Growing up, I used to dream about owning an RV. I remember watching a cartoon where someone drives up to the campground with a humongous camper with a swimming pool. I wanted that! Fortunately for me, I never got to the point of buying one. The closest I got was going to an RV dealership as a young lad and looking at a $19,000 travel trailer. After walking in the travel trailer and having visions of cooking dinner in the small kitchenette, I sat down with the salesperson to discuss the payment if financed.
“It would only be $162 per month”. That’s not bad, I thought.
Then I started doing the math. I soon realized the $162/month was for 15 years!!!! The interest on that loan would be a whopping $10,323!!! I asked him, “Why would I want a 15-year loan on something that costs $19,000??? He replied, “Well, that’s pretty standard from RVs.” I told him I wanted a four-year loan, and he said the lowest they do is seven years.
This Totally Blew My Mind!
Do people take out loans like this on a significantly depreciating asset? Some quick research on the interwebs confirmed. I read story after story of people getting screwed because they had to sell their big expensive RV out of financial hardship. They discovered that selling wouldn’t even cover what was owed on the loan. The RV depreciated faster than the principal was paid off. Many of the stories I read were about retired folk who dreamed of traveling the country in their Class A RV only to be stricken with illness a few years later. Working in healthcare, I get frequent reminders that my health is not guaranteed in retirement.
The Plot Thickens
I’m young. I work in a profession that requires me to be on-site, and I don’t think giving someone anesthesia from home will be a thing anytime soon. I’m not going to use a camper for weeks on end. Furthermore, I live in the northeast. Travel trailers are not made for extreme winter weather. So I’ve limited my time camping to maybe a week and a few weekends in the summer for at least the next 20 years. Is it worth it to get a $19,000 RV??? Hell no!! I don’t care what the price is. It’s not worth the effort of maintaining it, paying the RMV their share, and owning a more extensive vehicle just to tow it a few times a year. It’s a big time and money pit.
Enter The Tent
Ok, I know what you’re thinking. “A tent!? It’s so uncomfortable! If it rains ill, get soaked! It’s a huge pain to put up!”
Well, come with me, and I’ll show you the way.
“It’s Uncomfortable” The car camping industry reminds me of the baby industry. There are a ton of so-called innovative products that take up precious cargo space in your car and are a waste of money. But there have been significant technological advances once you sift through the nonsense. Sleeping gear is one of them. When I was doing research for something to sleep on, I immediately thought of an air mattress. It’s light, portable, and takes up little cargo space when deflated. My wife and I would be able to sleep on it together too. Unfortunately, if you’ve ever slept on an air mattress, they can be uncomfortable.
Another problem is most standard air mattresses are not insulated. So if it’s cold outside, it will be more challenging to maintain a comfortable temperature when you are sleeping. However, I found some excellent air mattresses and will list them here.
- Insulated R value of 2.6* keeps you comfortable down to temps of 40F
- $149 Price Tag
- Pack Size 10×20
- Weight 5 Pounds
*R Value of 1 (good for warm weather)-5.5+(good for extreme cold)
- Need to Purchase a pump
- Pump takes up storage space
- Check out reviews-some say it doesn’t deflate during the night others say it does
- Cheap at $99.95 with battery pump included
- Pack weight of 4lb 15oz
- Reviews are largely positive
- No insulation so can be cold if ambient temperature is cold
After researching other options besides the air mattress, I found a sleeping pad. If you’re familiar with backpacking, you’ve probably used a sleeping pad. Car camping sleeping pads are much more comfortable than their backpacking counterparts because they are not limited to weight restraints. In addition, they have a much higher R-value than air mattresses due to their foam core. Most are self-inflating and require very minimal additional air to inflate fully. They also tend to be much more expensive than an air mattress, but in my opinion, it’s money well spent.
Ensuring a good night’s sleep is vital, and if you have an apprehensive spouse, ensuring their comfort is critical to your success! I went with the REI camp Dreamer XL Self-Inflating Deluxe Bed. REi makes a double version of the camp dreamer, but after reading reviews, I opted to buy two of the XLs and put them together with a fitted sheet. This provides a bigger sleep surface and allows you to adjust the air to individual comfort. It’s also excellent if you go camping alone or with friends; you can bring just one.
I’m happy with these sleeping pads so far. I’ve used them for three years without issue. They are easy to set up, deflate, and fit perfectly in their storage bag. The bag has a shoulder strap to make transport easier. They come with a “pillow pump,” a soft foam cylinder pillow that doubles as a pump. I would only use it as a pillow in a pinch, as it’s uncomfortable. These pads have an R-value of 6.6, so they will be helpful in very cold conditions. If you decide to get two, know the pack size is 11 x 30, bigger than the pack size of the REI air mattress. These things are not cheap. Priced at $179, your total investment would be $358 for the two of them, $209 more than the air mattress. Trust me; it’s worth it!
Here are some other similar sleeping pads that might appeal to you.
- R Value 6
- Pack size 11×26
- Pump sack is included
- Has positive reviews
- Large if camping by yourself
- Closest thing you’re going to get to a home mattress without bringing your home mattress
- Folds to make more compact
- Big enough for two people
- This thing is a literal mattress. It folds to make more compact but doesn’t get any more compact. Takes up a ton of space.
- Heavy at 31 pounds for the wide model
- Expensive- $550
Now that you are sleeping on a comfortable pad let’s talk about what you are sleeping in. Car camping gives you some freedom with this. You may have some spare sheets with a comforter that fits your sleeping pad well. That is a perfectly acceptable option. But if you are limited on storage space, a comforter can take up way more room.
I chose to go with the klymit KSB double sleeping bag. At the time, I snagged it from the REI outlet for $264.73. Unfortunately, REI doesn’t carry it anymore. This double sleeping bag has a down top and a synthetic fill bottom. It packs into a tiny carrier and is super light, so it is excellent for those that don’t have large vehicles. It has a hood for colder nights and a padded sleeve that will fit most double pads. It doesn’t fit my two pads put together, but I was ok with this. I love this thing! It keeps us warm on freezing nights with the combo of the Camp Dreamer. It’s a great combo, but if $379 is too much, here are other great options.
- Removable built in soft bedsheet
- Sleep Pad Sleeve
- Temp Rating down to 30F
- Nemo lifetime warranty
- Expensive at $349
- Cheaper price at $199
- Rated to 20F
- It doesn’t have fancy features like a pad sleeve and head cover as others do
“Tents are a huge pain to set up!”
Great news for those who have been out of the tent scene for a while. Technologies in new high-quality tents are astounding! This is not an item you want to go cheap on. Stay away from the Amazon special. Stick to a company that focuses on sleep gear.
I had cut my search for the perfect tent to two models. I needed it to sleep at least four people, and I wanted it to sleep us comfortably with room to spare. I have a backpacking tent, and it’s light and small. That’s not what I wanted for car camping. So it came down to the REI Kingdom 8 and Nemo Wagontop 8 Tent.
REI no longer makes the kingdom tent, and that’s not the tent I chose. The wagon top won by a mile. This tent is massive, with a floor area of 124 square feet and a height of 80 inches. Most people will be able to stand up without issue in this tent. For how big the tent is, it’s a breeze to set up. It takes me 15-20 min to set it up myself and even faster with a friend. What’s cool about this tent is that the rain fly is attached halfway across the tent and turns half the tent into a screen room when it is brought back. So on a clear night, you can look up at the stars, put chairs in the area, read a book, and not worry about bugs biting you. When you have the rainfly over the screened part, the tent has a nice-sized vestibule where you can store shoes, etc. The last time I camped, I could lay three bikes piled on each other in it!
“What if it downpours and I get soaked!?”
I thought this thing would be sketchy in a storm because of the high vertical walls. I was wrong. Mrs. Do Good, and I were camping in new hampshire and got caught in an August storm. Nothing extreme, but it was windy enough to test out my theory. I made sure I guyed out the tent by using the lines that came with it. For those who don’t know, guying out a tent is anchoring it with a rope. There are plenty of guy-out points on this tent. The tent performed beautifully. Having all the room in the tent during the storm was nice. We could put our camping chairs in it and read our books. The sky opened up, and it poured down for hours. We stayed dry, and the tent didn’t budge at all. I was highly impressed!
Modern tents don’t need any treatment to maintain this waterproofing either. I’ve owned this tent since 2020 and have been in multiple rainstorms without any water entering the tent. The only negative review I found that described the interior getting wet was from someone who had used the tent as a storage unit for two months which is not its intended use.
The price of the tent might sound steep at $799, but it is worth it for the features and the peace of mind you will stay dry in a storm. In addition, Nemo makes a Wagontop 6 and Wagontop 4 for those that want something smaller.
Just as a side thought, I enjoy the tent experience. I sleep in a bed in a house all the time. What fun is it to buy a vehicle that tries to mimic the same experience? Also, having your family all sleeping next to each other can be a lot of fun. They are moments you will cherish. On my last camping trip, I had my two boys with me. It rained one morning, and we spent the morning laying in sleeping bags, reading Harry Potter, and playing card games as the rain calmly fell on the tent. It was a great moment.
So there’s my argument for skipping the RV and getting a tent instead. Total damage for shelter and sleeping gear $1536. Paid in full. No interest. No big vehicle to haul it (I could fit all the equipment in my compact sedan when it was just my wife and I camping). It doesn’t take up room on my driveway or have to pay to store it somewhere. Little to no maintenance. Life is good.