OP here-- Thanks all for the responses.
I've followed the links everyone has posted about the tents and I sure appreciate the direction, but my question really was about differences in the camping experience.
I see that I brought on the confusion myself since my original post doesn't get to the point until waaay at the end. I don't want to delete a whole bunch of stuff from my original because that could confuse the thread, but I'll bracket off my first few paragraphs as background.
Sorry I didn't get to the point!
I love camping. To still address the shopping bit i totally agree with Pastry Goddess's size estimation. My mom would drive across the country with brother and me, camping along the way, and with bro and me sharing a 2 man pup tent. Even as kids that was too small. It was still super fun, though.
I remember camping in that pup tent on the way to Michigan. I'm pretty sure it was a KOA (Kampgrounds of America) and my parents loved their reputation. KOA would usually have water and electric hookups and my mom was really attached to her coffee pot. Seriously, she would bring a little electric coffee maker. KOA would usually have a little camp store, too, with not horrendous prices on basics like dry wood and fire starter. We ate everything out of a giant cooler in the trunk of the car and cooked it over a fire. I'm pretty sure it was that KOA when bro and i completely disregarded Mom's Orders and pooled our money ($5?) to rent a peddle boat for a half hour. On that trip we did some camping in ...Wisconson, i think? with all the relatives we had gone out to see. It was uneventful because it pretty much rained for 2 days. I felt really bad for my aunt who was obviously not into camping.
The state where i live has a lot of state parks and forests where you can tent camp. There were times the whole family would meet up with old friends and tent camp for a few days. There were times my mom would take bro and sis and i camping for a weekend just to run around the woods and stuff. It was all still back-of-the-car camping, and you could be pretty certain a park ranger would be around to check on things.
Recently a group of friends rented a cabin in a state forest. My SO and i were just talking about going back there. There was an electric stove and tiny refrigerator and a toilet, so it wasn't *real* camping but it was kind of camping and it was so nice! The cabin was right on a lake, and we still had to forage for and chop wood, and cook food on a grill, and sleep in sleeping bags. It was fun, and i'd even almost go back in the winter time, the cabin was that cozy. Four bunks, a fire place, one picnic table inside, one outside. A fireplace complete with tongs, sweeping tools, bucket, and ash house. Tiny deck on a lake. It was really beautiful.
My favorite place to camp is at Assateague, MD. I love my pine barrens but nothing in my camping experience compares to camping on a beach with ponies. I've still only done tent camping in the state and national side there, none of the backpacking. It is still my favorite place to camp. The wind can be rough if you camp on the beach, but my 30+ year old bones love sleeping on sand. I've been there so many times, and even the time when there was tent-killing winds and a third of our party (20 some people in all) fled it was fun and kind of a bonding thing. I've seen the prettiest shooting stars there, and dolphins swimming, and pygmy deer, and did i mention there are ponies? Not for riding or touching, they just live there. I love it there.
Five? years ago i bought a little tiny camper trailer that i get to set up on a little tiny place. It's my one spot that is mine all mine for a few months out of the year. There is no running water. There can be electricity if your generator doesn't aggravate the community or if you use a battery & solar power. No Wifi at all. It's not serious camping by any means but it's a weird little environmentally conscious group of mostly campers in campers and some in tents on a tiny lake. I've made so many friends there who are way different than me. I love it there, too, even more than Assateague, but that isn't because of the camping but because it's all mine.
I love camping.