In RVs, older Americans going mobile


Staying young, growing old and what happens in between

May 27, 2007|By Linell Smith | Linell Smith,Sun Reporter

This Memorial Day, Jodi and Mark Davis are celebrating the launch of the RV season hunkered down with three trailer-loads of relatives in a leafy campground near Hershey, Pa. The Bel Air couple have picked a site with plenty to do: A weekend of canoeing, mountain biking, swimming, mini-golfing, fishing and Pennsylvania Dutch attractions should easily create another chapter in the long family history of RVing.

Like many inhabitants of the recreational vehicle universe, the Davises are baby boomers who like nothing better than shedding their corporate duds on a Friday afternoon to head for the hills -- or at least the nearest KOA campground.

"For any given year, probably 80 percent of our vacations are spent camping," says Jodi Davis, a 46-year-old vice president with M & T Bank. "If we could camp every weekend, we would. In spring and summer, we go out at least two weekends a month."

And by camping, she doesn't mean freeze-dried beef stew and back packs. She's describing a queen-sized bed with a pillow-top mattress, a full kitchen with microwave, a shower and a small TV packed into a 26-foot travel trailer. RVing is a form of leisure Davis has treasured since she was a toddler. Eventually, she passed the bug on to her husband, and then their two children. Now she's happily indoctrinating her godsons, who represent the fourth generation.

"It doesn't matter what campground or state you're in, everybody in the RV world talks to everybody," she says. "When you're walking the dogs or playing volleyball, everyone's in a wonderful, great mood. ... We get too caught up in our busy lives. This is the best way to spend time with my husband and family in a stress-free, healthy way."

Contrary to the popular notions of silver-haired seniors, the typical RV owner is a 49-year-old homeowner who is married and has an annual household income of $68,000, according to a 2005 study by the University of Michigan's Survey Research Center.

In fact, more RVs are owned by Americans ages 35 to 54 than any other age group. And nearly 8 million U.S. households own at least one RV, a 15 percent increase over a 2001 survey. Popular models can range from $4,000 to more than $400,000, according to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association.

RVs are nearly as diverse as the folks buying them. Towable RVs, pulled by cars, trucks or vans, can be unhitched and left at a camp site while their owners take family day trips and dine out. RV motor homes, generally larger and more expensive, often serve as primary residences and retirement homes.

Some motor homes are commodious enough to feature slide-out rooms, central air and heat, and plasma TVs. Owners use them for tailgate parties at baseball and football games as well as for more traditional travel.

"Baby boomers are buying all across the range of RVs," says Kevin Broom, spokesman for RVIA. "They are more active, perhaps, than previous generations. A lot of couples in their late 40s and 50s will take RV trips with a "toy-hauler" they can load with ATVs or motorcycles or jet skis."

With or without kids

RVs are popular with boomers who are still raising kids as well as with those whose offspring have flown the nest. Take, for instance, Lynn Brooks, 56, formerly of Bethesda.

In 2005, Brooks retired, sold her home and took to the roads with her partner, Henry Leweling, their German shepherd Lady and their motor home. The couple lives at a campground near Denver while 62-year-old Leweling, an engineer in environmental safety and transportation, oversees several construction projects for the city.

Meanwhile, Lynn is responsible for managing and maintaining their 40-foot Fleetwood motor home and has taken courses in RV driving, plumbing, electricity and air conditioning.

Brooks considers herself among an estimated million RV "fulltimers." (According to the RVIA, RV ownership is smallest in the Northeast: 4.6 percent of households -- and strongest in the West: 11 percent of households.)

"Out here in Denver, almost everyone we meet is a fulltimer," Brooks says. "They're either retired and traveling or they're still working, like us, and living in their motor home. ... Most are in their 50s and 60s, and almost everyone travels with pets. You'll see these small Class C motor homes -- an RV that has a truck front and a piece that comes over the top -- that contain four or five huge dogs. You think, 'Holy Mackerel! How do these folks survive?'"

Gas and guns

A few concerns tend to dominate the RV world.

"We're always looking for cheap gas," she reports. "Right now our biggest challenge is that diesel fuel is around $3.12, $3.15 a gallon. And we're always looking for ways to make more space. Although I'm amazed at how well we get along -- after all, it's a 600-square foot mobile apartment -- you've got to have a real good sense of humor. And you can't be a slob: Everything has to go back exactly where it was."

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