Editor’s Note: The following is a story authored by New York Times writer David Howard tracking the trend in towable RVs toward lighter-weight units.
Brian Endter’s 30-day road trip this summer from his home in Bend, Ore., to his native lands of the Midwest unfolded like an American greatest-hits tour: national park campgrounds, stops in the Tetons, a visit to Old Faithful. His 6- and 4-year-old sons were ecstatic when a buffalo wandered through their Yellowstone campsite, and they relaxed in his dad’s cabin in northern Wisconsin. Good times. The funny thing was, the trip wouldn’t have happened but for one thing: a new trailer/tent hybrid called the SylvanSport Go.
Endter, 41, a special-education teacher, had done the math: flights for his family of four and renting a car would have cost around $3,000, which seemed prohibitive. He didn’t want a motorhome. “I don’t want to sound like an elitist,” he said, “but I’ve never been interested in the hotel-room-on-wheels RV thing.” And Endter didn’t have a vehicle powerful enough to pull a full-sized pop-up camper. Then he read about the Go, released in stores in April, in an outdoors magazine.
By day, the Go is a gear-hauling utility trailer. At night, it opens into a hard-roofed tent that sleeps four. The willowy unit weighs only 800 pounds, meaning the Endters can tow it with their four-cylinder Honda CR-V. Their gas mileage dropped from 27 or 28 miles per gallon to 21 or 22 m.p.g., but that now seems like a small price to pay.
Back in the glory days of guilt-free driving and dirt-cheap gas — say, around 2004 — motorhome aficionados worshiped at the altar of size. Who cared if a 34-foot luxury RV got six miles to the gallon? Now, of course, things are different. A fill-up for a diesel-swilling movable McMansion might soon cross the $500 threshold. Credit is tight, the economy is concave, and motor home sales have tumbled each year since peaking in 2004; this year is shaping up to be the worst overall since 1992. Analysts are predicting that the RV industry has yet to hit bottom. But there is a ray of hope in the new wave of smaller motorhomes and campers that can be towed by any car — like the Go. If this trend were a movie it would be called “Honey, I Shrunk the Camper.”
“There is absolutely a trend toward downsizing in the RV industry,” said Craig R. Kennison, a consumer leisure industry analyst with Milwaukee-based Robert W. Baird & Company, a wealth management and private equity company. “I don’t think the lifestyle is going away, but I think people are pursuing it in a different way. And the companies that innovate to meet consumer demand best will be the survivors.”
It should be noted that this concept of tiny, towable campers is not new. The Teardrop trailer, a 750-pound unit that stretched less then nine feet in length and featured a svelte, curving shape to match its name, has attracted a loyal following since its introduction back in the 1930s. Camp-Inn of Necedah, Wis.; Little Guy Worldwide of Canton, Ohio; and SoCal Teardrops of Ontario, Calif., still manufacture trailers based on the original designs today, as do a smattering of small custom builders. One of them, Jack Schonfeld of Pineville, La., also moderates a website called “Teardrops and Tiny Travel Trailers,” on which aficionados share construction plans and advice.
In the first half of 2008, the site’s membership has nearly doubled, from 4,000 to 7,000 members, Schonfeld said in an e-mail message. “The growth has been phenomenal this year,” he wrote, “and I attribute that to rising gas prices and folks wanting to downsize their camping activities.” Two annual summer events for Teardrop enthusiasts — in Northern California’s redwood country and in Virginia — are both sold out this year, with about 300 attendees coming to each from all over North America. Schonfeld anticipates that his own event, held outside Shreveport, La., in late October, will also sell out for the second consecutive year.
The Times reported that a number of other firms are competing to build their own such ultralight brands. In 2006, Airstream introduced the BaseCamp, a lightweight tent-trailer hybrid feathery enough to be pulled by most any conventional vehicle. The trailer is at once throwback — its design pays homage to the company’s founder, Wally Byam — and futuristic. With its swooping profile and wraparound smoked windows, it looks like an iPod on wheels. Airstream specifically marketed it to the ecology-minded outdoors set, billing it a “toy trailer.”
Dutchmen Manufacturing Inc. unveiled the [email protected], a teardrop-styled lightweight trailer in 2003. The Sidekick and Hyper Lite are among other competitors in the towable-camper arena. The single-celled organism of the mobile-camper concept is the Sportz tent, which wraps around the cargo area of minivans, pickups and sports-utility vehicles — transforming that space into a sleeping area or tent-accessible storage. The 10-by-10-foot tent can be fully converted into a stand-alone shelter outfitted with three mesh windows and two skylights. And because the vehicle is essentially an extension of the tent — or vice versa, depending on your perspective — campers can still plug in a DVD player on rainy nights.
The new model, the Sportz SUV 83000, adds a fully detachable 7-foot-by-6-foot floorless room to the previous footprint. “It’s been a huge success so far,” said Katie Gordon, marketing coordinator for the manufacturer, Napier Enterprises of Ontario. “It’s been very hard for us to keep it in stock.”
The company has sold “a couple thousand” units since its February launch, for obvious reasons, she said. Because of fuel prices, “people aren’t going on airplanes, they aren’t going long distances, but they still want to take a vacation, so they’re doing more camping closer to home.”Gordon said even traditional R.V. owners have bought them for close-to-home weekend use.
A number of traditional RV manufacturers are taking notice of the trend, creating smaller, sleeker motorhomes that cost less and travel lighter across the land. In 2006 Winnebago released the View, a 23-foot unit featuring a new lightweight chassis developed by Dodge that managed 16 to 19 miles per gallon. This year, Winnebago added the ERA, which Kennison described as “almost a souped-up soccer-mom minivan.”
Fleetwood Enterprises Inc. followed suit this year with several smaller models, giving the movement a greater foothold. “I would think RV makers will continue to find ways to improve fuel economy,” said Kevin Broom, director of media relations for the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA).
But the View and its ilk still wouldn’t interest the likes of Endter, an outdoor-loving owner of the SylvanSport Go who would stay home rather than buy an R.V.
In transport mode, the low-profile, high-capacity Go can carry up to 800 pounds of gear. It features 24 feet of waterproof storage; Endter stores the family’s stuff in a half-dozen giant Rubbermaid bins. The Go accommodates his Thule rack, which carries their four bikes. And it features 13 inches of ground clearance and high-flotation tires, which enables off-road travel. (At home, the trailer can handle full sheets of plywood and other unwieldy home-improvement type supplies much like a full-size pickup.)
At the campground the Go shifts into camping mode, deploying a hard-roofed Kelty tent system that accommodates four. There are multiple sleeping configurations with custom self-inflating mattresses from Pacific Outdoor Equipment; the bed panels can be reconfigured as tables at mealtimes.
The set-up is intuitive, and nearly any four-cylinder car or hybrid outfitted with a bumper hitch can pull it — even Civics and Mini Coopers, said its creator, Thomas Dempsey of Cedar Mountain, N.C., president of SylvanSport.
The Go, with a suggested price of $7,995, offers a redemption of sorts for Dempsey, 44. Nearly 20 years ago, he designed a pop-up trailer for Coleman. But, he said, “I was not an RV person. I was lucky to have a sleeping bag when I was out in the woods, so I never understood that RV mentality.” It bothered Dempsey that the camper “sat in the yard for 11 and a half months of the year and couldn’t do anything but be a pop-up camper.”
According to the Times, he later began a career as an entrepreneur, founding Liquidlogic Kayaks and eventually SylvanSport, in 2004. “Making kayaks and being involved in the outdoor industry, I realized that outdoors people and RV people are different, and rarely did their paths cross,” Dempsey said. With the Go, he set out to create another piece of outdoor gear.
SylvanSport introduced the product at the 2007 Outdoor Retailer show and is marketing the trailer primarily at outdoors stores such as L. L. Bean. Mr. Dempsey is perhaps the first such manufacturer to reject any association with the motor home business. “The RV industry has not kept up with the times at all,” Dempsey said. “The traditional pop-up camper is similar to what it was when it was introduced 30 years ago. Today’s young, active families — the RV industry doesn’t appeal to them.”
Indeed, for others who have yet to innovate, times ahead could be tough. When Reticle Partners purchased Columbia Northwest last year, the new owners opted for only a light revision of the Aliner line of lightweight campers, created in the 1980s. The T.R.E. line (an acronym for Travel, Rumble, Explore), introduced in January, offered just a few cosmetic alterations to the Cabin A series. The smallest of the bunch, the Amelia, is one of the few ultralight campers with a bathroom, but it still weighs in at 1,850 pounds, more than twice the weight of the Go.
Melanie Spires, Columbia Northwest’s marketing and sales coordinator, essentially conceded that the T.R.E. has yet to catch fire with consumers. “A majority of people are waiting to see where the market’s headed,” she said. “They know the economy’s tough, and they’re protective of the dollars they do have.”