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Best Pop-Up Campers (Beginner’s Guide to Expandable RVs!)

This post was updated on August 6th, 2020

A Beginner’s Guide for RVs: Starting Off With Pop-Ups

Pop up campers are an excellent choice for those entering into the RV lifestyle. Expandable campers combine the benefits of tents and RVs. Folding trailers are one of the most affordable types of RVs on the market and easy to tow.

While you can find examples of softshell expandable RVs through the 20th century, the towable RV we call pop up campers came into existence in the 1970s. Each year manufacturers enhance components, construction materials, and do other things to make this RV type better. Even with the newer lightweight travel trailers, pop-ups have remained popular in the RV world.

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We’ll explore everything a beginner needs to know about this type of RV. You’ll learn about the best pop up campers made by the leading RV makers and independent manufacturers. Our article is the ultimate guide to pop up campers because it’ll educate you about the camping and driving experience.

Who Are Pop Up Campers Made For

Pup up camper in the forest

Pop-ups are designed for many audiences except the long-term living full-timers. Weekend campers, entry-level folks, and those transitioning from tents will find expandables right up their alley. Those that have passenger cars and minivans will find these towables within their towing capacities, so they don’t have to run out and buy a new vehicle.

Younger couples just starting out will enjoy their folding camper experience. Families as large as six people can sleep comfortably in the bigger models. Anyone who wants some level of “roughing it,” but wouldn’t mind a basic level of creature comforts will love this type of RV.

There are some drawbacks. Pop-ups are not well insulated. In the softshell models, the only thing protecting you from the outside is the canvas/vinyl material. The RV manufacturers do their best to maximize storage space, but if you need to bring a lot of things, this may not be the RV for you.

Setting up Your Folding Camper

A pop-up trailer takes time to setup. Unlike a travel trailer, you can’t just walk in on a cold, rainy night. Like a tent, it does take about 20-30 minutes to thoroughly set one up. Once you’re up and running, you’ll have comfortable beds, electricity, and an inside place to cook.

Most children of the 1980s would be jealous of the improvements that have been made to pop-up mechanisms. Hand cranking has been replaced with manufacturer-provided drill bits that fit into electric drills. The lift crank has been moved to the hitch instead of underneath the RV, so you can be in a more comfortable position instead of hunched over on your knees.

Other improvements to the mechanisms include improved safety features and weatherproofing. The Coachmen Clipper Classic 1285SST is a great example of how the pop-up features have evolved. This 2,840 pound (unloaded vehicle weight or UVW) RV is a quality pop up camper that combines safety and comfort.

Pop-ups have used a cable system to raise and lower the roof for decades. If two or more fail, the supports that hold the roof will no longer hold the weight. Once the roof is at its full height, there are safety bars that you now place over the supports that act as catches, in case the cables break.

On the underside of the slideout beds, there are velcro strips and bungee cords that seal and hold the bed material tight against the bed frames. This prevents bugs from getting in and keeps anyone from accidentally rolling out of the camper itself. Coachmen add cover flaps at the edge of the bed on the exterior to direct rainwater and other moisture away from the interior.

The Ideal Tow Vehicle Is Probably the One You Already Have

For those that want MPG-friendly RVs, pop-ups are the way to go. You can find them in weights from 500- 4,500 pounds UVW. Your passenger car or minivan can tow a good portion of them.

In the video example, we see an older couple towing Aliner Classic with their Dodge Caravan. This hard side pop-up camper has a dry weight of 1,590 pounds. It’s 15 feet in length and comes in either a fold-out sofa or a permanent queen size bed.

The kitchenette features include a sink, two-burner gas stove, microwave, and 3 cubic foot refrigerator. The four-person dinette also folds down into a two-person sleeper for visiting guests. You can also attach the stove or a barbecue to the door side exterior wall to take advantage of the outdoor space.

The point is, these small RVs don’t require big tow vehicles. Many of them can be towed by the car that you have now. To tow them properly, you will need to have a tow package pre-installed in your vehicle.

Towing Your Pop up Like a Pro

Driving with a small pop-up camper like the Coachmen Viking 1706XLS takes some getting used to, but can be easy to pull. It weighs only 1,642 pounds dry and stretches just under 13 feet. Your Chevy Trax can pull this budget-friendly pop-up with ease. Here are some tips to make your towing experience more pleasant.

  • Take some practice runs: Veteran RVers always take their new coaches out for practice drives the first couple weeks. They retrain themselves to learn where the best pivot point is when turning, how the wind pushes the RV, and practice backing up the new coach. A new coach will feel different than their old one.
  • Fishtailing: When you’re driving down the highway, you’ll notice that your pop-up may be swaying side-to-side. In the RV world, this is called “fishtailing.” If your pop-up doesn’t come with it, it’s always a great idea to spend the extra money on a sway control bar to minimize this.

    There are many reasons fishtailing occurs. Wind gusts, road conditions, and many others. Sway bars and proper driving can minimize this. If it gets too out of control, the camper can flip taking you and your tow vehicle with it.

    Although it’s not as bad with a pop-up than a travel trailer, 18-wheel trucks affect towable RVs. When you are next to them, the air pressure between you and their trailer decreases. This causes a partial vacuum to be created and you’ll feel like the truck is pulling you toward it.

    Once they pass you, or vice-versa, you’ll feel the air pressure push you away. This is the vacuum breaking. With some practice, you’ll learn how to compensate your driving to prepare for the vacuum and push effects.

  • Wireless backup camera: If you’re in an SUV or truck, you should be able to see over your pop-up camper. We still recommend having one and you can read more about it in our feature article. It allows you to see directly behind you, so you can get the full picture of what’s there.

Camping in Expandable Trailers

The Forest River Flagstaff Tent 176LTD is an example of how a pop-up gives you the tent and RV experience. Many people believe once you start camping in an RV, you’re no longer “really” camping. Pop-ups can still give you that “roughing it” experience.

This particular pop-up has a basic floorplan. It’s only 1,465 pounds UVW and just over 17 feet in length when fully expanded. A Ford Escape with the tow package could easily tow this pop-up with all of your gear.

Tent-like Experience

As you can see from this pop-up’s floorplan, there aren’t too many creature comforts. It still has the communal living that a tent offers. If you want privacy, you’ll have to be creative.

The two-burner runs off of propane just like the portable stove you would bring with you. The difference is, the propane tanks are bigger and have hoses plumbed through the RV. You can detach the stove and connect it to the exterior wall to cook outside.

The pullout beds have mattresses that allow for comfort and protection from cold weather. The mattresses are just like the foam pads, cots, or blow-up mattresses you would bring with you. Any veteran tent camper can tell you how important having some type of insulating pad from the ground is based on that one time they didn’t bring one.

RV Substitutions

You also have a built-in cooler. The small dorm-like refrigerator runs off of the propane. This pop-up comes with an 11-gallon freshwater tank too. Look how much you saved on bags of ice and bottled water.

Have you ever forgotten to bring something with you on your camping trip? Keeping your camping gear in your pop-up storage bays prevents leaving home without essential things. Eating macaroni without utensils can be very frustrating.

Even if you use paper and plastic dining ware, your pots and pans are going to need washing. The hot water & cold water stockpot technique is pretty good, but having a real sink to properly clean your cookware can prevent disaster. No one wants to remember a vacation that involves a trip to the emergency room due to food poisoning.

Enjoying the sights, sounds, and smells of nature can be great even when you’re sitting inside your pop-up with the windows down. We all know that it’s more enjoyable when you’re not smacking yourself every other second due to the invasion of the blood-sucking mosquitos. The smell of nature is also more enjoyable without the pungent odor of bug spray as well.

The Realities of Pop-Ups

Here are some simple truths about RV and pop-ups:

  • The average consumer trades in their RV every 8 years.
  • RVs depreciate up to 20% in the first year and continue to decline each year.
  • Even the best-built coaches need quarterly, bi-annual, and/or yearly maintenance to keep them in good shape.
  • During the course of your pop up ownership, something may happen where you’re going to have some type of repair. RVs aren’t built to last forever. Pop-ups have more upkeep than other types of RVs.

Buying a Used Pop-Up

Buying a used pop-up can save you thousands of dollars. You will want to perform a thorough inspection to see what issues may occur during your ownership. The seller could have kept up with the maintenance, but you’ll still want to see what condition the various components are in so you know what to keep your eye on.

Some used pop-ups are no longer in production. For example, the 2010 Coleman Americana was one of the last lines of pop-ups produced by FTCA under the Coleman name. Before the shutdown, Coleman pop-ups and travel trailers had been under production for over 40 years.

This 25-foot pop-up weighs 2,630 pounds UVW. It comes with a slide-out dinette, 26-gallon freshwater tank, and a wet bath with a five-gallon cassette toilet. The beds measure between a queen and king.

If you were to buy this pop-up, you’re buying a unit that has a quality name behind it. Rest assured the manufacturing and parts that were used are the best quality for 2010. You’ll also want to think about how it was used, how it was stored, and how easy is it to get replacement parts.

  1. Finding Parts: When FTCA (a former division of Fleetwood) was shut down, they sold all of their parts in their warehouses to various RV dealers around the country. If you do a quick web search, you can find Coleman pop-up parts on Amazon and other RV dealers around the country.
  2. Look for water and mold damage: When you walk through the pop-up, you want to look at the seals. Open the cabinets, flip the galley cabinets, look under the mattresses, and move things around. You are looking for water or mold damage. Pop-ups tend to leak.

    The worst way a pop-up can be stored is when its folded up wet. The sellers may not have had a choice when they left a campground. If the pop-up wasn’t unfolded to dry out when they returned home, there could be mold and mildew build up inside the coach.

    The manufacturers use water-resistant canvas/vinyl for the softshell, and people use a seam sealer to avoid leaks. Yet, if water can find a way in, it will. A moist condition is very inviting for mold to start growing.

  3. Tires and bearings: Check the tires for dry rot, punctures, or anything that may be problematic. The bearings must be re-greased annually to prevent them from wearing out. If you see black residue on the inside of the rims, definitely ask the seller about when was the last time they were looked after.
  4. Search for punctures: They might be the tiniest openings, but like your car’s windshield, they can grow. When fully expanded, the pop-up’s softshell’s material is under tension so you can have the most interior space possible. This stress can increase the size of the puncture, creating a costly repair for you.

New Designs and Luxury Features

Big-name manufacturers and independent builders are doing great things in the expandable camper market. They are adding travel trailer amenities in pop-ups, creating new ways to set them up, and merging them into the teardrop market. Here are some great examples of some show-stopping models you must see.

Forest River Rockwood High Wall Tend HW296

Rockwood designed its High Wall series to have travel trailer features inside their luxury pop-up campers. This way they get a refined camping experience in a lightweight coach. The HW296 does exactly that.

One feature unique to the Forest River daughter brands is the privacy hard walls for the wet bath. Most other pop-ups with bathrooms have curtains that pull around. This model does have the curtain that pulls around for showering but to use the commode, there are privacy walls and a door that gives you enough space so you don’t feel closed in.

The travel trailer sized U-shaped dinette sits on a slide-out on the off-door side of the camper. There’s a separate table that sets up in front of the sofa that can be used for workspace or additional dining space if you have a full house. This unit also comes with both heat and air conditioning as standard factory-installed features.

The RV weighs in at 3,721 pounds UVW and measures 27.9 feet fully expanded. When closed, its 21.3 feet. This unit is lightweight when you compare it to many of the travel trailers with similar amenities.

Forest River Flagstaff Hard Side Tent T21FSHW

This hard side model won 2019 Best in Show from RV News. It combines vacuum bonded fiberglass walls that travel trailers use, with the folding capabilities of a folding camper. This unit has extra headspace with a front dormer above the 72-inch sofa.

This 20.10-foot folding camper not only has water holding tanks, but it also comes with a hot water tank for the sink. The Cool Cat system underneath the flip-up bed is a heat pump to help with climate control within the coach. There are four different exterior storage bays on the unit that gives you plenty of room to bring everything you and your traveling companions need.

At 2,648 pounds UVW, your small to mid-size SUV won’t have much of a problem towing this expandable trailer. Since it has the vacuum bonded fiberglass walls, you should have some sound and weather protection that softshells don’t offer. You’ll find hard shells surprisingly roomy even though they don’t have slideout beds.

Opus OP4

The Opus OP4 is very different than its competition. It uses air supports to hold up the softshell. In 90 seconds with the push of a button, you can have your camper fully expanded.

Opus sells in the United States, but they’re originally from Australia. Except for one of their models, all of their products are made to go off-road. You’ll also notice from the video that there aren’t too many amenities inside.

The kitchen, shower, and other features actually connect outside of the RV. To use the kitchen, you pull it out of an exterior bay. The shower is an optional attachment that connects to both the hot and cold water tanks on the RV.

You’ll find that these pop-ups are more expensive than other more traditional units. When you compare them, the many features that the Opus has far outweighed traditional foldout campers. It’s up to you to decide if this truly unique brand is worth it.

Turtleback Adventure Trail

Is it a teardrop or is it a pop-up? This two-wheeler packs a lot of features in it. Depending on how you use it, you can sleep up to six people in it. You can store up to 42 gallons of water in it as well as the six-gallon water heater.

The pull out kitchenette features a two-burner gas stove, sink and plenty of storage for cookware. As far as storage, you’ll have over 50 cubic feet of storage space to bring everything you need for your long weekend adventure. They even found a way to include a shower to clean yourself off.

Sylvansport Go

To those who are used to traditional pop-up campers, the Sylvansport Go looks extremely odd. Yet this extremely versatile expandable can carry your bikes, kayaks, and be your base camp. It weighs less than 850 pounds UVW and cost less than $9,000.

To set this camper up, you expand the frame up, and the vinyl material drops out from its holding pod to the base of the trailer. You then use the support beams to hold the side sleeping sections in place. In the middle of the interior, the table is held in place by a support strap.

If you need to sleep more than two people, the table can be used as a support to turn the two separate sleeping spaces into one big bed. When folded up, this camper is smaller than most teardrops. The vinyl material is three-times stronger than tents to protect against water and other types of weather.

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