Camper Van vs Pop-Up Camper

camper van and pop up camper

As a child, I often went camping in a pop-up camper. I thought it was so cool to hook a small box-on-wheels up to the truck and head off into a week’s worth of camping at the lake. I loved the idea of easily pulling this little trailer around and then turning it into a larger camper once we got to our location. Although it wasn’t as fancy as some of the other campers in the campground, it had all that we needed.

A pop-up camper is akin to a tent but better. With a pop-up camper, you have a hard shell that easily expands into a roomy space with soft fabric sides (usually). Although, probably not a great idea to use one of these in bear country, they can be great for the casual camper who doesn’t need a lot of space.

The cool thing about pop-up campers is their space-saving design. They make a great choice for those looking to use it occasionally and then store it when not in use. A pop-up trailer camper will easily fit into a regular-sized garage.

You may be wondering why anyone would even compare these two types of camping solutions. After all, they are much different. I certainly agree that they are quite different. However, they do have some things in common and many who choose van life might also see the benefit of choosing a pop-up camper as an option.

  • They both have a small living space.
  • They are both minimal in design.
  • Both are easy to travel with.
  • They are designed for a couple of people.

Camper Van & Pop-Up Camper Similarities

There are a surprising number of features that make these two types of campers similar. If you are in the market for something with a small living space, either may work for you.

Small Living Space

A pop-up camper is not a large camper. Compare a typical pop-up to a camper van and you’ll see that both offer a livable space but not one that will accommodate a large family. The typical living area inside a pop-up camper will be very similar to what you will find in a camper van. Both usually have a decent amount of amenities but you’ll likely need something bigger if comfort and maximum room to stretch out is your goal.

A Cozy Space For a Minimal Amount of People

As a kid, I went camping with my best friend every year. We took a pop-up camper but only his parents got to sleep in it. My friend and I slept in a tent outside. This was probably for multiple reasons but one of those reasons is that the space is really designed for a minimal amount of people. We would gather in the pop-up camper each morning for breakfast. However, there was barely enough room for all four of us to eat.

The size of these types of camping solutions is perfect for a person or two but more than that and it can get very crowded inside. The same can be said for a camper van. The size of the living space really makes it best suited for one or two people. I’m perfectly fine in my van by myself but throw in another person and it starts to get crowded.

With that being said, a small space like this makes for a cozy place when out in nature.

Minimal Design

The design of small camping spaces like this doesn’t usually include fancy features that you might find on larger RVs. While the space can be well laid out and useful, it’s not going to offer the level of elegance that you might expect from a larger rig.

My van is set up as a basic living structure. Although it does contain everything you could need, it doesn’t go above and beyond with entertaining features. The same can be said with a pop-up camper. It gets the job done for such a small package but if you are looking for an elaborate setup, you may want to keep looking further.

Easy For Traveling

Rather than a cumbersome large travel trailer, a pop-up camper allows you to have a spacious environment that folds down into a manageable, towable box-on-wheels. Pulling a small trailer like this is much easier than pulling a larger trailer. It also doesn’t require a powerful vehicle to be able to pull it. Since they are lightweight, nearly any vehicle will be capable of pulling them. Compare this to a camper van and you’ll find that both are quite easy to maneuver around when compared to other options.

A camper van is the smallest type of drivable RV. A standard van, like the RAM Promaster that I drive, is not much different from a standard-sized vehicle. It makes parking in regular parking spots possible. Likewise, you’ll find it easier to park your vehicle with a pop-up camper in tow than you will if you are towing a large travel trailer.

Camper Van & Pop-Up Camper Differences

Although they have some similarities, there are a few discernible differences when considering these two types of camping solutions.

A Camper Van is Drivable

The most obvious difference between these two types of RVs is that one is drivable and one is not. A pop-up camper will need to be towed with another vehicle. However, this may not be a bad thing if you already have a vehicle anyway. If you are looking to travel lightly, a small pop-up camper could be just what you need without spending a ton of money.

It’s definitely nice to have a motorhome that is a vehicle and living area all in one place. However, many people like to separate the two. Just because you have to pull a pop-up camper with another vehicle doesn’t mean it is difficult to travel with. As mentioned earlier, the small size makes it easy to tow.

A Camper Van is Always Set Up

When comparing these two options, the winner for the most convenient has to be the camper van. With a camper van, you just get in and get going. Once you arrive at your location, you can simply walk from the driver’s seat to the living area and begin to enjoy your stay.

On the other hand, with a pop-up camper, you will have some setup to do before you can enjoy it. Setting a pop-up camper up is not difficult but it does take some time. It’s usually just a matter of parking it, leveling it, and then raising the roof! This is usually accomplished with a hand crank. There are final supports and braces that need to be installed but it really isn’t difficult to do.

Setting up a pop-up camper is just an added inconvenience but it can be part of the fun.

A Camper Van is Usually Self-Contained

A pop-up camper isn’t always self-contained depending on the model that you choose. They won’t always be equipped with toilets and showers. The space inside simply doesn’t allow for it. However, since these are usually parked at a campground, it isn’t a problem. Most campers who don’t have access to these amenities inside their camper make use of the ones provided at the campground. It’s just part of the experience of “roughing it.”

Camper vans can be the same way although many camper vans on the market come with toilets and showers installed. Just like any other motorhome, these drain into a gray or black water tank so that you can dump them later. This makes them completely self-contained.

A Pop-Up Camper Has Soft Sides (Usually)

Most of the pop-up campers on the market feature soft sides that create the walls of the camper. While the base of the camper is solid, the walls and ceiling that are cranked out are generally made of a material similar to that of a tent.

These would not be optimal in an area where bears may be. Not only that but they may also present a problem in colder weather.


The price is usually what determines the type of RV you will choose. There may be a substantial difference between the price of a camper van and a pop-up camper. This will depend on what route you go and what type you choose to buy. Buying a brand new camper van may set you back $60k – $100k or more. Compare that to the relatively low cost of a pop-up camper at around $15k – $20k for a really nice one.

The prices are even less if you choose used models but you will still end up paying more for a van than you will a pop-up camper. Since you will probably already have a vehicle to tow it, a pop-up camper will usually be the lowest cost option.

Bottom Line

While these two are vastly different, they also share a lot in common. If you are in the market for a camper van, this article probably won’t sway you. However, if you own a vehicle capable of pulling a pop-up camper, you could save a lot of money for a nice, compact living space.

A pop-up camper won’t be as convenient but it will still allow you to enjoy easy travels or just some quality time away with your family in the great outdoors. They make great low-cost options for those looking to spend time doing some occasional camping.

Dan Collins

I consider myself an outdoor enthusiast. I love to travel and go to places that most people don't get a chance to go. I want to see it all and live life to the fullest while I'm alive. My camper van is helping me to do just that. I write about my experiences to help inspire others to do the same.

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