Buying Tips

Note: A title or registration is not required for collapsible camping trailers at or less than 3,000 pounds gross weight.

See the WI DOT web page given here to confirm that title and registration are not required:
WI DOT Title Not Required for Pop-up Campers

The advantages of buying a new camper are obvious, however the advantages of buying a pre-owned camper may not be so obvious. Our argument for buying used includes:

  1. The obvious cost savings. Pop-ups do depreciate like cars, loosing 50% of the purchase price in the first 3-4 years. However, after 4 years, you shouldn’t loose more than 3-5% per year, if you maintain it properly.
  2. If you have kids; you won’t have to worrying about the scratches or dents they may have caused (no crying over spilt milk).
  3. The average family only finds time to use their camper 2-3 times per year so it’s hard to justify putting $10k or more into a new camper.
  4. Buying from a reputable licensed dealer gives you the peace of mind that the unit has been inspected and the dealership stands behind what they sell.

Remember, this is camping and I hope you don’t feel the need to keep up with the Jones’s.  The values of camping are not found in the smell of new canvas, it’s about quality family time and bonding with the great outdoors.

  1. How big of a camper do I need?
  2. How big of a camper can I tow?
  3. What is my price range?
  4. What amenities do I need?

To help answer the above questions, I will provide my thoughts:

  1. Minimum Box sizes: 1-4 people (8ft. box will work); 4-5 people (10ft. box); 6+ (must have a 12ft. box).
    • Its hard to buy a pop-up camper that’s to big, if you can afford the next size up and have a tow vehicle that can safely pull it, then buy the bigger camper.
  2. How big? Refer to your vehicle owners manual for towing weight limitations.
    • I think you should have a vehicle with at least a 6 cyl. if you want to tow a 10ft. pop-up or larger.
    • Future destinations are also important considerations. Do you plan to tow your camper locally or take it out to the Rocky Mountains on a regular basis?
    • Remember the pre-1989 campers were quite a bit heavier and those in the 1970’s were much heavier.
  3. Price range is up to you, however I find it very difficult to find a worthy camper for less than $2,000.
  4. The minimum requirements should be a stove, heater and a place to get out of the rain.
    • If it doesn’t have a furnace then an electric heater (for under $20) works well.
    • You probably won’t use an ice box except for storage. Don’t be set on having a refrigerator, you may be narrowing your choices for the wrong reasons. If  it doesn’t have a refrigerator then the dorm size refrigerator ($79 at Walmart) is a good substitute if you camp at electrical sites.
    • I found that a couple of plastic dish pans work much better doing dishes than the small sink inside a camper.
    • An awning is very nice but the screen rooms are usually not used because of the added work necessary to put them up. It’s cheaper and easier to purchase an independent EZ-UP screen room.
    • Don’t get caught up on having a toilet, air conditioning, slide-outs or hot water. If your thinking about these amenities than your probably going to be shopping for a new tow vehicle to pull the new camper.
    • If you really must have an air conditioner, you can purchase a portable air conditioner which is about the size of a dehumidifier. Just place the a/c on the counter and place the 6″ hose out the canvas end to dissipate the heat an moisture.  Porta-potties work well for limited use of a toilet.
Condition, Condition, Condition: Don’t get caught up with color schemes, camper age, or manufactures. You can find a great used pop-up that is 20 years old and it may be in better condition than a neglected 5 years old camper.
  1. First look at the top; I tell people to use the knuckle test. Knock your knuckles on the 4 corners of the inside top of the camper. You should hear a solid wood sound. Most campers fail because of improper maintenance of the caulk on the top.  This lets moisture in and rots out the wood in the top (popups) or the floor (travel trailers). With travel trailers the ceiling and walls show water damage and the floor is discolored and soft because of moisture that runs down the walls and collects under the camper with no way to evaporate. This structural integrity issue will do all kinds of structural damage which most people can’t detect until a cable breaks (popup), or the (trailer) floor becomes soft.
  2. Next, look at the condition of the canvas/tent covering. It is usually o.k. to have one or two patches (mistakes do happen when you rush to take it down), however be suspect of worn out tent material if there is more than a couple of patches. This usually points to neglect or mice damage. Also look at the screens, again there should not be more than one or two tears. New tenting will cost about $850 or so.
  3. Note how smooth the cable system works, look and listen for cables binding. Some binding will occur on the main take-up cable but this should be an obvious clunk noise which is o.k. when cranking up your camper.  The clunk is due to the steel cable jumping back over the first row of winding.
  4. Look for excessive mold and mildew stains, a diluted mixture of bleach and water will get rid of some of this mildew but some of the ugly stains will never go away. You will probably do more damage trying to get rid of the mildew because of the bleach or other cleaners.
  5. Check the tires for cracks, this is a minor cost but it is usually a good reason to ask for $50 off the price.
  6. The last thing to check is the general condition of the camper. It is always more desirable to find one that was stored inside. Plastic parts are cheap, don’t worry about the cost of replacing these.
  1. In general, I think the best brands are made by the manufactures who have been around the longest. I would put Coleman, Jayco, and Starcraft on the “A” list. Rockwood, Flagstaff, and Dutchman, and Skamper can go on the “B” list and then a comes Viking, Coachman, Camplite and Palamino, try to stay away from these manufacturers.
  2. Since 1999, I do feel though the playing field has become much more level in regards to the quality of pop-up manufacturing with many of the brands.
  3. With all that said, just remember the most important rule: “Condition, Condition, Condition”. Even a cheaper built pop-ups can be in better shape than a similar year Jayco if the Jayco was neglected.