Getting Started Camper Camping

I thoroughly enjoy research, but I recognize not all people do. A little over a year ago I decided I wanted to get a camper or RV of some sort. We just took our inaugural camper voyage in October of this year. I thought it would be helpful for RVing newbies to benefit from what I’ve learned.

The first and probably most important thing to consider is whether you want to tow a camper or drive one. I chose pulling a camper because I don’t want to also have to tow a vehicle for driving to hiking trails or grocery stores while I am camping.

The next decision to make is whether you want to buy a new huge truck with massive towing capacity or whether you want to tow your camper with whatever vehicle you already have. I want to maintain my excellent gas mileage, so we decided to explore options with the 4-cylinder ICE vehicles we already have.

I looked up the towing capacity and tongue weight capacities for both of our vehicles, a Mazda and a Subaru. Our Subaru Impreza had a slightly higher towing capacity than my Mazda at 2500lbs, so we decided that would be our goal.

Generally speaking you want your towing capacity to be a few hundred pounds over the dry weight of your trailer so you can account for gear, water, propane, etc. So we were shooting for options that could sleep all four people in our family and would weigh in at 2000-2200lbs.

At first I wanted to purchase a trailer that had a full bathroom, but after talking to a few people who had gone that route the general recommendation seems to be to choose a campground with adequate facilities and use those facilities. Their recommendation was that you do not want to spend a lot of time in an enclosed space with a full bathroom unless you absolutely have to. After careful consideration, we decided we agree with that assessment.

Another recommendation we heard a lot about was that we would want a hard-sided camper because soft-sided campers like pop-ups aren’t allowed in many National Parks where bears are a problem. That dramatically limits options, though there are more options on the market today for hard-sided but still light campers than there were even five years ago. Teardrops, Scamps, chalet-style pop-ups, and other fiberglass and aluminum campers are becoming more prevalent as people want the lifestyle while maintaining gas mileage. After some heavy research, I discovered that many of the National Parks that folks reported require hard-sided campers have areas where soft-sided campers are still allowed. It does limit your choices but soft-sided campers are an option.

A colleague suggested that we look at renting some different types of campers through Outdoorsy to determine whether we liked it first. We had every intention of doing just this but for myriad reasons, it never quite worked out. I mention it because it is a great option for figuring out what you want with a lower barrier to entry.

I had decided that I would be looking for a chalet-style pop-up camper that could sleep four people that weighed in at 1800-2200lbs. These are the campers that look like a-frame cabins. They usually have a bed on either side of the triangle and a kitchenette and dining table in the middle. They are extremely small but have everything you may need.

If I were buying for just two people I would likely get a teardrop camper. Teardrops are often small enough that even motorcycles can pull them. My favorite feature is that the kitchen is outside of the living area – you really don’t want to be cooking inside a tent or camper unless you have to, as it can harm the air quality inside the camper, heat it up too much, or leave you with smells you can’t escape.

After several months of research, a relative asked us if we wanted their popup camper and we said yes. I had already concluded that this was going to be the most practical option for us because even the heaviest of popup campers can be pulled by smaller vehicles.

The camper we ended up with was in great shape but needed a bit of maintenance, such as new tires, a new battery, and a bit of minor electrical work. When looking at used campers it is important to consider safety above all else – a trailer that is not roadworthy can cause a serious accident, so anything that has been sitting in a field for a period of time requires more knowledgeable restoration. Imagine going down the interstate at 65mph and an axle breaks and jackknives your car. If you aren’t mechanically savvy, look for newer and well-maintained options.

We looked around at options for getting a trailer hitch installed on our car and found that U-Haul has a trailer hitch super center near us that specializes in installing trailer hitches on all kinds of vehicles. You can make appointments online and can often get in within a day or two.

In the past, installing a trailer hitch has included installing wiring harnesses to help control the brakes and lights on the trailer you are pulling. When you hit the brakes in your car, it will also activate the brakes on your trailer if you are towing something heavy enough to warrant its own braking system. These days this can be controlled via Bluetooth and calibrated through an app in your phone. There are safety mechanisms built into the system which allow this to be perfectly safe.

Once we had the trailer hitch set up and the electronics calibrated, we brought the trailer home. We opened it up and gave it a basic electrical inspection to determine that everything was working correctly. We opened it up completely and set it up to ensure we would know how to do everything once we made it to a campground. The only thing we did not test was the plumbing system, which we knew wasn’t a big need for us anyway.

My spouse grew up with boats and knows how to properly hitch and haul a trailer. I highly recommend doing copious amounts of research on how to safely hitch a trailer before you even consider getting a towable trailer. Then have someone you trust check out your technique. Properly hitching a trailer is simple but is also a life-or-death situation. Good enough is never good enough when it comes to safety.

Once we knew everything was safe, working, and roadworthy, we hit the road. If you are buying a new trailer you don’t really need to go through all the safety checks before you plan your first outing, but you do need to take the time to ensure you know how to properly and safely operate your equipment.

We finally made our maiden voyage six months after getting our camper, mainly because our kids had a lot of extracurriculars that didn’t give us a lot of spare time. But the first chance we got, we took.

The camper maxes out the towing capacity of the vehicle that we use to tow it, so we towed the camper with one vehicle and put all the gear in our second vehicle. As much as I dislike having to take two vehicles to go camping, it’s still a better option for us than having to drive a gas guzzler the rest of the time just so we can go camping three or four times a year with one vehicle. To us, that is an acceptable trade-off.

We went to the Natural Bridge State Park in the Red River Gorge geological area, part of the Daniel Boone National Forest. We have camped there before in the primitive campground and were familiar with the area. It took us about 45 minutes to level and set up the trailer. Having the trailer leveled is important for a lot of reasons, including stability. You will need a level to level the trailer and wheel chocks to prevent the trailer from rolling. It sounds scary but it’s a simple procedure. All of the campsites in the campground were flat but some were a little sloped. We ended up moving the trailer by hand to get a good angle where it would be easier to level it, so it ended up diagonal to the pad.

Once we were there we learned the plumbing and HVAC were shot. We already knew the refrigerator was not functional so we had coolers for our food. We brought paper plates and plastic forks for meals so we didn’t have to clean much and what did need to be cleaned could be cleaned in the spigot. Flexibility is important in camping, as is planning. We were close to restrooms and had electricity and comfortable beds and a table both inside and out. We had two sleeping bags per person so we could be comfortable on the coldest nights, which got down to about 40 degrees. If you have HVAC you can use lighter bedding and have less to transport.

Overall, there were a lot of choices to be made to get us to that campsite and we are all happy with the choices we made. The popup camper was comfortable and an easy transition for a family that has done all levels of camping for years. If you’ve not done much camping and don’t have much or any gear, definitely talk to the campers in your life to see what you may need and what you can skip. For example, a sleeping bag that is rated for 50 degrees means you will live if the temperature is 50 degrees. Sleeping bags these days often come with comfort ratings which are further broken down into male and female ratings. So something as simple as choosing the right sleeping bag can be tricky if you don’t have the background.

For now it is likely that we will stick to campgrounds that are within three or so hours’ drive since we will need to take two vehicles to use our camper. If we decide to get more into it we may consider a vehicle upgrade or look into rental options, though many rental agreements stipulate that vehicles cannot be used for towing without incurring a fee (something I learned from my food truck friends!).

Anyway, I hope this answers some of the questions you have about camper camping. Please let a comment below if you have additional questions – happy to keep the conversation going!

Photos Courtesy of Maggie Kimberl

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