This is the story of how I came to be an owner of a Jayco Jay Sport camping trailer.
I enjoyed tent camping as a kid and on the few occasions I got to spend time in campers I thought they were just about the coolest thing going. So back in September I started thinking that it might be fun to get a small travel trailer, something that my family and I could use for weekend trips close by and a longer trip or two over the summer.
I spent months reading about trailers and going to RV shows. I learned about different brands, trailer styles, construction, floorplans, and towing considerations.
While there are many smaller manufacturers, particularly for fiberglass and teardrop trailers, I learned that, like many other industries, the RV industry is dominated by a few large companies that own many brands. The big ones are Forest River (including, among others, Coachmen and Palomino), Thor Industries (which encompasses the Airstream and Jayco brands), and, to a somewhat lesser extent the REV Group, which mostly does motorhomes but also includes Lance trailers.
It also turns out that, at least for the high volume brands, RV build quality can be quite variable, potentially even between different units in the same model line! From what I’ve read, one of the reasons for this is that the RV industry isn’t automated like the automotive industry. Most of the assembly is done by hand by teams of people. Because the labor costs are high, many of the materials end up being cheap to keep overall cost down. Combining cheap materials, high labor costs, human beings (who tire, get hungry, lose focus, etc.), and high production volumes (RV sales were up over 17% from 2016 to 2017) some of the work ends up being rushed. At best this results in innocuous cosmetic defects like gobs of excess sealant and at worst you get some units that are outright lemons. Nonetheless I decided to forge ahead and find a family camper.
My criteria was flexible on amenities and strict on weight and length. Mostly I wanted something that would fit my family and be practical to tow with my Highlander. This meant my max GVWR was 3500 lbs and less than that was better.
- Hitch weight (including LP and battery, which are added to tongue – about 20 lbs for propane and 50 for battery) less than 400 lbs
- Max loaded weight (GVWR) of 3500 lbs
- Max length of 20 feet
- Sleeping space for 4 and a small dog. I was willing to consider some trailers that would require an additional tent for sleeping but that was suboptimal.
- Bathroom (wet or dry) optional. This is a deal breaker for some people. I have a shower tent and Thetford portable toilet, which works well for late night bathroom breaks. Otherwise onsite facilities are okay.
To me camping is about being outdoors and appreciating nature. Distilling the criteria to its essence I basically wanted a small, lightweight trailer that my family could fit in to sleep and that would have space for all of us to read or play games during rain. I didn’t want a “home on wheels” RV.
If you’re thinking about buying a trailer, I recommend writing down your own criteria and goals. This will help you compile a list of, and evaluate, trailers that are possible matches.
Trailers I Liked
There are lots of options out there. Here are some of the models, organized by trailer type, that I considered.
- Forest River r-pod – offers bunk model for sleeping 4 but lacks bed for adults (dinnette doubles as sleeping space for adults).
- Winnebago Minnie Drop – same as r-pod, bunk model has dinnette for sleeping adults.
- Airstream Bambi Sport – beautiful but not really practical for a family of 4. Also expensive (list price for $45k).
- LivinLite CampLite CL11FK – hybrid trailer with popup rear bunk and wet bath. All aluminum construction so water penetration is less of a concern.
These were really just too small for sleeping a family of 4 comfortably and they were already pretty much at my weight limits.
- nuCamp T@B 400 – I really like the T@B and strongly considered it for awhile. More of a niche trailer than the big brands. Also more expensive (but less than Airstream). The interior design (which more closely aligns with Euro styling), materials, and build quality seem better than the big brands. The downside was I’d need an add-on tent for sleeping the kids and the fully loaded tongue weight (seems like a tongue heavy trailer) was well over my limit of 400 lbs. There’s also a T@B 320 model which is smaller and lighter weight but it seemed too small.
- Colorado Teardrops Mount Massive – small builder, offers a bunk option for sleeping a (small) family. These seem well-built but I didn’t want to order a unit in CO for my first trailer. I’d consider them in the future.
Many teardrops are very light but they’re also very small. When my kids get a little older I might consider downsizing to a teardrop and using a tent with cots for the kids. Of course, when it rains you’re not going to get 4 people into a teardrop so you’d need an alternative shelter to use as family space for rainy days.
- Scamp – built in Minnesota. Has bunk models but seemed like the 16 foot model would be tight for 4 people. I inquired about ordering timelines in Feb and they were already backed up to October. Also wasn’t crazy about the carpeted walls or the OSB flooring (which is sprayed with fiberglass for weather protection but still).
- Casita – based in Texas. Also has OSB flooring and carpeted walls.
- Park Liner – more expensive than Scamp and Casita but more nicely designed, no carpeting on interior walls and marine-grade plywood for flooring.
From what I’ve read fiberglass trailers tend to be more robust than the traditional “screw, glue, and staple” RVs with laminate walls and fiberglass or aluminum skins. Scamp and Casita are similar in terms of construction and styling. Scamp is the least expensive and Park Liner the most with Casita in the middle. I didn’t like these enough to deal with shipping a unit across the country or driving to Texas or Minnesota to pick one up.
- Aliner Expedition – hard-walled a-frame popup. Exterior uses Azdel paneling instead of Luan (it’s lighter and more water-resistant). Tight for sleeping 4 but very lightweight. Dormers add space to living area.
- Forest River Flagstaff SE – Sports Enthusiast (SE) models have 15″ tires, roof racks (among some other features), and come in quite a few floorplans. Plenty of space for a family of 4.
- Jayco Jay Sport – offers 4 floorplans for their camper trailer lineup, two of which have options for 15″ tires and hot water. I liked the u-dinette model which offers more interior seating/sleeping space in addition to the side dinette. Also has plenty of space for a family of 4.
- SylvanSport GO – interesting trailer with fold-down tent and lots of cargo space for carrying gear. No appliances but gets you sleeping off the ground. Fairly expensive considering you can get a Forest River or Jayco popup for basically the same money but it’s simpler and has much lower maintenance overhead. Decent space for 4. Table/seating area converts to king sized bed for tent-style sleeping a family of 4.
- Leesure Lite – Super light folding tent trailer popular with motorcyclists. Would require the add-a-room option for sleeping 4 but you’re not going to find anything lighter than this.
Of this set, the Forest River and Jayco popup trailers did the best at meeting my goals. They’re both within my weight constraints and offer lots of space for a family of 4. The floorplans I liked didn’t have bathroom options but that was a tradeoff I was willing to make. Both brands offered galleys, propane stove tops, furnaces, and hot water heaters in their camping trailers.
Deciding to Get a Popup
After reviewing the trailers in this list (and a few others here and there) I decided to go with a popup (or camping trailer, folding trailer, or tent trailer as they’re also called – not sure why there are so many terms for them).
For minimizing travel size and weight while maximizing living space it’s tough to beat a popup. While they’re fundamentally specialized tents, they offer many conveniences that you’ll find in larger trailers, and they make camping easier and more comfortable than being in a tent on the ground. There is some overhead in the form of increased setup (and teardown) effort but for me the advantages outweigh the downsides.
I looked at both Forest River and Jayco popup models. They’re both very similar in terms of construction materials, interior aesthetics, and floorplans. I decided to go with Jayco because I liked the local dealer a little better and their camping trailer lineup seemed more streamlined with floorplans for an 8′ box, 10′ box, and two for a 12′ box.
As I learned about trailers I found a number of sites that turned out to be great learning resources. You might find them to be helpful, too.
And that’s how I got a Jayco popup camper. So far, so good. Comments and questions welcome.