Recreation vehicle shipments continued to trend upward in early 2012, despite a jittery economy and elevated fuel prices, according to market data collected by Recreation Vehicle Industry Association (RVIA). Wholesale shipments to retailers in March reached 28,100 — the best March total since 2008. In February, manufacturers shipped 24,600 units, giving the industry its best two-month period since 2008, according to a news release.

Through the first quarter of 2012, RV shipments were up 9.7 percent from 2011. Shipments for all of 2012 are projected to increase 5 percent from 2011. The projected total for 2012 is up 39 percent from the 2009 recession low.

“RV ownership continues to rise in large part because of the versatility and affordability of today’s RVs,” said RVIA President Richard Coon. “While the recession created new economic realities for most Americans, RV manufacturers responded by designing products with the right mix of space, amenities and price points, further positioning RVs as the ideal way for families to share outdoor experiences together.”

In addition to popular traditional motorized products, much of the growth in shipments is in the towable RV category. Many of the new products offered by RV manufacturers include units that are smaller, lighter, more aerodynamic and more fuel efficient. These lighter travel trailers help reduce fuel consumption and allow them to be towed by smaller passenger vehicles.

Today’s RVs are chock full of functionality and technology, with many offering gourmet and outdoor kitchens, well-appointed bathrooms, expandable floor plans and layouts that allow for multi-function uses, and state-of- the-art electronics — including an innovative travel trailer that operates fully from a consumer’s tablet PC.

Rising shipments are good news for Elkhart, Ind., where more than 80 percent of RVs are manufactured. Elkhart unemployment dipped below 10 percent in March for the first time since reaching more than 18 percent during the recession in 2009.

Several RV makers are upping their sales forecasts for 2012, and some have taken steps to increase manufacturing capacity to keep pace with demand. For example, Thor Industries Inc. broke ground in April on a 93,000-square-foot facility in Northern Indiana. Forest River Inc. recently purchased a 135,000-square-foot facility, and will soon begin construction on a new 100,000-square-foot plant.

While shipments continue to rise, current RV owners plan to hit the road in a big way this spring and summer. In a March Campfire Canvass survey by RVIA and Cvent of existing RV owners, 64 percent said they plan to use their RVs more this spring/summer than they did last year and 24 percent said they’ll use theirs the same amount. Seven percent indicated they would use their RVs less.

More than half (58 percent) said fuel prices would affect their RV travel plans. Respondents indicated they still plan to travel by RV, but that they’ll adjust by traveling to destinations closer to home and driving fewer miles.

One reason so many RVers will be on the road is the built-in cost savings of RV travel. A 2011 study by travel industry experts PKF Consulting found that a family of four can save 23 percent to 59 percent when they travel in their RV, even when factoring in purchase price, maintenance costs, and fuel prices. RV owners agree, as 74 percent of respondents to the Campfire Canvass survey of RVers said that RV vacations cost less than other forms of travel even when fuel prices increase.

“Almost 9 million Americans own RVs because of the unmatched freedom and flexibility RVs provide when traveling,” said Coon. “When fuel prices rise, RVers simply adjust their travel plans to reduce driving while still spending quality time outdoors with loved ones.”

RVIA is the national association representing approximately 400 manufacturers and component suppliers producing 98 percent of all RVs made in the United States.