Travel Series: Tent vs. Pop Up Trailer vs. Hard Sided Trailer

Tent, pop up, or RV?  The options are limitless.  It just depends on what you prefer and your budget.  Because it’s a question I am often asked I decided to write a post on this topic.  As a camping family we have done and owned all three.  We currently have a smaller travel trailer that for now suits us just fine.  Before I detail the pros of cons of each I’ll give you a little history of our camping experience.

Both my husband and I grew up camping.  He in a pop up tent trailer and I in a motorhome.  While our individual experiences differed, our enjoyment of nature and the great outdoors did not.  As a result camping has become an integral part of lives together.  It is a vital experience we feel is not only a necessity for our children, but also for our marriage.  You learn to work as a team, communicate effectively, experience life without the distractions of modern technology, and learn to make do with the supplies you have on hand.

Our first camping trip was eleven years ago.  We had a tent, hand me down supplies from his parents, and a few new items.  We were recently engaged and most likely had stars in our eyes.  It was a fantastic trip and like our lives together, we knew it was something we were going to commit to.  We tent camped a couple more times (including one when I was pregnant!) before we decided to upgrade to a pop up tent trailer.  At the time we had a young child and a baby.  We needed a bit more room and storage for all that gear babies require.  At this point we still wanted to feel like we were camping, but maybe not quite on the ground.  A hard sided trailer to us felt like cheating, but the tent trailer seemed to still be an authentic camping experience.  At this point the recession was in full swing and we got a great deal on a Coleman tent trailer.  Our trusty little tent trailer stayed with us for four years before we were ready for another upgrade.  In 2014 we purchased our current trailer.  Throughout all of these upgrades there have been benefits and disadvantages.  So here is my list of what I feel are the pros and cons to each:

 Tent camping-

PROS:  This is a great way to begin camping because it is much easier on the budget and gives you the opportunity to decide if you even like camping.  If you can borrow items for your first trip, even better.  When we started the only items we purchased were a tent from Costco, an air mattress, and a lantern.  Everything else was given to us.  So our initial investment was minimal compared to the cost of a trailer.  Aside from the cost other pros are that you are truly in nature when compared to a hard sided trailer, there is the fun factor (if tent camping is your thing) as the kids usually really enjoy the novelty of a tent, and you can camp pretty much anywhere.

CONS:  It’s a lot of gear to pack up in your car.  Some people prefer to camp really light, but I will admit that gets harder with kids.  Kids have stuff, lots and lots of stuff.  Mobility can be another issue if you have a lot of stuff and a big tent.  So a bunch of short stops where you are constantly setting up and taking down could get cumbersome.  With canvas you can hear every noise around you and everyone can hear you.  This can be a challenge if you have a fussy baby or toddler, or are a light sleeper.  Two other disadvantages are weather and bears/wildlife.  If the weather is really bad you may end up spending the night in your car and you are limited to camping in the warmer months.  Wildlife, especially bears, can lead to a lot of restrictions when you are tenting it.  All items that have an odor must be kept in a bear bin.  This includes food, anything that you cook with or prepare food in, and all toiletries.  Hopefully wherever you camp each site will have its own good sized bear bin.  Unfortunately this is not always the case.  When camping at Yellowstone we discovered the campground only provides two medium sized bear bins per loop at Canyon Campground.  We ended up storing everything in our car and spent a lot of time listening to it rattle as we drove around.

Pop Up Tent Trailer-

Our little pop up was so fun until it wasn’t.  We definitely enjoyed it, but eventually we wanted more amenities and less work.  After it took us three hours to pack up during our second trip to Yellowstone we knew it was time to make the switch.

PROS:  These little trailers can have many benefits.  They are far more affordable than a hard sided trailer or motorhome.  They are compact and light which means they are easy to tow and don’t require a big engine.  You have a variety of options from a small and basic one like we had, to a larger tent trailer that has big beds, ample storage, and a bathroom.  Because the sides are canvas you still feel like you are “camping” vs. “glamping”.  Storing a pop up is easier than a hard sided trailer.  We kept ours in our garage. Also, you are not really limited to where you can camp.  These trailers are typically compact enough to allow you to go most places and are lightweight that in a pinch you can even unhook them and wheel them into your desired space.

CONS:   Although there are many benefits to a tent trailer they are not without their drawbacks.  There is definitely much less storage than a hard sided trailer.  Our car was still packed to the gills when we would travel to our destination.  You can also be limited to camping in warmer weather.  Ours was a champ in the rain, and we stayed pretty toasty during some nights where it was cold enough for a dusting of snow.  But the reality is that the moment you hop out of bed it is miserably cold.  Most of them have a heater, which helps, but that heat is escaping out through the canvas so the trailer doesn’t stay warm for long.  As a result, unless you are hard core you may be limited to camping in the warmer months.  Setup and takedown are still a lot of work.  As I mentioned earlier, it took us three hours to teardown during a Yellowstone trip.  That’s no fun when you are about to embark on an eight hour drive.  As a result I personally would not recommend a tent trailer if you have dreams of road tripping over long destinations.  Again, that canvas leads to a noise factor that you may want to consider.  One year when our son was three we camped next to a youth group of about forty people.  Every night without fail they would return at 10pm and make a ton of noise.  Little Man had caught a cold and was woken up by their loudness every night of our trip.  One final con is that because you have canvas siding you may still be required to use a bear bin.  Canvas just isn’t much of a deterrent for a hungry bear.  As much fun as we had in ours, every time I see one I think to myself, “thank goodness we aren’t camping in that any more.”

Hard Sided Trailer-

This is where we currently are in our camping adventures.  We worked hard to find one that wasn’t huge, but had all the amenities we wanted.  Our trailer is just under 25 feet long.  Now that we have had it three years there are some things with the floorplan we would change, but as for size we have no desire to go any bigger.

PROS:  First and foremost with a trailer is that you can camp in most weather.  Yes, it will still be cold in the winter, but the heater is pretty efficient.  During our stay in the Tetons this June it snowed and we were perfectly content in our toasty trailer.  And unless your trailer has a leak, you will be guaranteed to stay dry in the rain.  Also being up off the ground helps you stay warmer.  Storage is another benefit.  Nothing goes in the car these days except for us and any activities we pack to pass the time during our drive.  No more need for a bear bin with a hard sided trailer either.  With a trailer it is easier to be mobile and travel long distances while camping along the way.  We have a gas oven so I will cook in the trailer a lot of the time.  Although we enjoy cooking outdoors, if the weather’s not cooperating I have the option of jumping inside to prep a meal. Other pros are the refrigerator, a bathroom, and ample water and electricity when a campground has full hook up.  I will note that when we “dry camp” (ie. no hookup) we do not use the trailer bathroom or use water.  We use the campground facilities because carrying water adds a tremendous amount of weight.  Finally, with a trailer you hear a lot less noise in the campground and it is easier to keep it dark in the mornings.

CONS:   First there is the cost.  Obviously a hard sided trailer is going to cost a lot more in the initial purchase, but there is also maintenance and storage to factor in.  Where we live most homes do not have the space to store a trailer or RV so that means you have to pay to store it.  This can add up very quickly, especially in the San Francisco Bay Area.  There is also the cost of purchasing a tow vehicle if you do not already have one.  Trailers and RVs can also have “issues”.  From the research I have done here is what I have learned:  there is no overseas competition with RVs/trailers.  As a result the work is somewhat shoddy.  Having experienced this first hand it is extremely frustrating.  And that warranty you thought would cover all the repairs?  Well it doesn’t cover nearly as much as you thought it would.  To invest all that money on a brand new trailer and then have several major problems after using it less than a dozen times made me pretty livid.  So livid I questioned whether having a trailer was the right choice for us.  But we love camping so much we just couldn’t give up our little trailer no matter how much I may or may have wanted to torch in the Nevada desert. The other disadvantage is that you may be limited on where you camp.  This is especially true with larger RVs.  Most state parks here in California cannot accommodate anything larger than 25/26 feet.   

Ultimately you need to weigh the pros and cons of each type of camping and then realistically think of what is important to you and your budget.  I think for everyone it is different and what works for us doesn’t necessarily work for the next family.  We valued having some of the comforts of home, an ease of travel, storage, and the ability to still camp most places all while enjoying our time in nature.  But the bottom line is no matter what you do or your method of camping get out in nature, develop an appreciation for it, and fight for its preservation.

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