Camper vans and travel trailers can be great options for those who want to camp in comfort. Although they have much in common, they are very different from each other and it can be difficult deciding on which one to buy.
I researched and looked at both types during my search for a camping solution. I liked a lot of what travel trailers had to offer but the convenience of a camper van was nice as well.
I’ve looked at large travel trailers and small travel trailers and tried to figure out which would be best for me. I have always leaned towards the smaller ones because I like the coziness and the simplicity of keeping it small. I never wanted a huge trailer that would be cumbersome to tow around.
This is what led me to look more at camper vans because of the smallness and the convenience of being able to drive anywhere.
I also loved the idea of being able to custom build a camper van which would make it more affordable than buying a manufactured Class B.
If you find yourself in this position of trying to decide between a trailer or a van, I can show you my research notes and why I chose what I chose in the end.
I understand that deciding on the perfect type of RV can be a difficult process. It’s normal to be unsure since it’s such a large expense. It’s important to make the best decision for yourself and choose the one you’ll actually use and get the most out of.
Let’s compare the two options in a few key areas.
Camper Van VS Travel Trailer
It’s likely that if you are looking between a camper van and a travel trailer, you are looking at mostly small travel trailers. Since small trailers aren’t a lot bigger than what a van offers, this is a fair comparison.
Both require you to live more minimal than you would in a larger motorhome or fifth wheel.
Although the size of some of the smaller trailers can be similar to the size of a camper van, there are a few key areas in which they differ. This is where it becomes easy to decide on which is best for you as long as you know what you want.
Let’s discuss the following key areas.
Cost Of Ownership
Expect to pay: $50,000 – $100,000
A van can be quite expensive if you are looking to purchase a newly manufactured van. Some of the more premium models on the market can be in the $150,000 or more range.
This is a huge expense for anyone looking to purchase a van. Unless this is your primary residence and you have the funds to afford it, this type of purchase doesn’t make much sense for the average consumer. Especially when you consider the small size of a van.
The good news is that there are more affordable options so the high cost mentioned above isn’t always the case. You can purchase brand new Class B vans for around $70,000 and much less than that if you choose to go with a used one.
A used van is a great choice since RVs depreciate. You can get an almost new one for much less than the MSRP or for whatever it was bought for when it was brand new.
The other option is to build your own. You can get an empty van and then turn it into a camper if you have the skillset and interest to do so. If not, you can hire someone to do it for you. The cost for a van of this type would be considerably less than purchasing a new one.
Another cost to consider is maintenance. Not only do you have the maintenance costs of the RV itself but also the van. Although there isn’t a lot of maintenance to the RV portion of the van other than winterizing and making sure it stays leak-free.
You’ll have to get oil changes, tire rotations, tire replacements, and other routine vehicle maintenance. These costs can add up depending on how much you use the vehicle.
Expect to pay: $10,000 – $35,000
A travel trailer can be much less than a camper van unless you choose to build your own camper van and buy a cheap, used van. If you choose a newer van or if you buy a pre-manufactured van, you will pay much less for a travel trailer.
However, there are other costs that you must consider if this is the route you go. A trailer has to have a vehicle that can tow it. If you do not currently have a vehicle capable of this, you will have to purchase one and that is an added cost.
With a tow vehicle, it will create wear and tear on that vehicle which may also lead to more maintenance costs.
In my case, during my search, I was focused on purchasing a trailer that had a loaded weight of 5500 lbs or less. My Nissan Frontier with 4.0L V6 engine can tow up to 6500 lbs but I never like to get close to the max on towing weight.
Most small travel trailers that I looked at were below 4000 lbs when fully loaded so it wasn’t a big deal for my vehicle. If I would’ve had to purchase a vehicle to tow a trailer, I wouldn’t even have considered one.
So if the cost is your main concern, travel trailers are likely going to be less expensive. Just don’t forget about the tow vehicle when making the decision.
Camper vans offer a very limited amount of living space and can be among the smallest RVs on the market. The typical van measures from about 19 ft – 25 ft in length from the front bumper to the rear bumper.
With the engine compartment, dashboard, driver and passenger seating taking up space, you are left with a tiny footprint on the inside in which you can live.
Although they are small, they still contain almost everything you could ever need while out on the road. Many of them have full showers, bathrooms, kitchen areas, dining areas, sleeping areas and comfortable seating that allows you to unwind and enjoy.
Camper vans serve a crowd of people who want to take up minimal space but want the convenience of traveling anywhere their heart desires. They don’t want the restrictions that are attached to having a larger camper.
Although small, most offer more space than a van can provide. Small teardrop trailers are smaller than vans but larger teardrop trailers can be even larger than the living area in a van.
Trailers also have options that vans don’t often have and that includes slide outs. These slide outs allow you to slide parts of the trailer out while it is parked to create additional living space. Some aren’t even livable until these sections have been slid out.
With slide-outs, a trailer can be very room and make for a very comfortable living arrangement. You won’t see this feature on the smallest trailers but as you go up in size, this will become an option that you’ll see more of.
Overall, travel trailers provide a good amount of living space for the money that you pay.
How easy is it to actually live and spend time in a camper van? One would think that it could get a little claustrophobic spending time in such a small space. However, you might be surprised at just how much space you have in one.
Most Class B vans are cleverly designed to maximize space. Although it will never be like living in a much larger RV, it is quite cozy and fun in my opinion.
I travel in mine with my wife and a small dog and we find it to be quite comfortable. The trade-off is that it is highly versatile and the mobility of it allows you to go to places you couldn’t go with an RV with a larger living space.
Depending on the size of the trailer, they can be quite livable. It’s like pulling a little house around behind your car that has everything that you need. You can cook, stay warm or cool, watch TV, take showers, use the bathroom just like you would at home.
You probably won’t miss any of the comforts of home if you spend time in a travel trailer. Even a small one is designed to have a livable amount of space and is usually set up to maximize that space.
A travel trailer is an obvious choice if you are traveling with a larger family. If you have children, you’ll need the extra space that a trailer can provide over a van.
This is where a camper van will shine over a travel trailer. Camper vans are very versatile and are easy to take wherever you want.
Since the van is an all-in-one solution, you have your vehicle and your home all in one space. You don’t have to hitch up to a trailer and then worry about towing it.
Vans are a huge benefit for those who want to stay small and nimble in their camper and be able to travel and see places that larger RVs can’t.
I’ve never had an issue taking my van anywhere and I feel comfortable driving it anywhere that I have driven my personal mid-sized truck. I can back it into a spot easily and be gone in minutes when it’s time to leave.
Trailers are not as nimble and are more difficult to travel with. Although a small trailer can be easy to tow, it’s still something extra that has to be pulled by your vehicle and it can make you a bit uncomfortable having it behind you.
People who aren’t used to towing trailers and only do it every once in a while can have some anxiety about doing this. There is always that chance that you can turn too sharp and hit something or misjudge how much space you need.
Of course, backing into a spot is difficult for many people and a small campground can be difficult to navigate with a trailer. The bigger the trailer, the more difficult it will be.
If you are considering a small trailer, like a teardrop trailer, read about my comparison to a camper van.
For the most part, the class B motorhomes that I looked at were noticeably higher in quality than were the travel trailers. You would expect them to be higher quality for the price you pay.
Most of the finishes are what you would expect and they just have an overall feel of quality. Some of the more premium-priced ones are even higher in quality.
I care about quality but this may not matter to some people as much. To me, the quality of the parts you can see is an indication of the quality of work that you can’t see.
If I see a low quality, sloppy job done on the shower caulking, for example, I can only imagine the low quality of work that is probably behind the shower walls.
With Class B motorhomes, most of the areas seem to be high quality and I always had a good feeling when looking at them.
During my journey to find a camping solution, one thing stood out as I looked at various travel trailers; the quality is pretty low.
As I walked through trailer after trailer, I noticed the quality was lacking from all the small details. Things like trim not lining up, terrible caulking job, cheap parts, paper-thin walls, etc.
I understand that campers use thinner walls to maintain a lower overall weight but I was amazed during my search that manufacturers could get away with such cheap finishings. It didn’t give me a lot of confidence in purchasing one.
It isn’t like this across the board but a lot of them do not maintain the quality that I like to see in something this expensive.
In the end, I was much happier with the quality and care that I used to build my camper van than I was with any travel trailer that I looked at.
The following video shows some issues you might expect from travel trailers and RVs in general. These issues aren’t always present but it’s good to know what to look for.
Which Is Better?
Ask anyone and you will get a different answer to this question. The one that is better for you may not be better for someone else.
For example, a camper van was better for me because I don’t want the hassle of pulling a trailer. I don’t care how nice the trailer is, I would rather stay in the small space of a van than have to go through the trouble of hauling a trailer all over the place.
That’s my take on it and I’m sure yours is different.
It comes down to what the person wants. If you are looking for more space to live in, you are probably going to be happier with a travel trailer than you would be with a camper van.
On the other hand, a camper van is great for those people who like to travel and see more. It’s great for those who want to be able to drive and not have to worry about any size restrictions since a camper van is small enough to go anywhere.
You are not limited with a camper van like you would be with a larger trailer.
Below, I have outlined some examples of when it would be best to have each type.
Who Should Buy A Camper Van?
A camper van might be a good solution for you if…
- You plan on traveling more and don’t want the worries of size restrictions or the burden of towing a trailer.
- You want to boondock often and stay somewhat stealthy.
- You are camping alone or with one other person and don’t need a lot of space.
- You like the idea of taking less stuff so you can enjoy your journey more.
- You have more money to spend on a camping solution.
- You are looking for something with good fuel economy.
- You are handy and like the idea of building your own camper van.
- You want your driving area connected to your living space so you don’t have to exit the vehicle.
Who Should Buy A Travel Trailer?
A travel trailer will probably be a better solution for you if…
- You have a family and need more space or you are just someone who likes having a lot of space.
- You plan on staying at RV parks most of the time. If you plan on pulling into an RV park and parking for the week, a trailer will serve you well.
- You have less money to spend.
- You already have a good towing vehicle or are willing to purchase one.
- You don’t mind towing a trailer behind a vehicle.
- You have a good place to store the trailer when not in use.
- You don’t mind exiting your vehicle to access your living area.
- You want to be able to disconnect from your trailer at an RV park and have a personal vehicle to drive.
A camper van and a travel trailer might appeal to the same people but they will likely disagree on some of the main features. If you are looking for a home away from home that provides the space you need for you and your family, a travel trailer is your answer.
If you are looking for a vehicle that will take you to places far and wide and give you a cozy, safe place to stay, a camper van could be the answer.
One isn’t necessarily better than the other and it will all depend upon what you aim to use it for.
If you are stuck deciding on what type to pursue, the best thing to do is what I did when I was in the same position. I went searching my local area at RV dealerships and looked at dozens of different models of each type.
Doing this will allow you to get a feel for what it is like inside each type and you’ll start to learn which is best for you.
Nothing can take the place of seeing them with your own eyes so make a plan to step foot inside each of these and determine which one you’ll go with.