Own an RV For Less Than $5,000

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"Pop-up" camping trailers permit an American family to purchase a motor home-your house away from home

Pack up the tent. Close up the Winnebago. Put away your wallet. And meet the low-cost solution to the RV lifestyle. It's a white box about four-and-a-half-feet-tall, perched on two wheels, and made of plastic. Congratulations: Your family will soon be living in it. Just hitch it to the back of the family car and hit the road. At your campsite, this peculiar nut blossoms into an 18-foot-long home away from home. With a few easy cranks, the waterproof lid of the trailer rises to become a roof, wooden floors emerge to serve as sleeping platforms, and fabric unfurls to form walls and additional roof. Everything you need, from kitchen table to kitchen sink, opens up with a few zips, snaps, or creaks. Within moments, you've unfolded a portable motel room out of this veritable Swiss Army Camper.

Your Velcro vacation is ready. The last thing you'll open will be a cold beer. The true wonder of this extraordinarily engineered product isn't really its ingenious collapsibility. It's the resourcefully compact price. The savings over other self-accommodating camping vehicles are extreme. A typical Class A motor home, the motorized classic measuring 20 to 40 feet, can easily cost $60,000 or much more when purchased new and presents daunting challenges in navigation and fuel expenses. Even those boxy travel trailers, which hitch to the bumper of your (preferably powerful) vehicle, average $14,000 for a stripped-down model.

Different names, uniform comforts

But a new folding camping trailer (also known as a "pop-up" or "fold-down") can be had for as low as $3,200. To put the price into context, $5,500 spent on a fuller model, including a toilet, would buy you about 69 rooms in a $80 roadside motel-except with your trailer, you can sleep up to eight people wherever you want for years into the future. In short, with a folding camping trailer, the RV lifestyle can be had for pennies on the dollar.

Although soft-sided and tent-like, folding camping trailers feel like mini motor homes, with wood veneer cabinets, booth-style dining, dome lights, and a diminutive kitchen sink. They also typically boast storage compartments for linens, food, and supplies. For an extra charge, they come self-contained with showers, mini-refrigerators, toilets, awnings, furnaces, air-conditioners, propane tanks, power converters, and batteries for appliances, as well as other conveniences associated with far more expensive RVs.

Not only do you approach the comfort of a full-size RV, but you do so in proportions you can handle. On the road, pop-ups have distinct advantages over other RVs. Because most folding trailers are wood-framed, they're lightweight and don't guzzle your fuel the way bigger trailers do. When collapsed, they won't obstruct sightlines in your rearview mirror. Their trim dimensions minimize wind resistance to make it safe and easy to pull behind the car you probably already have - ideal for weekend trips. And because it takes up about as much room as a standard automobile, when you're not on vacation, it can sit uncovered in an extra parking space - unlike that impassive brickhouse known as the Class A Motor Home, which hunkers in your driveway like a slumbering dinosaur.

Consider Your Needs

Before you rush to hitch your wagon to this star, there are important considerations. To be so adaptable, the folding camping trailer must compromise in other areas, so it isn't a perfect fit with every vacationer. The biggest compromise lies in its fabric walls. Sure, half of the appeal of camping is sleeping to the music of crickets and waking to the gentle morning breeze. But the trailers' construction can also translate into chilly nights and limited privacy (although some models have tinted vinyl windows). If you're a lightweight yourself, the airy atmosphere may put you off. Some higher-priced models offer onboard space heaters, but heat retention can be poor, and you'll pay more for electric usage.

Another consideration is security. Folding camping trailers aren't as commodious as their motorized brethren--when expanded, they generally have an interior height of around six and a half feet, with lengths from 17 to 26 feet-- so they don't necessarily lend themselves to round-the-clock occupancy. Should your family decide to go on a hike together, the only thing between your valuables and would-be burglars is that critical fabric wall, so you may feel compelled to collapse your trailer every time you step away from it. That doesn't sound so bad until you realize you will need to stow your personal items as well, turning a quick milk run into an all-out battening of the hatches.

In a folding trailer, everything is downsized. Onboard water tanks typically hold between five and 18 gallons of water, with an average of 12 (you can fill up at campsites). Iceboxes, not refrigerators, are standard. When they're included, toilets are typically "cassette" models, which are good for about 25 flushes and require emptying at a dump station. Also, nearly everything--down to the kitchen sink--either stows, folds, or slides away for road journeys, so you'll need to take extra care with the moving parts, as one broken hinge can gum up the entire streamlining process.

Also ask yourself if a toilet and shower are important to you. Low-tech portables cost around $50 at camping stores, and if you camp at established campsites, there will probably be free facilities on the premises anyway. Flush the commode from your list of add-ons and you could save a thousand bucks or more.

And, of course, you need to tow your trailer. Generally, the cheaper the model, the less it weighs, and unless your family car is a real klunker, it can haul one without expensive engine upgrades. Make sure to check your car's compatibility with the Gross Vehicle Weight Rating (GVWR) of the trailer you want; in general, if your car's manufacturer makes the class of hitch required for the trailer, it can support it.

Not surprisingly, big-spending motor home owners sniff at the idea that the humble folding camping trailer could be considered an RV. But recognizing their undeniable economy, pop-up owners are as unsurprisingly possessive of their upstart campers. According to the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association, over 876,000 have been sold since 1982, more than 52,000 in 2000 alone. Pop UP Times is a four-year-old fanzine devoted to them. A subscription of six issues costs $12, and its Web site has a lively message board for Q&A (800/398-8893, popuptimes.com). "With the change in gasoline prices, people are going to head for the low-end RVs like these," predicts Dave Newhouse, founder of Pop UP Times.

A Model Roundup

Folding camping trailers are largely prefabricated, and optional items are modular, so a new purchase isn't much of a hassle. Manufacturers, many of them clustered near Elkhart, Indiana, head off special orders by offering a range of trailer models that supply sleeping space, weight, and appliances in a variety of permutations. You can probably find the combination you want in an existing line and add further extras without much ado.

Logically, the most affordable models are also the smallest (around eight feet, folded) and come equipped with beds, sink, table, and two-burner stove. Between eight- and ten-feet-folded are the medium-sized units, which may include frills such as water tanks and a chemical potty. Over ten feet, luxury models might come weighted with perks like flush toilets, showers, and fridges. But consider this: Even a basic model costs only a few times more than a similarly sized deluxe tent, except it's more comfortable, suspended above the ground, and a snap to set up.

In describing a few of the industry's larger makers of trailers, we've listed the manufacturer's suggested retail price (MSRP) for each model. That should be considered a benchmark, as freight costs vary from dealer to dealer. Your main determining purchase factor (besides price) will probably be the floor plan, but there are other considerations, such as storage space, slide-outs (the trailer equivalent of bay windows), roof materials, wall-fabric quality, and options. Be careful about extra costs. Makers will charge you more for every detail, so be prudent. We're not assessing quality; we'll just tell you who's who and let you do the shopping:

Coleman: (colemantrailers.com; 800/532-2318) The camping giant Coleman began manufacturing these clever convertibles in the 1960s, and today it captures more than a third of the market. Recently, the company was bought by Fleetwood, which continues to develop what it terms "folding trailers" under the Coleman name. Some folks are partial to them--the mildew-resistant tenting, platform support posts, and the chassis receive especially high esteem - but sticker prices are higher than competitors'. Some owners complain that replacement parts, though easier to find than most brands', are expensive.

The 2001 line comprises 14 trailers grouped in three families. The entry-level Destiny includes five modest sink/stove trailers between $4,560 and $7,880; the seven Grand Tour trailers, which offer more standard features and run between $6,600 and $9,560; and the deluxe Grand Tour Elite, for the gung-ho, verges on opulence, with rates up to $12,400. In the Destiny Line, the most affordable, each trailer has an insulated aluminum roof (which isn't as snazzy as the one-piece ABS plastic tops of the Grand Tour series), as well as other features you will also find on any basic model, such as a stove that can be used both inside and outdoors and a built-in ice chest (refrigerators cost $579 more). The midget of the series is the $4,560 Taos, which has 91 square feet of living space and can sleep six, albeit in slumber party conditions. (Warning: All manufacturers are over-optimistic about sleeping space, so inspect the floor plans to gauge the true number of comfortable sleepers. Better yet, subtract two from the promised sleeping capacity, unless you've got short kids or very sleepy friends.) For less cramped conditions, there's the Sedona ($5,559), which sleeps seven and offers 143 square feet of interior space. If you want a shower/portable toilet combo, the cheapest is the Timberlake ($7,879), which sleeps eight and offers 155 square feet of living space.

Jayco: (jayco.com; 219/825-5861) Thishriving Middlebury, Indiana, company has been making thrifty "camping trailers" for over 30 years and produces them in three groups: Qwest, Eagle, and Heritage. Being the most compact, the basic Qwest models are the cheapest models we surveyed and they sleep six (the 8U; $3,150) to seven (the 10X; $3,669). At that level, don't expect more than a sink and a stove.

Starcraft RV: (starcraftrv.com; 219/593-2550) A subsidiary of Jayco, Starcraft makes 19 models. The cheapest of the bunch is the Starcraft 1706 ($4,013), which sleeps six but is unadorned, holding only five gallons of water. Nearly the same price ($4,041) is the tiny Starcraft 1404. Whereas most trailers have two sleeping platforms that extend like wings from either end of the trailer, the 1404 has only one. The platform measures about 70" x 80", which is roomy in the pop-up world - once again, the travelling tall get the short end. Refrigerators can be fitted for $440, but a toilet is out of the question unless you upgrade to the Starcraft 2105 for $5,556 (a good deal). With that model, you can also have an outdoor shower fitted for $491. For one of Starcraft's nifty interior shower/toilet compartments, which fold into a countertop when not in use, fork over around $10,000 and upgrade to its Constellation series.

Viking: (vikingrv.com; 616/467-6321) Moving on to smaller companies' trailers - which can be more difficult to repair--we come to Viking and Coachmen Clipper brand trailers. Viking's three series (Epic, Saga, Legend) sleep between six and eight with a fiberglass-and-wood roof and lots of vinyl. The cheapest is the Epic, which costs from $3,360, has 80" beds, and sleeps four to six. Clippers are similar and start at $3,410, sleeping six. The company doesn't hit consumers too hard for options: For a heater, fridge, and outside awning, a 1906 Saga starts at $4,370; $7,460 gets a shower and toilet in the Viking 2460, and $7530 gets the Clipper 1260, both a monstrous 24-feet-long when opened.

THOR/AERO COACH (aerocoach.com; 219/457-8787) From Syracuse, Indiana, the Aero Coach family of fold-downs includes the Dutchmen Voyager, which costs $4,473 for sink-only 17-footers to $6,054 for 23-footers with sink and stove. The Skamper Sport ($4,473 to $6,822) is pretty much the same except that awnings, for outdoor lounging, are standard. Larger series are the Dutchmen Classic and the Skamper Vision, both of which range from $7,837 to $10,157. For these, fridges cost about $450 more. The cheapest models with a toilet and shower are the 21S Skamper Sport and the 1008D Dutchmen Voyager, for $6,764.

Aliner: (aliner.com; 724/423-7440) This family-owned-and-operated company produces the lightest models on the market, and because they have hard fold-up sides, they hold heat well and offer better security. In these Pennsylvania-made trailers, two panels angle upward and meet, forming an A-shaped ceiling that's about seven-feet tall at the peak, which makes these lighter but perhaps more comfortable for couples. Standard features like removable tables, which are optional on other companies' trailers, optimize space at bedtime. But Aliners are cheap; prices start at $3,975 for the new model Scout, $4,965 for the scaled-down Alite, $6,265 for the standard-sized Sportliner, and $10,675 for a fully loaded (toilet, etc.) Aliner LXE. Fridges cost about $657.

Chalet: (chaletrv.com; 541/791-4610), based in Albany, Oregon, uses the same warm pyramid design as Aliner. There are five models with approximately eight feet of headroom at the middle. The LTW ($6,495) is cheapest, but the Aurora ($9,600) comes with a toilet and fridge.

Palomino: (palominorv.com; 616/432-3271) Vanguard Industries of Colon, Michigan, has been making folding trailers for 33 years. Of its three price groups (ten Yearling, four Mustang, and two Slide), the lightest and most affordable are the Yearlings (from $5,684). The Mustangs are longer (up to 24 feet when expanded) and the SC model includes a toilet and hot water ($8,159). Refrigerators are optional ($496) in all models.

Manufacturers sell only through dealers; each Web site tells you where you can find one. Many dealers are willing to sell in monthly installment payment plans. At A.C. Nelsen in Omaha, Nebraska, the world's longest-running RV dealer, a $4,500 trailer can be paid off in five years of monthly payments of about $110.

If you would rather buy a used vehicle, winter is the best time to make a deal. A good place to assess value is the "Camping Trailer" section of the N.A.D.A. Guide (nadaguides.com) and there are free listings at RV Trader Online (rvtraderonline.com) under "Folding Camper." With skill and diligence, you can secure a recent model with toilet and shower for about half the price of a current model. Get ready for some happy campers.

Finding the plot

Because of their modest proportions, folding camping trailers are generally welcome at any campsite that allows automobiles. "Campground owners like pop-up campers because they usually bring families to the campgrounds," says Pop UP Times' Newhouse. "They're also easy on the utilities, like water and electricity." At many sites, though, you'll still need advance reservations. So where can you expect your welcome? Some ideas: The largest campground franchise, Kampgrounds of America (KOA), has more than 500 large sites in the U.S, Canada, Mexico, and Japan. For a location with average traffic, expect to pay around $25 for two using an RV hookup, but about $5 less if you're running off your own power (which is an option with most folding camping trailers). KOA doesn't charge a membership fee, but a $10 Value Kard buys you 10 percent off registration fees for a year. You can get a free directory with your Value Kard or at any KOA property, or send $4 to P. O. Box 30558, Billings, MT 59114. Directory information is also available at koa.com.

Woodall's has maintained a popular campground directory since 1935. Now rating over 14,000 properties, it can be accessed via woodalls.com. It also publishes a series of printed directories; the North American edition is $22 and available at bookstores.

A novel resource for finding a no-cost place to park yourself overnight is FreeCampgrounds.com, which features a 16-state database of spots (like Wal-Mart parking lots) where you may camp gratis in the American West.

Know your RVs

From least to most expensive...

Folding Camping Trailer, or Pop-Up: Compact soft-sided trailer that expands at the campsite. From around $4,000.

Truck Camper: Installs completely over the bed or chassis of a pickup. From $4,500, plus truck.

Travel Trailer: A traditional hard-sided trailer designed to be towed behind a car, van, or pickup truck. From $10,000.

Fifth Wheeler: A travel trailer that starts over the flatbed of a pickup truck and expands back. From $13,000.

Motor Home: A motorized, self-contained camper, and the most expensive. From $35,000 for a very small one.

They're also called "folding camping trailers," "pop-ups," "fold-downs," or simply "camping trailers," but under whatever name, they're the hottest new product in the recreational vehicle business Illustrations by Steven Stankiewicz//From top to bottom) the starcraft 1706, sleeping six and costing $4,013; the interior of a Viking model, which ranges in price from $3,795 to $7,995; and the Coleman Bayside, the camping giant's deluxe model at $12,130 (others start at $4,560).//Top to bottom: Jayco's Quest, the company's basic model, costing a $3,669; the Coleman Sedona, available for as little as $5,559; and the mid-level chalet Arrowhead, with a price tag of $7,900.

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