Pop-up campers: Everything you need to know

Everyone should get outdoors and disconnect, but roughing it isn't for everyone. That's why you should try pop-up camping.

Taylor Martin CNET Contributor
Taylor Martin has covered technology online for over six years. He has reviewed smartphones for Pocketnow and Android Authority and loves building stuff on his YouTube channel, MOD. He has a dangerous obsession with coffee and is afraid of free time.
Taylor Martin
5 min read

The world of recreational vehicles is an expansive one that caters to many different types of adventurers, from those who prefer the comfort of home while spending a weekend in the woods, to those who want to spend their life on the road.

As such, RVs come in a handful of different styles. The term "recreational vehicle" covered everything from your multimillion dollar Class A mansions on wheels all the way down to converted Sprinter vans conversions from all the #vanlife accounts you follow in Instagram and everything in-between.

Of all the RVs available, some of the most affordable are travel trailers and pop-up campers. If you're in the market for the latter, there are some things you should know first.

These luxury RVs are like five-star hotels on wheels

See all photos

What is a pop-up camper anyway?

Pop-up campers, also known as fold-out campers or tent trailers, are camping trailers that collapse down into a much smaller, portable package, thanks to a partial canvas construction. Like a fifth wheel or travel trailer, pop-up campers often have a mess area, large mattresses and sometimes a functioning bathroom.

Rather than hauling around a massive, heavy trailer, however, a pop-up camper folds up into a nice, small package that's easier to tow and maneuver than a full-sized trailer.

Last Week of Summer

Pop-up campers are some of the lightest RV options available and can be towed behind much smaller vehicles.

Denise Taylor/Getty Images

6 things to consider before buying

Like with any RV, alongside some benefits, there will be sacrifices and compromises you will have to make. It's up to you to decide which compromises are acceptable or if the benefits outweigh the sacrifices.

Lighter and easier to pull than travel trailers and 5th wheels

With less material and partially fabric walls, pop-up campers are generally much lighter than your standard travel trailer, from as little as 800 pounds and sometimes in excess of 2,000 pounds. Compared to a dry weight of around 5,000 pounds for your average travel trailer, that's a significant difference in weight.

The benefits of these weight savings are two-fold. For one, your gas mileage isn't going to take nearly as much of a hit. The less weight you have to pull (and the smaller physical size of the trailer) means better fuel economy. It also means your midsize truck or SUV might be capable of hauling the pop-up camper with ease, whereas with a travel trailer, you might need to upgrade to a full-sized truck with a considerable tow rating.

Space will be tight

While some pop-ups are considerable in size, in general, they reside on the smaller side of the RV spectrum -- and not just when they're collapsed. Even when fully deployed, the available space inside is more compact. There's less headroom in the sleeping areas. The kitchenette is smaller. And storage space is rather constrained.

Some people see the constrained size as a benefit of sorts. The smaller indoor space will likely encourage you to spend more time outdoors, which is usually the point anyway. It will feel more like camping than some other types of RV living, which a lot of people consider glamping instead.

Still, if you're looking for reduced weight, this is one of the compromises you might have to come to grips with.

Usually no AC or heat

Being partially constructed of a non-insulated canvas, your efforts to heat or cool a pop-up camper will be mostly futile. Unlike travel trailers or other RVs, pop-up campers don't usually come with heating or air conditioning (thanks to their lack of insulation and extra space). You're at the mercy of nature.

You can bring along a space heater for cooler months and a fan or portable AC unit for the summer. But don't expect the camper to trap the hot or cold air.

Weather matters

On the issue of insulation, other RV styles do a better job at shielding you from inclement weather. While a pop-up camper can still keep you dry, your time camping in a pop-up might not be as enjoyable as with other types of RVs. This is not only thanks to space constraints, but also because of the canvas walls.

Despite doing a decent job of keeping the rain out, condensation will play a much larger factor in a pop-up than in other RVs. So while rainwater may not get in, the inside of the camper may still feel rather damp. This regular dampness can lead to other problems like mold and rot. To combat this, you'll have to get used to airing things out fairly often.

Some do have showers and toilets

Believe it or not and space constraints aside, some pop-up campers have bathrooms inside, including a shower. The toilet is sometimes a cassette toilet -- or a toilet that's in plain view and in the main living area but hidden under a bedside table.

Yeah, it's kind of weird. But when you're boondocking, you'll be thankful for that bedside toilet over having to dig a cat hole in the woods.

Save big… or not

One of the biggest factors keeping people from joining in on the RV fun is the money aspect. RVs can be very expensive. But they don't have to be, and pop-up campers are some of the most affordable options on the market.

Sure, you can easily drop $20,000 or more on a pop-up camper. But you can also find used pop-up campers for as little as $1,000 just as easily -- in decent condition, too. If you go the used route, however, be wary for restorations, as they can get costly. Do your research and find the pop-up that's right for you, your needs and your budget, renovations included.

Try renting one first

In short, pop-up campers are a fantastic and affordable way to get into RVing. It's a common way to test the waters without accruing tons of unwanted and unneeded debt. But if you want to take things one step further to see if a pop-up camper is right for you, consider renting one for an extended trip. You can spend anywhere between $50 and $100 per night to see if the investment will be worth it… or if a travel trailer or full-on Class C is a better fit.

Consider the alternatives

roof top tent

Rooftop tents can be installed on most vehicles with a roof rack or smaller, custom trailers.

Taylor Martin/CNET

Maybe you love it. Or maybe you come to the conclusion that it's all just too much hassle for less reward than you expected -- that you just want to get outdoors without all the fuss.

In that case, there are several alternatives.

  • Rooftop tents are becoming a very popular and much more affordable way to get outdoors on a whim. They attach directly to the roof of your vehicle and can sleep up to six people. It's more like actual camping and can be just as much fun for the family.
  • Airbnb rentals for airstreams and tiny houses are also widely available. They're sometimes costly (and in high demand) but can allow you to test the waters repeatedly without biting the bullet yourself. Put someone else's under-used trailer or camper to use before spending so much cash yourself.
  • Truck bed tents are one of my personal favorite ways to get outdoors. You get to sleep up off the ground (which is a much more appealing way to sleep when camping) and sleep inside the bed of your truck. The only problem is that this isn't suitable for families. Someone will end up sleeping in a ground tent.