Tiny Houses vs. Campers & Trailers: Which Is Better?

Blue and white tiny house with red lawn furniture outside

Danielle Rice / Unsplash

There's been a bit of a debate going on in "tiny" living circles about which is better: tiny houses built from scratch, or customized trailers and campers that have been retrofitted for full-time living. It's a lively discussion, and here on TreeHugger we are pretty neutral about it, having showcased both amazing tiny homes as well as renovated vintage campers and custom-built new trailers that have been designed to operate off the grid. But for those who are thinking of downsizing or on a budget, but still haven't decided which way to go, it's worthwhile to take a look at both camps.

Why tiny houses are better

1. They look like a house. For many who choose to go the tiny house path, this kind of structure looks more like what you might think a house might look like, only smaller. It's a matter of aesthetics, and for some, this is important. According to many tiny house advocates, a tiny home can feel more solid, well-built, spacious and permanent, and that can make all the difference for someone who's going to downsize to something less than 300 square feet. "We didn’t want to feel like we were on an interminable camping trip," says Carrie of Clothesline Tiny Homes.

2. Tiny homes are more weatherproofed. Tiny homes are generally better insulated and winterproofed than campers, since they are custom-built from the ground up. Owners can choose what kind of insulation and heating and cooling options suit them and their local climate, whereas RVs are generally not built to be lived in during the winter (though of course, one could tow it somewhere warm).

3. Choice of non-toxic materials. One can choose the materials and finishes that one wants in a custom-made tiny house. Finishes could be chosen for their low-VOC characteristics, especially for those with chemical sensitivities. We know a chemical-free tiny house can be built; this is near-impossible in a mass-manufactured RV.

4. Customization, customization. Tiny homes come in all shapes, sizes, builds and aesthetics. To date, we've seen modernist gems and those inspired by Japanese culture (tea house, a grand 280 square-footer), old rustic caravans, and aspects of Moroccan culture or gothic architecture. The list goes on.

Why campers and recreational vehicles are better

1. They are more mobile. RVs are made to be moved; they are built with lightweight materials and in an aerodynamic form, whereas tiny homes are much, much heavier and made to be moved very infrequently.

2. Building codes, insurance -- the legal stuff. In many places, tiny homes occupy a bit of a grey area -- they are often built as workarounds to local codes and regulations, and can be difficult to insure as such. But there are places where the rules may allow for legally living in a tiny home, and where it could potentially be hooked up to municipal services. The key here is to do your research, and to find creative solutions. In contrast, RVs are pretty straightforward in terms of getting insurance for one, and there appears to be a relatively larger community of people who live full-time in their RVs who can share their experience.

3. A vintage camper might be much more affordable to buy as a fixer-upper. For those who are on a budget, buying a used, older camper to renovate may be the way to go -- we've seen some lovely examples re-built with salvaged materials, and built as off-grid homes too.

4. They can blend in. It's the flip side of the coin: tiny homes are made to be distinctive, while RVs can blend in quite well, especially if they are the modified van camper type (handy if you are parking around).

Best of both worlds

We've even seen hybrids, where trailers have been converted into what looks like a typical tiny home on wheels. But what may be the defining line may be how these homes operate, as Treehugger's Lloyd Alter wrote about in an article about a customized tiny home that still needs hookups:

"One of the problems I am wrestling with is the definition of a tiny home vs a camper trailer. This unit is not self-sufficient and needs a trailer park hookup to live; others have the complete gear for self-sufficiency, from solar panels to composting toilets. Most of these are built on chassis with wheels to get around building regulations (It's not a home, it's an RV!) but depend on the kindness of strangers or friends for a place to park. This continues to be the unresolved."

Perhaps then, the lines between a custom-built tiny home and a camper/trailer/RV aren't so cut and dried. In the end, it's a matter of what one's individual needs and future plans are, and all these homes are smaller, more efficient than the norm.