Big Agnes served her purpose well until last summer. My family’s orange and yellow 4-person Big Agnes tent was acquired early in our marriage, four years before our first child was born. Not only did she come with a cool name; Big Agnes had a vestibule (purchased separately) that made the tent more versatile and functional for storing gear such as bikes, bags and camp chairs and providing a shelter area for our two husky dogs. That tent dutifully toured around the Pacific Northwest for 10 years, from Glacier National Park to Lopez Island in northern Puget Sound. But last summer her end was clearly in sight. Not only did her seams leak when it rained heavily at Lake Pend Oreille, but one of her door zippers had broken the previous year, thanks to repeated use and little children who inadvertently snagged the nylon when trying to zip it closed. I, too, caused her harm when I tripped over a stake line in the dark and ripped the nylon.
The reality was obvious: it was worn out and too small for a family with growing kids. We slept shoulder to shoulder with zero personal space, felt every jostle and kick of our children as they slept, and couldn’t stand upright to change our clothes. Big Agnes was literally a pain in the neck. While researching 6-person tents to replace her, we realized that the latest tent technology was more expensive than we anticipated. And a bigger tent required that much more space in our cargo box, which meant less room for other gear. If we were going to spend a lot of money, why not just get a pop-up tent trailer?
The stars aligned last fall, and we purchased a not-too-old and small-enough-to-be-towed-by-our-Subaru-Outback tent trailer through Craigslist. We brought it home in time to winterize it before the first snowfall. And my husband spent the next five months figuring out the modifications needed to equip our Outback for towing it, including adding brakes to the trailer – thank God for DIY videos on YouTube.
This past April, we took our trailer on its maiden overnight trip – a one-night stay at Riverside State Park’s Bowl & Pitcher campground. Let me say it loud and clear: it was awesome. I could stand up! I didn’t have to sleep five inches away from my daughter’s face on one side and smooshed into a nylon barrier on the other. Best of all, I no longer had to sleep on a Therma-Rest mattress and feel like a 2×4 was strapped to my spine the next morning.
We were giddy with joy and envisioned all the future fun and cozy comfort we would enjoy – a refuge with an indoor table for eating and a spacious place to hang out when it was raining or windy. Our trailer felt fancy with its heater, propane-fueled electric lights, sink, stove and fridge. And with a sleeping side for the kids and a sleeping side for the parents, plus space on the floor for our dog, we were all happy campers.
Those rookie nights in the trailer, which also included one night of urban camping on our residential street, helped us figure out packing and space-management ideas. With some Pinterest-type discussion boards and pictures and a quick trip to the hardware store, my husband created a DIY shelving system that proved valuable for our 3-night Memorial Day weekend trip. We still have kinks and packing and storage challenges to work out. But we’re strategizing and learning by trial and error and have more campground reservations over the next few months so that we can enjoy this spectacular new way of camping.
I still like tent camping; there is a beautiful simplicity to it, and a rugged resilience. But now that I’ve experienced the freedom and comfort of our pop-up tent trailer, who has yet to be nicknamed by us, I don’t want to return to a claustrophobic dome. Ultimately, this new gear allows my family to extend our camping season from spring to fall with more confidence and comfort, and truly provides a home away from home. //
Amy S. McCaffree is OTM’s Kids/Family Section Editor and our new Special Section Editor. You can follow more of her writing at Facebook.com/AmyOutdoorsSpokane.