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The Backcountry Hikers’ Frontcountry Dilemma: Tent Camping vs. RVing


Does this describe you?

(1) You hike frequently, so you spend a lot of time driving to trailheads, many of which are remote, some of which are accessible only via unpaved roads. You ask more of your vehicle than do most people. You either own a vehicle with high clearance and perhaps 4WD, or you often wish you did.

(2) You backpack as well as dayhike, so you’re not just a hiker, you’re a camper. You enjoy frontcountry camping (between home and trailhead) as well as backcountry camping. If you don’t own an RV, you often wish you did.

If our assumptions about you are correct, you’re much like us, so perhaps the research we’ve recently done on tow vehicles (TVs) and travel trailers (TTs) will interest you. First, however, we’ll explain our background so you’ll understand our subjective commentary.

For most of our lives, Kath and I have owned smallish, gas-sipping vehicles. And we’ve done the vast majority of our camping in tents—not just while backpacking, but while travelling for months throughout western North America and Europe.

We briefly owned a Volkswagen Eurovan Westfalia camper but found it desperately underpowered and woefully under-equipped for long camping journeys. Then, for a few years, we owned a 4WD Dodge Ram V10 truck saddled with a Bigfoot camper. We loved having our mobile basecamp waiting for us at the trailhead after a long hike. Ahhh, we could relax. We were out of the cold, the wind, the bugs. We could cook a proper meal. We could take a hot shower while still far from civilization. And we could sleep in a real bed, off the ground, in a secure shelter heated by a furnace. That was bliss, especially at the end of a backpack trip, and particularly during long stints of guidebook fieldwork. Having a basecamp at every trailhead actually enabled us to hike more often, explore farther, and do so with greater energy and enthusiasm.

But the Ram was a thirsty beast. A nearly constant 11 mpg became financially stressful and ethically uncomfortable. Plus a truck/camper combination is not sufficiently nimble to travel the roughest roads accessing the most distant trailheads. So we temporarily scaled back to a Toyota Rav4 and resumed tent camping.

Our V6 Rav has better-than average ground clearance, 4WD capability up to 40 kph, and gets acceptable gas mileage. It also has an astonishing towing capacity for its modest size: 3,500 lbs. So our intention was to eventually buy an ultralight TT—perhaps a T@b teardrop trailer, or something similar—to pull behind the Rav.

An ultralight TT, we figured, would be the ideal, mobile basecamp: economical, arguably eco-conscious, yet vastly more comfortable than our tent. When necessary, we could leave the TT at a campground, then—unencumbered—drive challenging roads to remote trailheads.

After four years of driving the Rav and camping in our tent, we need a change. Because the Rav isn’t a serious off-pavement machine, we knew we’d have to hoof it the final (and sometimes considerable) distance up some 4WD roads to far-flung trailheads. But we’ve done that too often. Our work demands that we spend our precious daylight hours hiking the trails, not the access roads. Plus, after seriously studying TTs, we’ve begun to reconsider the Rav as a TV. Yes, there are many, small, ultralight TTs the Rav can pull, but finding one that not only has the features we deem essential but also appeals to us personally has proven difficult.

Most ultralight TTs have a cheap appearance because they’re almost universally made of white fiberglass, which undeniably looks like plastic and ages equally fast. And many ultralight TTs feel cheap because they in fact are cheap. Little or no insulation, water tanks that are neither heated nor insulated, thin mattresses, no front windows, press-board cabinetry, etc.

RV manufacturers have the same modus operandi as home developers: Use flimsy materials, poor-quality furnishings, and zero imagination to extrude a soul-deadening supply of white, seemingly plastic boxes that—yawn—all look alike. No wonder most RVs rapidly lose substantial value.

We don’t believe cheap materials are necessary to achieve light weight. Nor can we comprehend why the interiors of these ultralight TTs are almost universally bad imitations of 1970s home decor. Why can’t an RV simply be an RV? Why must it try to look like a dated, tasteless, ranch-style home, and fail to achieve even that absurdly misguided goal?

For that matter, why do most RV manufacturers persist with all those childish, gaudy, exterior graphics? And what’s with all the ridiculous names? Cutesy misspellings (Komfort, Fuzion, Kountry Aire, N’Tense, Phenix, Starflyte), pompous monikers (Presidential, Rolling Thunder, Destiny, Tsunami), and outright threats (Avenger, Prowler, Conquest, Outlaw) seem to be the industry norm.

A company calling itself Entegra Coach managed to misspell an RV name that attempts to be both pompous and threatening: the Entimidator. Riiight. I really want to tug around a giant RV, essentially a mobile billboard, announcing in bold, colourful letters that I have an inferiority complex and am laughably illiterate.

T@b

T@b (www.tab-rv.com) is a gulp of fresh air, and not just because of its original, intriguingly inscrutable name. Their ultralight TTs have a refreshing, retro appearance, and their interiors are decidedly contemporary, seemingly Scandanavian. (If Ikea designed a TT, it would look like and feel this). They’re also very light. Though construction quality seems adequate, they clearly aren’t designed to go off-pavement. (Check out the minimal clearance between the tires and wheel wells). They also have only a tiny fridge and no shower, so the T@b is not a trailer that will serve us for extended backroads sojourns. We applaud the T@b for dispensing with an onboard toilet. (You don’t need a toilet when you’re in the woods, and frontcountry campgrounds have toilets.) But the T@b is expensive for what you get. A larger, more fully-outfitted version called the T@da was briefly available, but the manufacturer (Thor Industries) has discontinued the T@b and the T@da.

Rpod

The Rpod (www.forestriverinc.com) seems to be the T@b’s successor. Its growing popularity is impressive. It’s certainly a more complete home than the T@b. The Rpod has a big fridge, huge holding tanks, a powerful furnace, a wet bath (combination shower and toilet)—everything one expects in an RV except insulated, heated tanks. Yet the Rpod is still light, with a GVWR (gross vehicle weight rating) just barely within our Rav’s towing capability. You can buy a new Rpod 171 (our favourite model) in Calgary for about $17,000. But we won’t. The Rpod just looks and feels too cheap. Yes, it has a shower, but the stall is hunch-your-shoulders narrow. Lacking a front window, the Rpod feels like a panic room. And the damn thing looks like a child’s birthday-party favour. Stepping out of it, I felt I should have red hair and a bulbous nose that honks when I squeeze it. We’ve nicknamed the Rpod the  “the beachball.”

Camplite

Another ultralight TT we’ve considered is the Camplite (www.livinlite.com), which we’ve nicknamed “the tin can” because it’s the opposite of the Rpod. The Camplite is contructed almost entirely of aluminum. It’s strong yet light. And there’s nothing cheap about it, though it remains reasonably priced for what you get. Outwardly it has a distinctive, boxy, utilitarian appearance. But the interior has an extremely cold, industrial atmosphere. It looks and feels like the rear section of a passenger jet, where the stewards load their beverage carts, and the pre-cooked meals are stored in hatches: not a place you really want to hang out. Sadly, the shower in the Camplite is as small as the one in the Rpod. And the Camplite has a fridge and heater that run only on electricity, not on propane, which severely limits how long you can “boondock,” “drycamp” or, as we call it, “free camp” in the backcountry. (With your lights, fridge and furnace all draining a single, deep-cycle battery, that battery will be flat dead too soon.) Insulated / heated tanks? Nope. The Camplite is clearly intended for use in temperate climes at commercial, frontcountry campgrounds bristling with electrical sockets. That’s just not us.

Northern Lite

Yet another TT we briefly considered is the ultralight 16-footer made by Northern Lite (www.northern-lite.com). Northern Lite makes superb truck campers. But in our opinion, they blew it when they designed their trailer without a wet bath. They offer an outside shower as an option. But taking a shower outside is not an option for most of us most of the time. You could perhaps understand an RV manufacturer in Florida making that mistake. But Northern Lite is a Canadian company. They should know that an outside shower on a crisp, fall evening in the Canadian Rockies would not be a pleasure; it would be torture. Other manufacturers fit showers into tiny TTs. Attention Northern Lite: a shower please?

Escape

Escape Trailer Industries (www.escapetrailer.com) is another Canadian company that builds ultralight 15-, 17-, and 19-ft TTs. Even the 15-footer has an optional shower. They’re a small company with a strong reputation for personal service. When you order your Escape, you can choose from a list of options, so you essentially purchase a custom TT. But the Escape isn’t the answer for us. Escape TTs have no insulation to speak of, and the holding tanks are neither insulated nor heated. Delivery can take months from the time you order. And we think the Escape is way too expensive for what you get. A neighbour who’s happy with his Escape summed up our objection to it when he described it as “a summer trailer only.” In the Canadian Rockies, summer is pitifully brief.

Casita

The Casita (www.casitatraveltrailers.com) is a molded, fiberglass TT similar to the Escape. We’ve spoken with many Casita owners who are very content. But we rejected the Casita for largely the same reasons we did the Escape: little or no insulation, holding tanks that are neither insulated nor heated, and a price that seems to exceed the value. The Casita also has a slightly less homey atmosphere than the Escape. There’s so much exposed fiberglass (rather than wood) in the Casita interior that it feels like a small, spartan sailboat. And, while not a deciding factor, we find the Casita company’s relentless, flag-waving nationalism obnoxious.

After seriously considering and eventually rejecting the T@b, Rpod, Camplite, Northern Lite, Escape, and Casita, we’ve turned our attention to the TT we’ve always found most appealing: the Airstream.

TO BE CONTINUED

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YOUR SAFETY IS YOUR RESPONSIBILITY

Hiking and camping in the wilderness can be dangerous. Experience and preparation reduce risk but will never eliminate it.

Information published in a book or on a website—regardless how authoritative—is not a substitute for common sense or sound judgment. Your safety is your responsibility. The unique details of your specific situation and the decisions you make at that time will determine the outcome.

When hiking, threats to your wellbeing are unpredictable; you must always be aware. In the backcountry, risk is subjective; you must gauge it for yourself. Away from civilization, small mistakes can have severe consequences; you must vigilantly prevent injury and avoid becoming disoriented.

Never hike alone. Before setting out, check the weather forecast and current trail conditions; adjust your plans accordingly. Always carry a map and compass, a first-aid kit, extra clothing, a personal locator beacon, plus enough food and water to survive an emergency.

If you doubt your ability to negotiate rough terrain, respond to wild animals, or handle sudden, extreme weather changes, hike only in a group led by a competent, licensed guide.

The authors and the publisher disclaim liability for any loss or injury incurred by anyone using information published on this website or in the books presented on this website.