Recreational vehicles are more popular than ever and millennials and Gen Z-ers are flocking to one particular kind of RV- the campervan. Surely, your Instagram feed is full of people living their best #vanlife, in cool retro Volkswagens or decked out Sprinters with their doors flung wide open to gorgeous natural landscapes.
But campervans are not without their drawbacks and, if you’re in the market to buy an RV, I’d argue that one type may be a better fit for you than a campervan- the mighty travel trailer. As a trailer owner myself, I may be biased, but if you’re on the fence between buying a campervan versus a travel trailer, keep on reading below to find out why I think #trailerlife is the way to go instead.
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Table of Contents:
- What is a campervan?
- What is a travel trailer?
- Why you should buy a travel trailer instead of a campervan
- Ways that campervans are better than travel trailers
First off, I want to be clear- RVs are supposed to be little adventure mobiles, tiny homes on wheels that you can take anywhere as a cozy shelter as you go forth and explore the world. And any vehicle that helps you best accomplish that- whether that’s a huge Class A motorhome, a tiny teardrop trailer, or even, of course, a campervan- is absolutely the right choice for you.
So you should research and explore (and research some more) all of your RV options before you make your purchase- campervans are awesome in a variety of ways (I’ll even list some of the ways I think they’re actually better than travel trailers below as well!).
Whether a trailer or campervan is “better” for your lifestyle is completely subjective and entirely dependent on your preferences and priorities. However, I just know, as an admittedly fervent consumer of social media, that I was completely convinced that a campervan was my RV of choice, due to countless YouTubers and Instagram influencers telling me how dreamy vanlife is. Turns out that my belief that a campervan was the only RV for me just wasn’t quite right- and I want to be sure you’re thinking outside the social media box as well.
Alright, with that big ol’ caveat out of the way, let’s get down to basics.
What is a campervan?
A campervan (also called a Class B motorhome) is a standard van that’s been outfitted with a bed and kitchen facilities (and sometimes, a toilet or a toilet/shower combo). Campervans can either be purpose-built (RV manufacturers are no dummies and have been dutifully jumping in on the vanlife trend) or can be converted by their owners.
Given that these vehicles are built as standard vans first and then converted to be something that you live in, there’s generally limited living space and storage. So bottom line: a campervan is generally a van with sleeping and cooking spaces added in and is best-suited for a traveler who plans to spend limited time in their van when they’re not driving.
What is a travel trailer?
Travel trailers (sometimes called tow-behinds) are the most popular type of RVs and are towed behind the rear of another vehicle. While floorplans vary, most trailers will include some sort of seating or dining area, kitchen facilities, a toilet (and sometimes a shower), and one or more sleeping areas. They are usually purpose-built by manufacturers, but more and more people are converting cargo trailers into campers.
There’s all different types of trailers to suit a variety of travelers’ needs- from tiny teardrops with galley kitchens in the rear to massive 39-foot trailers that can sleep up to 10 people. Bottom line: with a huge variety of floorplans and models, the travel trailer is a great option for your first RV, whether you’re a family of six or a solo traveler.
Why you should buy a travel trailer instead of a campervan
So travel trailers and campervans essentially accomplish the same purpose and have many of the same pros (they both provide plenty of opportunities to customize your RV however you want) and cons (for example, it’s pretty tough in both RVs to regulate the temperature in really hot or cold weather if you’re boondocking). However, there are some unique benefits of a travel trailer that sealed the deal for me.
1. You have the flexibility to uncouple your vehicle from your trailer.
Honestly, the ability to unhook your tiny home from your car is such a selling point- it’s the main reason we elected to purchase a trailer. So why is it such a big deal?
- You can uncouple your trailer at your campsite, whether you want to drive to the grocery store or down a gnarly mountain road to a trailhead. Perhaps it doesn’t seem like such a big deal to be able to drive around without your tiny home on wheels attached to your vehicle. But consider the fact that in a campervan, you have to put away and secure all of your belongings every time you want to go drive to pick up a loaf of bread at the store (fun fact: any belongings, like a kettle on your stove top, WILL become a projectile that can break expensive stuff while your vehicle is in motion).
It usually takes my husband, Justin, and me at least 15 minutes to put away and secure all of our belongings at a campsite when we’re ready to move shop. Doing this every couple of days when we’re leaving a site isn’t that big of a deal, but if we had to do this every single time we wanted to go anywhere? That sounds kind of like a drag.
Speaking of drag, with a campervan, you’ll also have to drag around (see what I did there?) your tiny home on wheels everywhere you want to go- like, for example, up steep, rocky mountain roads to trailheads. Lots of campervans, especially older models, do not have four-wheel drive, which is needed to get around uneven terrain, whereas a lot of tow vehicles for trailers, like SUVs or trucks, do. Plus, when you’re driving around the local area you’re exploring, do you really want to bring along the weight of your bed and kitchen (and the hit to your fuel efficiency) literally everywhere you go? Not me!
- With a travel trailer, your vehicle and your home are not one in the same, so you’re not totally screwed if one of them breaks. I am an avid follower of vanlifers on Instagram and one inarguable fact about vanlife is that campervans break down or need maintenance- A LOT.
But what happens if your broken down vehicle also happens to be where you eat and sleep every day? If your van breaks down and you’re a full-time vanlifer or you happen to be far away from your home, you’ll be stuck renting a hotel room (and, if you need to get around, a car) during the time you’re waiting for your van to be fixed- and, with many campervans having specialty parts with limited availability, you may be kicking it in that hotel room for quite a while. I met a vanlifer who went through this exact same scenario- her and her boyfriend had to stay in a Seattle-area hotel room for WEEKS while their van was being worked on.
With a trailer, on the other hand, if your vehicle or your RV breaks, you’ll at least have the other to sleep in or get around. And you don’t have to be a mathematician to figure out that renting a hotel room or a car will be cheaper than having to rent both.
- You’ll get to call dibs on your campsite, even when you’re not there. Snagging a campsite at a popular campground can feel a bit like a fight to the death, especially during the busy season and with more and more people RVing every day. With a campervan, you’ll necessarily have to leave your campsite to the vultures everytime you want to go explore the area you’re in.
While veteran RVers will recognize the signs of when a campsite is already claimed (e.g., leaving out your favorite camp chair is the universal way of saying THIS SITE IS TAKEN), why worry about people being jerks or RV noobs and taking your spot anyway when your travel trailer could just chill in your campsite the entire time you’re out having adventures? I listened to a podcast with a vanlifer who literally bought a scooter that he could attach to the back of his van and drive around town in, because losing his unattended campsites to other RVers had become such a problem. Can confirm I’ve never had that issue with our trailer!
- You get two separate spaces. This is a similar, but not totally related concept, but I’m going to include it here anyway. If you plan on working remotely with a partner on the road (here’s our tips for working from your RV), there will undoubtedly be times when you and your partner will need to be on a call at the same time. How would you manage that in a campervan? Maybe some really awesome noise-cancelling headphones (or should I say partner’s-voice canceling?), but… I’m not totally sure those exist yet (for what it’s worth, I got my eye on these headphones for when I need some quiet time).
With two distinct spaces between your tow vehicle and your trailer, one of you can easily pop into the vehicle to take a call, while the other one remains in the trailer. And the use cases aren’t exclusive to two digital nomads- what about if one partner is napping, while the other one wants to go on a hike? What if one person wants to start cooking dinner, while the other needs to run an errand? I didn’t really think much about this benefit before Justin and I bought our trailer, but it’s been so incredibly helpful when we’ve worked from and lived in our trailer.
2. Trailers require way less maintenance.
I’ve mentioned this above, but campervans notoriously need quite a bit of maintenance, from Sprinters, which are infamously pricey to maintain, to quirky vintage models, with hard or even impossible to locate replacement parts. There’s so many things that can go wrong on a campervan- after all, it’s just a standard van, with a bed and living space built into it, that’s usually driven quite a bit more than an everyday passenger van.
With a trailer, the only external parts you generally need to maintain are the brakes and the tires. And since most tow vehicles are more common than large cargo vans, you’ll have an easier (and therefore cheaper) time maintaining it as well.
3. If you don’t have time to build out a van yourself, trailers are generally a much more economical RV to purchase.
Most people think vanlife is an affordable way to RV- and it 100% can be! At the end of the day, a campervan, in its simplest form, is a van with a bed in the back- I know that tons of people have converted vans for between $2,000-$5,000, including the vans themselves!
That being said, converting a stripped down van into the dreamy campervans you see on Instagram can take months or even years- think about all of the plumbing, electrical wiring, insulation, flooring (and on and on) that needs to be installed into it.
For me, converting a campervan sounded kind of like a “fun project” that Justin and I could tackle during the COVID-19 pandemic, but between working our very busy professional jobs, maintaining a social life, running this blog… I suspected that it would take a VERY long time for our conversion to actually be completed (just ask my house’s baseboards, which remain unpainted a year and a half after we bought our home!).
So if you’re not converting a campervan and are instead in the market to buy a purpose-built one, be prepared for some serious sticker shock. New or used campervans usually cost between $40,000-$80,000, and the ones with the features I was looking for (a decent solar energy system, toilet and internal shower, a bed that converted into a dining area, and four wheel drive) were even more expensive, many significantly north of $100,000!
Trailers, on the other hand, are much cheaper, typically ranging from $11,000 to about $35,000. While I certainly spent on the higher end of the travel trailer spectrum, I still was able to get everything I was looking for in an RV (and purchase a tow vehicle) for about half the price of the campervan models I was interested in (if you’re interested in reading about my experience with my trailer, here’s my 100-night review of the Safari Condo Alto trailer).
4. You can use your tow vehicle as your daily driver, whereas, unless you’re a full time vanlifer, you will likely need a second vehicle.
While some people consider the fact that you need a tow vehicle for a travel trailer as a negative thing, it actually strikes me as something positive, given the fact that most tow vehicles, like SUVs or trucks, are perfectly practical vehicles to drive around in your everyday life while you’re not off RVing.
With a campervan, on the other hand, you will still need to have another vehicle to drive around to work or to run errands (unless you live in the van full time or if you’re okay with the downsides of driving around a massive van everywhere, like not-great fuel economy and challenges with parking and maneuvering around tight spaces). If you have a campervan AND a daily driver, you’ll need to maintain insurance on both, do maintenance on both of them… you get the drift.
5. Trailers can more easily accommodate more than two people.
RVing is a popular activity, for solo travelers, couples, and families alike. But campervans have a compact footprint- generally, they range up to 24 feet max and, after subtracting the length of the engine compartment and front seats, they usually only offer, on average, approximately 71 square feet of living space. As such, they may not be conducive for campers who are traveling in groups larger than two- while I’ve seen campervan layouts that fit up to six people, these usually leverage “outside-of-the-box” sleeping arrangements, like three-plus people to a bed or campers sleeping on the floor.
Given that trailer models and sizes can vary so dramatically (and can get up to 45 feet long!), it will be easy to find one that comfortably accommodates your size of family (so long as your family is under 10 or so people).
6. Trailers provide more space for things like storage, holding tanks, and toilets.
The campervan’s small footprint strikes again- the compact layout of campervans provide for limited storage (usually under the bed area and on shelving along the ceiling).
Most trailers, on the other hand, have quite a bit of storage- in cabinets, under the bed and seating, and usually in some externally accessible compartments. I have a pretty tiny teardrop with a glass retractable roof (i.e., we said goodbye to all the shelving along the ceiling), so in all honesty, we have pretty limited storage in the trailer itself (what can I say, I traded feeling like I was sleeping in a treehouse for storage!).
However, trailers have a storage secret weapon- your tow vehicle! Justin and I live in and work from our trailer for months at a time, and we convert the trunk of our SUV into a storage area, with a huge clear storage container on the bottom for odds and ends we brought along, but might not need frequently (like extra linens and our backcountry camping gear) and two smaller clear storage containers on top of that, which we effectively use as a pantry for our shelf-stable food. I honestly can’t imagine going on week-long plus trips without this extra space!
Having both a toilet and shower were an absolute must for me when purchasing our RV and, after researching a lot of campervan layouts, I discovered that only the very largest campervan floor plans accommodate these features (usually in the form of a wet bath). While many campervan layouts include an outdoor shower, this option is probably not for every type of camper (like me, a Pacific Northwest girl, who will be camping in weather under 65 degrees the vast majority of the year).
Because a lot of vans are showerless, many vanlifers keep clean by getting a membership to a national gym chain, like Planet Fitness, and using their showers. On the other end of the spectrum, most trailers, but for the very tiniest of them, usually include some sort of indoor shower solution (even my little 17-foot teardrop!). Not only is this nice for when you’re at a campsite, but it’s also great for quick overnight stops along your route, like rest areas and free casino RV lots. So, if staying clean without being forced to step foot in a gym is important to you, that may be yet another reason for you to consider trailer life.
7. Getting insurance for a trailer is extremely straightforward, whereas, for a campervan, it may not be.
Getting insurance for my trailer was incredibly easy- I literally just called a handful of insurance companies, received quotes from them, and went with the best value policy (Progressive, for what it’s worth). Getting insurance for a campervan can be significantly more challenging- especially when you’re the one that built out your van. While this is certainly a manageable task, you’ll need to work with your insurance company to make sure you have a policy that appropriately covers your campervan- most auto policies will only cover the cost of the vehicle itself (and not the blood, sweat, and tears of your build).
To protect the “tiny home” part of your campervan, you’ll need to get RV insurance and many insurance companies will ask for significant documentation (like how much your build cost, photos of your van, and even a title that shows your van qualifies as a motorhome) before providing your converted van a policy. And no one likes dealing with insurance companies or retitling things at the DMV- why give yourself an avoidable headache?
8. Leveling a one-axle trailer is easier than leveling a two-axle campervan.
When you camp, you will frequently be at campsites that are unlevel. Having a level RV is important- not only is sleeping on a slanted bed or attempting to cook on a crooked stove annoying af, but your holding tanks’ sensors won’t work properly and you can cause permanent damage to your fridge if running while unlevel.
To level a trailer, you’ll typically need to lay a level down on a flat surface, drive onto some leveling blocks to raise up the side of the RV that is lower than the other, and then lower or raise your tongue-jack until the trailer is level from front-to-back. If this sounds kind of like a guessing game, it totally is- and doing this exercise with a travel trailer’s three points of contact is much easier than a campervan’s four (we’ve actually vultured away some sweet campsites from vanlifers, which, as far as I can tell, the only reason they left the site is due to its unlevelness). And trust me- when you get to a campsite, the last thing you want to be doing is farting around with yet another wheel to add to your leveling equation to make sure your fridge doesn’t break.
So there you have it- my love letter, singing from the rooftops, about why I think travel trailers are a better choice than a campervan. But, for the sake of transparency, I do want to flag some areas where I think campervans may indeed be a better solution than a trailer…
Ways that campervans are better than travel trailers
1. Campervans are much better for stealth camping.
Stealth camping is the concept that those around your RV, like police officers or creepers, will be unable to tell you’re camping there- for example, if you want to camp on a city street or lowkey sleep at a rest stop.
Campervans can be super stealth- many vanlifers elect to convert vans with industrial signage on the side, like exterminator or landscaping services, so that an unsuspecting eye may be unaware that a person and tiny home are nestled warmly inside. Even Sprinters are constantly used on a regular basis for purposes other than vanlife (like delivery services)- a nondescript white cargo van parked on the side of a road is pretty unlikely to attract a lot of unwanted attention.
I will caveat this above benefit by highlighting that anyone who is actively looking for a campervan will be able to easily spot most of them in the wild- even as non-vanlifers, Justin and I have a habit of yelling “VAN LIFE!” at one another as a large cargo van, with my beloved MaxxFan or solar panels peeking out the top, rolls on by. So, even a fairly stealthy campervan may not provide you complete immunity to police officers or a person with nefarious intentions.
That being said, a trailer is inarguably the opposite of stealthy- it’s frequently not permitted for trailers to be parked on city streets and between a trailer’s bulkiness and the fact that you have to physically get out of your vehicle to enter your trailer, it’s probably not going to be a big surprise to anyone that you’re camping back there.
Which leads me to my next point…
2. It will be easier to get out of uncomfortable situations in a campervan.
Justin and I generally camp at free sites, which, at times, can attract some down-on-their-luck folks. While our experience camping has been far and away fantastic, there’s been a few people we’ve met along the way that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. And if something were to have happened with those individuals while we were camping, there would be no seamless way for Justin and I to get between our trailer and our SUV to remove ourselves from that situation- we’d be forced to exit our trailer, make a run for our car, and abandon our trailer at the campsite.
A campervan, on the other hand, is awesome because you can easily transition from the back of your van up to the driver’s seat and simply pull away from the campsite. For this very reason, if I was a solo female traveler, I almost undoubtedly would have elected to buy a campervan, for the safety aspect alone.
3. Campervans get better gas mileage (while you’re driving to your campsite, at least).
Campervans are championed as being the most fuel efficient RV, usually getting between 18-25 mpg. Travel trailers, on the other hand, will generally decrease a towing vehicle’s fuel efficiency by about seven miles per gallon- and since vehicles capable of towing trailers are not the most fuel efficient vehicles to begin with, you’re likely to see fuel efficiency of around 14-18 mpg (and that’s assuming you have a fairly light trailer and fuel efficient vehicle to begin with).
Justin and I recently visited Death Valley National Park, where unleaded gasoline was an eye-popping $5.15 a GALLON. Just imagine how much friendlier on the wallet (and the planet!) an extra 5 miles per gallon would be, if we had a campervan instead of our little teardrop.
As mentioned above, though, it’s worth noting that, once you’re actually at your campsite and ready to explore the area you’re staying, a lot of tow vehicles (like our 30MPG Highlander Hybrid), while not actually towing around trailers, will get better gas mileage than a campervan. So I wouldn’t put this one as a total win in the campervan column.
4. It’s easier to park campervans.
While campervans’ tiny footprint have some drawbacks, they also come with some perks, like ease of parking. As mentioned above, campervans are usually a maximum of 24 feet in length, whereas our set-up (which is pretty petite in the travel trailer world) of a 15-foot Highlander and a 17-foot travel trailer equates to a 32-foot rig.
There’s been plenty of times we would have loved to park our rig somewhere to go explore- think: tight parking lots by the Golden Gate Bridge- where there was absolutely no way we’d be able to find a parking space big enough to accommodate its length. With a campervan, it would be significantly easier to squeeze into compact spots like these- and anything that makes exploring the world a bit easier is a big ol’ plus in my book.
On a similar note, some campervans (i.e., the low top kinds) will fit into a standard residential garage, whereas all but the smallest travel trailers (like my beloved Safari Condo Alto R1723!) will not fit into your garage and require you to park them on a significant chunk of land somewhere or pay for storage (which, on average, is about $130 per month in the United States).
So if you live in a house with the space for it, a travel trailer may be a great fit, but if you live in a packed urban environment? A campervan might be looking pretty good!
5. You don’t have to worry about towing.
Towing anxiety is the #1 reason people elect to not get a travel trailer. After your first couple of times towing, it becomes way less scary and certainly not a big enough issue to ex-nay getting a travel trailer (and, if you’re new to towing, be sure to check out my post on tips for newbie tow-ers that will hopefully help you feel chill about your first time towing!). However, if you’re already a nervous driver or have extreme anxiety about this, a campervan obviously mitigates those issues (but really, is driving a GIANT van around that much less scary? I digress…)
If this article tells you anything, it should be that there are pros and cons for each and every type of RV. I strongly encourage you to do a deep dive into all of the different types of RVs with an open mind as to which one is right for you- and maybe, someday soon, I’ll see you pulling into the campsite next to mine!
If you are considering a travel trailer and have never seen the inside of one, please check out this video tour we made featuring our trailer!