If you love the idea of exploring the country but don’t want to commit to (or need) an RV, a pop-up camper may be the right option for you.
These trailer attachments are significantly more affordable than an RV and will help you get a feel for the lifestyle before you dive into the RVing life.
By taking the time to figure out what you need and what to look for, you can ensure that you get the best bang for your buck and plenty of enjoyable experiences.
So, check out our detailed guide on what to look for when buying a used pop up camper below! Plus, you can use our checklist to ensure you’re not forgetting anything in the process.
How Much Can You Tow?
Every vehicle has a tow rating, which shows you how many pounds it can safely tow. Trucks and pickups have higher tow ratings than sedans, and diesel cars tend to have higher tow ratings than gas-powered vehicles.
Don’t try to guess your car’s tow rating, as you can put yourself in danger and damage your vehicle with a heavy load. Instead, look up the rating in your owner’s manual or contact the manufacturer.
Once you’ve found your tow rating, shop around for campers well below that rating. Chances are you’ll be stuffing your camper with camping gear, and your car must be able to tow that along with the camper’s weight.
What Features Do You Want?
Every person or family will have a different list of must-haves. Some people like roughing it and can get by with the bare minimum. Others will want more amenities that make their camping trip more convenient, like a home away from home.
Some of your primary considerations can include whether you want hot water, storage space, heating, AC, or even having a toilet in your pop-up camper.
These features will ultimately depend on how many trips you take, where you go, and your comfort levels.
Ask these questions to help you figure out what you need to have in your camper:
- How many beds do you need? Will you be traveling with friends and family, with a partner, or alone? If you want to keep your camper for a while, make sure you can fit your entire camping party in it comfortably.
- Are you camping in cold or warm climates? If you want to camp in the summer, an air conditioning system will make your trip significantly more comfortable. Campers tend to have poor ventilation, making the interior stuffy and hot without AC. Similarly, if you want to camp in the cold, you’ll need a heater to keep warm.
- Will you be cooking? Some people like to cook and eat in their camper. If you do, you’ll need to have enough space to store all your cooking gear as well as a dedicated dining table that you don’t have to convert into sleeping space each night.
- Do you want a bathroom? Even if you plan to use campground bathrooms for toilet breaks and showers, it’s nice to have a toilet in your camper for late-night emergencies. Cassette toilets are small and convenient and are included in some pop-up camper models.
- Will you be camping at primitive sites, or ones with more modern amenities? These amenities will inform some of the choices that can make your stay more pleasant. If you want to stay at primitive sites but still like having running water, consider choosing a model with a freshwater tank.
Understand the Drawbacks
No matter how creative you get, living in a pop-up camper is a primitive experience (compared to RV’s).
While you can install some features to make it more liveable, you need to consider some drawbacks as well. If any of these are deal-breakers for you, consider looking at RVs or other camping options instead.
The cramped space of your camper has two main drawbacks. The first is that you’ll have to get creative with storage space, sleeping arrangements, and fitting in conveniences such as a toilet or shower.
Secondly, due to the poor insulation of thin walls, campers will get very hot very quickly during summer, and the temperature drops inside during winter.
Plus, you’ll have to find ways to deal with condensation build-up inside your camper, as well as with the fluctuating temperatures.
Pop-up trailers are lightweight, mainly because of their simple construction and materials.
Most pop-up camper walls are made from metal or thin wood and canvas/mesh. This means that they don’t provide any protection from sound or insulation from temperature variances.
While many people learn to tune out outdoor noises, including the constant hum of a generator, some people will find the continuous noise unbearable.
There are other drawbacks that may sway your purchase decision, as well, which we outline in our guide on why not to buy a pop-up camper. It might be a good idea to run down that list to make sure there are no deal-breakers for you.
What to Look For
Once you’ve decided on the must-haves, and are OK with the drawbacks, it’s time to go shopping!
You can find plenty of places to shop around for used campers, including Craigslist and similar sites, local RV dealers, and so on.
There are a few important things to look at once you’ve found a used camper that you’re interested in.
Related: Best Pop-up Camper Brands & Manufacturers in 2022
If you don’t mind a DIY project, you can usually walk away with a pretty cheap camper. However, buying a fixer-upper doesn’t mean you shouldn’t worry about its condition. Some things you can address with TLC, while others need more extensive repairs.
Make sure that your potential camper is structurally sound. These trailers tend to use thin, less durable materials, so even a little rough driving can lead to further issues that shorten the life of your camper.
Look for these common warning signs of structural damage when checking out your potential camper for the first time:
- Leaking or rotted roof
- Sagging or cracked roof
- Bent frame
- Soft spots or wobbliness in the floor
- A damaged lift system
While you can fix all of these problems, they’ll likely increase your budget beyond what you want to spend. Try to stick to cosmetic changes and save your money for camping gear and activities rather than trying to save an old, structurally unsound camper.
Ease of Assembly
Most campers are easy to put up and down, but you should still go through the process with the seller. That way, you can spot any potential issues with the camper and get a feel for the camper’s set-up and take-down procedure.
Examine Every Part of the Camper Yourself
Check that all of the amenities in the camper work the way they should. If you’re committed to getting a camper with AC, check that the cooling system works and ask when it had its last service.
The same is true for any feature of the camper. Don’t be afraid to take your time and go over every nook and cranny before making a buying decision.
While most sellers are honest people, many will still gloss over small inconveniences and potential issues. The only way to avoid encountering surprise trouble later is to do a thorough inspection yourself.
If the seller doesn’t let you inspect the camper, walk away from the purchase. This behavior from the seller probably means the trailer has more issues than you would want to fix.
Use our checklist below when you first examine your camper. This checklist will ensure that you don’t overlook any essential aspect that becomes a problem after the sale.
- Check that the latches seat correctly when opening and closing the camper.
- Inspect the stabilizer jacks. If you don’t know how to use them, ask the owner to show you.
- Check that the doors seat properly and are easy to open and close.
- Inspect the awning for mold or dry rot. Also, ask the owner to show you how to open and close the awning.
- Check under the sink for leaks or water damage.
- Find the location of the water pump, freshwater tank, and heater (if the camper has one). Check all of these components for signs of damage or leaks. Make sure the pump and heater work and keep an eye out for leaks when the pump runs.
- Test all the zippers and look for areas of separation. Gaps and broken zippers will make your camper less watertight.
- Check the lights, on shore power and battery, to determine whether the electricals are in working order.
- Find out where the fuses are located.
- Check the tires for wear or perishing, and find out when the owner last replaced them.
- Check the toilet and shower area for leaks, and ask the owner to show you how they work.
- Ask the owner to show you how to operate the stove, furnace, hot water, and fridge. Turn the refrigerator on when you start your inspection and check it again later to see if it works.
- Check the propane hoses for signs of wear and tear.
- Make sure the bunks slide out smoothly.
- Find out when the owner last repacked and greased the bearings.
- Find out if the owner has the manual, which will contain important information about your camper. Don’t stress too much if they don’t have it, since you can find most of what you need online.
Tip: Only put in an offer once you’ve examined every part of the camper. Don’t hesitate to ask the owner to demonstrate how it works and where things are since you need to know how to use the camper if you buy it.
Use caution with sellers who pressure you to hurry and buy the camper without doing a thorough inspection first.
Your final consideration should be your budget. Pop-up campers vary in price, depending on their size, condition, and how badly the owner wants to sell.
Check out our guide on how much a pop-up camper costs for a general idea. And look at sites like NADA guides, which give prices on all sorts of RV-type vehicles in your area. Once you’ve compared prices and know the average for the camper you want, decide what you’re willing to spend.
If possible, wait until winter or fall before you start seriously shopping for your camper. These are the best times to buy a camper. Most people spend their summer camping and typically wait to sell their trailer once the season’s over, meaning you can get excellent deals if you take your time.
General Shopping Advice
Don’t buy the first camper you see, even if it initially looks like a great deal. You may find that as you look at lots of campers, you’ll start to re-evaluate your must-haves and deal-breakers. You’ll get a better feel of a quality camper vs. one where you should pass on the purchase.
Once you’ve found the camper that meets all your requirements and fits within your budget, take a couple of days to consider it. You may want to ask the owner to see the camper multiple times before making the final offer. Pop-up campers are a commitment, and if you plan to make the most of them, you’ll have to make a sound, logical decision.
However, if you see the camper a second time and you’re still in love, chances are it’s the one for you. Buying a used camper means you may have to put some work in to get it looking great. The result will be worth the wait and effort you’ll spend.
Check out our guide on what to look for when buying a used RV for more tips and a downloadable checklist!