The simple tent, a roof-top tent, van life, or a trailer; which do you prefer?

This past week, my daughter had time off from Kindergarten. Tag-teaming this many days off, my wife handled the first part of the week and I jumped in towards the latter part. To occupy some of that time, Sloane and I stuffed the Montero with camping gear and set off towards inland California. It’s just one night of camping and I have the right amount of gear for such a short trip. But even on this overnighter, I realized that my setup could be greatly improved.

Right now, I use a simple FrontRunner tent. It unfolds itself when you take it out of the bag and then you just need to stake it to the ground. Inside of the tent I place a NorthFace sleeping bag on top of a self-inflating REI mattress. It’s… fine. The mattress isn’t very impressive but the tent is quick to setup and the sleeping bag is comfortable.

Where I’d really like to improve my organization is with the Montero itself. I have some friends with properly kitted rigs, and when I’m not camping I think what they have is overbuilt. But, you see, they do go camping far more often than I and there needs are much greater. And after this simple one day camping trip with my daughter, I would love to have far cleaner rear storage.

My plan isn’t to turn the Montero into a fully built overland rig. I want to keep weight down as the engine works hard enough as it is, and I don’t want a roof-top tent either. So I think a well planned out set of drawers for the back could go a long way. Still space to put stuff on top of the drawers, but some sliding storage to keep stuff neatly tucked away. Additionally, I’ve come around to the idea of adding a retractable awning as well but I’m not sure how to do so without adding a roof rack, which I still don’t want to do.

Of course, the real dream would be to have a a proper trailer setup or even a fully built van. But that’s serious dough. Still, don’t think I haven’t dreamed about either option. My dream van build would be a Ford Transit with the EcoBoost AWD powertrain setup. Inside, I’d have a kitchen, sleeping area, wet bath, and under-bed storage for my mountain bike. As for a trailer, the Taxa Mantis is the stuff dreams are made of. It has a low dry weight under 3,000 pounds, can fit in the garage for storage if need be, and is offered with an optional wet bath space. The problem, for me, with both the van and the Mantis is cost. A fully built Transit is likely to be $100k when all is said and done. A Mantis starts at a bit over $41k.

So it’s going to be a regular tent for me for now. But the Montero might get some upgrades to help with storage, packing, and on-trip functionality.

16 Comments

  1. Love your pics – we went with a trailer so the wife can have her own potty! And walls . . . insulation! 🙂

    1. That’s the idea behind a want for a trailer, or built-out van. A proper bathroom is a serious plus.

      1. I had a motorhome for a while, too. There are definite plusses to a “proper bathroom”, but don’t overlook the downsides: they can be cramped and claustrophobic, they waste a lot of space during the 99% of the time they aren’t being used, they require cleaning and can stink up the place (particularly if someone in your camping party isn’t very accurate), and you have to occasionally find a suitable place to dump the waste. They’re ideal for places where you have no other options when the urge strikes, like a Walmart parking lot after hours, but most places either already have access to public restrooms or are so isolated that you answer nature’s call in nature, with nobody else around.

        You have an opposite-gender kindergartener, and I understand that might present some special obstacles when either one of you needs to use a public restroom, but you’ll outgrow those soon enough.

      2. we tend to camp in the winter up in NorCal or up the 395 or the like (typically gold or silver country) and in the winter, her own bathroom is a gem! 🙂 Plus, as we’re gettin old(er – never admit “old! LOL) having a real bed eases the joints. We don’t actually spend a ton of time in the trailer aside from sleeping – cooking breakfast or whatever when the weather is really nasty – but having the insulation is really nice.

        We haven’t found (well . . . I haven’t found) that cleaning it is that bad. With the new “pods” to throw in there and most campgrounds have dump stations that you can use for really cheap, it doesn’t take long and it’s really not arduous. People think it is, but really, a good pair of rubber gloves, a good hose (transparent ends on each end) and it goes by pretty darned quick.

  2. I camp about one weekend per month, generally between 75 minutes and 5 hours from home (one way). I use a tent. My tent is a good-quality one, purchased on closeout for about $200 circa 2013, and has accompanied me on camping trips where I’ve driven or been driven in at least 8 different vehicles to get to the destination. The disadvantages are lack of HVAC while camping (but that’s not really what people go camping for) and the need to air it out to dry before packing it away. That’s a fair enough trade off.

  3. I want a rooftop tent for the Tacoma. I don’t fully know why, its hard to justify the cost, I don’t camp that much (but now that the kids are getting older I plan to more frequently). I’m definitely planning on streamlining my camping setup this year- just some simple oganization, a few large plastic bins that can keep all of the things that only get used for camping, hopefully to reduce the prep and takedown time. I feel like with little kids I spend a day prepping and a day resetting everything afterwards, and I feel like the shorter I can make that process the more I’ll actually go.

    No upgrades will happen in the tent department this year, though. Gotta finish the Spirit before I spend any money on the Tacoma, so more plain old tent on the ground camping for me this year.

  4. Cutest photos ever, Jeff! To me, it boils down to have equipment that does its job silently and efficiently. My hiking/camping friends find that annoying because they want to talk equipment all day (my best friend is so nerded out, he weighed Aspirin vs Paracetamol to take the lighter pills). I go camping a lot; I burned all bridges and moved to another country to be closer to real nature. Still, a car kitted out for that…total overkill in my mind.

    A basic, light tent is heaven – even though I mostly sleep under open skies. You don’t need a Hilleberg for perfection. On solo tours, I take a Mountain Equipment Coop Tarn 2 I bought cheaply in Canada in 2008. During winter, I sleep on an oversized Exped Down Mat which is, honestly, better than most madrasses. It’s warm, soft and plain perfect even at -20°C. During summer, anything that holds air will do. I don’t sleep well on foam anymore and blame the effects of the passage of time on my body for that. Taking no responsibility for the weird shapes showing up.

    Anyway, instead of kitting out the car, I’d suggest having everything ready at home. Don’t put stuff different places at different times. Have a shelf where everything camping related, from tents to sleeping stuff to cooking utensils is always in the same place. Thus, you can pack effortlessly – blindfolded, basically – in minutes. That makes getting out easy, and allows you to focus on the experience, not the equipment.

    My 2 ct.

  5. I wish I had a lifestyle that saw any benefit whatsoever from camping. There is no amount of trip preparation that will feel sufficient to certain members of my travelling party. Preparing to go to a nice hotel is an excruciating exercise that usually ends in a large vehicle crammed full. Taking them camping would be a horrid punishment for everyone involved.

  6. Hey Jeff – I’ve got 2 little ones and we looked going the path you’re on now. In the end we decided we wanted to create awesome memories for the kids and instil a sense of adventure that was all about the unknown and discovering the great outdoors…comfortably. We want the kids to associate camping with adventure, fun and wanting more. Not just surviving a 1 week trip and wanting to get home on Day 3. So we bought a truck and travel trailer. We went pretty big. We bought our second trailer first and grew into it. Absolutely the best thing I’ve ever done. Unless you’re really into getting off the beaten track and feeling like you need to be Instagram extreme, a truck and trailer can get you to some pretty amazing places. And it’s on par with what you’re looking at spending. So, that said, keep up the awesome work and content. I love it. And I love that your daughter is dragged along for some of the test drives. She’s a trooper.
    AP

  7. I’ve talked about it a bunch before, but my wife and I did a week touring the South Island of New Zealand in a converted Toyota Hiace, and loved it so much we occasionally try and figure out if we could cheaply convert a van ourselves. Nothing extravagant- the dining area in the middle pulled out to be the bed, the kitchenette was in the back, and there was a composting toilet for emergencies only. It was just nice being in something insulated with a semi-proper mattress, and having everything with you, basically ready to go.

    Maybe if I bought better a better tent and air mattress (anything sold through Canadian Tire is probably garbage), I might prefer it more, but I usually just wake up feeling rough. And we had a tent trailer growing up, that we took everywhere, but I swear I remember that taking like half a day to set up.

    1. A purpose-built van will also require maintenance and attention – outside the bonus time you get with it. In my experience, the nr. 1 reason for bad outdoor nights is the stuff you sleep on. Try to sleep straight and soft, find the correct sized equipment for you. If you’re bothered by deer, birds and whatnot making noise, earplugs and/or sufficient amounts of alcohol work wonders.

      1. Bad air mattresses are definitely part of the problem, along with temperature control (either too hot or too freezing or both), which yes, is probably at least partially bad gear.

        The hope for a purpose-built van would be something simple enough it’s still usable as a second car, but it’s still pretty abstract at this point.

  8. Our last attempts at family tent camping went badly so we spent several years with cheap motels. I’d like a trailer since we had a good experience renting one last year. We are at an age where a good mattress and indoor plumbing are important.

  9. When my kids were younger, in the late 00s, we bought an old pop up camper. It was a 1995 Jayco with a 12′ box and was about 1800 pounds empty. Most importantly for our budget at the time it was $1000. Yeah, I spent a lot of time each summer maintaining and repairing it, but 6 or 7 years later when we were done camping, I sold it for $1500.

    If I had waited until our budget could support something we really wanted, we would have never done it.

  10. Mostly simple tent for me, but I’ve done a couple of week or two trips in the back of my ute, with a canopy/topper on it is solid and has heaps of space for gear and sleeping with minimal setup. Looking forward to being able to do another trip one day.

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