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. You’re not alone. Many have struggled with or are currently struggling with the same decision. Diesel and gas engines offer several positives and negatives. 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 $70,000, 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 robust 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 combustion. Diesel pickups also 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 299 Articles
Mello Mike is an Arizona native, author, and the founder of Truck Camper Adventure Magazine. He's been RV'ing since 2002, is a truck camper and Jeep enthusiast, and has owned and restored several Airstream travel trailers. 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.

21 Comments

  1. one thing not mentioned is the new Diesel Exhaust Fluid (DEF) that the new diesel engines require. Add another $2.95 per gallon to your refueling bill if can find it at a gas station. Best bet is at a major brand truck stop.

  2. Wow, now I’m really conflicted. I plan to either purchase a Northstar 850 pop up or a hard side in the dry weight range of 2000 pounds. Either way, I want a pickup with at least 3300 payload capacity. I am concerned about fuel mileage and the ability to get off pave roads and explore more remote areas. I definitely plan to travel in mountainous areas and want enough torque to get up some serious grades without worrying about the ability to maintain enough speed to keep up with traffic. I’m considering a new Ford F-250 with the 6.2 gas or a Ram 3500 with a diesel. I know the Ram 3500 diesel will easily handle my needs. If I go with the Northstar 850 pop-up, I’m hoping a crew cab Ford 4×4 with the 6.2 gas can handle it with ease. Not so sure about it handling a hard side with a much larger profile and increased weight. All the pickup testing on the web/YouTube is focused on towing capability. If anyone can share their experience with a later model F-250 4×4 6.2 gas carrying a hard side truck camper with a wet weight up to 3300 pounds is appreciated. In particular the MPGs you get and how well it gets up mountain grades. Thanks.

    • Which hard side camper are you looking at? Wolf Creek and the smaller Northern Lite should be fine on a 3/4 ton but Arctic Fox and Eagle Cap are really heavy and would need at the least a one ton truck.

      If you want a 3300 pound payload then a 3/4 ton truck is cutting it close.

  3. You paid more up front. Up to $10,000.00 more. So hopefully you get some of that extra money back. May I suggest you read Mike’s review on the 2011 Ford F-250 gasser. I believe he hit the nail on the head. On a side note. Today a friend shared his experience with me. It was his fault. But I’ll share anyway. He put the DEF fluid in the gas by accident. He just turned the key but did not start truck when he realized the error. To late. $11000.00 in repairs. . just saying. Look I ride a Harley. Why cause I love Harleys. It’s emotional. Emotionally people love diesels. But lets be real. Devil is in the details. Cheers!

  4. You left out one important comparo: Resale value. BIG increase diesel over gasoline. Huge demand!

  5. Friends, I had to comment. I spend a lot of time with trucks (construction & RV’ing)
    Very & I mean very few people can justify a diesel. They are just too much hassle & too expensive. I will assume for this opinion that we all do the required maintenance on our trucks. For example one could say that I do not bother finishing the cleaning exhaust (regen) cycle. I just turn the truck off. Well that will impact sensors & DPF (new DPF approx. $2000.00) down the road. Pay me now or pay me later (& pay me more later).
    Initial cost of diesel ($8000.00 – $10000.00)
    Extra maintenance cost on Diesel ($500.00 per year)
    Add DEF cost (here you need to be real.. they don’t last 800 miles)
    Diesel fuel cost more
    Add (if you care about this huge investment) Cetane boost additive for your fuel
    When the cleaning exhaust comes on it will take approximately 20 minute to complete the regen cycle. More times than not it happens just as you are arriving home. If you care, now you go for a drive. About 15 – 20 miles. Add this cost. Call $3.00 – $5.00 in fuel. Depending on the truck & usage this could be a weekly occurrence. This happens even with the DEF.
    The DEF, Cetane boost, regen running cycle & higher cost of Diesel fuel adds much more cost that is NOT saved by the extra 2-3 MPG you get over a gas truck.
    So far all this sound like fun?
    Hold on..
    Now for the MPG.
    You just have to wonder about Diesel owners on the forums telling you they get 18-20 MPG.
    I have owned & talked to a lot of owners. NO ONE gets those MPG.
    With all due respect. This is one of the biggest lie’s in the Diesel world.
    60 mile per hour with no load at all gets me 15 MPG. Yes all my trucks are stock. After market gizmos will not save you money. If a Diesel truck could get 20 MPG safely don’t you think the BIG 3 manufactures would advertise this? Buy our new 2017 one ton truck & get 20 MPG. Better yet I have heard people say (on forums) they get 30 MPG. Really? These gizmos will burn up your injectors + other neat things.. Enough said.
    Diesel real numbers are ..City 12/13 MPG: With a Truck Camper at 60 MPH I can keep the 13 MPG range. If I start to drive 65/70 MPH drops down to 10 MPG.
    Now for the longevity. Yes they can last if you maintain them. It’s all in the maintenance.
    Many Diesels have hit the graveyard at 150k miles.
    Now if you break down with a Diesel while out with the TC (here is where it’s more fun).
    You don’t know if it is an engine problem, a sensor or computer issue. So now you have to get towed to someone that has a Diesel mechanic. Depending where you are. Good luck!
    Compare this to a GAS Truck.
    Bottom line gas truck engines last almost as long as Diesel if well maintained.
    You do not have any of the above issues.
    Gas truck will get you about 10 MPG with a TC… Worse case with a TC 8MPG
    At 60 MPH.. you get 10 MPG all day long.
    Unloaded a gas truck will get you (city driving) 12 MPG (yup just like the Diesel)
    Break down with Gas truck. You can find mucho folks that can work on it.
    Oil change? Bring it to any oil change shop.
    The two biggies for justifying a Diesel is longevity & MPG. And those two biggies do not exist.
    If your truck is also a daily driver. The gas version will be a blessing.
    On a side note.. take the $10,000.00 I saved & if I get 4% that gives me $400.00 in free fuel per year. Yeepee!
    Even if you gas truck got 5 MPG less( and it doesn’t) … because of the all the extra cost of the Diesel ownership you are still ahead with a Gas truck.
    Maybe if all you do is haul a TC. Haul big trailers. And do 40k ++ miles per year. Sure consider a Diesel. But really crunch the numbers. Devil is in the details. Diesels are hard to justify financially & they are a bigger PITA (pain in the A**) to own.
    Even Diesel fuel is not as readily available.
    Save the irritation and buy Gas.

    • While at liberty to choose what one wants, the real metric is COST PER MILE vs. application. If your pulling above 13k pounds on a daily basis and can write off as business expense, buy diesel.

      Pull below 13k pounds, gas does the job as well, is cleaner and follow the maintenance schedule, today’s engines will last as long as a diesel.

    • I completely agree. After two years of research studying the pros and cons of diesel vs gas, I chose the gas engine for my 2017 dually pickup to haul a 3000 lb camper. Yes, a heavy dually. I couldn’t be happier. And it will give me many years of hassle free driving. The honest diesel owners will say that in most circumstances, the diesels aren’t worth the extra costs. And yes, the new emission controls have made them less reliable.

  6. I see you swam into shark infested waters with this article, it’s much like Ford vs Dodge vs GM.
    To me if you are a person that buys new vehicle every few years then its a gasoline engine other wise if your like me, who keep their vehicle till they fall apart a diesel is the way to. A diesel engine in a long term investment.

    During our 2015 Summer Journey we covered over 16,000 miles and not once did we have a problem getting diesel and the DEF ( if you need it) fluid was sold everywhere the diesel was sold.

  7. For the peppers in the group; one interesting thing when I worked for FEMA, unleaded was gone, gone, gone during natural disasters like hurricane Katrina. Lots of diesel available though…

  8. Gasoline wins most of the categories but diesel wins the important categories. Gas may be cheaper but you get more mpg with diesel and even if a diesel truck is more expensive than a gas truck diesels last longer. You get what you pay for.

  9. Mike another great report and comparison. I will never go back to a Gas engine. If I could have gotten diesel in my Jeep we would have bought one.
    Semper Fi

  10. Item 3. While regular unleaded is cheaper than Diesel it comes down to what grade gasoline you need to use. My wife just bought a 2016 GMC Yukon with the 6.0L engine and according to the dealer premium unleaded should be used, and premium is more than Diesel, at least at all the stations I use here in CO.
    Item 4. I would say that with modern gas engines this would go to gas. Primarly because of the amount of oil that is required for a Diesel and now the requirement for the use of DEF (this could be put under item 3) for Diesel emissions.
    Personally I have a modified 2003 short bed Dodge Ram 2500 with a 6 speed manual transmission and a Lance 825 camper that I pull a car hauler with either a “77 IH Scout or ATV’s with regularly and can still I pass can still going over mountain passes. There is no substitute for the power and torque of a Diesel.

  11. It’s pretty much a wash. Gasoline burns cleaner—about 15 percent more, to be specific—but due to the fuel-economy savings, diesel rigs usually emit less particulates per mile driven.

  12. #3 “Fuel Costs per Gallon” doesn’t mean much when the two engines get different MPG. Your OVERALL fuel cost is what affects the wallet, not price per gallon. Advantage: Diesel.

    #1 “Acquisition Cost”– should be ‘ownership cost’ as the trade-in value of diesel is much higher when the time comes to sell. For example, a 2013 Ram with 50K miles will have a $6K to $7K higher value (depending if you trade to a dealer or sell privately) than a gasser. Advantage: tie, after factoring in the $2K in fuel cost savings of the diesel.

    #5 Emissions: you don’t say why the gasser has the advantage. They are both very clean. One manufacturer’s test showed the air was cleaner coming out of the diesels tailpipe the the air that went in the intake. Emissions certifications are so heavily regulated these days, does anyone shop considering “emissions”? Advantage: tie.

  13. I have been driving dodge cummins for years always changing oil at 3000 miles using rotella oil now you can go 15,000 miles on an oil change?

  14. Item 5, “Emissions”, seems more geared toward the complexity of dealing with harmful emissions rather than a comparison of the output between the two types of engines. Given the new standards and the required emissions equipment, overall which engine type would you say is burning cleaner these days?

  15. Which is better….with 93k miles on my 2015 Chevy 2500HD gasser, the siren call of a diesel beckons every 3k mile trip. I ran the numbers and yes I would save money with the diesel, however paying schedule dealer maintenance, yields savings of forty dollars per month. For me it’s not enough to switch. The measure is cost per mile. In CA price per gallon for gas and diesel is even, so the advantage goes to the oil burner. In the mid-west, fuel price difference can be 30%, completely zeroing the diesels advantage. As for torque, my truck pulls 10k pounds and I’ve never had an issue crossing the Great Divide, Rockies or the Ike Gauntlet.
    For me, modern gas engines are very reliable and have an established schedule maintenance cost. I never worry about water in fuel, injector failure, emissions issues putting a diesel in limp mode. I’m still open to a diesel and should I need to pull a fifth wheel or want more range per tank I would most likely purchase one. For now I’ll work on breaking the 600k mile mark with a gasser.

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