Not quite a flat-bed, not quite a travel trailer, what is a pop up camper?
A pop up camper also known as a pop up trailer, is a collapsible travel trailer where the upper section folds down. Pop-up campers generally range in size from 8’ to 16’ long and are classified by their box size. This is the interior floor space (length) before you open out any tented areas.
This ability to fold-down means the camper is lighter and easier to tow, but still has some of the main features of a travel trailer.
There are two main types:
Overall living space can often double when fully opened. Hard-sided pop-ups do not tend to have as much added space.
Pop up campers are often purchased by those new to RVing, who want to explore this style of camping, without an initial hefty outlay. One main advantage is that your family’s SUV may well be sufficient to tow a pop up camper. A Honda Pilot, for example, can tow to 3500lbs, above the weight of an average pop-up. We’ll need to investigate the towing capacity of your vehicle, compare with the weight of a range of pop-ups, and also allow for extra loaded items and their weight.
Let's explore the basic features of a pop up camper, but models vary hugely. The towing capacity of your existing vehicle plays a role in determining the right pop up for you, so we’ve added links to several articles that will help you determine the right option for you.
As you’d expect, a pop up camper’s exact features are affected primarily by price. A new pop up camper ranges from about $7,000 to well over $20,000. The average price is around $12,000. Balancing cost and weight is a key consideration with pop up campers.
Evaluate carefully what features you and your family really need. Think about:
You get the basics, sometimes its as basic as a tent on a platform trailer frame.
Pop Ups in this price point will get everything in the entry level and you a little more typically luxuries
On the higher end of pop up trailers, you will get almost the same luxuries as trailers and motorhomes, but with a softwall.
It's likely that one of the features attracting you to a pop up camper, is the idea that your existing vehicle can double as your tow vehicle. Before really worrying about the specific pop up camper that’s best for you, make sure you understand the towing capacity of your vehicle.
Using the vehicle manufacturer’s website and vehicle VIN, you should be able to find towing details. Dissect these numbers carefully. Remember to allow for passengers in your tow vehicle, luggage, and any items you store in the pop up camper. You can quickly add 1000-2000lbs of load. Don’t forget that this load includes what you put into the tow vehicle too, plus water in the tanks, bike carriers, etc. If you need help thinking about the overall weight then read our article on What does a pop up camper weigh?
Aim to stay about 1000lbs below the maximum towing capacity for your vehicle. That gives you some room for extras and won’t overly tax the towing vehicle.
Broadly speaking there are 3 weight ranges for pop up campers:
For a much more detailed look at what you need to know to safely tow a pop up camper, read our related article. It takes you through all the steps, helps you understand the different weight related numbers and terminology, and covers possible tow vehicle and pop up camper combinations.
Once you know the weight limit for your pop up camper, your price bracket, and the key features you want, then you can start investigating specific models.
We’ve already explored two of the key advantages that pop up campers have over other trailers and RV’s - purchase cost. and tow vehicle options.
There are several other advantages too.
The dimensions of a typical pop up camper mean that you may well be able to store your unit in your garage. Most pop ups are about 7’6” wide and 4’6” high when collapsed, though models clearly vary. With lengths ranging from 8-16’, your pop up camper will fit a standard single garage that’s 12’ by 22’.
Indoor storage will increase the lifespan of your pop up camper and using your garage saves the cost of potential covered, over-winter storage.
As they are lighter and easier to tow, pop up campers reduce your gas costs compared to other RV’s.
If you are new to towing, then the lighter loads provide a good introduction. There is also the advantage that your tow vehicle will be familiar to you.
There are of course some drawbacks with pop up campers.
This is a subjective issue. Compared to the same footprint travel trailer, you may find more floor space in a pop up camper due to the fold-outs. For some pop up campers the floor space can even double compared to the collapsed version. However, this space is often filled by a mattress and so doesn't add actual practical floor space. The headroom is also less in a pop up camper compared to a travel trailer with the same sized box.
The absence of taller storage units and the eye-level units common in travel trailers, also means the overall storage options are less in a pop up camper.
Since the fold-outs on a pop up camper are generally vinyl or canvas, the privacy level is similar to tent camping. If you are considering ‘upgrading’ from tent camping to a pop up camper then think about what you’re hoping to gain. A soft sided pop up camper might not be the best choice if you’re looking for more privacy and noise reduction.
The canvas also means that you need to approach bear safety as though you were tent camping. Find out more on pop up campers and bears here.
Although there are pop up camper models that have heating and/or cooling options, these are top end features. The soft fold-outs also mean that the level of insulation is below that of a travel trailer and hence the energy used to run heating, or an air conditioning unit, increases.
Cleaning and maintaining any RV is a given, but the canvas and vinyl sections of a pop up camper need focused attention. For example, if the camper is packed away with damp fold-outs, then you'll quickly see mold or mildew. Open the camper out to direct sunlight as soon as you can. This will dry the canvas, but also inhibit mold growth.
A pop up trailer will require leveling and setting similar to a travel trailer. However, pop up campers then have additional steps that add time to setting up and taking down. These could include:
A pop up camper will not provide the same weather barrier as a travel trailer or motorhome. But with care of the canvas and good camping gear, you can certainly use your pop up camper in the winter months as long as the water storage tanks are kept warm.
As with any winter camping trip, thorough planning and the right equipment will help ensure a safer adventure. For your pop up camper, take special note of canvas care, assume you’ll suffer electricity outages, and protect pipes.
If you are considering a pop up camper then it would also be worth investigating the alternatives.
Pop up campers are entry-level, towed recreational vehicles. They vary greatly in size and price. Take time to think about what you’re looking for in your pop up camper. By balancing features, cost, weight, and your tow vehicle’s capabilities you can find a match that meets your budget and provides a base for your outdoor adventures.