Real campers have gear. They own tents and sleeping bags and sleeping pads and propane stoves. Real campers have skills. They create fire by rubbing two sticks together, gather wild berries and cook their fresh-caught fish over their newly created roaring fire, and dig holes behind trees when mother nature calls. Real campers are resourceful and eager to adapt to the natural elements.
My family and I are not real campers.
A decade ago, well before we had kids, my husband and I decided it would be “fun” to tent camp on the beach. He actually enjoyed himself, as much as one can when their travel partner is whining and answering work emails at 1:00 A.M. Nevertheless, let me be clear: camping on the beach in a tent is the furthest from fun I can imagine. First mistake: we were on a Texas beach that allows vehicles to drive on the sand “road.” After spending way too long setting up the darn thing while the ocean “breeze” warned us to quit while we were still ahead, I spent the majority of the night wide awake in fear that a drunken frat boy would veer off course and run us over or that the increasingly forceful winds would blow us and our “shelter” away.
The headlights, honking, and tent-flapping alone would have been bad enough. But the real party pooper, the true Debbie Downer, was the SAND: tiny, rock-hard, translucent nuggets of hell that always find a way into EVERY nook and cranny. Eyeballs, drinks, underpants, private parts, mouths, nostrils, food, bedding—you name it, and I can guarantee you it was coated in a layer of the beige demon by morning.
After that ill-fated trip, I vowed to never again go tent camping. I spent years politely declining invitations from well-meaning friends to join them on a “fun” tent-camping trip. Don’t get me wrong—I LOVE the outdoors. Some of the happiest years of my life were spent living in Alpine, Texas, a picturesque mountain town in West Texas, 26 miles east of the press’s favorite living art installation, Marfa, and an hour-and-half north of Big Bend National Park, the most stunning landscape I’ve laid eyes upon in the Lone Star State. And even before our family started our camping adventures, we always found ourselves enjoying nature at parks, rivers, and our own backyard…followed by a happy return to a real bed, temperature control, electricity, and running water.
The Pop-up Experiment
A couple years ago I got it into my head that we needed to own a camper—something that would allow us to explore more of the outdoors on a regular basis, without having to pitch a tent and do the hard work that real campers seem to thrive on. But because we knew nothing about it and had never RV’d in our lives, we wanted our foray into the lifestyle to be as low-key as possible.
If you know me (or have read my last post on ACMB) you know that I am a Craigslist enthusiast. Once I set my sights on something, I’ll happily spend weeks searching for just the right item. On this occasion, my hunt led to the perfect (for us) entry-level model: a 1973 Jayco pop-up camper, all-original, for the bargain price of $1,000. A good cleaning later, we set out on the open road on our maiden voyage to West Texas. Despite a flat tire that also resulted in us accidentally temporarily abandoning our dog on the side of the road, the trip was a success.
That first night after we tucked our kids into bed, we watched a glorious sunset over Marfa and took nice hot showers. The communal bathrooms were clean and inviting. Our beds were comfortable and familiar. The mini fridge kept our beers cold, and the little sink made it possible to brush our teeth and wash up without leaving our tiny house on wheels. The cherry on top? All this beauty and comfort was only $22 a night, meaning we could enjoy a week-long adventure for the price of one night at a nice hotel.
My thrifty heart skipped a beat. We were hooked.
Before our second trip, we invested in all new tires. Before each of the other subsequent adventures we took that first year we’d make a little improvement to our camper. We got better and faster at setting it up and popping it down, and before long we felt like pros. Much of the credit, of course, goes to my husband, who patiently figured out how to safely tow the thing and is always thorough about making sure all systems are correctly connected when we pull into our campsite.
This summer, we decided that we loved trailer camping so much that we wanted another vintage camper with a couple features our beloved pop-up didn’t have: hard sides that stayed popped up and felt a little sturdier during inclement weather and a small potty so that the kids wouldn’t have to get up at night (“the kids” = me). Our “new” baby is a 1971 Twilight Bungalow, all original, cream yellow and white on the outside. Her interior is avocado green and brown, her brown paneling is brittle but mostly intact. She needed quite a bit of work but nothing old pros like us couldn’t handle (translation: pay our patient and talented handyman to fix for us). She’s a real beauty.
As I type this, “Dolly Parton,” as I’ve affectionately nicknamed her, is cooperating as we tow her out west for one last summer hurrah before school starts and our trips will be limited to shorter weekends jaunts.
RV camping has changed our family. It’s made us slow down, stop, and smell the proverbial roses. Our vacations are spent on quality time, relishing the simple pleasures, like beautiful sunsets, stargazing, campfires, hiking, and more, while bringing us closer together.
We get to do many of the things “real” campers do, while enjoying the creature comforts that we love. Even my husband, who is more tolerant of tent-camping and was a bit reluctant about becoming RV owners, has converted. The glamping life is the good life, and we’re never looking back.