A-Frame Pop-Up Camper at Campsite

Explore the Pop-Up Camper, the Small RV That’s Big on Fun!

The pop-up camper can be likened to the tent in your backpack, which also unfolds into a much larger living/sleeping space. One of the pop-up’s greatest advantages is that the walls can be folded down to a low profile “box” for travel, making it a fraction of the size of other RVs – and much easier to tow and store. The lower price tag also makes these camping trailers attractive.

Pop-up campers have come a long way since your great grandpappy’s Prairie Schooner! There are now models with all the bells & whistles, lightweight versions that can be towed behind a motorcycle or ATV, even off-road campers you can pull with a 4×4.

With all the types and options available, you’ll want to do your research before deciding on a pop-up camper. Reading this article is a great place to start.

Pop-up article topics:

  • The Good & Bad
  • Available Features
  • Setting Up the Pop-Up Trailer
  • Trailer Towing
Pop-Up Camper at Campsite next to Lake

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The Whatchamacallit RV

No other RV has so many different names. We all know what it is, and we all seem to call it by a different name. Even the manufacturers can’t seem to agree on exactly what to call this small RV. Pop-up trailer, pop-up travel trailer, pop-up tent camper, folding camper trailer, pop-top camper, tent camper, fold down camper, tent trailer…and the list goes on and on. In this article I’ll use “pop-up camper” and “pop-up trailer” interchangeably as these are the most common terms.

Why a Pop-Up Camper?

Pop-Up Camper by Palomino
Pop-up camper by Palomino

There are several reasons why you might choose a pop-up camper over other RV types. And it’s not always about the lower price tag…

  • Due to its light weight and low profile, it’s easier to tow and requires less fuel to tow than other towable RVs.
  • Its small size makes it easier to store at home.
  • A soft-side camper lets you enjoy the sounds of nature. You can awaken to birdsong and fall asleep to a babbling brook – an experience you just wouldn’t have in a hard-side RV.
  • Enjoy “real camping” the way it should be. Without the flat screen TV and other distracting features you’ll be spending more time outdoors, which is what camping is all about anyway!
High Wall Pop-Up Camper with Slideout by Jayco
High wall pop-up camper with slide-out by Jayco
  • More sleeping areas than many hard-side RVs.
  • Can often be towed by the family car, van, or SUV and does not require a heavy duty tow vehicle.
  • Once you’ve setup camp, you can use your car for sightseeing – those with a motorhome (or a big truck for a tow vehicle) don’t have it so easy.
  • The trailer does not obstruct your view when towing. Large side view mirrors are not required.
  • Great for getting into those tight campsites and vacationing in places you wouldn’t dare take a large RV.
  • Large vinyl windows create an open ambience inside the trailer and provide excellent views of the scenery.
  • Large screen windows let in plenty of air for cooling and ventilation.
  • And of course, it’s easy on the wallet compared to other RV types.

Disadvantages

Before deciding on an RV, it’s good to be aware of any drawbacks, along with the good points. Here are some things to consider with a pop-up trailer…

  • Strong winds and soft walls do not mix well. If you’ve camped in a tent during bad weather, you already know that there’s a lot of flapping and noise with soft walls. And because you’re in a trailer, there may be a whole lotta shakin’ going on, even when you’re not dancing to Jerry Lee Lewis!
  • Soft-walls won’t block unwanted noise. If you’ve got a busy campground, you’ll hear it.
  • Small freshwater and wastewater holding tanks make extended RV boondocking (camping without hookups) a challenge.
  • Typically less storage space than other RVs.
  • Some models may not have a shower or toilet.
  • Requires more setup time than a hard-sided RV. It can take 15-30 minutes to setup a pop-up camper and get everything unpacked.
  • If the pop-up camper is taken down while wet, it will need to be opened back up later to dry – otherwise mildew can form on the walls.
  • Usually lacking in features found on other RVs.
  • Less privacy inside the camper, as there are no hard walls and typically it’s just one large room.
  • A pop-up camper doesn’t do so well in winter as it’s more difficult to keep heated.

Creature Features

Here’s where the “tent” is transformed into a real RV. There are several options to choose from, and some of the features listed here will come standard. It all depends on the pop-up camper you choose.

Typically you won’t find as many features on pop-up trailers as with hard-sided RVs – and many of the features will be scaled down to fit into a smaller space. However, compared to tent camping, you will certainly be living high on the hog!

3-Way Refrigerator runs off Propane, 12-Volt DC, or 120-Volt AC
3-way refrigerator runs off propane, 12-volt DC, or 120-volt AC

Inside

  • stovetop – 2-3 burner stove, runs on propane
  • oven – runs on propane
  • microwave – requires campground electrical hookup, inverter, or generator
  • small refrigerator – 12-volt DC or 3-way gas/electric refrigerator that can run on 110V AC, 12V DC from battery, or propane
  • sink – single, or double basin
  • hot water heater – runs on propane
  • water filter system – recommended for consistent tasting water from the tap
  • shower – some models have an indoor shower, others may have an outdoor shower
  • cassette toilet – uses a waste holding tank that can be removed for emptying
  • flush toilet w/black water tank – has a larger holding tank than a cassette toilet and is recommended for RV boondocking
  • furnace – runs on propane
  • air conditioner – requires campground electrical hookup or generator to run
  • converter w/battery charger – provides DC power when plugged into shore power and also charges the battery
  • slide-out – will add more living space, at the cost of added towing weight
  • heated mattress
  • adjustable speed vent fan – excellent for cooling off the camper when you don’t want to run the air conditioner
  • clothes hanger bar
  • tinted vinyl windows – keeps the camper cooler
  • sky light or roof vent
  • stereo system
  • flat screen TV
  • cable TV hookup
  • privacy curtains for end-bunks – closes off the two sleeping areas at each end of the pop-up trailer
Indoor Shower on the Starcraft Centennial
Indoor shower on the Starcraft Centennial

Outside

  • electric brakes – always a good idea, especially if traveling in the mountains (as I’ve discovered from personal experience!)
  • exterior LP hook-up – handy for outside cooking with a portable gas grill
  • awning – usually comes standard – keeps the camper cooler in sunny weather and provides shelter from the rain.
  • screen room – adds more “indoor” living space, typically under the awning
Portable Outdoor Camp Stove
Portable outdoor camp stove
  • freshwater tank – capacities range from 10-30 gallons – if you plan on RV boondocking go with the largest tank available.
  • grey water holding tank – if you plan on boondocking go with the largest tank available.
  • black water holding tank – if you plan on boondocking go with the largest tank available.
  • additional propane cylinder – good for RV boondocking
  • outside speakers – for listening to your tunes outside
  • power lift system – adds weight but makes setup easier
  • powered front jack – adds weight but makes leveling easier
  • outside storage compartment – typically spans the width of the camper at the front end
  • exterior 110V outlet
  • oversized tires and high ground clearance – great for off-road camper trailers, pop-up toy haulers, and backcountry boondocking
  • bike rack/boat rack
  • E-Z Lube axles – eliminates the need to repack the bearings
  • RV solar panels – best way to charge the batteries when boondocking
  • generator – can be used to charge the batteries or run high powered devices, such as the air conditioner

Pitching the Pop-Up Tent

Setting up a typical pop-up camper does take more time than setting up hard sided travel trailers, fifth wheels, and motorhomes. Typical setup time is between 15-30 minutes. These steps may vary slightly depending on the model. At first glance it look like a lot of work, but with practice it becomes second nature.

Once you arrive at the campsite, here are the steps required:

Pop-Up Camper with Dinette Slide-Out by Starcraft
Pop-up camper with dinette slide-out by Starcraft
  1. Level the trailer from side to side using leveling boards
  2. Chock the trailer wheels
  3. Lower the front jack and unhitch the trailer from the tow vehicle
  4. Level the trailer from front to back using the front jack
  5. Raise the trailer roof (with hand crank, or power lift system)
  6. Lower the stabilizer jacks at each corner
  7. Pull out the bunks from each end of the trailer
  8. Straighten and secure the tent material over each bunk end
  9. Attach the support poles for each bunk end
  10. Once inside the trailer, raise the galley and setup the dining table
  11. Hookup to the campground utilities (if available)

Pop-Up Trailer Towing

Pop-Up Camper Being Towed by Automobile

Towing a pop-up camper can be a trouble free experience, as long as you do your homework first.

Before you begin your search for the perfect pop-up, you’ll need to know just what your car, SUV, or van is capable of. What is the maximum weight it can tow? Some cars are not designed to tow anything, so always check your owner’s manual.

Adequate wheelbase is also needed to tow safely. If you’ve got a car with a short wheelbase, this can make for an unstable towing situation. You don’t want the “tail wagging the dog” while cruising down the highway. Before towing, go over your owner’s manual first.

More Pop-Up Camper Articles

There’s much more to the world of pop-up RVs. Click a link below to continue the pop-up tour…

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