Camper Beast

Van Versus Truck Camper

Truck Camper Magazine takes on Joe and Kait Russo’s point-by-point analysis of truck campers versus vans. They’ve lived full-time in both and chose a van. Here’s our response.

Van Versus Camper

“Which is better; truck campers or camper vans?”

Joe Russo’s opening challenge hit me twice. First, I know the answer–at least for myself–but realized I had left this important question mostly open in the electrons of Truck Camper Magazine. Despite being asked to write an article on this very subject a number of times, I found it too obvious for our truck camper devoted readership. The response to Joe’s question–with over 429K views as of this writing–had me reconsider.

Second, Joe’s point-by-point analysis revealed how a van enthusiast views a truck and camper combination. His perspective as someone who has both planned, purchased, and assembled a truck and camper, and researched and purchased a camper van, and lived in both full-time–at different times–is 100 percent valid and valuable. For the record, he’s got us beat with the van life experience under his timing belt. Then again, we have experience and perspectives on truck campers and truck camping Joe definitely missed.

Enough preamble. Let’s rumble.

Above: Click to watch the van vs. camper video this article responds to

Truck Camper vs. Van: Russo Response

1. Chassis: Platform Choices

Joe states that vans are mostly limited to Dodge ProMaster, Ford Transit, and Mercedes Sprinter chassis. There are legacy platforms including Chevy Express/GMC Savana, but basically, you’re limited to three van manufacturers. Next, you need to consider 2500 (single rear wheel) versus 3500 (dual rear wheel with more payload), roof height (low, medium, or high), wheelbase (short, medium, or long), fuel type, all-wheel or four-wheel drive, and overall load/living space.

Truck campers have a broader potential make and model selection, but the great majority of truck campers choose a Ford, GM, Ram, or Toyota. Within those four brands, there are six classes; mid-size, half-ton, three-quarter-ton, Class 4 (F-450 and 4500), and Class 5 (F-550 and 5500). You also have the choice of gas, diesel, or electric, long bed, short bed, or super short bed, regular cab, extended cab, or crew cab, four-wheel drive or two-wheel drive, and single rear wheel or dually.

Joe correctly states that truck campers win this category with the sheer quantity of choices available, but I would argue that the same quality is and has always been, a major challenge for the truck camper marketplace.

For example, if someone wants a van conversion, they can go to an RV dealer, pick a van conversion that fits their needs, buy it, and go camping. It’s a relatively straightforward decision.

The next customer decides a truck camper is the right answer for them, and quickly realizes that they need to size and payload match whatever truck they have/want with whatever camper they want. Put another way, they can’t just go to a camper dealer, buy a rig, and go camping. They need to research their truck and camper combination, calculate some numbers, consider their needs, and then assemble their rig. This is anything but straightforward if you’ve never done it before.

Naturally, we have created articles that take you through this process including Choosing the Right Truck for a Truck Camper and How To Match A Truck and Truck Camper. These articles simplify the process as much as possible and have helped countless truck camper enthusiasts.

Round 1 Winner: Van

2. Size: Compact Utility

Joe explains that vans are available in 19.5 to 24 feet in length. Due to the sheer quantity of truck and camper combinations, truck camper rigs start at the length of the shortest trucks (camper stops at the tailgate) to rigs like ours that extend to 24 feet or longer.

This is probably a draw as both vans and truck camper rigs can be quite compact in length, width, and height. It would be interesting to put the smallest van next to a mid-size truck and pop-up camper combination. In travel mode (camper pop-up down) I’m not sure if either would have many size advantages over the other. However, once the truck camper roof was popped up in camping mode, the camper interior would be in another world in space and overall livability. For this reason, I think truck campers take this round.

Round 2: Truck Camper

3. Livability: Pass-Through

Joe starts this section by explaining how the entire van is essentially living space. From the front seats that swivel 180 degrees to become a primary sitting area, to the rear loading door space with a bed, the entire can is living space.

Then Joe hits one of the most important differences between truck campers and vans; the ability to walk directly from the driver or passenger seats of the van into the main living area of the van.

Here’s where a van scores over a truck camper rig. When you pull into a parking spot or campsite in a van, you just turn around and go into the van. You don’t have to go outside as you do in a traditional truck and camper set-up. Naturally, the opposite is also true; when you want to go from the van living area to the driver or passenger seat you can walk there from inside the van. In a truck camper, you have to exit the camper to the outside, and then enter the truck.

This can really matter in the rain, snow, and otherwise unpleasant weather. It can also matter in places where security could be a concern. For example, some unsavory people pull into a spot near your location and you feel compelled to leave.

For this reason, we are going to give the vans the win in Round 3, with a caveat or two.

First, walking outside into rain, snow, and cold weather definitely happens, but that’s part of the experience. Rarely is the weather so bad as to leave us drenched or frozen before we get into our camper or truck. It would be fantastic to have a pass-through between our truck and camper in these instances, but I like getting out of the truck, standing, stretching, and walking outside now and then. I find it kind of weird when a motorhome (which a van is) pulls in and you never see the people come out. It’s like they’re traveling in a rolling terrarium.

Second, in twenty years of truck camping, I can count the number of times we’ve felt unsafe in an area on both hands. Usually, our spidey senses go off right away and we get out of dodge before exiting our Ram. The number of times we’ve been stuck in our camper in a situation we felt potentially unsafe can be counted on one hand. Most of those were our fault; parking overnight in places that were not known to be approved overnight spots. Aka; a road lesson. None of those instances resulted in anything other than an uncomfortable situation. The point here is to always trust your spidey sense, and camp in places that are known to be approved and safe.

Want a more in-depth answer with specifics? Check out our article, Free and Safe Places To Park Overnight In An RV.

Winner Round 3: Van

4. Living Space: Comfort, Storage, Standing, etc.

Here’s where truck campers trounce vans. In comparison to almost any truck camper, vans are narrower with a lower ceiling and less moving around, sitting areas, cabinetry, bathroom, and storage space. Some vans are competitive here, and truck campers that are not but, generally speaking, truck campers offer more living space in every dimension.

As Joe points out, truck campers are not confined to the vehicle platform dimensions. A truck camper starts a truck bed or flatbed, and then builds up and out. The difference this makes is unmistakable. Nearly every truck camper made is stand-up height with headroom to spare. Nearly every truck camper is at least 7 feet wide with many going a foot wider. Never mind the huge difference a cabover (over the truck cab) bedroom area makes. If comfortable living space and/or storage is a top priority, truck campers are the choice.

Winner: Truck Camper

5. Multi-Purpose / Versatility

Versatility is what a truck camper is all about. The ability to separate the truck and camper to use/service/store/replace either one separately from the other is an essential part of the truck and camper concept. We’ve had too many experiences to count where the ability to separate the truck and camper has been critical. More on this later.

Joe agrees. He goes on to explain how both a truck (without a camper) and a van are good daily drivers, a pickup truck is more versatile. Having a truck bed to carry items like lumber or mulch is unbeatable. Joe explains that some vans have a garage area in the back, but that area is smaller and requires you to put whatever you want to haul in your main living area.

Joe explains how van owners are stuck with their van chassis and camper build. If the van becomes unreliable or needs an expensive repair, they’re stuck. If the van’s living area gets worn out, they’re stuck. If the van owner wants to upgrade the van or the living area, they’re stuck.

These same situations with a truck camper are easily solved. You can separate the truck and camper, get a new truck, or get a new camper. Or drop off your truck for repairs and stay in a campground with your camper. Or drop off your camper for repairs and drive to a hotel room or a friend’s house. We’ve done all of the above and can vouch for their critical importance.

There are many more benefits to the go anywhere, camp anywhere, tow anything versatility of a truck camper rig. In my admittedly biased opinion, the unbeatable multi-purpose functionality of a pickup truck absolutely destroys a van.

Winner: Truck Camper

6. Full-Time

Joe has a huge advantage over us in the full-time analysis as we have not lived full-time in a van. We did spend three years living full-time in our truck and camper, so we understand the lifestyle and what can be important.

It’s hard to talk about full-timing without talking about storage. We’ve already established that most truck campers have more storage than most vans. What Joe adds is the space available in the back seat area of a Crew Cab truck. He removed his seats and created a storage system. We pull our Ram seats up and use the flat floor to store an enormous amount of stuff in our back seat area; several boxes of supplies we don’t need every day, camping chairs, a folding bike, and more.

Joe also reiterates the larger living space of a camper as being more comfortable for full-time living. This is especially important when the weather doesn’t cooperate. Yes, you have to walk outside to get between the truck and camper, but a camper presents a living space where you can stand, stretch, and walk around more.

Joe brings back the pass-through advantage of a van for getting snacks and taking bathroom breaks while in transit. As someone who focuses on safety, I’m hesitant to recommend people get out of their seats while a vehicle is in motion for any reason. I know motorhome owners sit on the can while hurtling down a highway, but they’re much safer seat belted with an airbag system in place. Have you seen how people drive? After our accident, there’s no question where we’re sitting while on the road.

Winner: Truck Camper

7. Off-Road

Joe and I are on the same page here, but I can’t help but chime in anyway.

At the Overland Expos, we have seen tons of vans with four-wheel drive, bigger tires, and maybe even a lift kit to make the platform more off-road capable. No doubt this works, but it’s a bit like tricking out a stock Honda Civic into a track car. Yes, you can do it, but a better approach is to start with a vehicle designed from the ground up for off-road. In this case, a pickup truck with four-wheel drive, ground clearance, and a frame, body, and components are designed to work in concert for that capability.

Vans are designed for pavement, contractors, packages, and deliveries. Trucks are designed for pavement and off-road use. Enough said.

Winner: Truck Camper

8. Serviceability

Joe explains that van owners often have challenges finding places to service their vehicles because Ford, Ram, and Mercedes shops are either not set up for, or willing to work on, camper vans. This honestly surprised me as I thought Ford, Ram, and Mercedes dealers would have no issues accessing and servicing the van platforms. Perhaps there are more engine, chassis, and electronics modifications and changes being made by the van upfitters than I’m aware of. Or the aforementioned dealerships just don’t want to take on that risk and liability.

Whatever the case may be, truck campers have a huge advantage in serviceability no matter what the van situation is. The ability to unload the camper and take the truck to a Ford, Ram, Chevy, GMC, or Toyota dealership is a game changer. On this last trip, we unloaded our camper outside of a Les Schwab and had our truck aligned. Not only were the Les Schwab bay doors too low, but they needed to put the truck on a lift and their garage ceiling was too low. Within ten minutes we had the camper unloaded on the premises and in the garage. No problem.

We have at least a dozen stories like this. If we hadn’t been able to unload the camper, we would have been up a much taller tree. I feel for the van folks out there who get refused service as those are exactly the moments that can make or break plans or an entire trip.

Winner: Truck Camper

9. Price

Understandably, Joe punts on price saying it’s really up to the consumer and what they choose.

That’s true, but let’s at least give this a shake.

New Class B vans range from $80K to $350K. Yes, Airstream will sell you a 2024 Airstream Atlas Murphy Suite Tommy Bahama for three hundred and fifty thousand dollars. If your jaw is still attached to your face, read that last sentence again.

On the other end, I found some new Thor Scope 18M vans selling for around $80K. This is impressive considering the MSRP is $126,560, but that’s another story. At the $80K price, you could buy four of 18Ms and have $30K left for the cost of the Airstream Atlas Murphy Suite Tommy Bahama (AAMSTB for short). Absurdity on a stick.

From my admittedly short research, it seems most Class B vans retail in the $100K to $125K range. That’s the sweet spot. Yes, you could buy a new stock van for $35-$55K and roll our own camper conversion, but that’s not the conversation we’re having DIY guy.

Mid-size trucks like the Chevrolet Colorado, Ford Ranger, and Toyota Tacoma start at $30K and go up from there. Full-size trucks like the Ford F-150, Chevy 1500, and Ram 1500 start around $35K and go up. These are base work truck prices. The full-size trucks will be a regular cab, gas, two-wheel drive, and short beds in white. Most of us would want something more, but the point is that trucks are definitely cheaper than vans.

Which brings us to campers. We’ll start with the more affordable hard side models. A 2024 Soaring Eagle Adlar 6.5 is $16,068. A 2024 Capri Retreat is $16,995. A 2024 Palomino HS-690 is $26,997.

How about pop-ups? A 2024 Palomino SS-1200 is $19,016. A 2024 Northstar 600SS is $24,995. A 2024 Four Wheel Camper Swift, Fleet, Raven, or Hawk (pick your truck size) is $26,625.

Clearly, it’s possible to assemble a new truck under that $80K van target. Even if you say the truck is $40K and the camper is $30K, and throw in $2K for tie-downs and turnbuckles, you’re looking at a $72K rig. The extra $8K pays for a lot of fuel.

However, if you want to better match the features and amenities of that Scope 18M, you need to have an enclosed wet bath, a kitchen with a sink and cooktop, built-in refrigerator, and cabinetry. To match these features, we need to step up to something like the 2024 Northstar Liberty at $35,995. For the payload margin of safety, let’s match that with a base three-quarter ton at $45K. Now we have an $81K truck and camper that matches the van and cleans its clock on living space, versatility, serviceability, off-road and off-grid usability.

Sorry, Joe. I’m calling this for truck campers. Game. Set. Match.

Winner: Truck Camper

Rumble Wrap Up

That was fun. And I learned a lot by forcing myself to get into the weeds. Thank you, Joe!

For more perspectives on the Truck Camper Vs. Van theme, I highly recommend reading the YouTube comments under their video. While you’re there, give them a like and a follow. They’ve done a great service to our community by making this video, even if they ultimately made the wrong choice. Just kiddin’, Joe. Nice work!

Follow the Russos on YouTube, Instagram, and Facebook.

 

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