MINNEAPOLIS — It took a camper the size of a fish house to address Ron Salargo's midlife crisis.
To celebrate his 50th birthday last year, the Hopkins, Minn., resident quit his full-time job as an accounts payable manager to hit the open road in a medium-sized Ford SUV. To affordably and comfortably circumnavigate the country in 82 days, he towed a teardrop camper so light and compact that he could push it by hand.
"It worked out great," said Salargo, who slept in the camper all but 11 nights. "Everything is open to you. You can put this onto a tent site if they let you."
Teardrop campers belong to the fastest-growing segment of the recreational vehicle industry. U.S. shipments of towable RVs have increased by one-third in just the past three years.
According to the Recreational Vehicle Industry Association, the same category of conventional travel trailers has grown 75 percent since 2013 and the segment has become bigger than all other types of RVs combined. In 2018, shipments of teardrop campers and all other travel trailers is expected to reach 346,600 units.
The growth has come at the expense of other types of RVs, including folding camping trailers.
Experts say millennials and young Generation Xers are breathing new life into the RV industry, captivated by the lure of getting back to nature or seeing new places without strapping themselves with debt and oversized assets.
"It's a generation more interested in experiences, not things," said Mike Geister, the owner of EscapePods, a Minnesota builder of the retro-style RVs. "A teardrop camper lends itself perfectly to that."
Geister, whose small company in New London, Minn., will produce about 50 campers this year, said the style dates back to the post-World War II era when aluminum was in surplus and returning soldiers were accustomed to being outdoors and on the move. Teardrop campers with "clamshell" trunks were aerodynamic and light enough to be pulled by the motor vehicles of that time.
Salargo said his Ohio-built Nucamp RV camper (about $11,000) comes with a clamshell that encloses a two-burner stove, cooler, toaster oven and other kitchen supplies. The main cabin of the camper came with two mattresses, but he removed one to make room for his dog, Mabel.
In their search for "everyday America," as Salargo called it, he and Mabel parked in plenty of KOA campgrounds, an assortment of public parks and the driveways of a few friends and relatives along the way. Their journey around the perimeter of the United States was roughly patterned after a route described by American author John Steinbeck in "Travels with Charley," a 1962 travelogue.
Charley was Steinbeck's standard poodle, and the book inspired Salargo to self-publish an internet blog called "Travels with Mabel." The no-fuss camper was a key to the trip's spontaneity.
"You kind of see something on the map and you'd ask the dog: 'Do you want to go see this?' " Salargo recalled.
Rowan Oak, the famed residence in Oxford, Miss., of novelist William Faulkner, was one of several destinations that required a small rig, he said.
Winnebago Industries, the RV giant with executive offices in Eden Prairie, Minn., is one of the companies that has invested significantly in the compact trailer movement. Winnebago acquired travel trailer maker Grand Design in 2016 and now sports a line of curved Minnie Drop trailers with a range of floor plans big enough to appeal to young families enjoying the outdoors.
Winnebago spokesman Sam Jefson said easy towing is a key to the trend, saving families the expense of having to buy a new pickup truck or heavyweight SUV.
"Winnebago-branded travel trailers and fifth wheels have grown considerably in the past couple of years," Jefson said.
According to the Outdoor Foundation report on recreation in 2017, RV camping ranked in the top five categories of outdoors activity. Running, jogging and trail running was No. 1 with 52.3 million participants while RV camping ranked No. 5 along with backpacking and a couple of other activities.
Anne Neumann of Buffalo, Minn., said her family has the bug. They recently bought a smallish Scamp travel trailer.
"We can go back to nature with a door instead of a tent flap," Neumann said.
The family's Jeep or minivan can easily pull the 13-foot camper, and it didn't seem to be a drag on gas mileage when they towed it home from Omaha last summer after buying it from a third party. "That was a big bonus for us," she said.
Neumann said her family is making plans for an assortment of trips this year, including modest jaunts to camping areas around Minnesota.
"We can kind of have this weekend warrior" without the unpleasantries of paying for a big RV and finding storage for it, she said.
"I want to drag my kids around in it," Neumann said. "It's kitschy and it's cute ... you only have your kids for so long."