Camping in a pop up camper is a different experience than any other type of camping. You obviously get to bring far more comforts with you than if you were roughing it with just a tent and minimal supplies, but it is also far more basic than pulling up in a 30′ trailer or RV.
I personally love the simplicity of walking out to the pop up, hooking it up, throwing in some clothes and food and hitting the road. It doesn’t have to be stored anywhere special (it can fit in the garage or in the backyard under a tarp) and can fit into nearly any campground.
In this post I’m going to share with you everything you need to know to get started pop up camping. We’re going to cover the parts of the pop up camper, what to look for when buying new or used, towing a pop up, the many different options you include or exclude (along with their alternatives), and much more. Trust me, after reading this post, you will know more about pop up campers than most owners!
Note: Even if you just plan on renting a camper, this info is going to be extremely valuable to you as well!
- What Is A Pop Up Camper
- Where Can You Use A Pop Up Camper
- Renting A Pop Up Camper
- Benefits of a Pop Up Camper
- What To Look For When Buying a New or Used Pop Up Camper
- Tips For Your First Pop Up Camping Trip
What Is a Pop Up Camper
In a nutshell, a Pop Up Camper is a type of Recreational Vehicle (RV) that can be collapsed down into basically a large box on a trailer.
The real beauty of a pop up camper is that it can go from its relatively small size while in storage to an actually rather large living space when fully erected.
When set up, a pop up typically includes at least two queen size beds that stick out from the front and back (some include a third bed that sticks out of one side), a small kitchen sink and stove, a dining table (that can be converted into a small bed), and built-in storage.
Additionally, pop ups can also include small bathrooms with toilets and a shower, a fridge, AC unit and heater, though these options are typically not standard.
The main benefits of a pop up camper is how its small size and weight when being towed or in storage compared to hard sided campers. This makes it possible for many cars, most minivans and smaller SUVs to easily tow a pop up. It also makes storage for an average family easy as you can store it in your garage, on the side of a typical driveway or even in a space in the backyard. Pop up campers are far more accessible to an average family than most RVs.
Another major benefit to the pop up is the fact that they are drastically cheaper than their camping trailer counterparts!
Where You Can Use A Pop Up Camper
Pop up campers can be used anywhere a camping trailer or motorhome can be used plus many other locations where large trailers and motorhomes are not allowed.
A big benefit that I see with pop ups is that many state parks here in Minnesota have size limits to their more secluded campsites that exclude most trailers and RVs but allow pop ups, they are often even allowed on tent sites.
If you want to go save some money,, there are also lots of different locations where you can park your pop up for free.
Renting A Pop Up Camper
Buying a pop up camper may not be practical for everyone or you may not know exactly what you want in a camper just yet. This makes renting a pop up a great idea.
If you only plan on getting out once or twice a year, then owning a camper just doesn’t make sense. Renting a camper for your trip would be far more practical.
If you are interested in buying a camper, then renting one can help you decide what exactly you want to look for in your purchase. Can you live without an AC unit or heater? Do you need a built-in bath? These questions and more can usually be answered with renting a pop up for just one weekend.
The main option that I recommend for renting a pop up camper (or any RV for that matter) is Outdoorsy, they offer pop up, motorhomes, trailers and more for rent all over the country. You can even sign up to rent out your camper to make extra money!
The Benefits Of A Pop Up Camper
Pop up campers have many benefits, many of which I have already discussed in the post. But just to get you excited, here’s a few more!
- They are light weight and can be towed by many smaller vehicles.
- They are compact and easily storable for most people.
- They can go into many more secluded areas that larger campers cannot.
- They are more affordable than their larger counterparts.
- Used pop up campers are for sale everywhere at even better prices.
- They pack just enough modern comforts to make camping more comfortable.
- They are quick to pack up and hook up, making getting on the road much easier.
- They don’t pack too many luxuries and still have the “camping” feel.
- They can keep you warmer than a tent in spring and fall and cooler than a tent in the summer.
- You can include many modern features if you desire, such as a bathroom, shower, hot water and more.
- They encourage quality family time spent away from modern distractions!
And while we’re at it, here are some of the cons of pop up campers
- They can be a bit tedious to set up.
- Packing up your pop up trailer can be annoying since you have to extend it and then retract it when completed.
- They are not as water-proof as hard sided trailers.
- They are smaller than most hard sided trailers.
What To Look For When Buying A New or Used Pop Up Camper
This is by far the most important section of this post and I am going to cover a lot of ground here.
I’ve broken this section into three smaller sections:
There are a lot of factors besides just price to consider when buying a pop up camper and there are a lot of things you should inspect before buying one if you plan on buying used as well. Going through each of these items may seem boring now, but they could save you a lot of time, money and enjoyment in the long run!
If you are looking at purchasing a new pop up camper, then I highly recommend checking out Hilltop Camper and RV, they are fantastic to work with!
How Many People Does The Pop Up Need To Sleep
I personally have seven kids, do I need a pop up that sleeps seven though? Gosh no! 🙂
When we go camping I am happy to bring along an extra camping tent and a few sleeping bags for my older kids. I don’t want to sleep in the same room as them and they’d rather have their own space anyway.
So for me, a camper that sleeps four to six is plenty. I tend to start losing enjoyment on my trips when we try to over cram too many people into a small space. I do however enjoy having at least 3 beds (two pop outs and the dining table bed) and love having the third side pop out bed. This allows everyone inside the camper to have plenty of sleeping space.
How Much Storage Do You Need
Storage in a pop up camper is a premium when compared to other RVs.
You can often find a couple of cabinets worth of storage in the kitchen area, storage under the dining table benches, and some storage on the exterior of the camper.
The only real way to increase the storage in your pop up is to get a bigger pop up, have a storage rack mounted on the rear of the camper or get a rooftop storage bin to place on top of your vehicle.
How Much Weight Can You Tow?
If you have an SUV, odds are that you can tow just about any pop up camper. If you have a car or minivan and don’t plan on getting an SUV or truck, you will have to check in your owners manual on what your towing capacity is for your vehicle.
Most pop up campers weight in at 1,000 – 3,000 pounds without any gear packed in them. You can plan on an additional 200-500 pounds of gear once you have put in your kitchen supplies, bikes, food, and other items.
To be on the safe side, take the weight of the camper and add 500 pounds to it to make sure your vehicle can safely tow the camper. Do not exceed your vehicles towing capabilities as this can make towing the trailer dangerous.
Pop Up Camper Amenities: What Amenities Do You Want?
Do You Need AC and/or a Heater?
I tend to look at AC and heat in this way. I can always pack the right gear to stay warm, but gear won’t help me cool down.
A heater can be nice to warm up a cold camper, but an appropriate sleeping bag or warm quilts can easily ensure a warm nights sleep.
You can also opt out of a heater in your pop up and use a portable camping heater instead to warm up your camper.
AC on the other hand, I absolutely love having.
It can be incredibly hard to try to sleep through a hot humid night for myself, but when my kids can’t sleep and are grumpy, then my camping trips become quite unenjoyable!
Heaters and AC can be nice, but they do add a lot of cost to a pop up camper. You should also know that they are only useable in campsites that offer electricity, which many don’t.
Note On Electricity: Many RVer’s bring along a generator when they stay at campsites that do not provide electricity. However, many of these generators can be loud and obnoxious to other campers and ruin their camping experience (I know from personal experience of camping next to people running loud generators!). If you must bring along a generator, invest in a high quality (and quiet) Honda generator. These are the quietest and most efficient generators on the market for camping.
What size kitchen you need really depends on how much cooking you plan on doing inside the camper.
Personally, I do very little cooking inside the camper on our trips. I prefer to pack a grill (check out our favorite portable grills here), some pie irons (check out my pie iron pizza calzones here), my dutch oven, and the rest of my outdoor kitchen and do most of my cooking outside.
I think this is common for most pop up campers as well. Cooking inside the camper isn’t really convenient or necessary. So most prefer to opt for a small kitchen area just big enough for the basics like morning oatmeal and an evening snack.
Should Your Pop Up Include A Bathroom
Having a bathroom in your pop up camper can seem like a great idea, and for some, it might be. For most though, the space is too small and a bathroom takes up too much valuable room that could be better used for other things.
If you choose to forgo a built-in bathroom, you still have many different options for quality bathrooms. Most state park and national park campgrounds actually have really nice bathrooms that are accessible from most of their campgrounds.
There are also many other options for setting up a bathroom, many of which we covered in our camp toilets post.
Hot Water & Showers
A shower can be a really nice extra to have in your pop up camper. Getting clean right before bed makes everyone just feel better as they lay down to go to sleep.
Again though, the main issue with having a shower in a pop up camper is space. Many pop ups do offer showers on the exterior of the camper though. While not as private as an interior shower, this can be a decent option for cleaning off the kids before entering the camper.
You can also set up a camp shower (even with heated water) that can be easily stored in the camper and set up once you reach your site. Read all about setting up a camp shower here.
Inspecting A Used Pop Up Camper
Check The Tires For Cracks and Checking
While bad tires shouldn’t deter you from purchasing a pop up trailer, it is good to know if you will soon have to invest in new tires.
Checking for proper tread is usually not enough with trailer tires. Tires on trailers usually go bad from cracks and checking well before their tread has worn away. This is due to the trailer not seeing many miles but the rubber on the tires getting old.
Check That The Wheel Bearings Have Been Repacked
You’ll see this tip all over the internet, the problem is that nobody bothers to explain what this means or what you are actually looking for (because it is usually a regurgitated tip about trailers that even the authors don’t know what to look for).
A wheel bearing allows a hub, tire, and wheel to work together without any friction. This allows your wheels to run smoothly down the road and keeps your trailer from shaking or locking up when braking.
The easiest way to check the bearings on a trailer is to take it for a test drive. Drive the trailer 5-10 miles on a highway, then park your vehicle somewhere safe and place your hand on the center of the wheel hub, it should not be too hot to keep your hand in place.
Other methods of checking wheel bearings are not practical for the average person. So hopefully, your seller has a maintenance record of when the bearings were last repacked.
Check The Axle and Frame For Bending
Trailer frames and axles mainly see bending damage from an excessively hard curb hit.
For a quick inspection, there are two basic ways to look for a bent axle. The first is to get under the trailer and actually look down the axle and look for an irregular bend. The second is to look for uneven tire wear on the outside edge of the tires.
Finding bends or cracks in the frame involves getting under the trailer and examining with your eyes. Rust is ok, cracks and bends are not.
A bent frame or axle should cause you to leave immediately, this is too expensive of a repair for most.
Check The Leaf Suspensions
Now you’ll want to inspect the leaf suspension springs. You can see what these look like in the photo below.
You’re going to be looking for cracks in the springs and where they connect to the trailer and axle. Don’t worry about surface rust, this is completely common and does not mean the springs are compromised.
Any major cracks or rust that is eating through the metal should be addressed.
This is what a leaf spring looks like:
They should be located right behind the wheels:
Check The Roof For Water Damage
Roof leaks are very common for all RVs, especially pop ups. Ideally, you should check the roof for damage from both the inside and out.
Start by inspecting the roof while the pop up is fully closed up and lowered. Look for any seams that aren’t sealed, unlevel and showing any signs of damage.
Next get inside the camper and inspect the ceiling from inside. Look for any water spots on the ceiling or paint spots that could be covering up water damage (a common tactic to hide water damage). Then get your hand up on the ceiling and feel around for any abnormally soft spots.
A damaged roof is repairable but should be reflected in the price.
Make Sure The Lift System Works Properly
Since you need to lower the pop up and fully erect it in order to inspect the ceiling, this is the perfect time to inspect the lift system as well.
The lift system on a pop up camper is the mechanism that you crank to lift the roof of the camper up. A simple inspection is all that is required.
Make sure that the crank runs smoothly and the ceiling extends without any issues. Listen for a clicking noise to ensure the safety latch is catching. Also, make sure you see the roof go up and down for yourself before buying.
Check The Floor For Water Damage
When you’re done checking the ceiling, you’ll want to check the floors. If the ceiling was good, odds are the floor will be too, but there is no guarantee as water can come into a pop up from different locations.
Check The Canvas For Mold/Mildew/Rips/Bad Zippers
Next, you’ll want to do a careful visual inspection of the canvas all the way around the pop up camper. You are simply looking for mold, mildew, tears and bad zippers.
Canvas repair can be a doable DIY project or can be professionally repaired, but either way, it will cost time or money and should be accounted for in the price.
Check That All Electrical Systems Works
First, check all of the trailer lights when it is hooked up to your vehicle. Check the brake lights and blinkers all work.
Next, get into the camper and make sure that all interior lights and electrical systems work as they should.
Check That Plumbing Has No Leaks
Inspect the sink by running the water and making sure that the water lines are not leaking nor is the drain pipe. Next, check the toilet and shower for the same if the trailer has these items.
Also, have the owner show you the water storage tank and make sure that there is no damage around the storage tank.
Check The Sliding Bunks
Make sure that the bunks slide out smoothly and that there is no sag in the bunks when fully extended. Personally, I wouldn’t check the mattresses because I would buy new mattresses no matter what (I don’t like used mattresses), but if you plan on using the existing mattresses, make sure to look them over for mildew.
Check All Appliances
Finally, if the pop up camper has any appliances check to make sure that all are in good working order. Make sure the stove lights, the fridge gets cold, the AC works and the heater heats.
Tips For Your First Pop Up Camping Trip
Keep Your First Trip Simple and Close To Home
This is a basic camping tip I give to all new campers. You never know what might go wrong, what you might forget and how much you’ll like camping the first time out. Keep it simple so you can take the time to enjoy the outdoors and keep it close to home in case you need to call it quits early.
Pre-Make Your Food
I love cooking, but too much cooking on a camping trip can be a lot of work. I prefer to make my meals ahead of time before I head out on the big trip. These can either be complete meals or meals prepped and ready to cook when you get to your campground. Here’s a list of 25 Meals Ahead Camping Meals and another 47 Items That Need No Refrigeration.
Keep Your Pop Up Camper Packed With The Essentials
Go and buy a set of camping pots and pans that stay in your pop up, that way you won’t have to load cookware in and out of the camper every time you take a trip. Do the same with sleeping bags, sheets, and any other gear that would be a staple of your trips.
Make Sure To Air Out Your Pop Up After It Rains
Mold and mildew can form quickly on a packed up pop up, make sure that all of the canvas and awning are 100% drying before putting your camper away after a trip.
Plan Plenty of Fun Activities For The Whole Family
I love to just sit down and relax when I go camping, but even I like to plan some fun activities. Planning some fun activities for the family will help ensure that everyone has a great time.
Things like a scavenger hunt, a long hike, enjoying a beach, swimming, roasting marshmallows, and visiting nature centers are all great camping activities. For 99 more camping activities check out our post of 99 Fun Camping Activities.
If you enjoyed this post and found it useful, would you do me a favor and share it? I would also love to hear any pop up camper tips you have in the comments below!