If you’re an adventurous traveler who loves the great outdoors, a 4×4 camper van may be perfect for you. With the ability to go off-road and explore remote areas, these rugged camper vans offer a unique way to experience nature.
There are also some downsides to owning this type of camper van, and they are not for everyone.
In this article, we’ll explore the pros and cons of owning a 4×4 campervan and briefly talk about some of the best camper vans available, so you can decide if an off-road camper van is the right choice for you.
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Pros of Owning a 4x4 Camper Van
If off-roading and getting off-grid are important to you, there are many reasons why a rugged, all-terrain vehicle makes sense. Let’s take a look at some of the benefits of owning an off-road-ready outside van.
Put simply, a rugged van with all terrain tires and high ground clearance gives you the ability to explore all kinds of places. Uneven terrain and rocky roads become a non-issue – the only factor limiting where you can go is your own sense of adventure (and the law.)
If you’re a full-time van lifer, this might be very appealing: frequently camping in urban or densely trafficked areas gets old. Sometimes you just want to get away from everyone and enjoy nature.
Even a remote campsite can be busy a lot of the time, and when you constantly live around other people in your van, you can sometimes start to feel like you never truly have any privacy. In an off road ready van, you always have the option to escape into the wilderness (as long as you’re equipped with a good solar system, a large enough water tank, a roof rack full of adventure gear, and plenty of food.)
Fewer Weather Concerns
If you vacation or van life in areas where inclement weather is a concern, having four-wheel drive can alleviate some of that concern. Van lifers who live in snow are familiar with the need to carry tire chains, shovels, road salt, and other tools to prevent getting stuck or having an accident.
While four-wheel drive is not a necessity for snow-bound travelers, it certainly makes things easier – and makes digging out your vehicle a less frequent occurrence.
The Ford Transit has had AWD capability since 2020, and certain Mercedes Sprinter models come with four-wheel drive. Although the price tag for these vehicles is high, full-time van lifers who spend the majority of their time in the snow report that the investment is well worth it.
It’s not just snowy conditions that make a 4×4 campervan nice to have. Four-wheel drive improves traction in many types of dangerous driving conditions, including rain, rocks, ice, mud, and gravel.
In general, 4×4 vans are heavier than 2x4s, giving them better purchase on the road, and the vehicle’s weight is more evenly distributed over all four driving wheels. Be aware, however, that the heavier weight of the vehicle can set you back in very soft conditions.
Cons of Owning a 4x4 Camper Van
While there are benefits to owning a 4×4 van, there are also downsides. Many people, both full-time van lifers and occasional vacationers, opt for a 2×4 after assessing their needs and budget. Let’s take a look at why.
On average, a 4×4 van will cost you about $10,000 more than a 2×4. For that extra 10k, you’re not getting any extra storage space or living space, built-in solar power, or a bathroom. You’re just getting four-wheel-drive.
A brand new 4×4 Mercedes Sprinter costs about $8k more than the 2×4 model. The 2021 Ford Transit costs about $4k more for an AWD than it does for rear-wheel drive. And it’s not just new models: people selling used vans with AWD or off-road capability charge appropriately for that premium.
You can pay to have four-wheel drive added to your two-wheel drive van as an after-market conversion – but that will run you anywhere between $10,000 to $14,000.
The cost doesn’t stop with the initial purchase. Because of their extra weight, 4×4 vans are less fuel efficient, leading to lower gas mileage and higher cost. Compared to a 2×4 of the same model, the difference in mileage is minimal (usually only a few miles per gallon), but for a full-time van lifer or someone who drives long distances in their van, that difference adds up!
There is more to go wrong on a 4×4 van than on a two-wheel drive model, especially if your van has a full float rear axle or power lift. The extra drivetrain components make a 4×4 a little more complicated to work on (and can make them a little more difficult to drive.)
If you work on your on van or have a DIY conversion, this could cause you major headaches. If you pay someone else to work on your van, it will cost you more to repair issues than a 2×4 van would.
Finally, 4×4 vans are simply harder to come by (and therefore, harder to find parts for and harder to find mechanics for.) Fewer people have them, and fewer people want them, so when it comes time to sell, you may have trouble moving it.
What to Consider Before Buying a 4x4 Camper Van
Before you decide whether or not to purchase a 4×4 van for your road trip adventures, take some time to consider your needs and travel plans deeply. Most van lifers, even people who do it full time – even those who live in snowy places like Utah – find that they don’t actually need 4×4 capability for most of what they plan to do.
Yes, having four-wheel drive is nice for inclement weather, but it is not a necessity. As long as you practice safe driving and are prepared with the proper tools, you should be fine in a 2×4 van.
Most unpaved or forest service roads can be traversed in a rear-wheel drive van. Much of the world is now accessible by paved road, and you must go out of your way to find a route where four-wheel drive is essential.
Most road trippers and van lifers won’t travel to areas remote enough to require a 4×4 van.
For those who do, however, it’s important to consider all relevant factors before purchasing: not only cost but insurance and depreciation, resale value, availability of parts and mechanics, etc.
You may want to get an appraisal of the van, and if you’re buying a used one, absolutely ask for maintenance records.
4x4 vs. All-Wheel Drive - What's the Difference?
We’ve used AWD (all-wheel drive) and 4×4 (four-wheel drive) interchangeably in this article, but there is a difference between how 4WD and AWD works.
Both AWD and 4WD allow all four wheels to be used to drive the car. However, AWD allows the wheels to be powered independently, using a connection that your vehicle can adjust on the fly. Power can be delivered wherever it’s needed, at any speed.
4WD connects your front and rear wheels together through a connection that splits power evenly. The wheels do not operate independently, and power cannot be adjusted on the fly. 4WD is intended to be used at low speeds and on challenging terrain.
Tips for Maximizing the Benefits of Owning a 4x4 Van
While four-wheel drive camper vans can make you feel like you own the world, it’s important to remember a few things before you head off-road.
Just because you have four-wheel drive, don’t assume you can make it over any terrain without issue. There are still places where even a 4×4 van will struggle, and blindly driving into difficult terrain without first evaluating the conditions is a surefire way to get into trouble.
Always look up the conditions of any off-road area you plan to traverse and don’t forget to check the weather. Just because you’re in a 4WD van doesn’t mean you won’t have any trouble at all inclement weather. You still need to practice responsible driving and take safety precautions.
Just because you can go wherever you like in a four-wheel drive van doesn’t necessarily mean you should.
Always respect local ordinances and don’t go off-road in places where it isn’t permitted. If no obvious regulations or laws are posted in an area, err on the side of caution and always treat Mother Nature with the respect she deserves.
4x4 Camper Van: Is One Right For You?
Ultimately, only you can decide whether a four-wheel drive camper van is right for your road trip or van life needs. While these camper vans are fun and can open up a whole new world of off-grid access, they are also costly, difficult to maintain, and less fuel efficient.
Assess your budget and take a long, hard look at your adventures’ reality. A camper van is a big investment, and making the right choice now may save you money, headaches, and time down the road.