Monday, 15 June 2020

Selling The Sizzle, Forgetting The Steak

Something a little different this time in honor of 2020, the year of the RV. Fuelled by Corona virus concerns and bolstered by aggressive marketing by the RV industry, interest in leisure vehicles has never been higher. As many as forty-six million Americans, a record number,  say they plan to take an RV vacation in the next 12 months, according to findings from the market researcher Ipsos that the RV Industry Association funded. Even President Donald Trump suggested he may ditch Air Force One for an RV trip to New York.

This huge growth in RV interest is hardly surprising given current COVID-19 conditions. With borders closed, travel curtailed, and most vacation options such as cruise ship voyages, overseas flights and destination resorts either unavailable or undesirable, its little wonder why RV's have garnered so much interest. They are after all the perfect pandemic get-away, able to whisk their occupants off to the great outdoors in a self-contained bubble with private toilet, shower, bed and kitchen. In a world where social distancing, self-isolation, sanitizing and staying close to home have become the new normal, trailers, motorhomes and campers have become the new solution.

Much of this increased interest comes from people who are new to RV'ing and know little about the lifestyle. Their visions of camping have been shaped in large part by glossy brochures and slick TV ads showing the perfect camping spot by a picturesque lake with children frolicking through the forest rediscovering their "wildhood" or the happy family making memories around the campfire. Its a great example of the industry selling the sizzle but neglecting to mention how much effort is required to cook the steak. 

By that I mean, the industry ads tend to focus on or promote the positive aspects of RV'ing while minimizing or glossing over the challenges. And, it's these challenges and concerns which potential customers need to know about before signing on the dotted line.

Challenges, Challenges!
What are those challenges, or concerns associated with RV'ing which are seldom mentioned? Let's start with the RV vacation. Unlike other types of holidays such as a cruise on an ocean liner or stay at a destination resort where the most strenuous activity usually involves lifting a glass or choosing at the buffet, RV'ing requires active participation and effort. Whether its preparing for a trip, rolling down the highway or setting up at the campsite, there are skills to be mastered, common sense to be exercised, and effort to be expended to have an enjoyable, fun filled vacation. There are no tour guides, recreation directors, pool boys or bell hops to help with the heavy lifting. It's all up to the participants.

Planning and Preparation
Even before a wheel has turned, a successful trip requires planning and preparation. Gone are the days when the spontaneous adventurer could simply hop in their rig and head out on the highway. Sadly, the number of RV's currently on the road has far outpaced the number of RV parks and campgrounds able to accomodate them and that situation has been made even worse by the influx of new RV'ers. These days, its almost essential to plan a trip and reserve campsites well in advance. Even then, snagging a spot at a bucket-worthy locale such as Banff, Jasper, Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon can be more difficult then scoring tickets to a rock concert.

The increase in RV'ers (and tourists in general) has also lead to huge crowds and congestions at many of the popular vacation spots. Folks who dream of "getting away from it all" by visiting a national park, will likely be  disappointed. Banff for example, seems to rival Los Angeles or Vancouver at times for crowds and congestion, especially in the summer. Yellowstone, Zion, the Grand Canyon and most other major destinations are little better. Some US national parks are so busy, they are considering the implementation of a reservation system. This doesn't refer to campsites but a reserved time when a person or family can enter a park. No reservation - no admittance. 

After planning comes packing. Because an RV is essentially a mini-house, it needs a lot of stuff like, bedding, plates, utensils, food, etc. All the essentials of a home must also be in the mobile home plus camping gear, sports equipments, tools and a host of other odds and ends. Take too much stuff however and risk being overloaded. Omit or forget something and risk being without an essential item. Its a delicate balancing act.

On The Road

Once on the road, driving a motorhome or pulling a towable (travel trailer or 5th wheel) presents its own set of issues and challenges. Advocates of the RV lifestyle claim that pulling a trailer or driving a motorhome is, "not as difficult as it may look" and with a little practice "You will be a master in no time". These statements however, tend to gloss over the reality of the situation. Given a straight and level stretch of highway with little traffic and good weather, an RV is often no more difficult to handle then a large sedan or SUV. But, a recreational vehicle is essentially a big, awkward, ponderous box with mediocre acceleration, stodgy handling and marginal braking. Given the right (wrong?) conditions such as sharp curves, hills, crosswinds, rain, excessive speed or a combination of conditions and the docile box can quickly become a cantankerous handfull resulting in a white-knuckle, hair-raising driving experience. That's just on the highway. Even more cantankerousness await when entering a gas station, grocery store parking lot or shopping mall. Space that's ample for an ordinary vehicle becomes incredibly problematic for a big, ungainly beast on wheels.

At The Campground
Arriving at the campground merely substitues one set of challenges for another. Chief among them is the dreaded "back-in". During a recent RV related live stream event, the host asked chatroom participants to post their number one RV related fear or concern. By far, the largest number of responses were "backing in" to an RV site"

While highway driving can be tough enough, backing into an campsite or RV spot especially when pulling a trailer is the task most drivers, even the seasoned ones tend to dread. Practice and experience helps as does modern technology such as back-up cameras but, best of all is a good spotter.  Despite all these aids, it still tends to be a daunting task. 

Adding to the back-in stress is the knowledge that a lot of folks in surrounding sites are watching. While RV'ers on the whole are helpful and supportive, they will freely admit that one of their favourite past times is watching new arrivals back into their sites. It quickly becomes apparent who's a seasoned veteran and who is new at the job. Veterans tend to function as a well oiled team with each participant having a job or responsibility. Newbies on the other hand are still figuring things out. Often their efforts and actions were more appropriate for a comedy show then a camp ground. A well oiled team they are not.

Hooking Up/Taking Down
Once settled in the campsite, the RV needs to be set up. This is where the newbie discovers that an RV is really a collection of complex systems; sewer, water, A/C, heating, propane, etc., that must be connected, hooked-up, turned on, activated and deployed, correctly. These tasks are usually not strenuous or difficult but do require some time, effort and skill to complete. 

The same is true when leaving. While backing-up is no longer an issue, making sure that everything is disconnected, stowed away or put back in place is now the concern. RV lore is filled with stories about the guy who forgot to unplug his power cord or the gal who negelected to retract the stairs. It's no coincidence that many RV parks have exit signs which read, "Steps Up, Antenna Down, Sewer Cap On, Wife In". Funny as it may sound, it's still a valuable reminder.

Campgrounds & RV Parks
Speaking of camp grounds, there is the illusion that RV'ing is an inexpensive way to holiday and to a
certain extent, that's true - as long as its just accommodation costs that are being compared. Campgrounds as a general rule, are  cheaper then motels, hotels and resorts. For those who want to get away from it all and spend little or no money, boondocking or camping off the grid is an option. That could include setting up in the middle of nowhere or in a Walmart parking lot. It's been my experience that, given a choice most RV'ers prefer the creature comforts of an RV park such as water, sewer, power, a pool, store, playground, dog park and other amenities. If they had wanted to "rough-it" they'd have bought a tent. The down side to this type of camping is expense. RV parks can be expensive. In Canada, $40 to $60 a night is a common range for an average site while resort style destinations can easily ask twice that amount. So, even though these prices may be less then a hotel or resort, they still represent a significant expense.

Cruel Fuel
Camping costs pale however when compared with fuel expenditures. Whether its a motor home or vehicle towing a trailer, they all guzzle fuel at a prodigious rate. That's hardly a surprise given the fact that most RV's are little more than big, flat boxes with the aerodynamic properties of a brick. Smaller camper vans may see milage numbers in the low 20's (MPG) but the average motorhome or tow vehicle is usually down in the low teens. Add in a headwind, some hills and that number can easily drop to single digit. As a real world example, my tow vehicle averaged 25 litres per 100 kilometers or a little over 9 miles per gallon while pulling a trailer from Vancouver to Calgary.

So, if a destination is off the grid and close to home, an RV vacation can definitely be inexpensive otherwise, be sure you have a decent credit limit on your VISA card. You'll need it.

The Right Fit?
Finally there's the overarching question of whether an RV vacation is the right fit. Even though a recreational vehicle may seem huge when towed or driven, its really very small when lived in. There is little room for privacy or personal space. For some couples and families, that's not an issue. Everyone gets along and enjoys the camaraderie. For those who need their privacy, personal space or alone time, this can be a huge issue, transforming even a short trip into an  endless nightmare.

Its also essential that everyone is on the same page when it comes to an RV holiday. If one person is "gung ho" while the others are apathetic or worse, hostile to the idea, the resulting friction can become quite noticeable within the the RV's tiny confines. There's simply no where to go, no where to get away, no where to decompress when tensions build.

These are some of the issues to consider when RV'ing, either in a rented or purchased unit. For those who think they're ready to buy, there are many more aspects to consider, beginning with RV build quality.

RV Build Quality
Books have been written and experts have expounded on the topic of RV build quality and ways to determine a vehicle's quality, far better then I could hope so I won't, other then to say, there are vast differences in the quality of construction between brands and manufacturers. Some are well built and will stand the test of time. Others, less so and may not last through the length of the loan period. For some examples of how bad the situation can get, check out the "
RV Horror Stories" group on Facebook, The RV Horror Story of the Week found on the RV Travel website or search "RV Horror Stories" on Google. While finding horror stories isn't hard, finding well built brands may take a bit more digging on the Net.

RV Dealers
Hand in hand with RV quality goes RV dealerships. Finding the right RV dealer who will provide honest and fair sales and service plus stand behind and support their products when needed is just as important as picking a quality RV brand. Once again, books have been written on this topic so I won't try to cover it here other then to say, finding the right dealer should be the top priority for any one buying an RV. 

Why is finding a the right RV dealer a priority? Among other reasons,  RV's require a lot of maintenance and service, far more then a car, truck or other type of vehicle. But then, how many vehicles have a fridge, stove, sink, toilet, shower, bed or slide? Recreational vehicles have many complex systems and services which require regular and rigorous checks and maintenance. Omit or neglect these checks and issues can quickly develop that will ruin the RV experience and result in costly repairs.

These are just some of the challenges and issues associated with the RV lifestyle. Many more have been  missed or omitted. 

Final Thoughts
In closing, the purpose of this article is not to scare off or frighten potential RV'ers as much as to provide a reality check. While wheeled camping can be fun, enjoyable and rewarding, its critical not to get swept up in the hype and romance of the lifestyle while ignoring the issues and concerns. That's why I highly recommend renting before taking the purchase plunge for the new and uninitiated. RV'ing is not for everyone and the time to find that out is not after spending tens of thousands of dollars on a new unit because if that happens, there's one finally lesson the new RV'er will learn. Nothing depreciates faster than a recreational vehicle.

Some Of My Favourite RV Resources:

The RV Buyers Handbook (A great resource for Buying an RV)

RV Travel (An Online Newsletter for full of relevant info for RV'ers)

The RV Show USA (A podcast/radio show for potential and practicing RV'ers.)

The RV Atlas (Great resource for RV'ers with families.)

RV Miles (Podcast and website with lots of great info from a full time RV'ing family)

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