-sized beds, television with "surround sound, just like a home theater" and kitchens with all the appliances.

Most also come with a built-in "fuel station" that can store and pump up to 100 gallons of gasoline.

"So if you're out in the desert or on the sand dunes, you're not breaking your camp and going and getting gas for the ATVs," Donley said. "You've already got it with you."

Towable sports utility RVs typically range from 20 to 40 feet in length and from $21,000 to $58,000 in price, according to the RVIA.

But Airstream recently came out with a 16-foot version that links the toy hauler concept with another trend in camping - small lightweight towables and tent trailers.

Only 7 feet wide, the Airstream Basecamp features wrap-around tinted windows, a skylight, horseshoe-shaped counter with sink and cook-top, air-conditioner and a 50-inch seat/bed that folds up to provide space enough to haul one ATV "quad," or other "toys" such as kayaks or hang-gliders. An optional Kelty "tent extension" expands the living quarters while in camp.

Models like the Basecamp - which sells for just under $30,000 - are evidence that the RV industry is reaching out to younger age groups.

Weinkauf said "the smaller towables and tent trailers have attracted a younger and younger audience" to his RV shows. "It used to be it was 45-plus, and now we're seeing the 35- to-50 crowd with kids getting a hold of something that's fun and enjoyable and affordable."

Lightweight, towable RVs start at about $5,000 and go up to almost $30,000, in the case of the Airstream Basecamp.

The less-expensive pop-up tent trailers are great for people who "just want something real simple - a nice comfortable bed, out of the water if it rains, a cooking surface and place to eat," said Dan Coughlin of Apache Camping Center in Clackamas, which claims to be the largest seller of pop-up tent trailers in the country.

With everything folded down into a small utility trailer for transport, tent trailers are "great for people who are cautious about towing something - there's no wind resistance and you can see over it when you're driving," Coughlin said.

Tent trailers "are really popular here in the Northwest," he said. "We've got so many beautiful places conducive to camping - the ocean, the mountains, the desert ..."

Apache displayed tent trailers at the Eugene RV Show that ranged in price from about $7,000 to about $17,000 - the latter model including two king-size beds, a refrigerator-freezer, a microwave oven, gas BBQ, hot water and combination toilet/shower.

For those who want something more substantial than canvas between them and the weather, RV makers produce several tiny trailers designed to provide cooking and sleeping facilities for two people.

"These have become extraordinarily popular," said Terry Thiesfeld, sales manager of George Sutton RV, which also carries full-size Airstream travel trailers and the Basecamp.

"There's a lot of people out there that, because of fuel economy, don't want to have to buy a big truck to go camping," Thiesfeld said.

One unit that generates a lot of nostalgic comments is the "T@B," a teardrop-shaped camper that Thiesfeld says is a modern version of a style that was popular in the 1940s.

"A lot of them were made based on plans published in Popular Mechanics," he said.

"On a daily basis, we hear people say, `I remember when I was a kid my Dad had one of these.' It's nostalgic."

The modern "teardrop" comes in several different floor plans. All include a dinette area that converts into a bed. Some have cooking facilities inside, others have the stove and refrigerator on the exterior, beneath a "clamshell" back.

While cozy, the T@B has a ceiling too low for a 6-footer to stand up without hitting his head.

No such problem in the Chalets - another line of small travel trailers that Sutton also had on display. The teepee-like chalets feature space to sleep, eat and cook beneath an insulated A-frame roof that folds down during transport but, when erected, is over 8 feet tall at the peak.

Speaking of which, the RV industry is apparently far from peaking.

"Every day, 11,000 Americans turn 50, according to the Census Bureau," Broom said. "And the average RV-er is 49, so that's a perfect demographic for us. The Baby Boomers are really fueling the industry's record numbers."

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