RV vs. Camper: Which Is Right for You?

The main difference between an RV and a camper is whether you drive it or tow it.
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Written by Sean Cudahy
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Camping saw a huge spike in interest during the pandemic as travelers looked for fresh air and wide-open spaces.

Even as restrictions lifted, many people continued to look to the outdoors for vacations. Whether you’re planning a weekend excursion or are a digital nomad, camping remains a fulfilling and budget-friendly option for many travelers.

One of the most important considerations for campers is where to sleep, and if you’re not opting for a tent, that means sifting through other options, from recreational vehicles and motorhomes to campers, trailers, pop-ups and fifth wheels.

For those who are new to camping, you may be wondering whether you should choose an RV or a camper. Here’s what you need to know when deciding between the two, including the main differences.

What’s the difference between an RV and a camper?

A recreational vehicle (RV) is a catch-all term that applies to the family of vehicles that can be driven, towed or popped up as well as lived and slept in, says Paul Bandstra, national sales executive at campground booking site Campspot. He has visited 42 campgrounds in 11 months, logging about 20,000 miles in his camper.

Those less familiar with camping may hear the term RV and picture a motorhome — a large vehicle with living space and an engine. “Those are the units that have a steering wheel and a gas pedal and you drive it,” Bandstra explains.

So is a camper an RV? By most definitions, yes.

It’s generally understood that campers and trailers need to be towed by a separate vehicle — often a pickup truck or an SUV, Bandstra says. There’s a wide range of towable options, from fifth wheels to travel and pop-up trailers.

What are the pros and cons of a motorhome?

Having established that motorhomes are, in fact, RVs with a steering wheel, it’s worth asking: Is it right for your needs?

There are a few classifications within the motorhome family, Bandstra explains, from the extensive and luxurious Class A models to smaller Class C ones.

Generally, motorhomes have sleeping and living accommodations, and they tend to be larger. This gives them some definite pros and cons.

“The bigger unit has more room but limits your options of where you can go. It costs more to tow and to camp,” Bandstra says, noting that many campgrounds restrict motorhomes. These RVs may also have a limited — and sometimes pricier — set of sites where they're permitted.

And, he says, the costs of motorhomes themselves — particularly the larger, more luxurious ones — can be quite high. A new Class A motorhome can cost from $50,000 to $150,000 or more.

Some motorhome dwellers choose to tow a separate vehicle behind the RV to give them a more flexible form of transportation once they’re set up at a campground.

Are campers worth the investment?

Because of the high price and large size of a motorhome, many camp enthusiasts instead opt for campers, which are pulled by a separate vehicle. There are many types of campers: travel trailers, fifth wheels and pop-ups, to name a few.

Travel trailers, Bandstra says, hitch onto an SUV or a pickup truck and are towed — similar to how you’d tow a boat. There are many types of trailers, ranging from 10 to 40 feet in length.

A fifth wheel, which is the type Bandstra’s family selected last year, latches onto the bed of a pickup truck. These campers are typically a bit longer, starting at 20 feet and reaching up to 40 feet long.

“It’s a lot easier to tow a fifth wheel,” he says. “There’s a lot more room for swinging if you have a bigger unit; the wind affects it more.”

Like motorhomes, plenty of travel trailers and fifth wheels have kitchens, bathrooms, sleeping areas and space for multiple people.

Bandstra likes the camper because he can unlatch it at a campground and drive his truck to the store, work assignments or wherever else he needs to go.

Is it worth buying a pop-up camper?

Pop-up campers are a far smaller type of towable RV with a hard-shell base and wheels. They unfold into a tent-looking structure.

Part of the camper family, pop-ups are typically less than 20 feet long and are pulled by a vehicle. Most are fairly simple and don’t have amenities like a kitchen or bathroom, so it’s typically not a permanent living option for long-term travelers.

“[Pop-ups] are usually just going to be for a couple, maybe a couple smaller children,” Bandstra says. Pop-ups have benefits, though. “They’re definitely more affordable, and they’re easy to tow because they’re small,” he adds.

Camper vs. RV, recapped

Ultimately, Bandstra suggests travelers looking to buy or rent one of these options — whether a camper or an RV — consider their needs carefully.

“We spent hours with the kids narrowing it down to what floor plan or model is best going to suit us,” he says, adding that they looked at over 100 options before deciding.

“For us, it was full-time living and traveling and working remotely,” he says, adding that it’s a good idea to think about how frequently you’ll be using it.

And regardless of the model selected, Bandstra recommends buying a product with a warranty or purchasing an extended warranty to cover costs. He says not doing so can be a key mistake for first-time buyers.

After all, for many travelers, these vehicles become a home — or a home away from home, at least.

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