I’m a tent camper, but I’ve been obsessed with camping with a trailer lately. I’ve looked at owning a trailer seriously and I can’t justify the expense and difficulty of owning a trailer. No matter how I look at it, tent camping comes out ahead.
Tent Camping is Cheaper
When you take into account the cost of the trailer, the vehicle to tow it, the gasoline to get it there and the increased fees at the campsites, tent camping is MUCH cheaper. I asked Reed what MPG he gets on his truck when he’s towing his trailer and he said 12 miles to the gallon. Compared to the 40 mpg I get with my Prius (fully loaded to the ceiling with camping gear), I can go three times further away for the same money.
Then, there are the charges for the trailer when I’m NOT camping. Unless I could store it on my own property, I’d have to find an RV storage facility. When I checked some storage places near my home, the prices ranged from $50 a month to $150. To store my camping gear, I stuff it in the garage. Even if I needed a storage unit for my camping gear, I could get one for FAR less than that.
Finally, I don’t need to pay license, registration and taxes on my tent, whereas a trailer has those fees in addition to insurance riders. I really can’t see any financial advantage to having a trailer over a tent.
Tent Camping is Interchangeable
When I get sick of my tent, it costs me very little money to trade it out for a different one. If it starts leaking or mold has started growing on it, I can just toss it and buy a new one. If I don’t like my camping stove (or it starts leaking), I can exchange it without having to worry about ripping it out of a permanent fixture. I just leave the old gear at home and take the new gear next time we leave.
With a trailer, changing elements is a difficult task, requiring handiwork and knowledge of electrical, sewer or propane lines. Changing the entire trailer is not only costly, but a giant pain in the butt when it comes time to get rid of the old one. If you thought storing one trailer was expensive, try storing two. Storing two tents, on the other hand, is entirely doable.
Tents Never Flip My Car in the Wind
There is a lot of talk on the trailer forums about how to avoid sway. On windy days, even the best sway control and driving abilities will tip your trailer right over, damaging it, your car and maybe even injuring you. This video shows an RV that was blown over by the wind. The driver wasn’t injured and looks like he was driving slowly and safely, but the wind pushed him over anyway.
Now, a fifth-wheel might have survived that wind gust a little better, but if it didn’t, then the truck AND the trailer would have been on their sides, skidding down the road. My tent in the trunk of my Prius, as heavy as it is, will never catch enough wind to wreck my car.
Black Water Is Black Water
Having a toilet and shower in a trailer might seem like a way to enjoy the comforts of your home, but in the end, you have to deal with the gray and black water tanks. It’s not like at home where the stinky stuff disappears down the drain never to be seen again. With a trailer, you have to empty out every “deposit” you make.
If you have to deal with the unpleasantness of emptying a black water tank, then you can just as easily empty a port-a-potty. The most expensive portable toilet I found on Amazon was just under $150 (Thetford 25112 Porta Potti 365 Level Gauge and Lid Latch with Piston Pump Flush). Emptying a black water tank is no different than emptying a portable toilet. They’re both gross.
Propane Heat is Dangerous
The biggest reason I wanted a trailer is because I thought it would be warmer than my tent. The REASON why it’s warmer, however, is due to propane heat. Propane heaters are the same devices that kill at least one or two hunting parties every year in the mountains of Utah. If I have to worry about carbon monoxide and low oxygen monitors, I’m not going to use the device, so I’ll be freezing in a trailer just as much as I freeze in a tent.
If I have electricity, I can use an electric heater in my Springbar tent and be toasty warm all night long. It’s the electricity hookup at the campsite that makes the difference, not the trailer.
Trailers Don’t Have Generators
I was shocked to learn that trailers don’t come equipped with their own generators. If you want to boondock or camp at a site without electricity, you have to buy a separate generator to power your trailer. I could do that while tent camping just as easily as a trailer can. The trailer doesn’t provide the electricity to charge my cell phone or run an electric heater, the campsite or generator does.
Setting Up A Tent Doesn’t Take As Long As You Think
Another attraction for trailers to me was the thought that I could just pull up and start camping, but disconnecting the trailer from the truck, attaching it to the hookups, opening the slide-outs, leveling it and setting up the awnings can take as long as setting up a tent and camp kitchen. Mike and I have camp setup down to a science and it only takes us about an hour to set up or pack up. I’ve watched many a truck inch forward and back trying to line up correctly with the trailer hitch for longer than that at the campground.
These videos showing the setup procedure for a trailer convinced me that camping in a trailer is ANYTHING but just pulling up and camping.
Compare that video to this video of the setup procedure for my Springbar tent. It’s not filmed in real time, and honestly, pounding in those stakes is what takes MOST of the time, but Mike and I can get our tent up in about fifteen minutes.
Sure, the first time you set up a new piece of equipment, it will take a long time, but every time after that, you gain a little speed. Once Mike and I timed ourselves, we realized that setting up a tent doesn’t take as long as I thought. Ironically, I’ve watched people setting up a trailer take FAR longer than I would have expected.
Setting Up Camp Is Kinda Fun
I know this might sound crazy, but I enjoy getting to a new campsite and deciding where everything is going to go. It’s like I get to decorate my campsite differently every time we go camping. This time, I might put the camp kitchen near the picnic table so I have double the counter space. Next time, we might abandon the picnic table altogether.
I decide where the awning is going to be and how I position my shady area for my chairs. I’m not at the mercy of the floor plan of my trailer. I don’t have to always have my awning on the passenger side of the camper, irregardless of the sunshine. I get to choose where everything goes and it can be different every time.
Does It Count As Camping When You’re in a Trailer?
When I sleep in a tent, I hear every little crunching footstep of the animals outside. When I am cooking at a propane stove on a picnic table, I feel the wind on my face and the chill of the early morning. When I sit by the campfire, I see bats swishing above me, eating all those pesky mosquitoes.
I realize that I could do all those things with a trailer, but would I? If I have a trailer, am I going to sleep in a tent outside just so I can hear all the animals as I fall asleep? If it’s chilly outside, am I going to bring my propane stove out to the picnic table, or am I going to just cook on the stove inside the trailer? Would I even start a campfire when the propane heater in the trailer could keep me so warm?
At some point, it’s no longer camping. It’s just living in a tiny, tiny house. The simplicity of that has an appeal, but it’s completely different than what I get from camping in a tent.
Despite all these reasons that I think tent camping is better than trailer camping, I have to admit that I’m still attracted to owning a trailer. Even building my own teardrop trailer in my garage still sounds appealing, even though I have absolutely no use for it. I can look at it logically, but there is something about the idea of a trailer that attracts me. For now, Mike and I are staying tent campers, but I can’t say that I will always feel the same in the future.
Update 03-31-12: After months of fighting a teardrop trailer obsession and several cold and unsuccessful camping attempts, we have finally bought a trailer. I revisit how teardrop trailer camping compares to tent camping again here:
I will provide updates on how camping with the teardrop is different than a tent over the next few months.
Update 01-03-13: After adding a ten year old boy to our family, we couldn’t fit in the teardrop anymore, so we got a cheap tent trailer and our adventures continue. We haul it with our Prius and still get 29 mpg, so we have been very happy with our camper. We literally have the best of both worlds because we have the exact same car as we used to tent camp with, but we have access to the campsites with electricity, so winter camping is WAY warmer than it was in a tent. If RV parks would just let tent campers have electricity at their sites, we probably would still be camping in a tent today, but as it is, the tent trailer has been great.