Planning a road trip of Australia? Or looking for a new weekend adventure-mobile? First thing you’ve gotta decide is what vehicle to get? Van or 4WD. Jon’s mad about his van and Conor can’t live without his Troopy, so which is better?
Come And Join The Vanlife // Jon Harris
I’m a self-confessed van fan. My van love affair began when I needed to purchase a vehicle for my then startup photography business. I definitely had work based criteria which the van ticked, but I’ll admit – the decision was heavily influenced by a recent relocation to the coast. Surfboards, and mountain bikes needed to fit, and the idea of road trippin’ with a one-stop-shop was mighty appealing.
I settled on a 2004 T5 Transporter. I love that it has sliding doors on both sides – great for access, layout flexibility and especially as a camper. I designed and installed a platform and storage system which, while reasonably basic, is perfectly designed for my needs (I knew that engineering degree had to come in handy for something…)
Here’s what I’ve come to love about my van after some extended missions up north, around Tassie, and countless cheeky overnighters.
Vans Have Space and Layout Options
A van physically has more space inside than a 4WD, period. How you use that space is up to you (or potentially the crafty van-lifer who kitted out the rig you purchased second hand).
There’s an infinite number of ways to approach a van fit-out – there’s so much more flexibility in this regard compared to what a traditional 4WD offers. A well-designed van interior can be basic or luxurious. It can be flexible and modular or designed to suit a single purpose extremely well.
You can keep as much headroom as possible, or build in a heap of storage and other functionality, like a camp kitchen and fridge. You can spend a bomb, or you can do a budget DIY job. Point is, your list of options is longer than my – well, it’s long.
All this space leads me to my next point…
Vans Allow For Creature Comforts
Tonnes of space leads to a more comfortable camping experience. No more folding the seats down to cram and squeeze into unnatural positions for a kip.
Once again, you can run your comfort in one of two ways. Fancy a simple, minimalist fit-out that allows you to stretch out fully? Done. Or do you like to camp, but also enjoy your creature comforts? Just design in a few more amenities in the space available so you can enjoy your gourmet camp cuisine. The flexibility of the space allows you to tailor a van to your preferences.
For me, comfort equals the ability to camp (or road trip) for longer. You actually begin to enjoy pulling in at your next stop, instead of stopping for another coffee because you slept like crap the night before.
Don’t forget the essentials as well: 6 Road Trip Essentials Learnt From a Week in a Tiny Van
Vans Offer Insulation and Privacy
Sure, a good DIYer can have a go at making some covers to block all the windows in a 4WD for a bit of privacy. But nothing beats a van for the ability to insulate against temperature and noise, along with privacy.
I’ve seen some epic van fit-outs which include full insulation in the floors, walls and ceiling, that’s then lined with timber boards for a wicked finish.
Vans Have Minimal Setup
Now obviously there’s a caveat to this one, as there are clearly some pretty elaborate van setups out there that require a fair bit of setup once you arrive at camp.
But my van camping approach is pretty minimal. Like, pull-up-at-your-site-and-that’s-it minimal. I’m too keen to get out and explore, or go for a surf! No faffing around with camper trailers, caravans, tents or rooftop campers for me. I mean, if you pull in somewhere late, you literally don’t even need to get out. Park, crawl through to the back under the doona and turn the lights out. Cheerin’!
Vans Are Built to Last
I’m talking about vans in the same class as my VW Transporter, which is a commercial-grade vehicle – not just any old people mover with the seats ripped out. These vans are designed to run for ages and clock up some serious kilometres on the speedo. My van is fast approaching 500,000km and still going strong.
It’s definitely nice to know that once you get your rig all kitted out, it will last you for years of adventuring.
Vans Have Better Fuel Economy and Running Costs
Fuel economy in a van is generally better than a 4WD. 4WDs are really a specialist vehicle – powerful engines designed for tough off-roading, dirty big grippy tyres – all awesome traits, but also very thirsty traits.
Keep in mind that if you opt for a 4WD or AWD van model, then your fuel economy will reduce too!
As a general rule, you’ll also find that a van is lighter on the bank account when it comes to running costs. Due to the specialist nature of 4WDs, they naturally can cost more to service and maintain (e.g. the price of tyres), keep fuelled up and insure.
Of course, there are exceptions to every rule and this point will be highly dependant on the make, model and age of whichever vehicle you’re considering.
Yeah, Nah, 4WDs Are Better // Conor Moore
At the start of 2018 my girlfriend Kate and I decided that we were going to take time off work to travel around Australia. One of the major decisions we needed to make was what our weapon of choice was going to be – a van or 4WD.
We’re avid outdoors people and needed a vehicle that could support us off-grid for extended periods, while being reliable and able to get us to the places we wanted to explore. It wasn’t until less than three months before we were due to leave when I stumbled across our dream car on Gumtree.
It was a 2006 Toyota Landcruiser HZJ78 Troop Carrier. It’d been converted into a camper by KEA with a pop-top, fridge, cupboards and tables all installed. Before our trip, we added some homely features like new curtains and cushion covers, along with safety features like a UHF radio, light bar, reversing camera and beefed-up suspension. Other features like dual long-range fuel tanks, built-in water tank and an Engel fridge are what makes the ‘Super Trooper’ our perfect go-anywhere, home on wheels.
I think 4WDs and Australia go together like beers and a BBQ. Here’s why:
4WDs Can Access (Almost) Anywhere
This is the holy grail. The key reason we decided to go with a 4WD. Australia is an enormous country with its population and infrastructure heavily concentrated on the coasts and in major cities. In the ‘bush’ however is where the real adventures are to be had, and the best of the best are only accessible with a 4WD.
Being so huge, the Australian environment changes dramatically and a versatile vehicle is necessary to cope. Up north you’ll encounter the muddy and dusty Old Telegraph Track, through the middle there’s the barren and sandy Simpson Desert, and even on the coast there are places like Fraser Island to be explored. Then down south the slippery ice and snow through the Victorian High Country is its own wonderland.
For us the ability to access the ‘middle of nowhere’, where there’s no one in sight and the Milky Way glistens overhead, is why we need a 4WD. The landscapes, wildlife and people in the country – though sometimes few and far between – are an easy trade-off for the comforts of a van.
Half the fun of travelling in a 4WD is getting to where you’re going! I love being able to jump out, deflate the tyres, lock the hubs and engage 4WD, knowing that we’re in for one hell of a bumpy ride. 4WDrivers will know what I’m talking about, but for those who aren’t acclimated, bouncing along a sandy beach or slipping and sliding up a muddy hill is simultaneously exhilarating, frustrating and scary… but I love it! What’s the old saying? Life’s not about the destination but about the journey? Well, I think that’s just as relevant to travelling as it is to life.
4WDs Are Built Tough
4WDs are made to be durable. My Troopy has front and rear solid axle suspension and leaf springs – designed to maintain clearance on rough tracks and carry heavy loads. Compare this to independent suspension and coil springs that are designed for a smooth ride, there’s no comparison for which is strongest.
The 1HZ engine that’s in my Troopy is famous for its longevity – I can expect it to reach one million kilometres if I look after it right. On the Troop Carriers of Australia Facebook page some boast up to 1.5 million kilometres.
4WDs Can Tow Stuff
If you’re looking to travel with a caravan or tow a trailer you’re gonna need extra grunt. Every car can have a tow ball fitted to it, but the difference is when you pull up to stop sign on a steep hill with your load behind you.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve met a Canadian couple who tow a trailer with vegetable oil behind their van to save money. But they were very limited to where they could go – not even carparks! On the flipside, there are heaps of 4WD trailers and caravans available that can be taken to the most remote part of the country with a skilled driver.
4WDs are Safer in Remote Areas
Kangaroos are cute, but they have a knack for hanging out next to highways and jumping right out in front of you when you’re travelling at 100 big ones. Safety features like bullbars and the engine space between you and the roo can be lifesavers.
Keeping clear of 4WD tracks in your van doesn’t guarantee that you’ll never get bogged either – unexpected rain on dirt, or particularly clay, tracks can turn them to mush. 4WD features might save you from sitting on the side of the road waiting for someone to come, and in places like in Western Australia this can be weeks!
Read more: The Outback Way Road Trip Survival Guide
So, should I get a 4WD or a Van?
At the end of the day, choosing between a 4WD and a van to travel Australia really comes down to what you consider important and what you’ve got planned for your adventures. Check out our Road Trip Survival Guide to nut out your priorities so you can make the best decision for your trip. Seeya on the road!
Feature photo by @mitch.cox