Pop-Ups Are the Golden Mean of Road-Trip Camping (2009, T-Minus 4 years)

Post five, 2009, and we buy a pop-up.  At that point we are four years from this Fall’s cross-country road trip.  As I write these prelude posts, we will eventually catch up to present time and this blog will become the record of the trip itself, starting Sept 2.


The pop-up or tent trailer is the sweet spot, the golden mean, the glorious compromise.


That ascribes more virtues than might be deserved for what is, after all, simply a kind of recreational vehicle.  We bought ours in 2009, the Coleman Cheyenne that will become our residence for 36 of the 49 days on the cross-country road trip.

For us, it is a graduation to a kind of vacation mobility yet while retaining a sense that we’re still living in the outdoors.  It strikes a balance I want to describe for you.


First of all, a pop-up tent trailer is still like camping just to look at it.  Though an RV, it has an air of camping simplicity and utility whether closed or open.  On the road it’s light to pull and aerodynamic, a box on wheels that will be set up on arrival.  Unlike full RV’s,you don’t just park it and walk in–you still get to “make camp” in a way, yet without tent poles and ground tarps.  All the fun fuss and clamor of claiming a site, getting level ground, raising the tent, and hearing the wind against the canvas walls of your shelter are elements of camping that are retained with a pop-up.

Woke up to snow

Snow in camp, Madison Campground, Yellowstone National Park, 2010

When open you see that it is clever, like a big camper’s gadget–it’s the Swiss Army knife of RV’s.  Darwin might come to mind as the whole thing grows cloth sides with windows.  Beds mutate to the fore and aft.  Or someone might think of a Transformer toy as the box lid becomes a roof to our living room and kitchen, and then a piece which was nested in the ceiling swings down to become our front door.

The perfect middle-ground has been found between camping and RV life.  We rented a huge RV once, and we were too aware of it as a drivable apartment complete with sewage hold.  I came to loathe dark blue water.  This pop-up, however, has us off the ground on a comfortable bed, and provides a camp kitchen readily (sooner than ground camping set-ups), with refrigerator, hot water heater, sink, heater, dinette, interior lighting and beds for 7.  And we’re able to break camp in 45 minutes to drive to the next spot.

We have had four years of practice with the pop-up.  The many weekend trips have been great, but the multi-stop two-week itineraries, one to Yellowstone in 2010 and another to Rainier / Vancouver Island in 2012, have given us the best predictions of the extended life on the road that awaits us in September of 2013.


Front door view, Stanley Lake, 2010

On the way to Yellowstone, we gerrymander our trailer in opposite direction to the campsite design at Stanley Lake, ID (2010).  That is so our door faces the peaks of the Sawtooth Range.  That part of the camp, and that view, were gloriously unpopulated.  We unhook the car, lock the trailer, and tour the area… returning and retiring that night we enjoy a thunderstorm which pounds the camp with lightning strikes so close the sound does not delay after the flash.  Water gets in my tool box.  The next night we are still and appreciative of the fire in the ring while a fox dares to traverse our site.


Geyser Basin, Yellowstone, 2010

Hook up another day, and we pull through Craters of the Moon monument and on to Yellowstone and the Tetons.  Here is where Madison Campground provides a good base, even a morning of snow, and a ranger program in the dusk; a following day of meeting old friends at Mammoth Hot Springs, viewing Yellowstone Falls, Old Faithful, and returning to our evening fire.

Grand Teton park is a lesson in planning ahead.  With no reservations at Jackson Lake, we settle for the Jackson Hole KOA.  A bland spot to camp, but we were not there enough to care too much, as we unhitch and tour the park.


High Tea, Empress Hotel, Victoria BC

Two years later we enjoy Rainier, the Olympics and Vancouver Island.  The trip is a mix of wooded campsites, a visit with friends (Goymeracs, camping at Rainier) and family (Jeff and Dave in Auburn, WA), a ferry ride with the trailer in tow, and hikes in the rainforest.  Like the pop-up as the golden mean between RV and tenting, these vacations are also a wonderful mix, not merely a “mean” as in “average,” but a variety available to us because of an agile road trip style — “high tea” at the Fairmont Empress in Victoria one day, hiking in a rainforest the next.

It doesn’t get more “golden mean” than that!


High Tea? Yes, the day before. Now we are in camp, Hoh rain forest. WA 2012


About Cal Stevens

Learning professional, a training manager, speaker, writer; two careers in helping others succeed. Travel writer for the common road trip.
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6 Responses to Pop-Ups Are the Golden Mean of Road-Trip Camping (2009, T-Minus 4 years)

  1. Doug Cromey says:

    My family (5 kids) took many long trips in the early ’70s with a Plymouth station wagon and a pop-up camper. Our longest was NJ to CA and back in 3.5 weeks. Since my brother & I were old enough to be useful in setting up camp, we could have that camper set up in a jiffy. Good memories. Have a terrific trip!

  2. Cal Stevens says:

    Doug, thanks for following the blog and commenting on this post in particular, re camping in a pop-up. Enjoy the rest of the posts — would be honored to have you read on! Hope all is well with you, Doug. –Cal

  3. Garry Moses says:

    Cal, we recently bought a popup after 30 years camping in a tent. I really enjoy being able to sleep on a comfortable mattress, and most importantly – staying dry when it rains! I totally agree with you about a popup having a balance of comfort and still being ‘camping’.
    Really enjoying your blog and your writing style!

  4. Robert Godwin says:

    Cal, really enjoyed your blog and looking to do what you have done last year. Looking to purchase a pop-up and travel from Florida to California to NY and down the east coast. How did you do your research as to your plan of travel? I recently retired and have a lot of time to travel the country.

    Of course I will be looking to have A/C being a Florida boy

    • Cal Stevens says:

      Robert, thanks for your comment on the blog–I’m glad you enjoyed it. Re your question, if you read the blog starting at the first post and read “up,” you’ll get an idea about how we did the planning. In summary, we first selected a northern route going across the first time, southern route on the return. We had select places we really wanted to see and plotted those on a map, and then began to calculate miles (keeping each interval around 200 – 500 miles, and then planning about half the days as non-driving days. We researched all on-line! and made reservations to give us assurance of a spot, though we were willing to change plans if we wanted. –Cal


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