Are you considering buying a camper van but not sure if a 2wd or a 4wd is best for you?
It’s one of the most frequently asked questions we get but the truth is, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer.
You need to ask yourself how and where you plan to use it.
We’ve owned and used 4×4 campers and SUVs on our adventure travels so have some insight as to just how important (or not) having a 4 wheel drive really is.
Keep reading for the lowdown on how a 2wd camper compares to a 4×4 to help you decide which is right for you.
What’s the Difference Between a 2wd and 4wd?
Most vehicles on the road have a 2 wheel drive system.
It means the engine only sends power to 2 wheels, either on the front axle or the rear axle.
Front-wheel drive vehicles are most common and the engine powers the front wheels only. They provide better traction for going uphills than rear-wheel drive because most of the weight is balanced over the driving wheels.
Rear-wheel drives are great for pickups or vans expecting to carry heavy loads. Generally, they handle better too because the front wheel only has 1 job – to steer.
This is why sports cars are often rear-wheel drive.
All four-wheel drives on a 4wd are powered by the engine so ideal for low traction road conditions and off-road driving.
Many 4wd vehicles have the option to be switched from 2wd to 4wd on demand.
Note | Not all 4 wheel drive vehicles are made equal. Features like traction control, rear or center diff locks, and low range gearboxes make a huge difference to the vehicle’s capability.
Why Do We Even Ask if We Need a 4×4 Camper?
With most vehicles on the road today being 2-wheel drive, why do so many of us ask if we need a 4-wheel drive camper van?
Growing up, I was inspired by the clever marketing campaigns of Jeep and Land Rover expeditions traveling to far-off, remote destinations.
I wanted to be one of those people hacking their way through jungles in 4x4s, crossing the Sahara desert, and taking on overland adventures spanning the globe.
It was an exciting boyhood dream reinforced by the Camel trophy competition in the 80s that was driving through neck-deep rivers and building bridges added to the travel adventure.
I’m now conditioned to think I need a 4×4.
But the newer 4×4 models generally don’t have the same level of engineering as the Defender and Toyota Troopy of old.
No longer designed for off-road exploration, today much of the SUV market is for the Chelsea Tractor-loving commuter who wants a safer driving position and something that looks impressive parked on their drive.
Most 4x4s will never drive off a black top, sealed road.
We actually have to go out of our way these days to find routes where 4×4 is essential.
And anyway, so much of the world is accessible by road now.
Once the Pan-American Highway was a challenge – especially in Central America, Argentina’s Ruta 40, and Chile’s Carretera Austral.
In 2018, Ben Coombs drove it in a TVR sports car!
The main roads across Australia and into the Northern Territories are now blacktop. And you can even drive into the Sahara Desert on a highway now too.
Not quite my childhood dream.
2wd Vs 4wd Vans
With all that said, we still ask ourselves if we need a 4-wheel drive camper before we buy.
I’ve been so conditioned to think I need one I don’t even ask myself. It’s only because Angela asks that I have to stop and think about it.
Let’s take a look at the pros and cons of 2-wheel drive vs 4-wheel drive vans so you can decide for yourself.
Pros and Cons of 2 Wheel Drive Campers
There are not many places in the world you can’t get to on blacktop road these days.
You can even drive from London to Timbuktu on 2 or 3-lane highways except for a short 5-kilometer stretch of easy track at the end.
If only you could get there without getting shot!
Pros of 2 Wheel Drive Campers
Availability | There are a lot more 2wd vans available on the new and used marketplace than 4wds.
Fuel efficiency | 2wd vans weigh a little less than a 4×4 so gives marginally better fuel economy. While the difference is marginal, it can add up on a long road trip.
Cost | 2 wheel drives are considerably less expensive to buy than their 4×4 counterparts.
Maintenance & repairs | Because most 2wd vans are common, their maintenance routines are pretty standard.
Getting the right oils and replacements parts tends to be easy and lower cost than 4×4 specialist parts.
And when it comes to repairs that you can’t do yourself, you probably won’t need a specialist mechanic so can avoid hefty garage bills.
Ground clearance | The ground clearance of a 2wd van compared to its 4×4 counterpart is often the same.
The body on a some 4x4s has a lift to allow the axle to articulate more but the driving line is the same as standard.
Sometimes, it’s better because some 2wd vans don’t have a big diff on the back axle.
So while some 4x4s do have better ground clearance, my point is don’t assume you have to own a 4×4 to have good ground clearance.
Cons of 2 Wheel Drive Campers
Off-road driving | For serious off-road driving enthusiasts, a 2-wheel drive camper just won’t be up to the job of a Land Rover or Land Cruiser.
That said, when living in a van full-time, your camper van is your home as well as your daily runner.
It carries a different risk profile.
Drivability | Some driving conditions are more difficult, if not impossible in a two-wheel drive. Muddy tracks and fields, soft gravel trails, sandy beaches, and winter conditions can all be a bit too much.
This can hamper your ability to reach some idyllic wild camping and boondocking locations.
Pros and cons of 4 wheel drive campers
Despite most places being accessible by road these days, there remains a sense that having a 4×4 capability in a camper van is important.
I fall into this school of thought too but even writing this post, can convince myself how necessary it is for the most part.
Pros of 4 Wheel Drive Campers
Drivability | In general, a 4×4 will allow you to handle driving in poor conditions with more ease than a 2wd.
The specification of the 4×4 camper determines just how capable the vehicle might be.
Not all 4x4s are created equal so do your research on diff locks, low ratio gearboxes, and automatic boxes before you buy.
Ground clearance | As I mentioned above, some 4×4 campers have a slightly lifted body, giving the wheels more room to maneuver.
This allows greater articulation of the axles so driving over rocky, uneven terrain is more possible.
Peace of mind | Having a 4×4 camper gives some peace of mind that you have a little extra capability in more challenging conditions.
We drove out of the Ibera wetlands in Argentina after days of torrential rain.
The once compact 80-kilometre sand track had become a treacherous muddy, slippery trail.
Our 4×4 Sprinter van handled it with ease. A 2wd Sprinter would have still managed, but far more slowly and with much more caution and driving skills.
Just don’t let that peace of mind become an inflated ego or misplaced confidence.
Cons of 4 wheel drive campers
Costs | A 4×4 camper carries a hefty upfront premium. If you want a buy a new vehicle, you can expect to get in line and wait months for your rig to roll off the production line.
Also read: How Much Does it Cost to Live in a Van?
Availability | Looking for a used 4×4 van? Then you’ll know decent 4-wheel drive campers are like hen’s teeth.
We were incredibly lucky to buy our 4×4 Sprinter. She was the 2nd last of a batch of 10 the British MOD had just released. Needless to say, they were all snapped up!
Maintenance | Some 4×4 vans need additional oil changes in the drive chain, adding a little to the maintenance costs.
Parts & repairs | If anything goes wrong with the 4×4 drive train you probably need specialists or manufacturer help to fix it and parts will probably be a special order.
Off-road driving | True, extreme off-road driving isn’t really the thing for camper vans.
The long body length means they just can’t compete with the capability of rock crawling SUVs like Jeeps, Land Rovers and Land Cruisers.
Misplaced confidence | Don’t make the mistake of thinking having a 4×4 means you’ll never get stuck and can drive through anything. It’s simply not the case!
You only need to read our post about when we almost rolled Mowgli, our camper in the high Atlas mountains in Morocco.
She was a Unimog – the ultimate 4×4 vehicle. And look where that got us! It was a perfect example of driver error.
So Do You Need a 4×4 Camper?
The short answer is no. The wrong answer is yes. And the best answer is it depends.
You can travel around the world without a 4×4 camper. Sure there will be times you wish you had one but it’s unlikely to prevent you from doing what you want.
It may take longer to reach your destination. You may need to take an alternative route. Hell you may even need to pay for a guide to get you somewhere on your bucket list.
But you don’t NEED a 4×4 camper.
If you think you need one, and you plan to live in it full time, I hope you mean you WANT one.
We spend the vast majority of our time, avoiding situations where we need the 4×4 capability. Such is the risk profile of driving your home around the world.
Then there are some places where 4×4 capability is needed more often than it’s not.
Driving in Africa is a good example.
It’s perfectly doable to circumnavigate the continent in a two-wheel drive. Not only have we met other travelers who have done it, you only need to look at what the locals are driving.
That’s usually 2-wheel drive, heavily laden and overloaded with passengers and livestock.
But having a four-wheel drive in some places opens up many more opportunities not possible in a 2-wheel drive.
For us, we wouldn’t consider a worldwide overland trip without it. But maybe I just can’t let go of my childhood dream.
What if You Can’t Afford a 4×4 or Just Can’t Find One?
With so few disadvantages of 2-wheel drive campers and so many advantages, it’s tempting to avoid the 4×4 altogether.
But what about missing out on those boondocking spots?
There are a few things you can do to mitigate this so a 2-wheel drive may be more palatable:
Modify the base vehicle | We don’t encourage you to add an after-market 4×4 because it costs an arm and a leg and won’t be as reliable as the manufactured version.
But you can upgrade tires, have winter tires for snow and ice driving or add diff locks, especially on a rear-wheel drive. Check out our article on modifying your build for more information.
Know your vehicle’s limitations | This applies regardless of whether you have a 2-wheel drive or 4-wheel drive van.
Learn to drive in poor conditions | Again, this applies to everyone regardless of the vehicle.
Reading the road ahead and knowing how to drive in sand, snow, and mud is critical. If you get stuck in a 2-wheel drive, you’ll have less traction than in a 4×4 to get yourself out.
Get a good 4×4 off-road recovery kit & know how to use it | In the event you do get stuck, having excellent self-recovery gear and skills can be a lifesaver.
When we almost rolled Mowgli, if it wasn’t down to my self-recovery knowledge, we’d have lost it.
Though it was my big ego that got us into that mess in the first place!
Our van Baloo is a Mercedes Sprinter 4×4 camper.
In over 30,000 km driving in South America, I can count on one hand were having a 4×4 capability made a difference.
The only time we ever felt glad of the 4×4 was the Laguna Route in southwest Bolivia – a 400+ kilometer off-road trail at over 4000 meters above sea level with deeply rutted tracks and soft sand.
Yet even then, we know of several 2wd VW drivers who made it in convoy helping each other.
And don’t just take my word for it.
Follow the advice of 80-year-old Jacques-Victor Mornai and his 40-year-old Citroen.
He’s done 350,000 km in Africa, Australia, and South America in a 2-wheel drive 3 horsepower 45-year-old Citroen!
Now that’s hardcore!
A Brief Glossary – What the 2wd and 4wd Jargon Means
2WD | Two-wheel drive. A 4-wheeled vehicle with two wheels driving but doesn’t specify whether they have front or rear driving wheels.
4X2 | Four wheels, two driving. Another way of saying 2WD.
4X4 | Four wheels, all driven.
AWD | All-wheel drive. All wheels drove so a 4×4 but they’re for on-road use as opposed to rough-terrain use.
Centre differential | Allows power to be passed to both the front and rear axle and allows for different speeds when cornering.
Centre differential lock | Ensures power is passed to each axle equally even if one axle is slipping.
Differential | Allows power to be applied to both wheels on an axle while allowing them to rotate at different speeds when cornering. It’s this feature that also allows wheels to slip on loose terrain and applies more power to the slipping wheel rather than the wheel with traction.
Differential Lock | Can be fitted to the rear and front driving axles, which when operated applies power to each wheel equally regardless if one wheel is slipping.
Electronic locking differential | Popular in more modern AWD vehicles and by using wheel speed sensors identifies slipping wheels and engages a gear to make all wheels turn at the same speed.
FWD | Front wheel drive. All FWDs are 2WD. Note it does not stand for four-wheel drive.
Independent Front Suspension (IFS) | A control arm with hub assembly driving both front wheels, allowing them to move up and down.
Limited-slip differential | Similar to the differential but increases the power going to the non-spinning wheel.
Low Box | An additional selection of gears that changes the drive ratio, usually giving higher torque so better for climbing hills but at slower speeds.
On-demand AWD | Drives mostly in 2WD for fuel efficiency but moves to AWD when onboard computers decide more traction is needed.
Part-time/ selectable 4×4 | Normally driven 2wd but can be changed into 4×4 for off road work
Permanent 4×4 | All 4 wheels drive all the time.
RWD | Rear-wheel drive. All RWDs are 2WD.
Solid front axle | The mechanisms for the front-wheel drive are encased in a stronger axle housing.
Traction control | Operates by applying the brake to a wheel when it senses it slipping. This redirects the power to the non-slipping wheel.
If this helped you know more about the difference between 2wd vs 4wd, consider checking out these other articles below –
- 12 Van Life Tips To Master Life On The Road From The Experts
- DIY Campervan Conversion | How to Convert a Van into a Camper
- 5 Best Camper Van Conversion Companies To Kit Out Your Rig
- How to Choose the Best Van for a Campervan Conversion
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Van life single Dad
Monday 11th of October 2021
I don't like the part where you say "the correct answer is no and the wrong answer is yes". You had the right answer when you said "it depends". Because it truly depends on where you are in the world, where you plan to be traveling, when you plan to be traveling there, AND where you plan to park. If you're in the USA and you plan to stay in the southern half during the winter and go to the Northern half during the summer and plan to park on concrete or well maintained gravel then the answer is NO. You don't need 4wd or AWD. But people like me who live in the Midwest and I'm not able to avoid the area during snow season, and I often park on public lands that don't get much human traffic. Snow plows don't often reach those areas until hours or days after the snowfall (not to mention I'm usually at least a mile into the fields) then the answer would be YES you need one. Let's face it. We aren't trying to go through mudding trails with our camper Vans nor are we trying to win any 4x4 competitions. But when road conditions get bad AND you're in a vehicle that has it's weight distributed in an odd way that can throw your van off balance in poor driving conditions then having a drivetrain better suited to maintain traction and control is ideal. I'm not trying to drive through lakes or rock climb or climb mountains in my camper van. But come winter in Nebraska when the roads are slick and/or snowy and my weekend to pick up my kids comes around, I want to have the traction to make it back to my apartment safely to switch out of my camper van or for my camper van to get my kids and I to my apartment safely.
Angela and Graham
Monday 11th of October 2021
I think we're agreeing with each other :-)
Cort R Johnson
Thursday 8th of July 2021
Good article. As someone who's been boondocking for almost 10 years in the Western US IN 2wd vehicles I agree. You don't need a 4wd.
We must be doing different things though. I regularly get stuck in my 2wd GMC van with a LSD. I've been stuck twice this month.
You name it I've gotten stuck in it- sand, mud, rocks. Despite the vans pretty good clearance I've gotten stuck on rocks several time.
I think I've had to pulled out 4xs but now have so much recovery gear that I can probably get out most situations. Altho i dont have a 4wd id love to get one and plan to. Safer and easier.
By the way. You cant get to most boondocking sites here via blacktop. Its dirt roads all the way..
Tuesday 29th of December 2020
wow! totally disagree with you ,yeh if your going to drive the world on tarmac no need for 4x4 ,Mmm till you hit snow ,or mud, or wet grass even. then some vehicles are alarming. i owned a vw t4 pickup truck and it was the worse vehicle iv ever owned in light snow ,mud ,wet grass.i put all terrain tyres, winter tyres, on it, better, but still didnt get me home many times, and had to be rescued in the snow by my wife in here little 4x4 fiat . off course if you are going to call off road a dry gravel road, well even a saloon car will get up there . but i think you are being a little bit misleading in what you say. especially where snow is concerned yea you can wait till the snow plough comes through , and yeh you will continue your journey but you will do it more safely with 4x4 or awd with there many options. in my opinion snow n sand are a totally game changer , and your comment about locals i also disagree with you ,in country's with heavy snow falls they drive mainly 4x4 or awd in the country side were the snow never clears . 40 years ago i traveled up the Alaskan highway in a 2wd saloon car it was summer it was not tarmacked .in winter that would be with no doubt absolutely impossible .but there again it tarmacked now but i still would not go up it in 2wd in winter
Thursday 19th of August 2021
@nigel clarke, if you're worried about snow in a 2wd then the simple answer is don't drive on snow. If you go looking for hard terrain that a 2wd won't be able to handle then you'll find it, but for 99.9% on the time you don't need 4wd and the other .1% you can avoid it. I'm always seeing 4x4 drivers in ditches on winter days because they overestimate what they can do with them.
Friday 11th of December 2020
One of the quickest ego-Deflators possible is to grind your way up an extreme four wheel drive track and get to the top to find an extended family complete with 2 dogs happily picnicking beside their tiny 2WD sedan (with 5" ground clearance when empty)
Angela and Graham
Friday 11th of December 2020
Quite right! And it's usually the roughest terrain you thought you'd need the 4x4 where the locals are lounging - probably sniggering at us 4x4 drivers! :-)