This spring I decided to buy a popup camper. I’m no expert, but having traveled more than 3000 miles with it over the spring and summer, here are some of my opinions about the pros and cons of having one.
The Good Things
Pro: Easy to Tow
Popup campers are, compared to most other travel trailers, lightweight. Smaller models weigh well below 2000 pounds. For example, the Jayco Jay Sport 8sd weighs just over 1500lbs unloaded. Because of the relatively light weight and low profile when folded down for travel, popup campers are easy to tow. You’ll get decent fuel mileage and less restricted visibility out your rear window. Plus many popups can be towed with minivans or small to midsize SUVs.
I tow my Jay Sport 12UD with a Toyota Highlander and get around 18mpg when towing.
Pro: Garage Friendly Storage
Similar to ease of towing, popups don’t take up too much space and are easy to store. Not as easy as a tent, of course, but much easier than storing a travel trailer. Using a trailer valet, I’m able to store my popup in my garage. With a travel trailer, even a small one, unless you have an oversized garage (height is usually more of an issue than width), you’re going to be taking up a lot of space in your driveway (or maybe yard) or you’ll need to pay for a place to park your trailer when not in use. I found a facility about 20 minutes from my house that charged $60 per month for a 20 foot space. That’s not too bad but the costs certainly add up over years of storage. It’s nice to avoid storage costs altogether and that’s easier to do with a popup.
Pro: Lots of Living Space
When a popup is set up there are typically two beds with a living space between. You’re just not going to get as much space in a small travel trailer. My popup has two dinettes: a u-dinette that we use as a sofa (we don’t use the table) and a smaller dinette that we usually keep folded down in the sleeping configuration. There’s plenty of space for the whole family.
Pro: Lots of Windows for Views and Ventilation
If you enjoy tent camping, you’d probably enjoy camping in a popup. It’s closer to a camping experience than an RV experience. Unzipping all the windows gives you 360 views (which you may or may not want depending on the campground and how much privacy your site has) of the surroundings and helps circulate air through the camper.
Pro: Sleeping in Beds
When it’s time to sleep, it’s nice to be able to climb into a bed that’s off the ground and not be crammed elbow to elbow in a single, shared sleeping space. And it’s comforting to know that you don’t have to worry about getting wet when it’s raining. It’s rained at least a little on each camping trip we took this year so the goodness of off ground sleeping is pretty hard to overstate.
That said, the mattresses in the Jayco are pretty awful so toppers were required to make them reasonable. Otherwise it was like sleeping on a plywood board.
Fortunately we can fold the camper up with the toppers on so we don’t need to remove them and put them on as part of setting up and tearing down.
Pro: Appliances and Amenities
Most popups have many of the same appliances as larger travel trailers. You’ll find sinks, refrigerators, stove tops, hot water heaters, air conditioners, fans, furnaces, toilets, and showers in popups these days. It’s pretty standard for base models to have a sink, 2-burner stove top, and refrigerator. Air conditioners, furnaces, hot water heaters, and outdoor showers are common options, and some models have options for interior cassette toilets and showers as well.
Popups aren’t all wine and roses. Let us now consider some of the cons.
The Bad Things
Con: Setting Up
Setting up a popup is a lot of work. The first step is getting the camper into the campsite, which typically requires evaluating the site and coming up with a plan for where to position the camper. Then you need to get the camper into the spot, level (the camper), chock the wheels, and unhitch from your tow vehicle. This can take some time. I’ve usually spent in the ballpark of 20-30 minutes on this part of the setup.
Once the camper is leveled, chocked, and unhitched, the “popping up” process begins. You start by cranking up the top then you pull out the bunk ends, insert the bed supports into the frame, and attach the tent canvas to the underside of the bed ends. Then you insert the lifter support poles and lower the stabilizer jacks. That’s it for the outside setup. (Unless you want to set up the awning.)
With the outside setup done, you need to make some space to go into the camper and do the inside setup. So you need to either move things around in the camper or take some things out so you can get in. Once you’re in you fold up the sink/galley and insert the tent support poles above the beds. Then you install the door, which was a major PITA the first few times I did it but now I’ve got a technique that works pretty well and keeps the swearing to a minimum. All of the “popping up” stuff combined takes about 30-40 minutes. So the total time from pulling into the campsite to being fully setup is between 45-90 minutes. Some of the steps can be done in parallel, which can cut down on the time though my family usually checks out the rest of the campground while I’m setting up.
Needless to say, doing all of those things in the rain is quite unpleasant and to be avoided to the extent possible.
Con: Tearing Down
Tearing down is doing the reverse of all the setup stuff above. Probably a 45-60 minute process on average. Also not fun in rain.
Con: Drying Out After a Rainy Trip
If you have to pack up when it’s wet you’ll need to open the popup up to dry out when you get home. This means that in addition to tearing down at the campsite you get to drive home and do the setup/tear down again. You’re definitely going to do more work with a popup than a full-size travel trailer. That’s the price you pay for the easier towing and storage. That plus the literal price of a popup is lower than what you’d spend on a full-size trailer.
Con: Too Much Work for Overnight Stops
Due to the setup and teardown overhead described above, popups are not especially practical for one night stops while traveling. I have done this on more than one occasion and I do not recommend it. I believe that overnight stops are possible, and probably even reasonable, with folding campers like the Leesure Lite but not the crank-up popups that are more commonplace in the US. Personally, two nights is the minimum stay I consider to be reasonable for a popup camper. Otherwise the cost of the work tends to outweigh the enjoyment of the camping experience. (Not that one-night stays are typically characterized as “camping experiences” anyway. Overnight stops between points A and B tend to be more functional than recreational and popups do not excel at this particular travel scenario.)
Con: Hard to Access Gear when Folded
Keep the stuff you might need right inside the door. Some of this space will almost certainly be used for things needed for setting up but you’ll probably have some space for a few other things that might be nice to have handy (e.g., sunblock, bug spray, a small cooler, etc.). For anything not inside the front door, getting it while the camper is down is a pain in the ass. Some popups have storage boxes in the front to mitigate this issue but generally getting things out of a popup that’s folded up is inconvenient.
Con: Parking Next to Big Rigs at Service Plazas
When you’re traveling on interstates you’ll be parking your popup alongside big class A motorhomes and 18 wheelers. Though unlike the class A and full-size travel trailer folks, you’ll enjoy the experience of walking through seas of trucks with your kids to get to the bathrooms in the service plaza. I can appreciate the convenience of travel trailers in this regard. You just park at the service plaza, get out of your truck or SUV and walk back to your trailer to go to the bathroom and perhaps have a snack.
The service plazas in some states have dedicated parking areas for RVs. In these states you’re generally closer to the service plaza and don’t need to park next to the 53′ trucks. Still, the pro of easy towing yields the con of not being able to use the popup or anything in it while your traveling.
So there you have it, a bunch of good things and bad things about popup campers. More than tents, less than travel trailers, popups are like the sporks of camping machines. You don’t need a truck to tow one. You can store them in garages. You get lots of space for the whole family. You get to sleep in a bed off the ground without abandoning the basic experience of tent camping. You do a lot more work than you would with a travel trailer, but you get many of the same conveniences when fully set up, too. In spite of the overhead, I’ve come to enjoy the popup camping experience.