Popup vs RV: We’ve camped in both with kids. Here’s what we learned

Was a camper or a motorhome better for our family of four?

Since 2020, our family of four has logged over 20,000 miles of long-distance, multi-week road trips. We’ve hauled a 12’ pop-up camper all over the American West, and we’ve driven a Class C motorhome from one corner of the country to another. So, popup vs RV?

We are well-known for our camping trips and multi-week road trips with a pop-up camper… and two kids. We’ve done big trips in our pop-up. (There’s a decent chance that someone finding our blog or our YouTube channel has found it because they were looking for something about pop-up camping.)

Here are things we learned, not to mention pros and cons we’ve considered, camping and traveling on long-haul trips with a pop-up camper and a motorhome, with kids.

Our ever-changing camping journey as a family

Our story isn’t exactly an uncommon one. Jodie and I tent-camped for years, including once we had kids. However, we felt ready to move on from tent camping. We bought our first new-to-us pop-up camper in February 2020. Here’s how our camping life has evolved:

  • 2005–2011: Jodie and I tent camped throughout Oregon.
  • 2011–2020: More tent camping, only with one, and then two, kids.
  • 2020–2022: We traded in our tent for a 2004 Rockwood Freedom Pop-up Camper. In the summer of 2022, we sold the pop-up as part of getting ready to travel internationally.
  • 2023–present: We bought a 25’ Thor Majestic Class C motorhome (a former Cruise America rental RV, in fact).

Where did we camp in the pop-up?

Our camping experience completely transformed as we went from a tent to a pop-up, and eventually to a motorhome.

We started our pop-up adventures by camping near Bandon, on the southern Oregon Coast, one spring. Rainy days at camp became fun in a new way, full of tea, board games, art, and audiobooks. During the two and a half years we had our pop-up, we camped for long weekends on the Oregon Coast and along the mountain lakes of the Oregon Cascades.

But having our pop-up also made us bolder. We pushed our camping and traveling in more ways than we ever had before. During June and July 2021, we spent four weeks on a huge pop-up camping road trip throughout the US West, including:

  • Oregon
  • Idaho
  • Wyoming
  • Colorado
  • Utah

Our travels that summer ranged from Idaho’s Bear Lake to Wyoming’s Flaming Gorge. (We also took in Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, but we were staying in a rental house with Jodie’s family. A wildfire derailed other Colorado camping plans.) The pop-up was our home away from home while we touched fossils at Utah’s Dinosaur National Monument, and again in eastern Oregon, after we checked out more fossils, not to mention some otherworldly hiking, in John Day Fossil Beds National Monument.

A variety of pop-up camping experiences

The winter of 2022 pushed us even more, though. During February and March, we towed the pop-up from Eugene, Oregon, to Disneyland in California. Over the next six weeks, we road tripped throughout California and endured more than a few misadventures along the way…

  • Got blown out of the Mojave Desert
  • Had nowhere to camp in Death Valley
  • Turned our camping luck around in Malibu Canyon State Park (also a popular filming destination for films such as M.A.S.H., the original Planet of the Apes, and Pleasantville.)
  • Saw a dolphin feeding frenzy during a boat tour of Channel Islands National Park near Santa Barbara
  • Wandered a palm oasis and cholla cacti in Joshua Tree National Park
  • Soaked in hot springs and made new friends in the Anza-Borrego desert just a few miles north of the US-Mexico border
  • Lawn-bowled with Jodie’s grandfather on Coronado Island
  • Drove 11 hours from San Diego to Big Sur, including the winding, beautiful, slightly treacherous Highway 1
  • Learned about the Russian hermit of Hendy Woods
  • Hiked among the giants in Redwoods National Park

This huge pop-up camper road trip wound up serving as a sort of pre-season training for our family’s world travels (I’m also writing a book about it). It wasn’t part of our plan, but that’s how it unfolded. Our 6-week camping trip across California taught us that as a family, we could handle traveling the world and appreciate each other’s company, no matter the obstacles.

Pros and cons of camping in a pop-up trailer with kids

Tent camping was a lot of fun. However, we felt more and more limited, whether that was sleeping on the ground or feeling concerned about Jodie’s prosthetic leg running out of charge before we finished the trip.

What we loved about our pop-up camper

Our pop-up camper transformed our family’s camping experience.

Foremost, the pop-up extended our camping season. Living in western Oregon, the climate is temperate. However, the chillier, wetter springs and autumns weren’t very enjoyable for us in a tent. However, we never hesitated to camp from March to October in our pop-up. Our pop-up camper added convenience and enjoyment to our family camping trips in various ways.

  • The on-board propane heater helped us stay warm when it was chilly out.
  • Since a pop-up is a tent in a box, we could enjoy the sounds, sights, and scents of the outdoors, while having a solid roof over us.
  • The table and bench seats made it easier to do activities, such as art during a rainstorm or board games as we wound down for the evening.
  • More storage made it easier to stow things for when we needed them, instead of having to break down and get out every single thing we needed when tent camping.
  • Camp could stay at camp. Since we had a separate vehicle, it was easy to leave behind what we wanted, with a decent sense of security, and go wherever we wanted.

Two really important things we loved? The camper was small enough to park in our house’s driveway. Plus, instead of needing to get a beefy truck, we could haul our pop-up with our Subaru Outback.

What we didn’t like about our pop-up camper

Every trailer, camper, RV, or motorhome has its downsides too, from technical quirks to things that simply don’t jibe with your camping preferences or family dynamic. Here are downsides we weren’t fond of:

  • Setting up and packing up each took at least an hour, and often closer to 2 hours, and that’s with all four of us working together as a pretty decent team. Combined with days where a short drive was an hour, an average day was 4–6 hours, and our longest yet was 11 hours (San Diego to Big Sur, California), the takedown and setup sometimes doubled the time we spent being in between locations instead of feeling settled in at our camp-sweet-camp.
  • No matter how long your trip, you unpack and repack the same stuff. A packed-up pop-up is a storage container on wheels that becomes a living space. Things go in one place while you camp, and another when you pack up.
  • Campgrounds were our main option. Boondocking (dry camping) wasn’t an option that worked for us. We also later learned that a pop-up wasn’t an option for other overnight stays, such as Harvest Hosts, which require a fully self-contained camper to have sleeping, cooking, and toileting facilities built-in.

From pop-up to cabover

Even when you factor in the downsides, though, we loved our pop-up camper, and it helped all four of us make a lifetime of memories. However, by 2022 we had set an August date to get rid of about 90% of what we owned, put 9% in storage, and take the remaining 1% with us on full-time global travels with no end date.

After our big California trip, we sold the pop-up camper. In August 2022, we left our house in Eugene (it’s being rented out) and started traveling internationally. In April 2023, we came back to the USA knowing we needed both accommodation and transportation.

So we bought a Class C motorhome, a classic RV with a cabover.

And we drove it from one corner of the USA to another.

Where did we camp in the RV?

During the spring, summer, and fall of 2023, we drove our Class C motorhome over 10,000 miles. In April we were in the San Juan Islands of Washington State. (From the northwest corner of San Juan Island itself, we could even see Canada across the water.) By November we were in Miami, Florida, after many notable stops along the way. From federal national parks to private RV parks, Harvest Host stopovers to state park campgrounds, we camped in 17 US states and Canadian provinces:

  1. Oregon
  2. Washington
  3. Idaho
  4. British Columbia
  5. Montana
  6. Wyoming
  7. Colorado
  8. South Dakota
  9. Missouri
  10. Illinois
  11. Kentucky
  12. West Virginia
  13. Virginia
  14. North Carolina
  15. South Carolina
  16. Georgia
  17. Florida

A variety of RV experiences

Overnighting at breweries, farms & more with Harvest Hosts

Camping in an RV really changed up our options. For starters, we purchased an annual membership to Harvest Hosts. This program allows RVers (motorhomes or trailers, as long as they’re self-contained with toileting, cooking, and sleeping facilities) to stay overnight at a variety of hosts, from breweries to farms, all over the USA. We also added on Harvest Hosts’s Boondockers Welcome option, and got to boondock on people’s private property, such as homeowners with some acreage.

Among our favorite Harvest Host experiences? The farms, hands-down. We stayed on farms in Oregon, Washington, and Colorado. Each time, the farmer led us on a brief tour of their animals. The kids fed alpacas, horses, pigs, and more. Each time, we got perspective from the farmer on their land, livestock, and what motivates their livelihood.

Camping from corner to corner

Our motorhome opened up so many camping opportunities. The size of our 25′ long RV ensured we had no worries about being too big. If a campground could accommodate RVs, it could fit ours. That made it easier to take advantage of opportunities, such as:

  • Driving the International Selkirk Loop in WA, ID, and BC
  • Archery, hiking, and kayaking at Glendo State Park and Keyhole State Park in WY
  • Staying in South Dakota where we could easily take in Mt. Rushmore, Jewel Cave National Monument, the Crazy Horse Memorial, Wind Cave National Park, and Custer State Park, all from one area
  • An RV break in St. Louis, MO, where we could wait out a heat wave in a rental house and see the Mississippi River from our front door
  • Learning how cool (and family friendly) a city Omaha, NE is
  • Enjoying Kentucky both by staying with friends in Louisville (they also let us park in their driveway), then camp in the beautiful Red River Gorge
  • Getting our first family taste of whitewater rafting in New River Gorge NP, WV—and the kids made it clear that we needed to go again
  • Traveling in time by visiting Virginia’s Jamestown, Yorktown, and Colonial Williamsburg
  • Staying with fellow RV friends in Durham, NC
  • Hiking the forest boardwalk in Congaree NP, SC
  • Taking a horse-drawn ghost story carriage tour of Savannah, GA
  • Touring Walt Disney Resort in Florida… then visiting Kennedy Space Center and getting to watch a rocket launch!

Pros and cons of camping in a motorhome with kids

Traveling in an RV with our kids actually made life very simple. We didn’t have to disconnect, set up, pack, and reconnect a trailer. Wherever we went, we were driving our house, so we never had to worry about refreshment, downtime, or finding a toilet.

What we loved about our motorhome

We were pretty particular about the motorhome we wanted, and we’re glad we got what we did.

  • Our 2018 25’ Thor Majestic RV started life as a rental for Cruise America. When we got it, it had 127,000 miles on it—but we also got to see all its maintenance and refurbishment records. That gave us confidence that we were buying a reliable rig.
  • The price was much more budget-friendly compared to other RVs we explored.
  • It was easy to clean and maintain our compact space.
  • Simple. No slides, awning, or even a TV. We really like that simplicity.
  • The kids slept in the cabover while we parents had a bed in the back.
  • Sitting at the bench table, with its big window, on driving days made it easy for the kids to do activities, hydrate, snack, and simply watch the world go by
  • Ford’s E-350 Super-Duty chassis is the foundation of our motorhome. The chassis is versatile, employed in RVs and delivery trucks alike. It’s a dependable workhorse that any mechanic can handle.
  • Ease of setup and takedown. Setting up our pop-up camper could take over an hour. Once we pulled into camp in our RV though, the setup took about 5 minutes. Typically, that meant connecting to power and water (we only use sewer hookups when ready to empty our sewage tank, or black tank), and making sure the RV was level. We simply disconnected the utilities before leaving for the day.
  • Not having an awning. This surprised us, actually. As a rental, our RV had no awning, since those can be prone to getting broken. While we always enjoyed our extendable awning on the pop-up, we quickly adapted to not having one. Without an awning to store, it was easier to leave for the day.
  • Our stuff is always with us. If we pull off the highway for a restroom break, we can turn it into a meal or snack break… since our fridge and kitchen are right there. If we want a cup of coffee, we don’t have to buy one. We can fire up the kettle for a pourover. From rain jackets to camera batteries, our stuff is always close by—not to mention our bed for post-adventure naps!

What we didn’t like about our motorhome… and what we were nervous about before getting our RV

As much as we enjoy our motorhome, it isn’t perfect either. For weighing popup vs RV, here are some things we’ve considered downsides in our Class C motorhome:

  • Road noise. Just like passenger vehicles, every motorhome differs in how much road noise you hear. My dad’s Class A motorhome runs so quiet, it’s almost like being in an EV. Our Thor can be loud and rumbly.
  • Lack of privacy. Other than the enclosed bathroom, our RV is one big open room (though the cabover and main bed have privacy curtains). If one of us needs some alone time, that usually means going outside somewhere, or using headphones to get some internal privacy. And yes, the lack of privacy is challenging for parental intimacy.
  • Maintenance and repairs. Just like any other vehicle, our RV requires maintenance. So far, we’ve only dealt with routine issues, such as checking the tire pressure and getting oil changes. We also had to get 2 windshield chips repaired (handled by the mobile service from Safelite), replace a worn-out water supply hose for the toilet (my dad installed a replacement from a manufacturer kit from Camping World), and repair a mirror after some dingbat in Indiana clipped us on the highway (which made for a rather fun father-son project of installing new window glass—could’ve been a lot worse).
  • Planning for oil changes and such. Speaking of repairs, calling ahead is always necessary. Our RV technically has a 12’ height clearance (but can squeak by with at least 11’). Before heading to a repair place, we call to confirm if their bays have enough clearance.
  • Using the sewer hose (or the “stinky slinky”). When your RV has a toilet, eventually you have to empty the black tank, or sewer tank. We were most anxious about this. Would it be difficult? Would I screw it up and wind up spraying sewage all over camp? No. We only attach our sewer hose when we’re dumping the tank. Most campgrounds have a dump station. Otherwise, it’s usually easy to locate one (typically found in county parks or marinas). Dumping our tank takes about 5 minutes and has actually been pretty easy… except for that one slight spillage early in our motorhome days. Ahem.
  • Every time we go somewhere, especially in town, we have to take our house with us. Sure, it’s convenient to have our things with us. But driving an RV through East Coast cities such as Charleston or Savannah could be pretty tricky—not to mention finding parking. It’s not always convenient to have to drive our RV everywhere. By being flexible and doing a little planning, we manage.

Popup vs RV… which do we prefer?

We built wonderful family memories during trips in our pop-up and also in our motorhome. Each RV has helped us take incredible trips throughout the USA. Pop-up vs. RV: After numerous trips and experiences, which one do we prefer?

A pop-up camper can be a brilliant solution for a family. Pop-ups are also cheaper than motorhomes, can be easier to store at home, and are a convenient, fun way to expand your family camping.

However, we definitely prefer our motorhome.

Sure, our Class C RV has its downsides. However, the benefits have far exceeded the drawbacks. Since our motorhome gives us both transportation and accommodation, we’ve found it so much easier to travel—and to have peace of mind that we’ll always have a place to eat, rest, and feel safe together as a family.

So, popup vs RV? As you consider whether you’d want a pop-up camper, a motorhome, or another kind of RV, we hope our experiences help you make the right choice for you, your family, and the trips you want to take. Whatever you choose, focus on the upsides, figure out how you’ll navigate the downsides, and above all, get out there and enjoy traveling with your family!

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