Travel in a Teardrop

Retro Camping Across America

Teardrop Project #1 – Tent Poles

Our First Teardrop Project – Tent Poles

After our first shakedown outing in our new teardrop trailer, we spent a fair bit of time looking at photos of other people’s camp set-ups. We realized that having some form of an awning or vestibule with free-standing tent poles would be a good idea.

Many teardrop trailer owners use commercially made 10×10 or 12×12 pop-up shelters you can get at any sporting goods/camping store. We decided we wanted something more custom, specifically with a bigger “vestibule” footprint over the doors. So we made our own awning (which we’ll cover in another post).

We built free-standing poles – here’s how we did it

Doing a search on Amazon led us to find adjustable aluminum camping poles that were very cool, light, foldable, etc… and expensive. At $35-50 a pole, it wasn’t cost-effective for us to go that route when we wanted 8 poles. We found an amazing how-to on do-it-yourself telescoping pvc tent poles and figured, “Aha! this is for us!”

Telescoping PVC Tent or Awning Poles by KissyLiz on

The post is really great, but we discovered a few things in the process of making our poles that aren’t on the Instructables page that we wanted to share with you.

#1 – Let the home improvement store do your work for you

We went to Lowe’s for our supplies, though you can pretty much go to any home improvement store. Most PVC pipe is sold in 10′ lengths, so if you have a hacksaw or PVC pipe cutting tool (but who actually owns one of those?!?) and want to have very specific lengths for your poles, go to town. It’s your project.

You can also buy PVC pipe in pre-cut 5′ lengths

at least at Lowe’s, which is what we did. While it means that the stored length of our telescoping poles will be no shorter than 5′, we can still easily keep them inside the trailer or vehicle for transport.

#2 – Size Does Matter

KissyLiz calls for a 1-1/4″ outer PVC pipe and a 1″ inner pipe. For some reason (and I’m no plumber, so I have no idea), you can’t downsize. I tried fitting a 3/4″ pipe into a 1″ pipe, and also tried fitting a 1/2″ pipe into a 3/4″ pipe and neither worked. So we went with 1-1/4″ outer and 1″ inner, per her instructions, and it fit perfectly.

#3 – Buying in bulk can save money

The hardware for the project was strangely priced. We opted for stainless steel bolts, washers, nuts, etc… to avoid rust. We went for 1/4″  diameter. Bolts were individually priced one price, but cheaper per unit if purchased in a “contractor’s box”. We needed 24, there were conveniently 25 in a box. Nuts were $.20 cents each, but a ten pack was $1.89. Things like that. It might seem like “nickel and dime-ing”, but we’re of the “why pay more than you have to” mindset.

We ended up nicknaming the wingnuts the “holy metal wingnuts of Antioch”, as they were crazy expensive compared to a simple nut.  Over three times the cost.

(Edited note after using the poles: splurge on the wingnuts. We set up in the dark, in the rain after building the poles and kept dropping the regular nuts on the ground.)

#4 – Measure twice, drill once

We did things a bit differently than the instructions. First, because our PVC was pre-cut by the home improvement store, the pipe lengths varied by as much as 2″. So we numbered each pair on the inner and outer pipe to match them up when we made our measurements. This ensured that while the pipe lengths varied, our measured lengths were the same for all of our pipes.

Number the inner and outer sections

Then, we inserted the inner pipe into the outer pipe and made our measurements. Taking a tape measure from the bottom of the outer pole, we slid the inner pole out to make marks at various lengths.

We opted for uniform 6″ increments on our overall pipe lengths. 6′, 6’6″, 7′, 7’6″, 8′, 8’6″, and 9′, respectively.


Two bolts are better than one

We decided on two points of attachment instead of one, and we aimed for 9″-12″ of “overlap” at the connection point of the two pipes at the maximum measured extension. Over-engineering, maybe, probably, but we were going to be certain that we could guy/stake the poles down if needed and that no amount of wind was going to cause these poles to fail.

We followed the instructions (somewhat) , and on the outer 1-1/4″ pole measured out two holes at 3″ and 9″ from the top of the pole, respectively.

This made measuring simple. Remember, because the pre-cut pipe lengths vary, the exact height of the holes on the outer pole are irrelevant. It’s the overall telescoped length that’s important.

#5 – Hold Everything in Place

The first two holes you drill are the ones marked on the outer 1-1/4″ pipe. If you push the drill bit up and down a little once the holes are made, you can use it to “shave” the plastic so the hole is slightly wider than the 1/4″ diameter to make sliding the bolt in and out easier, your fingers will thank you. After you drill the two holes on the outer pipe, per the instructions, slide the inner pipe to your markings, and drill back through the holes in the outer pipe to also drill through the inner pipe.

Use a bolt to keep the inner pipe from shifting while drilling

Once you’ve drilled your first hole clean through both pipes, use a bolt to keep everything secure as you drill the remaining holes in your telescoping pole.

It’s important as you drill to try and keep your drill bit as straight and perpendicular to the pipe as possible.

Easier said then done when drilling into a hollow curved surface, but if you’re drilling at even a slight angle, you’ll have to “work” the bit and possibly re-drill some holes as you telescope the inner pipe to make your incremental slots.

#6 – Safety third

If you don’t have a workbench, a flat tree stump works in a pinch

Actually, there are a few things to think about when doing this project. If you don’t have a workbench with a vise, you’ll need to have a space to lay the poles flat while drilling, remembering that you’ll be telescoping them out as far as 9′ feet! They are round and hollow, and so a vise would be best, but if you don’t have one, having a helper is the best way to go (thanks Megan!) I tried doing a couple of poles solo and it made drilling straight and true much more difficult. Ended up re-drilling a number of holes as I went along.

You’ll leave a fair bit of plastic debris on the ground. The PVC shavings sort of get everywhere, on the floor, on your clothes, in your beard, and so have a shop vac handy and keep any furry friends away until all cleaned up.

#7 – Think about where and how you’ll be using your tent poles – it’s the little things

Make a mark to “line up” the inner and outer pole

Most of the time you’ll be setting up your awning when you’re tired, i.e., after driving to your campsite. In our case it was dark and raining when we got to camp. If you mark each set of poles with markings on the inner and outer pole to “line them up” it makes it much much easier to find the holes to slide your bolts through.

While the Instructables page said to put an end cap on the top and bottom of your connected pole set, we didn’t. By leaving the bottom of the outer pole open and uncapped, you have more options. We bought cheap large diameter yellow tent stakes you can get at any sporting goods store (we got ours at Wal-Mart) and used them to keep the bottom of the erected poles from sliding around once set up.

Actually, we are still trying to figure out a way to keep the bottom of the poles from sliding while freestanding on tarmac/asphalt, as we were at a state park and had the trailer on a trailer pad, so only the outer 4 poles were on dirt and able to use the stakes.

finished top caps

As for the top caps, we didn’t want to deal with the hassle of drilling a pilot hole, then threading the bolts through the cap, so we just drilled a 3/4″ hole, and then glued the bolt in place. Using Gorilla Glue, which does a decent job with PVC, we also were able to secure the end caps. Gorilla Glue expands as it dries (a little goes a long way!), so once dried, the caps were secure and those bolts aren’t going anywhere.

Here’s the parts list:

For each telescoping pole you will need:

1 five foot length 1.25″ pvc pipe

1 five foot length 1″ pvc pipe

1 end cap

3 (1/4″ x 2″) bolts

3 (1/4″) washers

3 (1/4″) nuts/wing nuts

Adhesive such as Gorilla Glue


Drill with 1/4″ bit

Vise (optional)

Pvc pipe cutter (optional)


Ideas for improving our DIY tent poles? Please leave a comment below.


  1. Al Dawson

    I would probably use a safety pin like CURT 25080 Safety Pin $ 1.56 from Amazon instead of bolts and nuts. they could even be attached to the top of the upper part of the pole with a cord to prevent them from getting misplaced.

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  3. Robin

    Cool work! How did you attach to the camper?

    1. Matt (Post author)

      we didn’t, we left it freestanding using stakes and guy lines.


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