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Tent vs. RV Camping

by Bonnie
Tent vs RV Camping

After roughly seven years of tent camping (four major road trips and several other shorter ones), we finally upgraded to a camper. We always figured we would get a travel trailer (which you pull) or a motor home (which you drive) eventually, but for a variety of reasons we ended up making the purchase a bit sooner than we expected.

Our major motivators for making the upgrade were 1) the older we get the harder it gets to not just sleep on an air mattress, but get up from one in the morning and 2) we didn’t like leaving the cat alone for three to five weeks… With a camper, we can take her with us. There were a few other factors, such as finding the right model (a Passport Elite 23RB) for the right price, and the time came to take the plunge into the RV world!

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Updated December 2019

Tent Camping

There are MANY kinds of tents and many kinds of tent campers. We chose to tent camp when traveling because we both enjoy being outside and the rustic nature of camping. We also enjoy taking rather long road trips and camping is cheaper than getting a hotel every night.

Our Small Tent

We actually had two tents, one “big” and one small. The small tent, which we still have, is the REI Half Dome 2 Plus. This tent is very quick and easy to put up and take down (five to 10 minutes). It is barely big enough for a full-size air mattress (not big enough for a queen) but has a door on each side so that neither person has to crawl over the other to get in or out. It is almost all mesh, so the ventilation is great, and the rain fly works well. We used this tent mainly if we were only staying one night or there were high winds (the low profile helps to keep it from waving in the wind).

Cottonwood Campground in Big Bend National Park
Our campsite at Cottonwood Campground in Big Bend National Park with our Half Dome 2 Plus.

We did learn the hard way with this tent that high winds and sand don’t mix. When staying in Dinosaur National Monument, we set up the tent, including the rain fly, then fixed dinner, sat out and read and went to a ranger program. When we crawled into bed, there was a mound of sand all over the sleeping bag. Take our advice: If there is sand, make sure the rain fly is buckled down very tight and low to the ground!

Our “Big” Tent

Our bigger tent was still pretty small, in the fact that it wasn’t a multi-room or anything like that. It was the REI Hobitat 4 tent. They have since discontinued that line, but it is similar to the Grand Hut 4.

We liked this tent because it did allow us to have extra room on three sides of a queen size mattress and we could pretty much stand up inside (much easier in the middle of the tent, but not if there is an air mattress there). It also had a vestibule “attachment” that allowed a covered entryway and a place to put our camp chairs if it was raining.

Camping in Branson, MO in our REI Hobitat 4.
Camping in Branson, MO in our REI Hobitat 4.

We enjoyed both tents and usually traveled with both. An outdoor extension cord to charge phones, tablets, lanterns, etc. if we were at a campsite with electricity made it easy to stay connected.

We had bins of clothes, food, cooking supplies and lots of other camping gear in the truck. The system we had worked really well. We would stay in hotels maybe once or twice a week, especially on days we were driving long distances, which was a nice break from the air mattress and public showers.

Pros and Cons of Tents

Our biggest complaint about tent camping was the difficulty we had in finding a place to wash dishes. You can’t use “normal” dish soap if you are washing dishes using the spigot at the campsite and camp soap really is mostly worthless for getting grease off a pan. Most campgrounds don’t allow washing dishes in the bathrooms, and very few of them had a dishwashing sink/station. We ended up eating out at times when we wanted to cook simply because we didn’t have a good way of cleaning up.

It took quite a while, but we found a shaded campsite in Lovewell State Park in northern Kansas.
It took quite a while, but we found a shaded campsite in Lovewell State Park in northern Kansas.

Another major con of tent camping, especially out West, is it can be hard to find shaded campsites. This can be a major issue in the summer in places like Wall, SD and the whole state of Kansas, both of which we struggled to find shade to keep us somewhat cool.

That being said, tent camping is a great way to start out. If you don’t want hook-ups (water, electricity), you can generally get a campsite fairly cheap (no more than $20-$30). You can easily alternate camping with staying in a hotel to break things up.

With tent camping, you can easily stop somewhere during the day, then head to your campsite and get set-up. Those are some things that you just can’t do when pulling a trailer.

RV Camping

As much as we loved tent camping, we quickly embraced the RV life with the camper!

Finances

The first thing about RVs: They are not cheap! There are all kinds of different sizes and prices when buying a camper. I’m sure it is possible to get something for just a few hundred or a thousand dollars if all you want is a place to sleep. Or if you truly want a house on wheels you could spend several hundred thousand or more than a million if you want!

Bonnie relaxing at our campground in Big South Fork NRR.
Bonnie relaxing at our campground in Big South Fork NRR.

While we did choose to get a full-fledged camper, rather than a pop-up or camper van, etc., we still stayed fairly small and cheap in the grand scheme of things. Regardless of what size camper/RV you get, one thing to know is that you have to buy MUCH more than just the camper itself to actually be able to use it (see our articles on Outfitting Your RV). These expenses will add up, so be ready.

Campsites will also be more expensive, especially if you want sewer and cable hookups. Personally, we can generally do without cable, but if we are staying anywhere for more than two nights, we want a sewer connection. Your gas expenses will be higher as well. These are all things that you have to factor in, in addition to the cost of the camper, before making sure you are ready to take the plunge.

Be sure to check out our cost comparison between road trip styles here.

Driving with a Camper

Driving is also more stressful and you generally can’t drive as fast. Stopping for lunch or gas is more difficult because there isn’t always a place to park your vehicle. We have learned to love the truck stops such as Pilot, Love’s and TA, but even those can be difficult if you aren’t getting diesel. You definitely will not be pulling through the nearest Chick-Fil-A or McDonald’s pulling a camper or driving an RV!

Taking our new RV home.
Taking our new RV home.

With the camper, we also had to rethink our itinerary. Sites,  that with a tent would have been a one to two-hour “layover” on the way suddenly became a one or two night stays. Again, you can’t just park the camper anywhere. And with the cat with us, we certainly couldn’t leave her in the truck or camper without AC.

Advantages of a Camper

That being said, there are many advantages of a camper that hooked us immediately! First, you have your own shade. If you are in a big, open campground with very few trees you can extend the awning or even sit inside in the air conditioning (assuming you have an electric hookup).

Grant and Alee hanging out at the campground in Montrose, CO.
Grant and Alee hanging out at the campground in Montrose, CO.

You also have a bathroom, which means if the showers are yucky or you just gotta go in the middle of the night, you’re in a much better position. Granted, you also have to clean the bathroom, but you’d have to do that at home anyway and it’s probably a much smaller bathroom, which means less to clean!

Not having to pack and unpack boxes and bins every time you stop just to get clothes or a plate is great! We definitely took a wider range of clothes with us than we ever did when tent camping.

We also loved having a refrigerator and cabinets, which allowed us a lot more freedom at the grocery store and removed the need to buy ice every day. I’m not sure we actually saved money at the grocery store, but we did get to enjoy leftovers a few times, which we rarely did when traveling with a cooler.

Grant grilling pork chops at the Charbonneau Campground!
Grant loves to grill!

Lastly, if it is raining, not only can we sit under the awning or inside to stay dry, but we can cook! In the camper, we do have a stove, oven and microwave. Granted, we haven’t actually used anything other than the microwave, because we prefer to cook on the grill, but eventually, we will need them and will be very glad that we have them!

Setup and Take Down

The setup and takedown of the camper is certainly longer than with a tent. We figured that over time we would get better and faster at the routine, and we did get better at setting up. Packing up camp is still a process and took us about an hour every time. Dumping the sewer tanks and making sure the slide is free of pine needles, acorns, etc. can be time-consuming. With the tent we could generally be out within about 20-30 minutes.

This site required a lot to make sure everything was supported.
This site required a lot to make sure everything was supported.

What About a Camper Van?

In September 2019, we actually rented a camper van for a trip to Rocky Mountain National Park and the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup. It was a great experience.

Read more about our experiences in Rocky Mountain National Park and the Custer State Park Buffalo Roundup.

First and foremost, if we had never camped in an RV and switched to a camper van, we would have been blown away by how easy it was. Packing up the campsite was a breeze. If we had gotten any chairs out, we packed them up. We made the bed and started driving. Easy.

Grant relaxing at the campground, reading a book on his iPad.
Grant relaxing at the campground, reading a book on his iPad.

That said, the RV has a LOT more room and is a lot more comfortable. Having a full-size queen bed is a lot comfier than the bed in the camper van. There was not a ton of room in the van, so that made things like getting dressed in the morning and cooking a bit difficult with two people.

Still, the agility and ease made the camper van a great experience and something I would certainly consider if I were upgrading from a tent. The biggest downside is maintaining the van and its engine. I am not a fan of having a second engine to maintain.

Our Outdoorsy RV Rental - we had plenty of storage below the bed.
Our bed with luggage stored below.

Read more about renting a camper van from Outdoorsy here.

Final Thoughts on Tent vs. RV Camping

There are definite advantages and disadvantages to both tent and RV camping. If you are considering an upgrade to a camper, do your research on the financial aspects. Make sure you can afford it. There certainly isn’t any point in buying a camper and then not having the money to enjoy it! If you are new to camping and looking for a place to start, tent camping is a good introduction. Some folks will adapt to it better than others… It certainly helps if you can handle the idea of maybe not being able to take a shower one day!

Whatever your travel style, our hope is that you will get out and explore the world. Get out and discover all the amazing things out there that you never knew you would enjoy.

Having done long road trips camping in a tent versus camping in a RV, we look at the benefits of both ways to stay in a campground.
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4 comments

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