Ed and Joyce Bowler said they were just browsing at Reines RV Center in Manassas on a recent Saturday morning, pondering a replacement for the travel trailer they hooked onto the back of their red Ford pickup for camping trips. Four hours later, the couple from Haymarket signed the buyer's order to purchase a bus-size motor home that will cost them $159,000.
"We decided we want to move up," said Ed Bowler, 41, a heating and air conditioning maintenance worker for the Fairfax County schools. "We were looking for something that we could use actually going down the road as we're traveling."
The interior of their new 39-foot-long Fleetwood Discovery has dark wood finish, a cream-colored faux leather sofa, a skylight over the bath, a three-burner range top, a four-door refrigerator and a home entertainment system with a 27-inch TV screen.
Not every recreational vehicle buyer chooses such an elaborate home on wheels, but manufacturers and dealers report strong sales for RVs of all types.
National sales of recreational vehicles -- including "towables" that are pulled by a truck or sport-utility vehicle as well as costlier motor homes -- jumped 14.9 percent, to 137,060, in the first five months of this year compared with the same period last year, according to the Fairfax-based Recreation Vehicle Dealers Association.
Industry representatives say the strong RV sales stem from low interest rates, the growing list of design features and gadgets offered on new models and their $50 million "Go RVing" marketing campaign to attract baby boomers and young families.
They say buyers aren't deterred by the high price of fuel for a motor home that gets 7 to 10 miles per gallon, although more are choosing vehicles powered by diesel fuel.
Despite the image of an elderly retiree at the wheel of an RV, today's typical RV owner is 49 years old and married, with a yearly household income of $56,000, according to a University of Michigan study commissioned by the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association.
Kelly Shanholtzer, president of Beckleys Camping Center in Thurmont, said sales of Winnebago motor homes are up because of the aging baby-boom generation. He said young couples, 30 to 45 years old, who want to spend more quality time with their kids tend to buy less costly travel trailers.
"Camping used to be roughing it," he said. "But now it's taking your home away from home. They want their stereo. They want their DVD. They want all the conveniences of home."
Shanholtzer said this year is shaping up to be his dealership's best ever. He expects to sell about 1,000 RVs, an increase of 15 to 20 percent from last year.
RVs also have grown in appeal since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, among people who are reluctant to fly but eager to tour their homeland, industry analysts say.
"People have wanted to avoid airports, and buying an RV and going camping with the family is an option," said Joe Chumbler, recreational vehicle analyst for Stephens Inc., a Little Rock investment bank.
Sales of full-size motor homes are increasing faster than sales of towables, industry experts say, although the numbers sold have not yet returned to the record levels of 1999, before the recession undercut demand for the behemoths that retail for $63,000 to $144,000.
Those willing to pay that much do not seem daunted by the thought of spending about $140 at current prices to fill a gas tank that typically holds 75 gallons. That's roughly $22 more than a fill-up a year ago.
"Even though gas prices are a little bit higher, there's plenty of fuel available," said Lindsey Reines, owner of the dealership where the Bowlers bought their new motor home. "I think the key is that the economy is very strong in the Washington metropolitan area. And I think that if it's going to cost you $500 more a year to take your family [camping] for the summer . . . you're going to do it. You're not just going to sit home." Reines said his dealership had a record month in June, with more than $4.2 million in revenue from the sale of 85 used and new RVs.
Campground owner Ron Vitkun said he worried in early spring that rising gas prices would deter visitors to his Yogi Bear's Jellystone Park in Williamsport, a franchise of a national camping chain. Instead, he said, total occupancy increased about 20 percent from January through mid-July compared with the same period last year. The campground, near Antietam National Battlefield, charges $30 to $50 a night for a hookup at one of its 189 campsites.
Vitkun said in recent years he has noticed a change in camp visitors, with more young families and first-timers. "The mix has definitely been falling to a younger group of people," he said.
Many buyers, facing high gasoline prices, have turned to diesel-powered vehicles instead.
A spokeswoman for Fleetwood Enterprises Inc., an RV manufacturer in Riverside, Calif., said from January to May its sales for diesel motor homes were 1,746, up 18.8 percent from the same period last year. Sales of gasoline-powered motor homes rose 1.4 percent to 4,924 in the same period.
Last month, Winnebago Industries Inc. of Forest City, Iowa, the industry's leading manufacturer, reported a 90 percent increase in third-quarter net income, attributing the jump to strong sales of diesel-powered models.
The national average diesel price has climbed to record highs (not adjusted for inflation) in recent days, according to AAA's Fuel Gauge Report, and Friday was nearly even with the national average for regular gasoline
But Joyce Bowler is still comfortable with the family's choice of a diesel-powered motor home. "Honestly, it doesn't bother me," Bowler said. "It's still, in my opinion, the cheapest way to go. . . . It's a lot less than an airline ticket. For the form of entertainment that we are getting -- family togetherness -- it's worth every penny to me."