RVers might seem like a far cry from the traditional (read: stereotypical) core outdoor users who thrive on human-powered adventures. Retailers used to think a wheeled house punted the user into a totally different category.
No longer. Young “vanlifers” have bridged the gap between folks who typically hike or drive to a tent campsite and those who camp in RV parks. Vanlifers and new lightweight gear haulers are just two of the many reasons why the RV industry is now worth $50 billion.
That might sound like a small piece of outdoor industry’s $734 billion pie. But consider this: The RV ownership is at an all-time high - and it’s growing. Go RVing’s research shows that 40 percent of the U.S. population’s leisure preferences fit the RV lifestyle. With only 10 million RVers in the United States currently, the untapped market potential is extraordinary.
(Photo courtesy/Go RVing)
Perhaps the biggest surprise? Owners trend younger than you might expect. More than 11 percent of U.S. households headed by someone between 35–54-years-old own RVs - that’s higher than the 9.3 percent ownership rate among households led by folks 55 and older.
But retailers haven’t historically marketed to this passionate consumer segment. Backcountry Experience, a gear shop in Durango, Colo., is looking to buck that trend. The shop sent an employee to RVX, the RV industry new show that highlights the latest RV products, for the first time this month in hopes of exploring the answers to some of these questions.
Margaret Hedderman, Backcountry Experience’s director of marketing, said the store hasn’t yet tried to specifically target consumers who own or rent RVs. But regardless of whether you’re sleeping in a tent or a camper, you still need quality hiking boots, backpacks, outdoor apparel, and travel gear, she says.
“Backcountry Experience has tried really hard to not be elitist and to appeal to beginners, people who aren’t hardcore athletes,” she adds. “We want to help families get out there, we want people to enjoy the outdoors and don’t care how they do it. It’s just about being outside.”
Backcountry Experience’s store ethos speaks to a broader trend the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) has identified in its consumer research: Participants today are skewing away from the stereotypical, affluent, white male and toward younger, non-white, urban-dwelling outdoor lovers.
Today, core consumers are interested in dabbling in a wider variety of activities, says Samantha Searles, director of research for OIA. Customers are expecting more out of gear manufacturers. They want gear that’s great for everyday adventure yet will also perform on those hard-core trips they see as aspirational.
Hedderman says Backcountry Experience tries to cater to people who are into hard and soft adventure, offering gear for day hikes in the San Juan mountains as well as for climbs in the Himalayas. The shop has worked hard to call in beginners - they work with influencers and ambassadors and many of them aren’t “extreme” athletes, Hedderman says, “they’re people going on an adventure anyone could do.”
This is exactly what the RV Industry Association says the outdoor industry should do more of in order to appeal to the RV consumer base.
“I think your average consumer feels that ‘core’ outdoor is too hard,” says Liz Crawford, RV Industry Association’s senior vice president of trade shows and events. Today’s consumers are driven by shared experiences and showing themselves on social media doing cool things. That’s part of what’s driving increased millennial interest in RVs in what has traditionally been seen more widely as a pastime for older generations.
(Photo courtesy/Go RVing)
“The mobile generation loves this and can experience the outdoors through these vehicles,” Crawford added. “Outdoor Retailers are very savvy in attracting consumers to their stores, but how can they work with the RV Industry to showcase them in the RV product using their equipment, wearing their apparel and gear, and experiencing the lifestyle?”
“In general, it’s easy to think of RVers as people who RV to RV, and vanlifers as folks who essentially RV to get outdoors,” says Brody Leven, an adventure skier who partnered with Go RVing and the RV Industry Association to do a road trip around the United States.
But he’s not sure that’s the right way to look at it. From his perspective, everyone - RVers, vanlifers, hardcore backpackers and climbers - ultimately shares a core love for the outdoors.
“RVs used to be for old people and now they’re not, and that’s throwing people off,” says Leven, who now owns a van. “Both [RVers and vanlifers have] a similar mindset.
(Photo courtesy/Go RVing)
“They’re both totally gear nerds, in many, many ways. They both like tricking out their vehicles and getting all the newest gizmos and gadgets and making them as comfortable or versatile or decked out as they possibly can.”
That cross-generational passion is part of why the industry is clearly expanding.
“I think more people are realizing the value of spending time outdoors, and more people are coming into the outdoor industry, not just dirtbags and extreme skiers,” says Hedderman. “It speaks to a trend that is starting to happen - we’ve definitely seen more and more interest in vans and pursuing that type of lifestyle. … It’s such obvious crossover that it’s kind of surprising it’s taken so long [to talk about it].”