Recreation Vehicles Get Revamped for the Backcountry


The term “Recreational Vehicle” may by a misnomer, a bit of mid-century ad-speak designed to make hanging out in parking lots sound appealing, but if a few rogue RV makers have their way, the house-on-wheels industry may be in for a radical change. An increasing number of Offroad RVs are rolling off production lines, up mountains, across deserts, and right past traditional drive-in campgrounds.

“Think of them as a fully-stocked basecamp on wheels,” says Bill Swails, who created the EarthRoamer line, perhaps the most off-road capable RVs on the planet. “We’re building expedition vehicles. 

The innovation isn’t just driven by the what – massive, luxurious spaces stacked on oversized wheels – but by the who. Swails’ audience isn’t surburban middle management. He wants to tap into the growing group of Patagonia-wearing Americans who bag fourteeners and want to get outdoors, 44 million of whom went tent camping last year.

“My last buyer was this guy who was going to drive around the country chasing big storms so he could ski the freshest, best powder in the backcountry all across the states and Canada,” says Swails. “The EarthRoamer appealed to him because it’s essentially a condo on wheels that can go most places, regardless of the weather.”

The difference between these RVs and grandma-and-grandpa rigs starts from the ground up. Your typical RV is a luxury liner, but it’s also a cumbersome, rear-wheel-drive beast that requires wide, pristine roads and spacious parking spots. The average off-road RV’s chassis is far more compact and agile. It might include 4-wheel drive, oversized tires, and even lift kits. For example, the EarthRoamers are built on the chassis of a Ford 550 or 650 4X4 pickup truck.

But these off-road condos aren’t solely focused on taking you into the backcountry – they help you thrive once you’re there. “Material choice is the make or break factor,” says Swails. “We have to choose parts that allow you to camp for extended periods of time without hookups.” That’s why EarthRoamers have enlarged fuel and water tanks, solar panels, energy efficient appliances, LED lights, and double-pane windows for insulation. But EarthRoamers represent the pinnacle of the market rather than its swelling middle.

“About 300,000 RVs were sold last year, and 90 percent of them were towable,” says Mike Tribble, of Livin‘ Lite, a towable trailer company. “The problem is that most towables require a big truck or SUV to tow because they’re so heavy.”

That’s why Tribble’s company is making their RVs out of aluminum. “Using all aluminum gives adventurers two huge advantages,” says Tribble. “First, it’s 40 percent lighter, so you can tow our rigs with a Subaru or other small crossover. Second, it doesn’t rust or rot like steel and wood do, which is what most towables are made out of, so when you inevitably get it dirty you can just spray it out with a hose.”

Those two features have gotten the attention of weekend warriors. “We just sold one to a guy who was towing it with a Crossover, going on fishing trips and excursions to bluegrass festivals,” says Tribble. When it comes to towables, you can find anything from something that simply provides a warm bed, to a unit stocked with all the amenities.

But not every off-road-friendly RV or trailer is a stripped down. Thor Motor Coach, a brand known for producing some of the most luxurious motor homes in the game is making a line that they call R.U.V.s, as in Recreation Utility Vehicles. These R.U.V.s can go off-road – albeit to a lesser extent than an EarthRoamer, or a Livin‘ Lite towed by a Wrangler – and have satellite-ready televisions, touchscreen dash radios, plush beds, spacious bathrooms, and three-burner gas ranges. Basically, it’s a bachelor pad on wheels. 

“I’m not sure if the industry just figured out that the adventurer demographic was out there, or if the technology came around that let us better cater to these more outdoorsy customers,” says Kevin Broom of the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association. “But now, no matter your interests, there’s an RV or trailer out there that will fit your lifestyle and your budget.” The Thor RUV goes for a little more than a quarter of a million dollars. Livin‘ Lite sells portable base camps starting at $6,000.

“You know, a lot of the people who buy these are guys who love being outdoors, but they don’t necessarily want to live outdoors for an entire vacation,” says Broom. “There’s just something great about coming back to a warm, comfortable place to cook and hang out, and a soft bed to sleep in the night after a hard day outside.” 

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