Are Pop-Up Campers Worth It?
In short, the value of a tent trailer will depend on the features desired by the owner. When comparing the cost to a hard-sided travel trailer, a pop-up is far cheaper and will generally not require financing. Used campers can be easily found for less than $5,000, though a thorough inspection should be made to determine the state of the canvas, crank system, axles, flooring, and to check for wood rot. When comparing the cost to a tent, the units are a lot more expensive (a tent can be had for $80). Comparing the pros and cons of a pop-up to a tent or to a hard-sided travel trailer will help a buyer make a wise decision as to the cost vs. benefit for the pop-up.
Pop-Up Campers vs. a Tent
Tents are very inexpensive, come in pre-rigged configurations to make set-up a breeze, and offer a real outdoor feel when camping. Why would someone move from a tent to a tent trailer?
Set-up time is approximately the same for a tent trailer and a tent. A tent must be set up, staked out, and a rain-fly attached. The pop-up must be parked, leveled, cranked up, beds slid out, and canvas secured. We have camped frequently in both tents and in our tent trailer, and consider the set-up time a wash. There is no advantage either way for this attribute.
Tents take about a half hour to set up, but so do tent trailers.
Storage While Traveling
Tents must be stored inside your travel vehicle. In addition, all other gear must also fit into your travel vehicle. This includes cooking equipment, cooler, food, camp chairs, sleeping bags, inflatable mattresses… to be honest, this was one of the biggest reasons our family opted for a pop-up camper. We had a soft car-top carrier for some of the gear, but our car was packed to the gills and with four passengers, it was a very uncomfortable ride. With the pop-up, we are able to store the cooking equipment, camp chairs, and bedding in the trailer. We carry the cooler and food in the vehicle, as we do not want food scents attaching to the canvas of the soft-sided trailer (more on this in the “cooking” section). With most of the gear stored and ready in the trailer, we are able to pack and travel for camping trips much more easily! There is a significant pro for the tent trailer.
Tents range in price from $50 to upwards of $300. This is a fraction of the cost of a tent trailer. An used trailer may cost under $5,000 (depending on the unit, age, and amenities), but new trailers can cost upwards of $20,000. For this reason, we purchased a used unit. We did have to do some maintenance to the wood, but the canvas was in good shape and for $3,000, it was worth it for our family. In addition, a tow vehicle is required for a pop-up camper. While many vehicles can tow the low weight, the cost of a hitch and vehicle capable of towing must be considered if the family doesn’t already have one. If cost is the sole objective, tents are the clear winner.
Sleeping in a tent requires bringing an air mattress or cot to sleep on, unless you are under the age of 20 and don’t have a bad back! While some tent models contain a curtain to separate sleeping arrangements into “rooms,” everyone is still really within the same area. Tents are on solid ground and you will not feel movement if someone moves in their sleep. Pop-ups have real mattresses – ours includes memory foam toppers that cushion our sleep. Our unit also has heated mattresses! As a middle-aged person, I deeply appreciate having a real mattress that will not deflate in the middle of the night. In addition, the sleeping areas are fairly separated. Our boys sleep on one side of the trailer (if not sleeping in a hammock outside) while we sleep on the other. The only con with sleeping in a tent trailer is that the extended beds will cause the unit to shake when someone moves a lot in their sleep. We had to tell a wiggly 12-year-old boy to settle down several times on one of our trips! Thankfully, once he settled, the shaking stopped.
Despite the risk of the trailer moving when someone is restless in bed, the real mattresses give a strong advantage to the pop-up trailer.
Views from the bunk-end of our pop-up camper.
Obviously, one should not cook inside a tent. Fire hazards, food smells inside a soft-sided structure, and risk of carbon monoxide poisoning make cooking inside a tent a very poor choice. Nearly all tent trailers come with a propane-fueled kitchen, complete with mini fridge, ice box, and sink. We do not, however, cook inside our tent trailer. While we have the capability, we also live in bear country and so do not want any food-related smells to penetrate the canvas. While the trailer has a hard lower side and ceiling, the walls are still canvas and we do not want to attract bears. If you live in an area sans bears, and never plan on traveling to bear country, then cooking inside the trailer is feasible and attractive in inclement weather. We do like the inside kitchen for the use of the sink and for heating water inside on cold mornings, but all other cooking is kept outdoors. For cooking, a slight advantage is given to the pop-up camper. It is possible if you don’t live in bear country, and the ability to use a sink and have hot water quickly is an advantage over tents.
Those who are interested in tent-camping know they will need access to a toilet facility. Pop-Ups can come with a bathroom unit for those who are interested. We purposefully selected a unit that did not have a toilet or shower, as we didn’t want to have to deal with black water or dumping the tank. Many pop-ups contain a cassette toilet with a tank that is removed, dumped, rinsed, and returned to the unit. One of these units would be very handy for middle-of-the-night uses, but I wouldn’t want to place anything, ahem, “solid” in it. While we don’t have one, the potential for a toilet gives an advantage to the pop-up over the tent.
When it rains while tent camping, there is the potential for leaks, sodden ground, and a party of campers stuck inside a small canvas room until the weather passes. Mud may make the floor of the tent wet, and the possibility of wet bedding or clothing is a real potential issue. While a tent trailer does have canvas bed-ends, the solid ceiling and dining booth make a much more comfortable place to sit out a storm. We often bring board games, card games, and other fun activities to pass the time while a storm is overhead. Water may be tracked onto the tile floor, but doesn’t affect bedding or the dining area.
In hot weather, tents can become humid, damp, and create a hot sleeping environment. Most tent trailers come equipped with fans, and some have air conditioners. This not only cools the immediate environment, but also removes the humidity from the air.
In cold weather, tent trailers are a clear winner. Air mattresses create an even colder sleeping surface, and sleeping in a freezing tent is not much fun. We have tent camped in the snow in Western New York more than once, and I far prefer camping in our tent trailer. We have a furnace and our mattresses have an electrical connection for heat! It is far more comfortable to camp late (or early) in the season with this amenity.
In the weather category, I give the tent trailer the clear advantage.
Tents do not have electrical hookups, though battery-operated lights may be hung from the roof of the tent. Our pop-up has 30 amp electrical, which is an advantage in many ways (not just lights). While we don’t always request a site with electricity, it is a definite advantage to be able to run the refrigerator, turn on lights as needed, and charge necessary equipment. My son uses a cochlear implant, and while we have the things we need to go completely off-grid, charging his batteries in the trailer is a definite plus for us. Other items, including movie projectors and electric razors may be charged when hooked up to the campsite electricity. It is important to never hook up to a 50 amp connection without an adaptor, so ensure you have one if you end up in a site with a higher current than what your unit can handle! The ability to use electricity is a huge advantage for the pop-up.
Ease of Parking
Parking while tent camping is much, much easier than parking a towed trailer. With a tent, you simply need to pull your vehicle into a parking area and then set up your tent. Some sites might require you to carry your tent in from a distance, but many will have a parking area for your vehicle.
Parking with a towed trailer requires some practice, particularly for back-in sites. We once had a back in site at Lake Pymatuning in Pennsylvania that was quite difficult to get into! In addition, some campgrounds don’t count the length of the car for campsite details. This is particularly true of the Xanterra campgrounds run in the Yellowstone region! Our tent trailer is 20 feet long when fully extended, but the sites in Yellowstone require you to book a site for the length of the tow vehicle and the trailer, because there is no parking space available at the site. In this case, we would need a 40-foot site, and had to call Xanterra to get a reservation for a location that could handle the length of our tow vehicle and trailer. For ease of parking, the tent is the hands-down winner.
Backed into a tight spot at Lake Pymatuning.
Tents and tent-trailers are both exposed to environmental noise. The canvas does little to mute the sounds of road traffic, generators, or rude neighbors partying at late hours of the night. There is no advantage for noise when it comes to a tent trailer vs. tent.
Tents and tent trailers will both carry restrictions for some camping locations. Soft sided trailers and tents are not allowed in some campgrounds in bear country, for example. Two campgrounds in Yellowstone require all trailers to be completely hard-sided due to the frequency of grizzlies in the area. Boondocking in a Walmart or Cabela’s parking lot won’t really be a possibility (though if you have ever boondocked in a tent or tent trailer in one of these locations, let us know)! There are some campgrounds that are specific to tents only, and some that exclude tents. In this case, there is really no advantage to a tent vs. a pop-up for restrictions.
Quiet, tucked away, and private sites are generally more easily found for tents than for tent trailers. Tent trailers require a fairly level pad and enough room to park the vehicle and the trailer, so the sites must be more easily accessed from a road. For those seeking a really natural, quiet, and private site, tents are the clear winner here.
A tow vehicle is not required for tents at all, and all pop-ups will require a vehicle with a tow capacity and a hitch. Most tent trailers are very lightweight, however, and can be towed by some mini-vans with modifications (like an air suspension kit). We initially towed our pop-up with a Toyota Tacoma, and have since replaced that vehicle with a Nissan Pathfinder. Both tow the trailer without any issues. Still, in this category, a tent is the clear winner as there is no need to possess a towing vehicle to go camping.
Pop-Up Campers vs. a Travel Trailer
Travel trailers generally offer full bathrooms, little to no set-up time, and are nearly a hotel on wheels. Why would someone opt for a tent trailer over a travel trailer?
Hard sided travel trailers require almost no set-up time. Occasionally, a slide must be deployed and the unit needs to be leveled, but there is little to do other than these steps. A pop up takes almost as much time as a tent to set up, though high-walled units and those with electric cranks are a little faster to get ready for the night. Our tent trailer is entirely manual, and takes us approximately 30 minutes to get completely set up. We factor this time into our travel time, as we want to arrive at a campsite during daylight hours to make it easier to get the unit ready. Travel trailers have an advantage over pop-ups when it comes to set-up time.
Getting ready to crank open the top!
Storage While Traveling
Storage is plentiful in both hard-sided campers and tent trailers. Since a pop-up camper must be cranked down to tow, some items must be moved to the floor or under benches when traveling. Due to this, a slight advantage is given to the travel trailer, as the height of the unit is maintained when transiting to the camping location.
Most pop-ups range in price from $3,000-$25,000 (used vs. new). While some used hard-sided trailers can be found for around $5,000, the price for these units is generally much more expensive. “Lite” travel trailers can be found for around $23,000, but more deluxe Airstream models may go for $150,000. In addition, many hard-sided trailers weigh more than a pop-up and require a more heavy-duty tow vehicle. A pop-up can be towed with a mini-van, many SUV’s, and other crossover vehicles. The expense of a high-capacity towing vehicle must be considered when looking at bigger hard-sided travel trailer units. In the case of cost, the pop-up is the winner, though we would recommend looking at used units to save the most money. When comparing a new pop-up unit to a new “lite” class travel trailer, the cost differential is less stark.
Sleeping occurs on real mattresses in travel trailers and in pop-ups. The mattresses in a tent trailer may be thinner than the ones found in a hard-sided trailer. Another advantage to tent trailers is the number of people that can be fitted into the unit for sleeping: with the extendable bed areas, we could sleep up to 7 people in our trailer that folds down to a 10’ long box! Travel trailers, however, are not as likely to shake with restless sleepers, a problem that can occur with the bunk-ends in a tent trailer.
I would consider the number of separate sleeping arrangements a big win for the tent trailer, but the edge for comfort (and stability) would definitely go to the hard-sided travel trailer.
As stated before, tent trailers do come equipped with kitchen facilities. The canvas sides soak up food smells, and we don’t want the lingering odor to bother us or attract bears, so we do not cook food inside our trailer. Cooking inside a travel trailer, however, is a different story. It is possible to easily cook inside the solid frame without leaking food smells into the outdoor environment – and the odor is not likely to cling to the walls, either. In this category, a hard sided camper is the clear winner if indoor cooking is something you desire.
Living in bear country means that we cook all meals outside instead of in the pop-up.
Nearly all travel trailers come equipped with bathroom facilities, except for some very small light versions or teardrop campers. Tent trailers may also come equipped with toilets and/or showers. There is no clear advantage to either one in this particular category.
Rain showers are a part of camping. With a hard sided travel trailer, rain will not cause any difficulty and it is easy to weather the storm inside the camper. Tent trailers need to have their canvas regularly inspected for holes (and the canvas may need to be re-waterproofed after cleaning). The slight possibility of a leak in the canvas walls and over the bunk-ends gives a rain advantage to the hard sided camper.
Likewise, a travel trailer will have heating and cooling capabilities with better insulation than the canvas-sided pop-up. If you are looking into camping during very hot weather or during the winter, a climate-controlled camper with solid walls is the winner.
Hanging out inside the pop-up. A good option if the weather turns sour!
Both tent trailers and travel trailers have electrical hookup capability, so there is no clear advantage to having one over the other with regard to access to electricity.
Ease of Parking
Parking a pop-up or a small travel trailer is a similar experience. The low profile of the pop-up allows the driver to see over the unit when backing it into a site, which gives a slight advantage to the smaller tent trailer.
Some travel trailers are quite large and much more difficult to park onto a campsite. The ease of parking largely depends on the size of your trailer in either case. I will give a slight edge to the pop-up, with increased visibility over the unit for back-in sites.
Listening to music is great, unless that music is pumping from a weekend partier in a state forest at 4 am. Sleeping in a pop-up will not protect you from any noise. Sometimes, this can be wonderful – listening to ocean waves or birds chirping. Other times, it is nightmarish with barking dogs, road noise, or generators running. In this particular category, the hard sided trailer gets a strong win, as muting unwanted outdoor noise can be a wonderful thing!
Hard sided trailers, particularly those with on-board bathrooms, can easily boondock for free in parking lots on extended trips. In addition, camping in grizzly country is not a problem and there are no restrictions on campgrounds in this geographical area. For the number of accessible campgrounds and boondocking locations, the clear advantage goes to travel trailers.
Tent trailers are able to get smaller, slightly more private camping sites at many campgrounds. Larger hard-sided travel trailers are generally restricted to larger pull-through sites or back-in sites with large pads. For the occasional opportunity to get a more private site with a smaller pad, I will give the advantage to the pop-up.
As mentioned earlier, many vehicles are able to tow a pop-up camper. Many of the units only weigh around 2,000 to 3,000 pounds. Some lite travel trailers can also be towed by these vehicles. Larger travel trailers, however, often require a large truck to tow the vehicle. If purchasing an expensive truck to tow a larger trailer is out of the question, a pop-up is a good alternative that can be towed by a small SUV or larger car. In this case, the advantage goes to the pop-up for the lighter weight and the number of vehicles that can tow it.
Pop ups can be towed by a wide variety of vehicles. Larger trailers require a truck.
Whether a tent trailer is a worthwhile investment really depends on your families budget, needs, and camping preferences. We have chosen to camp primarily with a pop-up for the next few years, though we may opt to switch to a travel trailer once the kids are in college.