Camping often conjures up images of tenting under starry skies, but as the May long weekend launches Alberta’s season, the province’s campgrounds will be dominated by recreational vehicles.

Albertans are big fans of camping on wheels.

Industry statistics show 26 per cent of Albertans own an RV — a greater saturation than in any other province. Alberta also boasted the highest retail sales numbers in Canada, with $796 million worth of RVs sold in 2011.

Even Alberta’s tourism minister has tried comfort camping. Richard Starke borrowed his in-laws camper van last year to tour around the province with his wife.

“Albertans love their recreation vehicles,” said Starke.

“We live in an absolutely beautiful province and it just beckons for people to just get outdoors and enjoy the outdoors, especially in the summer months. And I guess the second reason is we have a very robust economy. People have disposable income that allows for them to purchase these units.”

Sales booming

Edmonton grandfather Dean Marchon picked up his first travel trailer this week — a brand new, one-bedroom unit with a pull-out couch. He and his wife Barbara plan to park it on a lot they own and spend their weekends and holidays enjoying time at the lake with their five-year-old granddaughter.

RV popularity in Alberta

Dean Marchon of Edmonton picks up his first travel trailer at Rangeland RV and Trailer Sales in Balzac. Last year, more than 14,000 recreational vehicles sold in Alberta. (Jenaya King/CBC)

“We don’t like the tenting,” he said. “The tent doesn’t always stay dry, you’re cold. We’re spoiled. We don’t want to go through that. We’d rather have something that’s really comfortable. Put a movie on if the weather’s bad, listen to music. It’s relaxed.”

At Rangeland RV and Trailer Sales north of Calgary, owner Dania Filippetto says RVs are appealing to Albertans working in demanding jobs.

“People in this province are so busy right now,” she said. “Clients are happily working more hours than you can shake a stick at, and to be able to take the family out for the weekend and create some memories — it’s a big thing.”

Younger RV Drivers

Some RVs boast big-screen television, lavish bedrooms and all the comforts of home, like this 34-foot trailer at the 56th Annual Colorado RV Sports, Boat and Travel Show. (RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post/AP)

Every year, RVs get bigger, but the large ones aren’t the most popular on the lot. Buyers want to “get off the ground,” even if it’s in a tent trailer, Filippetto said. And they want to camp in the spring and fall, when the overnight temperature sometimes drops below zero.

“Now, with the RVs that are being made, you can use them four seasons if you want. We have a lot of people who are buying stoves and ovens to go out and do deep-fried turkey cooking for Thanksgiving weekend,” said Filippetto.

Province adds more RV sites

The Alberta government is paying attention. In 2009, the province commissioned a study on the popularity of the RV. The report found that 40 per cent of Albertans camp, and three out of four are sleeping in an RV. 

Campground improvements

But Alberta’s public and private campgrounds weren’t keeping up with the demand. More than half of the campsites didn’t offer power hookups — and of those that did, most were private campgrounds.

This week, Starke announced changes to several popular campgrounds in the province, including adding larger full-service sites and additional sites with power hook-ups.

“The idea here is to meet the demands of the travelling public — of the consumer — and to make sure … there’s an increased opportunity for people to visit our parks and enjoy the beauty that is here,” Starke said.

With customers at Rangeland RV Trailer Sales worried about reserving their May long weekend site months in advance, the move is long overdue, said Filippetto.

“I don’t know where people are parking all these new RVs. We are seeing business up 25 to 30 per cent. So where are people parking them?”

The case for tenting

But RVs aren’t for every Albertan.

David Thalheimer grew up taking motorhome trips with his family. Now he’s an avid tent camper who is studying eco-tourism at a Calgary university and sells gear at Campers Village. Families can buy a two-burner stove and a large tent with a front-porch style vestibule for a fraction of the price of an RV, he said.

Thalheimer recommends leaving the gadgets at home and enjoying the stars.

“You really just have to try it,” he said. “You feel like you are more in the wilderness than if you are in a motorhome or an RV where you kind of have all the amenities that you would if you were still at home.”

Alberta RVing Mania