Caravans vs. camper trailers: choosing a setup for your next getaway

Clara V.
Clara V.Published on 22 Oct 2021

With restrictions starting to ease across the country, Australians are starting to plan the dream getaways they’ve kept putting on hold for the better part of the last two years. It’s not just grey nomads who are looking to traverse highways and dirt roads; young people are starting to make up a larger proportion of those looking for their first caravan or camper trailer.

That brings us to the age-old question: will traveling in a caravan or a camper trailer let you make the most of what our vast island has to offer? That depends on your specific travelling needs and preferences.

A 4WD towing an orange camper trailer along a dirt track.

What’s the difference between a caravan and a camper trailer?

These days, caravans are usually completely self-contained; they’ll have a toilet, shower, kitchen, as well as heating systems so that you can live pretty comfortably on the road. This makes them a great choice for those looking for convenience and (relatively) luxe living when they travel.

Different camper trailers have different ways of folding up, but at its essence, a camper trailer is a box trailer with a tent attached to it, which also has a few storage compartments fitted, such as a fold out kitchen.

Want something in between?

You can also find hybrid camper trailers (also referred to as hybrid caravans) that have the roof and hard walls of a caravan, but are still about as wide as a camper trailer. This gives you some of the luxuries of a caravan, while still being compact and relatively easy to tow.

How do I choose between them?

This is the hard part, but we’ve outlined a few points of comparison between caravans and camper trailers to help you decide what’s right for you.

Setting and packing it up

How difficult set up and pack down is depends on how you like to camp. For many caravan owners, simply pulling over, unhitching, chocking the wheels and levelling their caravan may be all they do before they start relaxing. Some campers, however, like to set up things like awnings, annexes, and power as well.

Some camper trailer travellers just wind up the roof and fold out the frame of their camper before they sit back, but those with soft floor camper trailers will also have to assemble it and hammer the pegs into the ground - and this is all before they get started on extra annexes and shade areas.

Still, if an easy setup is what you’re after, getting a caravan is the way to go. The easy set up also means you can jump straight in in rainy weather.

Protection from the elements

It’s pretty obvious that a caravan will beat even the most waterproof, weatherproof camper trailer in this category. With any decent caravan, you should be able to rest assured knowing that you’ll be comfortable and protected in extreme heat, rain, hail, or wind. This extra security also makes it a less attractive target for theft than a trailer.

Unless you get a hard floor camper trailer, sleeping in a camper trailer is not that different to sleeping in a regular tent. For those who want to be closer to the elements, these are the way to go.

Off-roading

Camper trailers are smaller and lighter, and will be less limiting in terms of access than a hefty caravan, which can be impossible to tow down many 4WD tracks. Your camper trailer, on the other hand, can usually go anywhere your 4WD can go, provided it’s still relatively lightweight and the track doesn’t involve extremely tight corners.

But of course, off-roading isn’t important for all campers. For those mostly wanting to hop from one caravan park to another, access may not be much of a priority.

Off-road caravans can help you get off the beaten path

If you want the rugged adventure that camper trailers offer but still want the comforts of a caravan, then you can buy an off-road caravan.

They have the robust design needed to absorb road shock and travel over rougher terrain, but they’re also more expensive, heavier, and more fiddlesome to tow - so think long and hard before committing to one. At the end of the day, however, an off-road camper trailer will still be able to go places that even the best off-road caravan can’t.

Towing

A 4WD towing a white caravan on a sandy track by a beach.

It’s quite difficult for the typical sedan to tow the weight of a caravan, so for some, investing in one will also mean investing in a vehicle that has the heft to haul it around - and maybe also an electric brake controller, if you’re towing something over 750kg.

Camper trailers are generally significantly lighter than caravans, usually weighing between 600 and 900kg, so you don’t need as large a tow vehicle. They’re also more economical to run in terms of fuel.

Because campers have a lower profile, you can also stack camping or outdoor gear on top of it without causing a safety hazard.

Ensure you’re familiar with the different measurements before you buy

Whether you buy a caravan or a camper trailer, you’ll need to consider your vehicle’s maxiumum towing capacity ball weight and Gross Combination Mass (GCM), the tare weight and Aggregate Trailer Mass (ATM) of what you’re towing, and the Gross Combination Mass (GCM). Being more lightweight, camper trailers are more likely to be compatible with your vehicle.

Price

Camper trailers win out here, although like caravans, the price difference between different types can vary a lot. Some more basic camper trailers will start below $10,000, and can get as pricey as $65,000 for some of the latest models.

Caravans will set you back somewhere between $40,000 to over $120,000 for more luxurious models. Of course, plenty of adventurers choose to go the second-hand route to make things a little easier on their wallet, opting to look for used caravans for sale instead.

Storage

In terms of internal storage space, caravans usually have plenty, allowing the permanent storage of your day-to-day items, like your clothes, cookware and cutlery, food (in a fridge!), and camping gear. This means there’s less to unpack once you’ve found where you’ll set up camp.

Make sure to pay attention to the payload of any caravan or camper trailer you’re considering buying. Payload refers to the weight of all items you load into your caravan or camper trailer, including water and fuel. While a caravan may have more cupboard space than a camper trailer, if it doesn’t have a payload that allows you to actually fill those cupboards, then it may as well be useless.

Of course, when you’re not off gallivanting all over the country, you’ll need a spot to keep your caravan, and not all neighbours are happy with people parking theirs on the street. Camper trailers on the other hand have the perk of being compact when they’re not set up, which makes them much easier to store in a garage.

The experience!

For many travellers, the decision boils down to what they want to get out of their trip rather than the conveniences offered by one camping setup over another.

Many caravans carry most (if not all) the comforts that a house does, having anything from washing machines to entertainment units and lounge areas. They’re perfect for those who want optimal comfort but still want to get amongst nature.

The experience of living in a camper trailer lies somewhere between tent camping and caravanning; you’ll still have some homely comforts, but sleeping in one isn’t that much different to sleeping in a tent. For some, this is the more “natural” experience that helps them authentically explore the great outdoors and connect with their environment.

The bottom line

Both caravanning and using a camper trailer are great ways to travel, letting you feel at home wherever you are. What’s better suited to your trip will ultimately boil down to how you’re going to use your caravan or camper trailer, your budget, and how you like to travel.

You can read our Caravans Buying Guide and our Camper Trailers Buying Guide to learn more about these homes away from homes before you even step foot in a dealership - we’ve even got a Caravan & Camper Trailer Shop Buying Guide so you make the most of browsing.