Going on a road trip this summer doesn’t have to mean either setting a tent next to your car, splurging on a van conversion or — check your savings account — buying a Sprinter. There are a lot of comfortable options in between.
Sure, if you’re posting up at a trailhead or in a Walmart parking lot, a Sprinter or similar van’s stealthiness and self-contained comfort is nice, but most of us wouldn’t want one as our daily driver.
They can be awkward to drive around, they’re gas hogs, and they aren’t fun to parallel park in downtown Denver.
So consider some less-intrusive alternatives: bed toppers, rooftop tents and teardrops. Smaller, more nimble, potentially more convenient and way cheaper, you can get the same lifestyle — the freedom of living on the road for a week, or even a month — without committing to a car payment.
Some of the best options fall into three categories: truck bed toppers, rooftop tents and teardrop trailers. Interested? Scour the internet and find one that you like the look of.
Then check them out in person at outdoors stores, at RV shows and at local makers and retailers.
Consider a truck bed topper
If a pickup truck is the unofficial vehicle of Colorado, then the camper top might be the state’s unofficial sleep-on-the-road option. These come in lots of flavors, with the most popular being the simple truck bed cap — typically a fiberglass shell that covers the bed of your truck, protecting it from the elements. Sheltering your bed not only allows you to lock up and keep your adventure gear dry, but it turns your truck into a place to sleep.
The internet is awash with custom builds that give you room to spread out your sleeping pad and bag without sacrificing storage space. Plus, when you’re running errands around town, it’s a breeze to pull out your gear and fill the bed with groceries or lumber. This is a great camping option for one or two people.
Pros: Camper tops are easy to install, let you keep your truck for other uses, and are a relatively budget-friendly option. If you set them up right, they’re also incredibly stealthy.
Cons: When you do have the bed set up for sleeping, you’re sacrificing storage space. A truck bed also isn’t a place you would want to hang out for extended periods in bad weather — they can be cramped.
Try a rooftop tent
Rooftop tents originated overseas as an alternative to setting up your tent on the ground and within reach of critters like snakes and bugs. Most are easy set-up, ultra-comfortable and mount on your vehicle’s roof rack. Just about any vehicle with a roof rack can handle one, and they come in various sizes and designs, from large enough to accommodate two people to large enough for a whole family, and from opening up like a clamshell to popping up like a camper.
Once you know how yours works, you can open it up at camp in seconds. Many come with a pre-installed mattress more comfortable than any sleeping pad, and you can usually store your sleeping bags, blankets and pillows inside the tent, all of which means you can roll up to camp and be in bed in a matter of minutes. Most of these require you to climb a ladder to enter.
Pros: Rooftop tents don’t use storage space inside your car, will work on most vehicles, and you can take them on and off as you please, which means they’re a great addition to the vehicle you already have.
Cons: If the weather gets really bad, you’ll be dry, but you’re not exactly going to have a ton of room to hang out. And if you find an awesome campsite that you want to “claim” you’ll still need to set something up, because if you go exploring in your vehicle, your tent comes with you. And don’t expect to get both a tent and a kayak on the roof of your car.
Choose a teardrop trailer
Teardrops are probably the closest option to a traditional camper. Small, tow-behind trailers, they often are not much more than an enclosed bed with some storage, as well as a small galley for cooking. Some have a foldout table and seating. All of these are relatively simple, offering you some comfortable living space, a place to cook, and a home base you can customize with awnings, solar panels, and more.
Teardrops are comfortable for one or two people, but they also make a great base camp for a grouping of tents that house friends or kids.
Pros: Find a spot you like? Disconnect the camper and leave the teardrop behind. In bad weather, these can be a lot more comfortable to hang out in, especially if you add an awning. On the road, you have your entire vehicle, including the roof, for storage. And when you’re home, the trailer stays disconnected from your vehicle, giving you total flexibility.
Cons: While teardrops are relatively lightweight, not everyone has the ability to tow a trailer, nor do they want to. And they definitely put a ding in your gas mileage.
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