Probably because we have such an invitingly big country—some 2,777 miles from sea to shining sea—Americans have long been explorers at heart. We arrived by ship, and next, wondering what was beyond, later set out in covered wagons or climbed aboard westbound trains. Soon after Henry Ford introduced the Model T car in 1908, someone strapped a tiny, homemade apartment on top of one, and the road trip was on.
“We Americans are inherently vagabonds,” says RV Hall of Fame historian Al Hesselbart, 71, of Elkhart, Ind. “As soon as there was an automobile on the road, somebody figured out how to hang a bed behind it, and the RV was born.”
The first motorized campers and camping trailers, built in 1910, were basically tents on wheels. But according to the Reston, Va.-based trade group GoRVing.com, in the 1930’s, RV (“recreational vehicle”) manufacturers upped their game by borrowing heavily from aircraft-style construction and equipping models with dinettes, electricity, water and on-board bathrooms as well as larger, more comfortable beds.
Today, over 9 million U.S. households own RVs, ranging from a few thousand dollars to upwards of half a million, and outfitted with standard amenities such as bathrooms, full kitchens and air-conditioning, or slick, tricked-out extras such as flat screen TVs, swiveling massage chairs and temperature- controlled wine cabinets. Some even have fireplaces.
“The biggest trends right now are bunk beds and lightweight travel trailers, towable with vehicles people already own,” says John MacDonald, 58, a spokesman for Jayco, a manufacturer in Middlebury, Ind.
According to GoRVing.com, despite the hefty initial investment and the high price of fuel, RVing is the fastest-growing travel option for families with children. “With our family of six, we’d have to get two hotel rooms,” says Betsy VanderMeer, 32, of Kalamazoo, Mich., who often hits the road with her kids and husband, towing their pop-up camper. “Instead, we can have a beautiful campsite for $20 or $30 a night and make our own meals.”
Whether you’re traveling, camping or tailgating at a NASCAR race, such as West Springfield, Mass.-based Gina Kelly, 54, often does with her family, RV enthusiasts say their road-tripping mode is the only way to go. “You get the best of both worlds,” she says. “You get to travel and take your home with you.”