Diesel vs Gas For Truck Camper Rigs: Which is Better?

So you’re interested in buying a pickup truck to haul a truck camper, but aren’t sure whether to get one with a diesel or a gas engine. You’re not alone. Many have struggled with or are currently struggling with the same decision. There are pros and cons associated with each. The key is determining exactly how and where the truck will be used, how long it will be owned, your budget, and what kind of payload rating you need. Unfortunately, some truck camper owners have already made the wrong choice and are having to live with their mistake. With a new pickup costing anywhere between $35,000 and $90,000, it’s an expensive error to make. It’s best to make the right choice first before signing the dotted line. That’s the purpose of this article. Using nine decision points, this article takes a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each engine type in order to help you, the consumer, make a better and more informed decision.

1. Acquisition Cost

Advantage: Gasoline

Diesel engines are significantly more expensive than gas engines. For three-quarter-ton and one-ton trucks the cost for a diesel is approximately $8,000, while the gas engine falls within the $1,000 to $2,000 price range. Why is the diesel engine more expensive? Primarily, because it needs to be built more robustly with thicker cylinder walls and stronger and more durable cylinder heads, valves, crankshafts, and pistons. These beefier components are needed to withstand the extreme stresses and high heat found in diesel engines. Not only that, but diesel pickups require a stronger and more expensive transmission to handle all that extra torque and specialized turbochargers and emission control equipment that add additional cost. Yes, it’s true that diesels provide better fuel economy to offset that additional cost, but it may take 160,000 miles before the fuel cost benefit makes up for the initial purchase price.

2. Fuel Economy

Advantage: Diesel

Gas engines are benefiting from several new technologies such as direct-injectors, cylinder deactivation, variable valve timing, and turbocharging, but diesel-powered pickups still provide better fuel economy with an advantage between 30 to 35 percent. For example, a gasoline-powered one-ton truck hauling a 3,000 pound truck camper at 60 mph, will typically get 9 to 10 mpg, while a similar size truck with a diesel engine doing the same speed will easily achieve 14 mpg. Of course, those mileage figures will vary, depending on the terrain (like driving in the mountains), but the mileage gap between the two won’t. A final point worth considering is that Ford, Ram, and Chevy all offer an additional diesel fuel tank as an option, which can significantly increase the operating range of a diesel pickup truck even more.

3. Fuel Costs per Gallon

Advantage: Gasoline

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average price for a gallon of gas in Nov. 2016 was $2.18, while an average gallon of diesel was $2.44. Historically, diesel fuel has averaged about 14 cents more per gallon than regular unleaded gasoline. This varies, of course, as market prices fluctuate. Sometimes a gallon of diesel can be purchased for less than a gallon of regular gasoline, but since 2003, this has been the exception rather than the rule. Another benefit with regard to gasoline is that every filling station offers it, unlike diesel, which can be hit or miss. Indeed, sometimes it can be difficult locating a filling station that carries it. This can result in wasted time (and fuel) trying to find one. This is why diesel owners should never let their tank get lower than half full while on an outing in unfamiliar territory.

4. Maintenance and Repair

Advantage: Even

It’s a myth that diesel engine maintenance is more costly than gasoline engines. That may have been so back in the ’80s and ’90s, but not anymore. Sure, an oil change for a diesel can get pretty pricey (the typical diesel requires 12 quarts of oil), but improvements in diesel particulate technology have extended the oil change interval for the Cummins 6.7L engine from every 7,000 miles to every 15,000 miles (some warranties require shorter intervals between oil changes, so this should be kept in mind before scheduling maintenance). It’s true that the water separator and fuel filters in a diesel will require replacement more often, and that you’ll need to periodically drain the engine’s water-separation bins, but this is offset by the fact that diesels don’t require things like spark plugs and ignition tune-ups. Overall, the reliability and longevity of the diesel make the investment in money and time worth it. It fact, the reliability of the diesel is a major asset. Catastrophic hard-part failures are pretty rare during the life of a typical diesel.

5. Emissions

Advantage: Gasoline

Government regulations on emissions have made things tough on automakers, this is especially true for vehicles equipped with diesels. In 2010, the EPA imposed strict diesel emission regulations, requiring the use of an automotive grade of urea or diesel exhaust fluid (DEF) to “scrub” nitrogen oxide (NOx) from the exhaust. This fluid reduces NOx emissions by as much as 90 percent, and near-zero levels can be achieved when used in combination with diesel particular filter technology. It’s true that having to fill the urea tank on a regular basis—an 8 gallon tank lasts about 4,000 miles—is an inconvenience, but the pros for cleaner air outweigh the cons. The “regen mode,” which is used to periodically clean the diesel particulate filters by over-fueling for a short period of time to raise the temperature of the exhaust system, is another inconvenience. While it can have a negative impact on fuel economy and power, most drivers won’t even know this is taking place, it’s still something diesel owners should be aware of.

6. Payload

Advantage: Gasoline

The typical diesel engine weighs about 800 pounds more than a gasoline engine. This results in a corresponding reduction in a truck’s payload capacity. Now 800 pounds may not sound like much, but when it comes to payload, every pound matters. Because of this, consumers interested in getting a diesel and hauling a truck camper should set their sights on a one-ton pickup truck, like a Chevy 3500 or a Ford F-350, rather than a half-ton or three-quarter-ton. The penalty in payload for having a diesel is simply too large for lower rated pickup trucks. This is especially true if you’re interested in hauling a moderately equipped hard-side truck camper. Fully loaded, that truck camper will weigh approximately 3,000 pounds. The only three-quarter-ton pickups with payloads that high are gasoline-powered.

7. Horsepower and Torque

Advantage: Diesel

White Rim Trail - Truck Camper Adventure

Torque is where the diesel engine really shines. For example, the Cummins 6.7L turbo diesel can deliver a whopping 900 foot pounds of torque, while the 6.4L V8 HEMI is limited to just 429 foot pounds. It’s true that the gasoline engine delivers more peak horsepower—410 horsepower for the 6.4 L HEMI compared to 385 horsepower for the Cummins 6.7L—but the gap between the two engine types is pretty insignificant and closing fast. There’s no doubt about it, if you plan on hauling a truck camper in mountainous terrain or plan on towing a large boat, jeep, or utility trailer, then you’ll want to get a diesel. There’s simply no comparison between the two, especially when climbing difficult 6 percent mountain grades.

8. Noise, Vibration, and Harshness (NVH)

Advantage: Slight edge to Gasoline

Ram 3500, Northstar Laredo, White Canyon, AZ - Truck Camper Adventure

For years diesels rightfully suffered from a bad rap for being excessively noisy, smoky, and smelly. Indeed, in the ’80s and ’90s you couldn’t hold a conversation next to a teeth-rattling diesel nor stand anywhere near the exhaust without feeling light-headed and gasping for air. Clouds of smoke during startup were pretty commonplace, too. Fortunately, things are much different now. Advances in fuel injection, emission, and common-rail technologies have brought the two engines types to a near equal footing. Vibration and harshness standards in diesels have been improved, too, enough that diesel engines can be found not only in commercial vehicles, but also in many luxury cars. In fact, when it comes to NVH, the two engine types are almost indistinguishable today, with the characteristic diesel “rattle” being the most obvious difference.

9. Engine Longevity

Advantage: Diesel

It’s no secret that diesel engines last longer than gasoline engines—600,000 miles for a diesel is pretty common. Why is this? Because, as was explained earlier, diesels require a beefier engine block and stronger more durable cylinder heads, valves, crankshaft, and pistons. These sturdier parts are necessary to dissipate the higher engine temperatures and higher compression ratios found inside of them. Not only that, but the exhaust produced by diesel engines is less corrosive. All of this results in a truck and engine that will last longer and have a better resale value than their gasoline-powered counterparts. If your plans include keeping your pickup truck for only a couple of years then I would skip the diesel and buy a gasser. On the other hand, if your plans include putting a lot of miles on your truck and keeping it for many years, then a diesel will serve you better and save you more money in the long run.

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About Mello Mike 354 Articles
Mello Mike is an Arizona native, author, and the founder of Truck Camper Adventure. He's been RV'ing since 2002, is a Jeep and truck camper enthusiast, and has restored several Airstream travel trailers. He currently owns a 2013 Ram 3500 with a 2016 Northstar Laredo solar powered truck camper mounted on top. He enjoys college football, hiking, travel, off-roading, photography, and fishing. He retired from the U.S. Navy in 2004 as a CWO3 after 24 years and now works as a project manager for a major banking and security firm. He also does some RV consulting and RV inspections on the side.

3 Comments

  1. I have owned 5 Dodge Ram diesels with everything from the 5,speed manual , 2 wheel drives, 4 wheel drives, 12 valve, 24valve, HPCR 5.9l, and the 48RE transmission. I loved all the trucks for their economy on fuel and their enjoyment of hearing a nice Cummins doing what it does best. When it came to buying my latest truck I bought in 2016, it ended up being a Ram 3500 SRW Chassis Cab with the 6.4L Hemi and the Aisin transmission. The truck has 4:44 gear ratio and I can tell you the following; 12-14 mpg empty, 15mpg on nice rides, 10-11 mpg with Lance 9000 Squire or Camplite 10.0 on the truck at 60-65 mph. With the standard 52 gallon fuel tank 475-500 mile tanks are the norm for me. The Aisin is the right transmission to own and I feel it is far superior to all the other automatics I’ve had in these trucks. I have a 9 ft aluminum flatbed and the extra storage space is heaven sent. I put Rickson 19.5 wheels and Continental tires for extra safety margins. These new tires have added about 1-1.5 mpg so things are looking up!
    No worries about idling, no worries about DEF, no worries about emmisions. When I see the diesel pickups pass me on long climbs I know I could pour it on with the Hemi and put in an impressive run but I don’t want to waste the fuel.
    I would highly recommend this truck as configured or if you get the pickup with the Chrysler transmission, get the 4:10 gears. It will make a big difference in how it performs with the camper on.
    Do I miss the diesel… Only in my memories, this gas combo is doing more than the marketing hype has promised.
    We are truck camper people, a bit unique, a bit frugal. We are not in any race to get anywhere, the ride is just as much part of the journey as the destination. Regardless of what make or engine choice you make, get out there and use it while you can, life really is short.

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