What’s Better for Camping: A Sprinter Van or Teardrop Trailer?
Most of the people I know who have a car camping vehicle of some sort are not satisfied with some aspect of it. If it’s a truck topper, they might hate putting it on and taking it off their rig. Or they don’t like towing a trailer and dealing with parking it. Or maybe they have a van and need more room for their growing family. If you don’t already own one of the choices out there, the number of solid options continues to expand, which makes researching them even more baffling. Nonetheless, the decision-making process about what to purchase can take a while. If you’re like me, it may never end.
My wife and I bought our 2006 Dodge T1N Sprinter with 64,000 miles on it in 2017 and named it Jean-Claude. It replaced my rusted but trusty 2002 Subaru Outback as my daily driver and Southern California surf rig. It also became our weekend escape pod. We used it to honeymoon in the Sierra and spent countless nights sleeping in the back on climbing trips in the desert. Last year, we used it to bring our then two-week-old daughter on her first camping trip.
The build is basic: a solar panel up top, LED lights lining the walls, 1/8-inch plywood finishing over recycled denim insulation, a Dometic fan, and a bed platform in the back. Because I use it for (now infrequent) driving around town, we’ve never installed a permanent and fully functioning kitchen. We use it to haul wood, bikes, and surfboards, so we like to be able to change the configuration quickly to meet our needs.
The main drawback is that we don’t have four-wheel drive. While we frequently take it down rough roads and have gotten to plenty of surprising places, we have to take it slower than I’d like. We have snow chains, and we’ve found with those that we can get away without studded tires and 4WD in Santa Fe.
That flaw—and general curiosity—is what initially piqued my interest in teardrops. If we were going to give up the van, a small trailer seemed like the next logical choice. You get the benefits of a passenger rig (off-road capability, comfort, 4WD) but have a tidy little camping setup right behind you. I made a list of pros and cons comparing the two, and it looked like a pretty close tossup. So, when we got the chance to try out the Meaner Bean from Bean Trailer and tow it with a 2017 Toyota Tacoma TRD Off Road on a long, COVID-style road trip this summer, we jumped at it. It was the perfect opportunity to see how a teardrop stacked up against our beloved Sprinter—and to see which was more comfortable for our family.
(Photo: Courtesy Will Taylor)
The T1N Sprinter has been great for our family. Because I was using it every day when we bought it and we were planning on many road trips, gas mileage was a big consideration. The five-cylinder engine and 26-gallon diesel gas tank gets between 21 and 26 miles per gallon, even when loaded for camping, which gets us great range (about 600 miles) when we’re on the road or in remote places.
The gas mileage while towing the Bean will, of course, depend on the vehicle hauling it, but with the Tacoma, we averaged about nine miles per gallon, which was a shock coming from the van. (The Meaner Bean weighs 2,000 pounds unloaded.) Our range was just over 200 miles, and we cut it close a couple times, pulling into small-town gas stations with very little fuel remaining.
The Sprinter is cavernous inside. We’ve taken many long weekend trips and numerous road trips in the seven-to-ten-day range and never had issues with storage, even when we’ve had climbing and surfing gear piled in there at the same time. It’s not always neat, but if we want to bring something, there’s no reason not to. If bikes are joining the party, we have a Kuat Sherpa 2.0 rack for the hitch. We love that everything can go inside when we’re parked in lonely lots. (The bikes go in the central area if we’re going to be gone for a long time.) Sure, Sprinters are big targets for thieves, but so are trailers, and we’ve been lucky so far.
There wasn’t nearly as much storage in the Bean, even with the truck bed (and with a wagon, like a Subaru Outback, there’d be even less). There were handy built-in shelves, kitchen sliders, and overhead space, but we maxed it out for a ten-day trip where we experienced cold and hot temps. The truck bed was full and so was the kitchen. It was like living on a sailboat, where everything has a place—a far cry from the wide-open interior of the van.
(Photo: Courtesy Bean Trailer)
As I mentioned above, driving Jean-Claude off-road leaves a lot to be desired. He’s rattly and rough, and despite the fact that we have All-Terrain T/A KO2s tires on it, we have to be thoughtful about where and when we go places. It would be very easy to get stuck in the mud or get pinned down by a snowstorm if we weren’t paying attention. Those limits are frustrating at times, for sure, and could be a deal breaker for some.
The Tacoma that we towed the Bean with is an extremely capable rig and was comfortable for the long road trip we took to Wyoming. As you would expect, it was far superior than the van once we left the pavement. We traversed many miles of extremely rutted and potholed Forest Service roads, crossed soft loamy terrain, and crawled up steep, loose desert hardscrabble. The Bean handled it all with aplomb; its articulating hitch, Timbren’s Axle-Less suspension (which allows each side to operate independently), and 15-inch steel wheels clad in Mickey Thompson Deegan 38 All-Terrain 235/75R15 tires gave us confidence to take it anywhere that we could get the Tacoma. It’s also made with a one-piece fiberglass shell, which gives more interior headroom than many other teardrops and should hold up to a lifetime spent on bumpy roads.
I grew up towing rafts and utility trailers, but when faced with the choice of towing or not towing, it’s easy: not towing is a much simpler proposition in almost all cases.
But the van comes with its own trade-offs. It has a 140-inch wheelbase, which fits in most regulation-size parking spots, and essentially drives like a truck. The turning radius is also impressive for such a sizable rig, which makes things easier in tight moments. That said, it’s tall and requires some thought to drive around. We’re always on the lookout for low branches and tend to park farther away in lots to avoid sticky situations. It’s also a sail in the wind, which is definitely scary when hauling down the freeway at 70 miles per hour. Despite that, I had no problems using it as a daily driver in Southern California.
One nice perk of towing something like the Bean is having the option to disconnect your trailer from your vehicle. This makes getting to trailheads, going on shopping trips, and driving around town easier. With the van, we have to make sure everything is squared away each time we want to go somewhere. With the Bean, your kitchen and bed can be locked and left for the day and will be ready to go as soon as you get back.
And for a trailer, the Bean has a very small footprint. It was easy to tow and straightforward to back up, and it didn’t feel like we were hauling a ship around everywhere we went. But you still have to tow something, which can be challenging and reduce your parking options. You also need a spot to park it at home when you’re not using it.
Once we got to camp, we loved the kitchen out the back of the Bean, accessible via a hatchback door. The whole setup was simple yet sturdy and provided everything we needed to make satisfying camp meals. The Partner Steel stove has reliable two-burner cooking power (20,000 BTUs) pulling from the exterior-mounted 20-gallon propane tank. When we were done, it folded up and slid under the counter. Same with the cooler drawer, which has an electric upgrade option ($599) that could be powered by a solar panel. (We just used a cooler and ice.) The 18-gallon water tank made access to water simple.
We loved that the kitchen was outdoors and wouldn’t stink up the interior with cooking smells. We figure camping’s about being outside anyway, especially if you live in the Southwest like we do. However, if you do most of your camping in rainy climates, this is something to keep in mind.
We cook outside in the van, too, and that requires us pulling out our small table, setting it up, and then popping our two-burner on there. Easy, but not as elegant or robust as the Bean’s setup. But we do also have the option of cooking inside if things get really nasty. Of course, many people have full kitchens inside their vans.
(Photo: Courtesy Bean Trailer)
The Bean and Jean-Claude are neck-and-neck in terms of providing a good night’s sleep. In the van, we have a raised queen-sized plywood platform with a memory foam folding mattress on top. It’s very cozy and has delivered countless nights of good sleep. The rooftop fan provides airflow and cooling, while the LEDs give off plenty of light.
The Bean features a fold-up futon for the bed that can be used to create an indoor seating area around a stowable table if the weather goes south. It sets up quickly and is quite cozy with the fan on for ventilation. One cool additional feature in our Meaner Bean was a hanging cot for our daughter that essentially acted like a low hammock. Two rods with a piece of canvas between them slipped quickly into metal slots to the aft of the cabin. She was suspended right above our legs and slept cozily within arm’s reach. This setup worked well for our family of three but would be cramped with four, as one of the kids would have to sleep down below with the parents.
Finally, there’s the cost. The 2017 Tacoma cost $33,000 new. (You can find good deals on used ones, but they hold their value extremely well—a ten-year-old truck could still cost you $25,000.) The Meaner Bean starts at $20,950 before additions. That’s $54,950 to start. We bought our van for $25,000—which was a good deal—and except for maintenance costs, we haven’t spent much more than that. Of course, buying used is particular to the individual vehicle you purchase, but with enough scouring of the web, you might just find your dream rig. It’s also worth noting that 2021 Sprinters start at $36,355, with custom camping builds (kitchen, bathroom, lighting, storage, etc.) often starting in the $30,000 range, so if you’re thinking of going new, the cost difference between van and teardrop goes down or can easily break in favor of the Bean. You may also already own the ideal vehicle for towing a trailer of this size.
We loved the Bean. It was fun and easy to use, and our then 11-month-old enjoyed having what was essentially an enclosed playpen to bounce around in during our frequent stops and in camp. I was particularly smitten with the ability to drive relatively fast and comfortably on unruly roads.
But for our needs, the van is still doing the trick—we’re not rushing out to purchase a teardrop and a vehicle to tow it anytime soon. Jean-Claude has plenty of room for our family, and we like that we can change it to meet our needs. Plus, we’re not ready to invest more in a camping setup when we already have one we like. What’s right for you will depend on your priorities and financial situation. If off-road capability is your number one priority, a teardrop trailer like the Meaner Bean would be a great option.
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Lead Photo: Courtesy Bean Trailer