Truck Campers vs. Camper Vans: Perspectives Outside of North America

Martin and Amy · February 28, 2024

Overland   Truck Campers   South America
Truck Campers vs. Camper Vans: Perspectives Outside of North America

“Which is better; truck campers or camper vans?” This seemingly straightforward question sparked a thought-provoking exchange between YouTuber Joe Russo and Truck Camper Magazine (TCM), each offering their perspective. However, we noted that both responses were undeniably U.S.-centric. While their perspectives are sensible and well contemplated from experience, it leaves out the needs of travelers who are not roaming the well-trod roads of the US or Canada. With our experiences traveling across South America, it is evident to us that many nuances were not considered when trying to answer this question.

1. Chassis: Platform Choices

In the realm of overland travel, the choice of chassis becomes a critical decision, especially when traversing the diverse landscapes of South America. While both truck campers and camper vans offer a range of options, the suitability of these choices takes on a new dimension beyond North American borders.

Diesel Dilemmas:

One glaring concern arises with the prevalent use of diesel engines in vans. In North America, this might seem like a practical choice, but once you hit the roads of South America, the quality of diesel becomes a game of chance. Low sulfur options, crucial for modern diesel engines, are notably absent in many countries, presenting a challenge for van travelers. Moreover, the reliance on AdBlue/DEF introduces an additional layer of complexity, as securing these additives may prove challenging in certain regions.

Under the Hood Power:

Size matters, especially when you find yourself navigating the winding roads of the Andes. Vans, such as the 2.0L diesel Mercedes-Benz, might suffice in North America, but their underpowered engines can struggle in the high altitudes and steep inclines of Andean mountain roads. In comparison, a robust truck with a camper attachment, boasting double or even triple the horsepower, becomes a formidable choice for conquering challenging terrains.

2. Size: Compact Utility

When scrutinizing the dimensions, especially the standing height in vans, numbers and logistics are very important when considering intercontinental overlanding. Even with a high roof, the reality is stark – standing at 107 inches (271 centimeters), a Mercedes-Benz van exceeds the internal dimensions of a standard 40HC shipping container at 101.5 inches (258 centimeters). This leaves travelers with a conundrum, steering them toward Roll-on-roll-off (RORO) shipping, a method notorious for its vulnerability to theft and potential vehicular damage.

Now, let’s pivot to the pragmatic advantage of a truck camper. With a thoughtful design, a truck camper can cleverly fit within the confines of a standard shipping container. This isn’t exclusively about numbers; this is a strategic maneuver that not only ensures a snug fit but also ensures the security of the vehicle and any property within during transit. Not only does this save the overlander time and money repairing their vehicle or replacing stolen items, container shipping is also significantly cheaper than RORO or flat-rack shipping.

3. Livability: Pass-Through

Once considered a blessing for RORO shipping, the lack of a pass-through from the vehicle’s cabin to the living space now poses a potential safety dilemma. Previously, this meant that the owners could hand over the keys to the shippers without fear that their living space would be invaded and pilfered through. Unfortunately, break-ins and massive damage to both the vehicle and a separated camper are more frequent than in prior years, even when the keys are handed over in order to prevent smashed windows and broken locks. Beyond the logistics of transportation, the lack of a pass-through can be a potential safety risk in emergency situations where swift access between the truck and camper is paramount. In an emergency, one could easily hop to the front of a van and just drive off. As Truck Camper Magazine points out, if your spider-sense tingles, it’s time to find a different camping spot.

On a less serious note, one practical everyday concern where consideration of the pass-through is more essential: weather. Stepping outside the camper in inclement conditions is, decidedly, quite inconvenient on the best of not-so-sunny days. Many truck camper owners are now cutting into their truck and camper to re-acquire the pass-through.

4. Multi-Purpose / Versatility

The ability to separate the truck and camper is a distinct advantage of truck campers that vans, obviously, do not possess. Life is unpredictable and the ability to detach the truck from the camper can save your adventure from ruin. An excellent example is how our own journey to get to South America began: Six weeks before we were scheduled to ship our truck camper to Chile, our rusty old Dodge developed mechanical issues so severe that replacing the truck entirely was a safer and more secure investment than even attempting repairs. Obviously this meant that instead of replacing everything, we had only to replace the truck and not the camper. We were fortunate that the demise of the Dodge occurred before we left the U.S., as ¾-ton trucks, widely available in the United States, are nearly nonexistent in South America. ½-tons or smaller are the only available options. Additionally, the South American market is dominated by small trucks manufactured by companies such as Nissan, Volkswagen, or Renault.

5. Full Time Living

Carrying Capacity Unleashed:

Credit must be given to vans, with their robust steel sides and roofs, which boast a higher carrying capacity than the sides of a truck camper. The inherent higher carrying capacity opens the door to a myriad of possibilities with extra storage, which are often not possible with truck campers, particularly those with rear door entrances. It is not uncommon to encounter vans adorned with an eclectic array of spare parts, additional fuel reservoirs, kayaks, surfboards, and even a bike rack on the back.

The Challenge of Slide-In Campers:

Contrast this with the constraints posed by a slide-in camper with a rear entrance. The design, while offering its own set of advantages, imposes limitations on carrying capacity. While it is not impossible to modify the roof of a slide-in camper to bear a small amount of extra equipment or gear, the freedom to load the roof with an assortment of gear goes to the van.

6. Off-Road

In the pursuit of off-road adventures in the diverse landscapes of South America, the weight of a 9,000lbs vehicle may not position it as the pinnacle of off-road agility. However, within this context, high clearance is an indispensable feature for navigating the challenges presented by more rural South American roads and off-road terrain. Many of South America’s best adventures and vistas involve traversing some questionable routes. From the pot-holed Carretera Austral in Chilean Patagonia to the effectively nonexistent road through Bolivia’s Laguna Route, high clearance is a necessity in many locations. Without it, you will be locked out of some incredible experiences and locations or have to resort to paid tours via vehicles that do have the required high clearance.

7. Serviceability

Mechanical troubles are an inevitability, but in South America, finding a mechanic willing and able to work on a large vehicle, especially a camper van, is a challenge in every country. The ability to separate a truck and camper for servicing is a logistical lifesaver. We have personally encountered mechanical shops whose machinery struggled to lift our ¾-ton truck without the camper on it. None of these will be able to lift a camper van. Additionally, handing over access to your camper van, loaded with your home and belongings, is not ideal. With our truck camper we are able drop the camper portion of our home in a secure campground before handing our empty vehicle over to a mechanic. In the event that we do not have to separate, we can keep the camper keys to ourselves.

8. Price

While both truck campers and vans have their merits, the cost of each has to be acknowledged. Both Joe Russo and Truck Camper Magazine rightly place the spotlight on the heftier price tag associated with vans. Additionally, the lack of insurance coverage beyond the borders of Mexico accentuates the gravity of this decision if you plan to take your vehicle further south The guiding adage that is widely repeated through the overlanding community: “Don’t bring anything you can’t afford to lose.”

Long story short:

The truck camper vs. camper van showdown shifts gears when you steer away from the generally well-maintained roads of North America and maneuver onto the unpredictable roads-less-traveled and wild geography of South America.