If you’re into adventure and road-tripping, you must decide what car to use. Do you need to buy a vehicle specifically designed for camping, or can you make do with your regular car and extra equipment? This guide compares van camping (van life) to everyday vehicles (SUVs, minivans, MPVs, estates).
Camping in a Van vs. Your Everyday Car
There has been a lot of buzz around car camping lately, and the rise of van life has made camping in a van increasingly popular. But having a converted sprinter camping van is not the only way to enjoy the great outdoors. You can also enjoy an adventurous road trip in your regular car with some extra gear. But first, here are some factors to consider before deciding which suits you.
The cost difference is probably the most significant factor when choosing which type of car to camp in. If you want to camp but want to stay moderate with the costs, you must be intentional about how much you spend on the car: upfront costs, maintenance, and consumption.
Cost of the vehicle
Larger vans, like the frequently converted Sprinter van or Ford Transit, cost significantly more than regular cars. So, if money is a constraint, you can still buy an everyday vehicle (or use your existing one) and camp in it.
🏆Best cars for camping 🏆
- Fiat Doblò camper XL, High Roof 🇪🇺 4.0/5
- Honda Odyssey 🇺🇸 4.0/5
- Volkswagen Sharan 🇪🇺 3.9/5
- Caddy Maxi Camper (Life) 🇪🇺 3.8/5
In the same way, you must be prepared to spend a bit of extra money on bigger van maintenance and fuel, compared to a family car (minivan) or an SUV.
Camping conversion cost
The camping conversion cost is another big difference between camping in vans and everyday cars. Converting a van into a full camper van is significantly more expensive than the conversion costs of a regular car.
- converting a large van into a camper yourself (DIY) – anything between $3,000 and $20,000
- converting a large van into a camper by a professional company will start at around $10,000 upwards
- converting an everyday car into a camper yourself can be as cheap as $200 or, if you include a kitchen, drawers and quality materials, around $1,000 – $2,000
- converting an everyday car into a camper using a ready-made camping box – usually between $2,000 and $5,000
The cost of such a project can vary widely depending on whether you choose to do the conversion yourself or hire a professional to do the work for you, what materials you choose and what kind of equipment do you want to include.
If you decide to take the DIY route, the cost of converting a van into a camper can be relatively low, especially if you have some basic carpentry and electrical skills. The cost will largely depend on the size of the van and the extent of the conversion, but you can expect to spend anywhere from $3,000 to $10,000 or more on materials, depending on the quality and complexity of the components you choose to install. This can include things like insulation, flooring, cabinets, countertops, a bed frame, electrical and plumbing components, and various other fixtures and accessories. See this cost breakdown of a Mercedes Sprinter van conversion by Sara and Alex (~$25,000 for the materials, ~$25,000 or more for work). Or this detailed breakdown of another van camping conversion by Krissy (~11,000 for the materials).
On the other hand, if you prefer to hire a professional to convert your van into a camper, the cost can be significantly higher. Depending on the level of customization and the materials and components used, a professional conversion can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $100,000 or more. This can include the cost of labor, materials, and specialized components that may not be available for purchase by the general public.
You will be able to live in a converted van (stand up in the kitchen, work on your laptop…) but it does come at a much higher cost – you can convert your everyday car – SUV or even a pickup truck for a few hundred dollars. But the most you will be able to do in there is sleep and use it for storage.
Everyday cars, such as SUVs and minivans, offer handy features and functionality to match the value for money. These vehicles offer convenience, better gas mileage/fuel economy, and manoeuvrability, both in daily use, but also when camping.
Insurance costs and taxes
Insurance cost is another saving factor for minivans and other campers. They have lower insurance premiums (that can go higher when you make modifications to the car). But the majority of camping conversions of everyday cars can be achieved without such modifications.
A larger van will automatically cost more to insure and in taxes – mainly because of its size and engine, but also because it’s considered a commercial vehicle, not a family car.
In terms of usage versatility, an everyday car is an excellent option for camping. For example, suppose you own an SUV or a Minivan. Such a vehicle offers plenty of space for passengers and gear, good towing capacity, transporting up to eight people (7 in the US) comfortably with enough room for luggage. This feature makes it perfect for large family trips or road trips with friends.
Also, with daily-use cars, including Honda Odyssey (NimbleCamper rating 4/5) or Kia Carnival (previously Kia Sedona) (NimbleCamper rating 4/5) campers, you can easily convert a vehicle back to its original state once you are done using it for camping. However, with vans, you cannot just make a five-seater out of the van if needed, and then back to a camper again. It is usually a three-seater and has lots of cargo space in the back. Good for your beach gear, but not enough space for a large family. Vans can also have limited off-road capabilities, compared to a good SUV.
Vans are designed for camping from the start. The vehicles have extra storage space and can be stocked with all your camping equipment. In addition, the interior is ideal for sleeping, cooking, and relaxing.
However, you don’t need a van for everyday life, and if you don’t plan to camp often, then buying a minivan or other camper is the more sensible option.
You cannot stay on the road all day and night. So you will need a place to sleep, which brings in the stealth factor.
Some regions, especially the US east coast, restrict camping on their parking. As such, renting a dedicated campsite will translate to higher costs.
Since minivans and SUVs look like everyday cars, you can easily cover the windows and add a roof rack. As such, no one can tell you are sleeping in the car. Conversely, unlike cargo vans designed with stealth in mind, it is harder to do stealth camping in a van. Camping vans are easily noticeable, so businesses and security guards can quickly notice your vehicle and pick it out.
Going Down Rough Roads
The beauty of camping is being able to encounter astounding views and explore nature. This goal is only achievable if your vehicle can safely navigate through unpaved roads.
This feature is precisely what makes most SUVs, like the Subaru Forester (NimbleCamper rating: 3.1/5) or Nissan Pathfinder (NimbleCamper rating: 3.0/5), stand out. With their four-wheel drive, these vehicles can go off-roading safely and even wade through mud and shallow waters. The high ground clearance and 4-wheel drive make them suitable for rough terrain and unpaved roads.
Vans, on the other hand, might have a higher ground clearance than minivans, but may not be able to handle extreme conditions, like off-roading or deep snow in the winter months, largely because of their size. They are harder to drive through narrow, winding roads. Not too good to avoid low-hanging branches either. Their wheelbase is longer (the distance between the front and the back set of wheels) which means they can get stuck on uneven surfaces, short ditches and bumps on the road, as well as harder to clear sharp corners.
Among the stressful factors in camping is being able to nab an ideal parking spot. Minivans come in various sizes, which may affect how easily you can park. For example, a Toyota Prius (NimbleCamper rating: 2.8/5) is more straightforward to maneuver and park than mid-sized or full-sized vans. You can also drive through crowded cities without worrying much about clearance.
With vans, the parking needs depend on the height of the vehicle. Long vans are usually harder to park in average lots, while short camper vans might fit even in small parking lots, but you need to watch the parking lot height restriction.
Browse all 40+ campers:
NimbleCamper rated database: Best cars for car camping
A database of campers that’s very easy to filter by boot length, width, consumption and more…
Disadvantages of Everyday Cars vs. Vanlife
While van life and everyday cars have some limitations that may make one better, some everyday car downsides are distinct.
Every day campers need more room when compared to vans. Unless you are a solo camper, a minivan may not carry you and your passengers as well as all the necessary gear in one vehicle. The reduced space also makes it hard to ensure comfort while riding and camping.
You might find yourself always unloading all the gear to make the bed, then loading it all back in when leaving for another camping spot.
Additionally, you cannot stand in an everyday car, so you cannot cook or easily reorganize the vehicle from the inside.
On the other hand, most camping vans offer a tall boot with plenty of head clearance, allowing campers to move around the vehicle easily.
But don’t worry – we have plenty of ways how to convert your everyday car into a camper.
Most everyday cars lack toilet solutions due to the limited space. Unless you plan on getting out of the car several times, you may have difficulty finding an excellent spot for your bathroom needs.
Meanwhile, a van has enough room to install a portable toilet or even build a permanent one inside. You can also find various portable toilets online and add them to your campervan — allowing you to have an easy time while in transit.
See our “Best portable toilets for car camping” article to find the best solutions for everyday cars.
Check out our range of US everyday cars suitable for camping and make your decision today. You will find something that fits your style, budget, and needs.
Camping tents to the rescue
There is a quick way to gain much more living/sleeping space in any everyday car for camping, without having to customise it or pay thousands – find a suitable car tent. There are several types you can choose from – roof tents, tailgate tents, and awnings – I have described the various types of car tents and my recommended tents in this post. Or you can browse my top picks here:
Founder of NimbleCamper.com, avid traveler and outdoor enthusiast. Car camping and microcamping allows me to keep traveling and exploring with a much greater level of freedom & privacy – to go anywhere and sleep anywhere. I didn’t have 30K to buy a VW Multivan, so found my way to the world of everyday car camping conversions. Here I share my experiences and what I learn.