In the camping world, there’s a fine line between a tent and a full-on RV. Many people enjoy weekend trips but don’t want the hassle of owning a motorhome or travel trailer. For those who desire more creature comforts at an affordable price, what are the options? The answer is a pop-up camper (which is also known as a pop-up tent trailer). Pop-ups are increasing in popularity due to their lightweight design and modern updates that provide more comfort and amenities than ever before.
Advantages of Pop-Up Campers
When you want to upgrade your camping experience, a pop-up trailer is a great option. With tons of features not available when tenting, yet with less trouble than an RV, a pop-up camper has these advantages:
- Easy to store/park/set up
- More protection from the weather
- Towed by most vehicles
- More spacious and safe than a tent
Finding the right pop-up camper for your needs should be easy, with so many makes and models available. But there are many things you should know before making your pop-up tent camper purchase. I wrote this guide to assist you in making the right decision.
Things to Consider Before Buying a Pop-Up
Like with any camper purchase, your particular needs may vary widely from what others consider important. Not having a bathroom can be a deal-breaker for you, but not bother someone who regularly camps at a park with nice bathroom facilities.
Next, I go over the 14 aspects that you need to consider before buying a pop-up camper.
Pop-ups typically have a layout of a hard center roof with material and screen sides and extensions that hold the beds. There is also a second type that features hard sides that form an A-frame when opened.
How do you know which side material will suit you better? Read on as I explain the differences between each type.
Soft-side trailers are especially great for camping when the weather is pleasant. This style allows for plenty of air circulation, yet keeps out the bugs. When the weather is rainy, you can zip up the waterproof material over the screens, and you stay dry.
If you do encounter very cold or hot temperatures, the trailer can maintain a decent level of comfort by holding in heat from a small electric heater or cold air from an air conditioner (if available) when you fully zip up all windows.
Soft-side pop-ups do take the chance of damage to the material when branches or other objects hit the camper.
Because manufacturers of pop-ups are aware of these dangers, they use thick, durable material (usually vinyl or canvas) that can withstand quite a bit of abuse, but tears can happen, so keep it in mind.
Hard-side pop-ups are not common but do exist, like the Rockwood model from Forest River that features a front dormer.
A hard-side pop-up is a hybrid between the traditional tent-style pop-up and a small travel trailer or large teardrop. The solid exterior walls offer much more protection from the elements, yet collapses and tows like a regular pop-up trailer.
Hard-side trailers tend to offer a few added amenities, like a bathroom, included in the price. Hard-side trailers also eliminate the need to set up the bed and dining room extensions found in a tent-style pop-up.
Set Up/Take down Time
Not all pop-up tent campers are equal when it comes to the time it takes to set up and tear down at your campsite. I have found through questioning my pop-up camping friends that it takes between 15 to 45 minutes on average to set up a pop-up after parking.
Much of this time depends on how much camping gear you bring with you but make sure you ask about the base time it takes to set-up each model, or better yet, get a demonstration.
If you like to quickly get out to enjoy the great outdoors after parking at your campsite, don’t buy a model that needs a lot of time to set up fully.
For a pop-up camper, the issue of noise goes both ways. Expect to hear the soothings sounds of nature, as well as your camping neighbor arguing with their spouse or engaging in hanky-panky.
Expect the louder noises you make inside your camper to be heard by those nearby. If you like your privacy, a pop-up may not be the best camper type for you.
A low-cost pop-up tent camper may end up costing you more in the long run from added repairs caused by the use of inferior materials during manufacture. Like any RV, it’s important to stay on top of preventative maintenance.
Look at the quality of the vinyl or canvas, the hardness of the roof, and the attributes of your lift system. You want strong framing and solid-wood or water-resistant composite interior storage compartments. Thick, waterproof canvas will stop leaks, and tear-resistant screening keeps bugs out.
Do a quick search on your particular brand or type of lift system to see if others have had issues with it malfunctioning. Verify with the dealer that the trailer warranty will cover it if it acts up.
If your trailer is in for repairs, you can’t go camping.
Deciding which amenities you must have while camping is crucial. Don’t be swayed by pushy salespeople who highlight the incredible kitchen set-up if you only grill outside on your weekend camping trips.
Pop-up campers should be fun. They should provide the comforts you need and a few extra you want. Having a camper with too much or too little in the amenity department is a burden.
Next, I point out what you should know about specific interior amenities.
The floor plan you select for your pop-up depends a lot on how many people intend to use it regularly. The sleeping capacity, kitchen and bath size, and sitting area will vary between makes and models.
Before shopping, browse online and select a few favorite makes and models to see in person at a camper showroom. Before you set out on your pop-up tour, gather everyone together who will be using the camper and take them with you.
If you have five kids, bring them all. Just the two of you? Both of you go. Are you a social butterfly and plan to have three or four new camping friends inside for happy hour cocktails most trips? Bring extra adults, or ask others in the showroom to assist you.
Why is this necessary?
Nothing will help you know which floorplan will work for you until actual physical bodies of the right size are filling the space. What seems spacious when you and a salesperson are sitting inside can be claustrophobic when two more adults come in to join you.
Figure out a “worst-case” scenario for occupancy, so you aren’t pulling out your hair from making a lousy floorplan purchase.
Bring in the kids, move about as you would expect, and take your time getting a good feel of the layout and space. Following this method is by far the best advice I can give you before you invest in a pop-up or any style of camper.
To pay extra for a bathroom or not?
Having a bathroom is a big question when choosing a pop-up. Many campers love being able to take care of business right at their campsite, while others like the endless hot water available in campground showers.
A bathroom is a huge decision and depends solely on personal preference.
If your pop-up selection does have a toilet, make sure the camper can store and pump water from a holding tank when not hooked directly up to campground water via a hose.
You will also have the added work of dumping waste tanks at appropriate dump stations.
A shower will need a water heater, which will add to the overall cost and upkeep of the camper.
Do you need a cooktop and refrigerator?
Some pop-up campers have them; some do not. You will be surprised at the fancy kitchens you can get in modern pop-ups, especially if you choose a high-wall version.
If you decide on a bare-bones trailer, you can always bring a small portable fridge if you have a power source and a charcoal or gas grill for cooking.
Heating and Cooling Options
Most current pop-up campers give you cooling and heating options either standard or as an upgrade.
Depending on your destination and typical weather expectations for your trips, you can decide if either is necessary. I would suggest that having an air conditioner installed is the better of the two options if you are trying to keep costs down.
It’s easier to have a roof-mounted air conditioner ready to go if the weather gets too hot, or you will be relying on fans to cool you down.
During cold weather, a small electric space heater should quickly warm up the interior. Under no circumstances should you use a propane gas heater indoors! The carbon monoxide created by a gas heater can be deadly.
Some roof units do double duty to cool and heat, but these can be expensive.
I chose to forego an air conditioner with heat option, due to the added cost and reports of safety hazards from overheating and fires in these types of units.
Do your due diligence on any make and model of dual cooling/heating roof mount units before you make a purchase.
Like any camper, learning to reduce and simplify your traveling supplies is critical. Pop-ups offer a good level of storage that should be sufficient to stow your stuff.
Remember that even if you have ample storage compartments, stuffing them full will only weigh down your camper which can lead to towing issues if you exceed a safe weight limit. Use the extra room for lightweight items like bedding, rather than boxes of canned goods.
If you camp near a populated area, you can take your car to restock your supplies instead of packing a week’s worth of food and water.
From towing to set-up to storage, you camper must provide you with convenient features that make doing all these things user-friendly. Ask your self these questions:
- Does your car have enough power to tow it?
- Do you need a certain size that fits into your garage?
- Can one person set it up?
- Is your lift-system automatic or manual?
- Do you like having your vehicle free to go sightseeing?
Take into consideration that the fancier the amenities you select for your pop-up, the larger and more expensive your camper will become, and towing and set up demands will increase.
Choose a version that is easy to tow and store, and one person can set up. A great benefit of a pop-up is you can unhitch, which allows you to use your car to explore the local area.
What powers your camper roof to pop up can be either by a motor or by human exertion. Which you choose is up to you, but consider these factors for each type before your final decision.
A manual winch is quite easy to raise up and down by hand by an average adult so don’t be off-put if the pop-up you love is only available with a manual lift system.
If you have issues with strength and mobility in your arms, and you plan to stay most often at campgrounds that offer power, an automatic lift-system may be better suited to your needs.
If you do choose a manual system, always carry an extra crank handle in the event you lose or forget your handle at home.
Many buyers consider an automatic lift-system an upgrade. It’s quite nice to push a button and let the motor do all the work for you.
If you boondock camp often or you lose power at your campground, your electric winch will not work. Hand-cranking a power version of lift-system up or down is not easy. Expect to put in a ton of effort and about 45 minutes of time.
Why is it harder than a manual crank?
The low-torque gear used to power a winch jack’s battery-operated motor requires a lot of RPMs to move a pop-up camper roof. When you have power to the motor, excellent! But, it will border on tortuous when you must resort to manually cranking the roof when power is nowhere in sight.
The good news is that you can obtain an adapter for your battery-powered drill from your trailer dealer to operate the manual crank if it becomes necessary. The drill will be the same one you’ll use for the operation of your stabilization jacks.
What? You need to carry a drill?
If you want your camper setup to go as quickly as possible with the least amount of effort, you will need a battery-powered drill.
Carrying a set of basic tools is camping 101. Find a great list of tools for campers here.
Tow Rating and Gross Vehicle Weight
Okay, so you know the weight of your pop-up trailer but do you know what the tow rating is for the vehicle you intend to use to pull it?
You need to know these numbers, but there is more to it than that.
Because you can’t base your tow rating and camper dry weight on just those two numbers. A camper from the factory weighs a heck of a lot less than a camper ready for a trip.
The weight of your supplies adds mightily to your camper. Always check the allowed gross vehicle weight for the camper, so you understand how much additional stuff you can add and still get safely to your destination without breaking an axle.
You also have to add in the weight of passengers and camping supplies put inside the tow vehicle. Add up the total weight of your loaded vehicle and your packed trailer then check if your vehicle’s tow rating can handle it.
Not sure how much it all weighs?
A fantastic tip is to weigh it at a truck stop. Even though it’s a pain, this is the smartest and safest way to assure you are not overpacking. In theory, you should only have to do this the first time you use your pop-up.
Unfortunately, over time people get complacent and start to pack more and more gear without being aware. Every once in a while it may be a good idea to pull your full camper and vehicle into a convenient truck stop with scales to verify you aren’t overdoing it.
The following is a way a friend of mine with a pop-up figures out his total weight.
Take your loaded vehicle and empty pop-up trailer to a truck stop and have it weighed on the scales. The weight noted will give you an idea of how many extra pounds you can add to the trailer, once you have done the math on your particular vehicle tow and trailer weight capacities.
Load up the supplies you desire to take on your camping trip into the trailer and carefully drive it back to weigh it again. This step will tell you how many extra pounds you added to the trailer.
If it’s within your camper weight and tow-capacity parameters, perfect! You can now drive safely to your camping destination.
More than expected? Jettison all extra supplies from trailer and car and try again. When you get the weight to a safe number, list out the contents and keep it as a guide for future packing.
Once you have reached this delicate balance, you will have peace of mind that your trailer nor your tow vehicle will fail!
When storing and pulling your pop-up, you need to consider the overall box-height height of the camper while closed.
If you intend to pull with a sedan, you will probably feel more comfortable if you can see over your trailer. A lower box height allows you to back up or park your trailer with more visibility to help avoid hitting obstacles like trees.
Most pop-ups today fold up into a box between four and five feet tall box. High-wall pop-ups have a box height of around six feet.
What Makes a High-Wall Different?
Some campers love their high-wall pop-up because of these benefits:
- Normal height counter tops
- Hardwall shower/bath combos are fairly standard
- Much more permanent storage space
- Better handling when towing with larger wheels and longer frame
- Still small enough for garage storage
Manufacturers make high-walls due to customer demand for better amenities and ease-of-use. Being able to keep most of your camping gear inside the camper during storage is a big plus, along with having a shower and toilet.
The most significant consideration in getting a high-wall is the added height and weight of the trailer. It may not be cost-effective to buy a high-wall if you will also have to upgrade your vehicle to one with more towing power.
First of all, rain in and of itself is no problem. A good pop-up with windows zipped should effectively keep out the rain.
But, if it rains and you must pack up and leave, it’s not a good idea to close a wet pop-up. If you’re only traveling a short distance, drive it home and then open it again to dry it out thoroughly before storage.
Better yet, see if it’s possible to extend your stay just long enough to dry things up. This practice will help prevent mold and mildew from growing while your camper is stored, which will ruin it if it grabs hold within the framework.
When experiencing nasty weather, a pop-up is not the safest place to be. If there is any chance of high winds and flying debris, locate a solid structure for you to hunker down in until the storm passes, like a building or your car or truck.
If you have enough notice, you can even close up your trailer to prevent damage, and open it up again when the danger is gone. Having the ability to close up the unit fairly quick is an added perk to owning a pop-up.
A pop-up tent camper is a fitting choice for those who love to camp but aren’t ready to commit more money and space to a large RV.
I hope this guide helps you to find the perfect pop-up. For more on buying a pop-up camper, you can watch this informative video that discusses whether or not a pop-up is right for you.
What do you love about pop-up camper camping? Is there one you recommend?