Camping under a solid roof usually means a warmer, drier, and more comfortable night of sleep. (Photo: littlehenrabi/iStock)
Young girl climbing the top of motorhome
The Ultimate Road Trip

Which Adventuremobile Is Right for You?

Camper vans, pop-ups, RVs, and more—if you're ready to upgrade from tent camping, you've got plenty of options. Use this handy tool to pick your ideal vehicle setup.

Are you sick of sleeping in a tent? No judgement—us, too. While tents are great for backcountry excursions and still the most affordable way to spend a night under the stars, a growing number of people are ditching them for camping vehicles. In 2019, the North American Camping Report by KOA found that the interest in truck campers, RVs, camper vans, or glamping doubled from the year before. Camping under a solid roof usually means a warmer, drier, and more comfortable night of sleep. Plus, you can leave your adventuremobile packed with the basics, making it easier to head out the door at a moment’s notice. 

The only problem is zeroing in on what to get. A van or a truck camper? A rooftop tent or a teardrop trailer? With more ways than ever to sleep outside, navigating the advantages and disadvantages of various vehicles can temporarily take over your life. (Not that we’d know.) So we designed this flowchart, below, to help you find the one that’s right for you. 

One last pro tip: no matter what you think you want, it’s a good idea to rent one first if you can afford it. With more companies renting every type of setup, it’s easier than ever to try something out before you make the commitment to buy.

(Illustration: James Round)

1. Rooftop Tent

The idea behind rooftop tents like the GoFastCamper Superlite ($1,199) or the Roofnest Condor XL ($3,195) originated in Australia and South Africa as a way to give campers a safe, elevated space away from poisonous critters. Here in North America, that’s less of a concern, but these tents have nonetheless skyrocketed in popularity. Fans say they set up quickly, are more comfortable than sleeping on the ground, and are inexpensive compared with converting or purchasing a camping vehicle. Rooftop tents are also favored by the overlanding crowd, as they keep a four-wheel-drive truck or an SUV nimble and light. There are drawbacks: Once you install them, they pretty much live on your vehicle, and the added weight and bulk can decrease gas mileage or even damage some car roofs. Plus, you have to climb down a ladder to pee in the middle of the night.

2. Travel Trailer

Full-size or midsize travel trailers are more spacious and luxurious than pop-ups and teardrops, which make them a good choice for bigger families or folks who want more of the comforts of home (some come with TVs, microwaves, and showers). These homes on wheels are also more expensive, heavier, and tougher to tow, especially over rough roads or through cities. But despite their heft, the latest models are sleek and rugged. We especially like the 19-foot Mantis, from Taxa Outdoors ($46,167), and the 21-foot Little Guy Max ($34,000).

3. Teardrop, A-Frame, or Pop-Up Trailer

With a small footprint, relative affordability, and no engine to repair or maintain, these compact trailers are the tiny homes of camping. 

Pop-ups are the ones you probably know best: rectangular boxes about 15 feet long that crank up into a bigger space, often capped by two canvas-topped beds. Newer models, like the SylvanSport Go ($9,995), put a modern spin on this basic concept with a super lightweight, tentlike design. (Note: all prices quoted are for new 2020 models.) A-frames, like the Aliner Expedition ($20,490), are similar but have peaked roofs that pop up. Because there aren’t any canvas walls, they usually stay warmer than traditional pop-ups in cold weather. Teardrops, like Timberleaf Trailers’ Classic ($21,500), are the smallest option. They don’t usually pop up, which means you can’t stand inside, and the kitchen is often on the exterior. However, they make up for it by being utterly adorable and easy to tow. No matter which you choose, many of these trailers are light enough to be pulled by SUVs or even sedans—but be sure you check your vehicle’s towing capacity before committing—and can be outfitted for off-road travel. Plus, you can find used options for just a few thousand dollars. They’re a good choice for those who want a simple space to cook and sleep and who don’t mind towing.

4. Camper Van

If you dream of Instagram stardom and have the space and finances for a vehicle that’s just for camping, you might be a candidate for #vanlife. (For the most part, camper vans aren’t practical commuter cars, though some smaller ones with more minimalist build-outs can work as a daily driver.) From retro Volkswagens to brand-new Mercedes Sprinter 4x4s to DIY Ram ProMasters, there are camper vans for a range of budgets and styles. And they’re undeniably awesome: compact but functional on the inside, rugged and maneuverable on the outside, and requiring little or no setup once you’re at camp. The biggest issue for many people is the cost. For example, a four-wheel-drive Winnebago Revel that you might only use a few weeks a year will set you back $134,000. Used vans are invariably cheaper, but you run the risk of buying one with mechanical issues.

5. Slide-In Truck Camper

These campers sit on the bed of your truck, with the sleeping space extending over the truck’s cab. Getting them on and off can be cumbersome (and require good backing-up skills), but in return, you get your vehicle back when you’re not camping. They also require no vehicular upkeep and can be great for off-roading into remote dispersed campsites, especially if they’re outfitted with solar panels. You can stand up and walk around inside them, and most have indoor kitchens, storage space, and room to sleep at least three. 

Choose between a pop-up truck camper, which is lower profile and lighter, or a hard-sided one. Our favorite are made by Four Wheel Campers ($19,395 and up) for their ruggedness and quality build. And our top pick for a (mostly) hard-sided model is a Scout ($19,980), which features cutting-edge design elements like a tiny propane fireplace and built-in water filtration. The exact model will depend on the size, make, and model of your truck.

6. Truck Camper Shell

These fiberglass or metal shells, from companies like ARE and Leer, start around $3,200 and fit over your pickup-truck bed, giving you a protected space underneath. Dirtbags, river rats, and ski bums have long turned them into rudimentary living spaces by building plywood bed frames, drawers, and gear-organization systems into the truck bed. If you’re a minimalist looking for a dry place to crash, a truck camper shell is the most maneuverable and affordable option and comes with built-in dirtbag cred. The downsides? Not much temperature regulation, no room to stand, and the loss of storage space in your truck bed.

7. RV

These bus-like vehicles are similar to travel trailers but are fully self-contained, with their own motors. The biggest ones, which can be as long as 40 feet and are considered Class A motor homes, can cost anywhere from $50,000 to $500,000. Smaller ones, like the Winnebago Vita ($125,171), are built on a truck or van chassis and considered Class B motor homes; at 21 to 35 feet long, they’re a good choice for folks who want a few luxuries but don’t need a full-on palace on wheels. No matter which size you prefer, driving—and owning—an RV can be an adventure itself. They’re difficult or impossible to maneuver down rough or narrow dirt roads, require a big parking space, and usually need hookups for lengthier stays (unless you run a noisy generator or have solar panels installed), so those who love dispersed camping will want something more nimble. You’ll also need space to store it and the financial means to insure and maintain an additional vehicle.

Due to the changing nature of state-to-state travel advisories, check both state and individual websites for safety protocols and potential closures before you hit the road.

Lead Photo: littlehenrabi/iStock

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