Ah, whether it’s a travel trailer or a small E250 converted van, living on a set of wheels is freeing. After living full time van life for nearly two years, I am now living “RV life” in an RV fifth-wheel trailer and I must admit…it’s quite comfortable. But is it worth the extra cost and overhead? Read on for my full review of RV vs van life so far.
What's the Difference Between an RV and a Camper Van?
Technically, a camper van is a type of RV–but we tend to think of big rigs when hearing “RV” and small campervan conversions when we hear “camper van”. A camper van is classified as a Class B RV. The big fifth wheels and motorhomes fall under Class A or Class C RVs. Yeah, the classification system is a little confusing…
Class A RVs
Think big Winnebago RVs, often the most expensive and luxurious, can usually sleep up to 8 people and may even be built on a commercial truck chassis.
Class B RVs
The littlest guys out there! Think Mercedes Sprinter, Promaster, Ford Transit, Ford Econoline, Chevy Astro camper vans. They typically sleep a maximum of two people and are built on a cargo van or passenger van chassis.
Class C RVs
The in-betweeners, think Minnie Winnie by Winnebago, built on a van or car cutaway chassis and not quite as much room as Class A, but definitely more spacious than a Class B RV.
What Is RV Life Like?
Compared to van life, RV life is a dream! I have a flushing toilet, functioning shower, hot running water, heat, AC–and a big screen smart TV?! Oh yeah baby, this is bougie RV life.
BUT… the fifth wheel trailer I’m living in is stationary and connected to shore power. So I have all the “big city” amenities (i.e. electricity and sewer connections) without the hassles of trying to drive and maneuver the RV. Or dealing with insanely expensive fuel costs (pulling a class A trailer will significantly drop your gas mileage-shocking!).
It’s actually an AirBnB rental that I’ve been living in for a month in order to live with my long-distance boyfriend. This RV was half the rental price of any other AirBnB in the southern California area. I was excited to try living in a bigger tiny home on wheels.
Perks of RV Life vs Van Life
Feel "at home" and outdoors at the same time
With infinite more space to walk around and all of the normal amenities of a house (including a “regular” coffee maker and RV fridge), it’s easy to feel at-home in an RV travel trailer. The Grand A Design “Imagine” RV trailer I’m staying in even came pre-packed with utensils, spice rack, linens…it’s truly a hotel on wheels.
Compared to living in a van, I was mostly going to the bathroom, cooking and dish-washing outside. I was simply spending a lot more time outside since my living space was so small.
Enjoy lots of living space
Many RVs can sleep up to eight people! This can make RVs a really affordable summer rental option for road trips, where up to eight people can split costs. Or if you are traveling as a family, an easy way to save money on overnight lodging.
What’s more, RVs have a decent amount of space for pets like cats and dogs to wander around in. So you don’t have to leave your furry cat friends or dog friends behind! Since RVs are temperature-regulated, you can even feel safe leaving your pets in the RV alone for small amounts of time.
Unlike RV living, most camper vans can only fit a maximum of two people comfortably. If the van is actually built to fit a family, you can except that much less camper van storage space.
Have more workspace options
If you plan to work remotely from your motorhome, rest easy knowing you’ll have lots of workspace options.
I have multiple tabletops and seats to work on my laptop from in the RV, never mind a thermostat for temperature control and unlimited shade. When living in my van, my only work space options were sitting on my bed or sitting outside. Having to constantly adjust my seating due to bad ergonomics or sun glare and weather elements, I struggled to be productive.
Having multiple work spaces in “RV life” is a huge plus. Never mind that I can simply charge my laptop and electronic devices straight from the RV’s outlets that are connected to shore power. Whereas in the van, I would have to rotate my portable solar panels throughout the day to keep my Jackery battery powered.
Don't have to clean as frequently
Unlike my van’s mini sink, the RV boasts a regular-size sink so I can let dishes collect throughout the day (or even two days). When I was a van lifer, I could barely go one day without doing dishes simply because of its tiny space. Van life chores had to be a part of my daily routine.
While the camper van’s small space forced me to keep up with dishes, it was also exhausting. On days that I wanted to do long drives, go on long hikes, or go exploring, I dreaded the thought of cooking on top of that. It would often result in me spending money on empty calories at a fast food joint.
Get shower and toilet access
Most RV travelers get the luxury of a full bathroom built-in to their rig. This is one of the best RV life pros that gives travel trailers that homey touch. You won’t have to buy a nationwide gym membership for showers, or worry about emptying a portable toilet every other day.
However you will still have to find designated dump stations to dump grey and black water. But that’s low overhead compared to either finding soft ground to go to the bathroom outdoors, or peeing in a jug, or frequently having to empty a small portable toilet! Yum!
Save money and time on grocery runs
In the RV, I have an almost full-size fridge so I can stock up on perishables and groceries for more than a few days at a time. It’s SO nice not running out of fresh food every few days! I can meal prep and it ultimately saves me less drives to the store and less temptation for drive-thru windows.
In the camper van I was using a basic cooler to store perishables which often led to waterlogged food, buying ice every few days, and dumping the cooler. It added a lot of overhead so I tried to avoid perishable foods or use them up quickly.
Pitfalls of RV Life Compared to Van Life
Can't just get up and go
It takes a good chunk of time to get a fifth wheel RV prepped for driving. You may have to disconnect the RV from shore power, empty grey and black water tanks, disconnect sewer hookups, bring in RV slide-outs, hitch the trailer to your vehicle, secure all items inside the RV, every time you want to drive away….
Whereas in a camper van, you just have to secure any loose items inside before driving away. There isn’t as much pressure to have your exact overnight camping spot figured out because your van can fit nearly anywhere and handle rougher roads.
Driving is slow and parking is limited
Driving an RV or pulling a travel trailer is going to be a slow and cautious process at all times. Be ready to spend a lot of time in the far-right “slow” lane on highways! Be prepared for frequent and expensive fuel pitstops. RVs are not known for their great fuel economy.
Plan on drives taking twice as long as they would in a car. What’s more, some of the most beautiful national parks are built around winding, narrow roads. Not great news for big city RVs…
You will still have the option of boondocking in the parking lots of stores that allow overnight parking. But a big RV is a lot more noticeable than a campervan conversion, so you may struggle to find a remote parking spot and can’t overstay your welcome.
Stealth camping is a lot more difficult
Most RVs won’t be able to handle the poorly-maintained, washboard dirt roads that make up most of our BLM land. During my travels, I’ve noticed that there will be a cluster of RVs at the entrance of any given BLM back road, because that’s the only place they can fit!
The lack of ability to really get far out in nature to camp is one of the biggest pitfalls of RV life, in my opinion. Being miles out on a secluded public lands road is so peaceful, freeing, and empowering. I would not want to be stuck camping with a bunch of random neighbors right next door…
Most van life vans (even if they aren’t 4×4) can make it down lots of BLM backroads. And in the event you do get stuck, it’ll be a lot easier to find a tow vehicle for your van than for a big RV. Instead of paying for a designated camp spot in an RV park or campground, you can use loads of free van life apps to find free BLM camp spots!
The RV lifestyle is simply more expensive
When it comes to van life vs RV life costs, RV life is more expensive from nearly every aspect. RV life costs more in terms of:
Van life costs typically range between $800 – $2,000 per month for most van lifers. According to Nomads in Nature, RV life generally costs between $1,600 – $5,000 per month. Class B camper van living is the most cost-effective RV option for those on a tight budget.
Since an RV is a bigger, more expensive rig (with probably more amenities) than a camper van, you’ll pay more in RV insurance vs van life insurance. And if your RV needs maintenance, you’ll have to find a specialized auto shop that can fit your RV in their car port and has knowledge around motorhomes.
Whether you are towing a fifth wheel trailer or driving a motorized RV, neither are the most fuel efficient vehicles. Towing a fifth wheel RV will require a rugged vehicle with good horse power and suspension. If you don’t have the right vehicle, you could risk failed brake systems, overheated transmission or broken suspension.
Since maneuvering RVs or travel trailers around is a hassle, most RV owners opt to stay at one location for weeks or even months at a time. Which is a great way to really familiarize yourself with the area, but can become expensive if you’re staying at a paid campground or RV park.
The average RV park costs between $30-$50 per night, with national parks charging upwards of $60 per night! If you stay at an RV park for one month, you could be paying up to $1,500/mo! That’s more than I have ever paid for rent.
Van Life vs RV Life: The Final Verdict
For me, fifth wheel RV life was perfect for an extended trip, but I choose van life for my current life path.
But it’s different for everyone. It all comes down to what your needs are. Figuring out:
How many people are you traveling with?
How long will you be on the road?
What’s your budget?
Are you wanting to explore new locations every few days, or stay posted up for weeks at a time?
Do you feel comfortable driving a large RV and learning how to maintain it?
Do you WANT to feel like you’re living brick and mortar life or do you want to be more out in the elements?
A great way to help yourself make the decision is by using a platform like Outdoorsy to get an RV rental or van rental and test out each. Even just a weekend trip in these rigs can build your confidence in making the final call.
I hope this breakdown of RV life pros vs van life pros helps set you in the right direction for your own road trip adventure!