Ride Along – Participants and product designers are jumping on the vehicle-based adventure bandwagon
by: Martin Vilaboy
Whether one is willing to admit it or not, the dirty automobile has long been entwined with outdoor recreation. After all, the first motorized campers date as far back as 1910, while one of the nation’s oldest camping clubs, the Tin Can Tourists, reportedly got its name from the tin cans welded to radiator caps, which was an outward symbol of membership in the group. Certainly, there is nothing novel about a van or hatchback tricked out to carry and accommodate road-tripping climbers, surfers or backcountry skiers, and their accompanying gear.
On the other hand, it’d be naive to summarily dismiss, disregard or even underestimate the growing role and deepening integration of motor vehicles into outdoor recreation. To purists, of course, vehicle-based adventuring will remain the antithesis to “human-powered” recreation. For them, cars will continue to be simply a ride to the trailhead and a trunk to transport gear. For many others, motorized vehicles also serve as accommodations, power supply, changing room, remote office and access to the previously unreachable. Campers and tailgaters even can now attach a table to one of their tires. Indeed, from vanlife and “overland” to RV road tripping and comfort car camping, vehicle-based adventuring is encouraging participation, widening access to remote lands and driving product innovation; and it’s likely a bigger opportunity then many industry participants currently realize.
“It’s time we admitted that the vehicle is part of the adventure instead of pretending it doesn’t fit the equation,” says Scott Kaier, senior account executive at Verde Brand Communications and industry veteran. “The opportunity is for brands to push the products that fit the vehicle-camping lifestyle, as more people are camping this way.”
As Kaier suggests, many core brands are doing just that.
“The outdoor industry is embracing the idea that it is okay to drive to your campsite and use your vehicle as a base of operations for a variety of outdoor activities,” says Marily Melis, marketing director at Slumberjack. In addition to introducing product designed for vehicle-based adventures, such as the new Roadhouse tarp, the Overland tent and new rectangular sleeping bags, Slumberjack has incorporated the vehicle-based adventure ethos into its branding photography and even has adopted the motto “Hunt, Camp, Overland,” says Melis. “We see a lot of growth opportunity and overlap in these three activities.”
NEMO Equipment, meanwhile, has had a presence in the overland community since the first Overland Expo in Arizona, a “do-it-yourself” event for four-wheel-drive and adventure motorcycling enthusiasts that first launched about 10 years ago.
“It’s possible to make an experience around the vehicle as good or better as you’re going to get with any hotel or vacation home,” says NEMO founder and CEO Cam Brensinger, “and I think that’s where a lot of the appeal lies, especially for the younger generations.”
Kelty, likewise, not only designs products for the growing vehiclebased adventure sector, “we’re even living the van life,” says Eric Greene, Kelty president. Kelty is currently on a cross-country tech rep Wander Lost Tour, embracing and spreading #vanlife culture at festivals and more than 400 retailers across 30 states.
One place where we see the growing trend quantified is within recreational vehicle sales. In 2017, RV manufacturers and dealers expect sales to drive toward a new record, reaching the highest mark since the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association started tracking sales in 1979. Through the first five months of this year, total RV shipments were up 12.2 percent over 2016, which was also a record year for shipments, and during the past 12 months or so, year over year growth in shipments has routinely hit double digits. Manufacturers expect to ship 446,000 RVs in 2017, which would represent a doubling of shipments since 2008.
Keep in mind, we are not only talking about those massive, Type A motorhomes typically associated with retired grandparents. Rather, the various types of travel trailers and towables make up the lion’s share of sales and represent much of the growth, now accounting for 87 percent of the units sold, show RVIA’s figures. Even within the motorhome category, dealer shipments of the “conventional” Type A motorhomes have been relatively flat to declining the past several months, whereas shipments of Type B “van campers” and Type C “mini” motorhomes have been astronomical, routinely hitting annual growth rates upward of 20, 30 and 40 percent month after month.
RVIA believes these smaller motorized homes and trailers attract a younger, more diverse customer base than is traditionally associated with RVing, and some research seems to prove that out. The top prospective RV buyer, as identified by a Nielsen study performed for Go RVing, is about 45 years old, tech savvy and part of an “active family” with kids. According to findings from RVIA, RV owners aged 35 to 54 posted the largest percentage gains in ownership during the past decade. Industry proponents believe the smaller RVs and travel trailers, in particular, are more appealing to younger consumers, as opposed to Baby Boomers who buy larger motorhomes as part of a “life-altering” decision, or one that will occupy much of their time after retirement.
What’s more, according to a survey by KOA, new campers in 2016 were significantly more likely to spend their nights in an RV than they were the year before.
Back within core outdoor spaces, at least in terms of our camping gear and done-in-day accoutrements, there’s been something of a 180-degree turn in design philosophy. For the past several spring and summer seasons, a whole lot of emphasis has been placed on lowering weights. From trail footwear to packs to tents to sleep wares, we’ve seen ounces shed and unnecessary bells and whistles abandoned. Brands popped up that were specifically built on the premise of “fast and light;” we even made it all the way to “ultralight.”
But when a wheeled and motorized vehicle can take on the roles of backpack, duffel bag and gear vestibule, all of sudden there is a lot more room in play with.
“Road tripping consumers want gear that is compressible and easy to transport but isn’t limited by the need to fit in a 60-liter backpack,” says Greene. “Instead, the added capacity of a car, van or SUV at the campsite creates an opportunity for products to strike a better balance between packability, versatility (to support a broad variety of road life adventures) and livability (as defined by comfort-focused features).”
“One of the things I’ve really enjoyed about overlanding is worrying less about every ounce you’re carrying and focusing more on creating amazing meals and comfortable camping experiences,” adds Brensinger. Such sentiments may send shutters down the backpack of outdoor purists, but both Greene at Kelty and Brensinger at NEMO are more interested in the upside.
“Designing for vehicle-based adventures is fun because there are less constraints; we can more directly tackle trying to provide your home away from home,” says Brensinger. “And honestly, the equipment is so good these days, the experience of camping can be so pleasant, notwithstanding the need to make a living, it does beg the question of why you would want your money tied up in any one location?”
“It’s a positive trend because it means we can focus on building gear that makes the outdoor experience more comfortable and less intimidating to those that might be new to camping,” adds Greene, who points to Kelty’s continued focus on “simple, versatile, grab-and-go products that fit in the back of a car, set up quickly and provide comforts that rival the home.”
Examples from Kelty’s S/S 2018 introductions include new integrated sleep systems that offer camp beds and pads designed to fit their matching Kelty sleeping bags, making sleeping outdoors easier and more comfortable. Similarly, the Noah’s Camp Screen is a 12-foot screen room that protects picnic tables from bugs and falling leaves/ debris and packs down into its own backpack carry bag for convenient transportation from car to site.
Elsewhere, a quick flip through this issue’s new product section suggests brands expect to see increased sell through of many “camp comfort” items such as rectangular sleeping bags, large coolers, camp kitchen wares, luxurious sleep pads and cots, basecamp tents, camp furniture, chargers and rechargeable appliances. In other words, the emergence of car top tents is just the beginning.
“From a product point of view, we’ve put a lot more emphasis on growing our ‘Campfire’ segment in the last few years,” says Per Wååg, general manager for Brunton Outdoor and Primus U.S. “This is a segment where we target the typical car camper, overlander and other users that can carry more equipment on their adventures. All of these products have an element of portability yet maintain significant cooking capabilities, allowing more and more users to bring their indoor kitchens to the outdoors.”
This is all not to suggest that anyone jump off the lightweight wagon. Rather, “We see a general trend in people becoming more polarized with their outdoor activities,” says Wååg. “There is a growing audience that is taking on more extreme challenges and adventures, as well as an uptick in people selecting more comfortable ways to spend time outdoors.”
Ultimately, old assumptions about the type of customer who might be looking for a “comfort” item, or who would be classified as a “car camper,” may no longer be relevant. There also should be some reconsideration as to the type of customer who might purchase, say, a cot or a power sprayer or even a family-sized tent. In other words, the same highly adventurous enthusiast that used to be associated with ultralight mummy bags and bivouacs may today be the same type of enthusiasts who buys an elaborate sleep system or sets up a full-blown outdoor kitchen.
If nothing else, it’s probably time to broaden and alter the collective perception of what it means to go “car camping.”
Makes and Models
Buzzwords notwithstanding, vehicle-based adventures come in too many variations to fit under any one moniker. Here’s what we see as the primary subcategories, with some help from the editors at Overland Journal.
These folks are mostly found at developed campgrounds, often around fire pits and picnic tables. The subcategory, however, also should include those who travel further off the highway, likely setting up off of a forest road, and possibly near some trails, rocks, rapids or lava tunnels. Car makers today have built versatile interiors that attempt to mimic living spaces, making it appealing for car campers to use their rides as shelters, power sources, beds and workspaces.
Rather than a car, this group is using adventure motorcycles and four-wheelers to get off the main roads for possibly several days with only the support of their vehicles. Strap on a board, boat, bike or crash pad and these adventurers are able to reach remote recreation spots that might otherwise be inaccessible to them.
The stricter definition, according to Overland Journal, is vehicle-supported, selfreliant adventure travel, typically exploring remote locations and interacting with other cultures. More generally, the spirit of exploration and life lessons of the journey that are inherent to overlanding can also be found during a weekend trip just 100 miles from home.
Further out on the longtail of overland are adventure travelers on organized, vehicle-dependent expeditions, often involving long distances, varied terrains and climates. The objective (and the customer) is not unlike that of the millions of backpackers who have traveled the trails at home and abroad.
Also known as #vanlife, this is the stuff of Instagram dreams. In most cases, those selfies could be of couples on an extended honeymoon, climbers chasing routes near summer music festivals or a small family on a vacation road trip rolling from geysers to amusement park to mountain hot spring. For the lucky few, it’s an alternative way of life. Internet-connected and mobile-enabled, these vanlifers can go where the wind don’t blow so strange and still function within the work world. It’s not hard to understand the appeal.
“Van life is a new version of the American dream that’s more attainable and more flexible than the big house in suburbia or the condo at the ski resort,” says Cam Brensinger, NEMO founder and CEO, “Plus, North America has such an incredible diversity of landscapes and local cultures, you can have a lifetime of experiences on the road, bringing home with you everywhere you go.”
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