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 pick ups or vans expecting to carry heavy loads. Generally, they handle better too because the front wheel only have 1 job – to steer.
This is why sports cars are often rear wheel drive.
All 4 wheels 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 centre diff locks and low range gear boxes 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 travelling 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 where 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 4×4’s 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 black top. 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 4×4 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 2wd vs 4wd vans so you can decide for yourself.
Pros and cons of 2 wheel drive campers
There’s not many places in the world you can’t get to on black top road these days.
You can even drive from London to Timbuktu on 2 or 3 lane highways except for a short 5 kilometre 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 market place 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 have 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 2wd camper just won’t be upto 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 2wd. 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 gear boxes 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 manoeuvre.
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 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.
Availability | Looking for a used 4×4 van? Then you’ll know decent 4wd 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 specialist or manufacturers 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!
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 2wd. Not only have we met other travellers who have done it, you only need look at what the locals are driving.
That’s usually 2 wheel drive, heavily laden and overloaded with passengers and livestock.
But having a 4wd in some places opens up many more opportunities not possible in a 2wd.
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’s a few things you can do to mitigate this so a 2wd may be more palatable:
Modify the base vehicle | We don’t encourage you to add 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 tyres, 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 2wd or 4wd 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 2wd, 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 life saver.
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 kms driving in South America, I can count on one hand where 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+ kilometre off road trail at over 4000 metres above sea level with deep 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 kms in Africa, Australia and South America in a 2wd 3 horse power 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 driven 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 rear and front driving axles, that 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 which 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 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.
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