As a vanlifer you can’t always control the type of environment you’re in, and no one wants to go to bed frozen. Proper heating is essential to your comfort level and overall enjoyment when travelling throughout the winter. With all of the different types of vehicles out there, it is important to come up with a heating solution that’s tailored to your needs. What may work for one van might not be economic or efficient for others.
The amount of information floating around on the internet regarding portable heating solutions can be overwhelming. The goal here is to give you a better understanding of the content online and help make sense of the heating options available for your vandwelling lifestyle. Prepare yourself, there is much more involved than grabbing a portable heater off the shelf of your local hardware store and hitting the road.
Having said that, there are a few questions you need to ask yourself before making your choice.
- Can I travel South to a warmer destination?
- Where am I going to be spending my nights?
- Will I have an electricity source nearby?
- How much can I afford to heat my van every night?
- How much manual effort do I want to put into heating?
- What type of fuel do I want to deal with?
Head South For The Winter
It may go without saying, but the most effective way to avoid the cold is to follow the birds and head South for the winter. If you are unfortunate enough to find yourself in a colder area, there are a few common options to heat your van. Each type of heat has its pros and cons. Your level comfort, space and budget will determine which to use. Beyond heaters, there are affordable ways to keep you relatively warm depending on the environment.
Alternatives To Heating Your Van
Before you even think about turning on a heater, you’ll want to insulate the walls, floors and windows of your van. The better you insulate your van, the less energy you need to spend keeping it warm. Spray foam and silicon caulking are your friend. Personally, we keep layers of both pink and yellow foam within the walls protecting us from the outside. Be aware that this is the most important factor keeping your van warm. Check out our post on how to insulate your van for information on the best materials to use. Slacking on this step will have a direct result in your comfort level.
If you don’t have the money or the means to do a full insulation, a cost effective and fast solution is to purchase insulation panels for your windows. They are typically made out of foil that you can stick to the glass. You should notice a slight increase in your van’s temperature with just this simple step. Not to mention, these panels are great for privacy. No more peeping neighbors!
A few must-have winter items can make a huge difference in your comfort level inside the vehicle. Always keep a pair of very warm socks or slippers around. Wool is tried-and true material because it can retain heat even when whet. Wool fibers are also durable and made to last for years. The makeup of wool fabric allows for small air pockets within the fibers which increases the insulation level significantly compared to cotton.
Keep your head and feet covered against cool drafts. Your head loses more heat than the rest of the body when left uncovered so don’t neglect this crucial body part! Store lots of blankets and duvet covers within the van. Many people choose to sleep in a high-quality sleeping bag because it works in -0 degree weather. Remember, even the highest quality sleeping bags on the market are rated for survival. They are not rated based on a comfort level as that would differ for everyone. What this means is that if the bag is rated for -30 degree weather, you will not freeze. However, this doesn’t mean you will be cozy all night.
When planning your sleeping setup, remember to use layers. You may have one blanket that works well in the summer, one sleeping bag for the fall, and an extra comforter that you can combine with all three for extra cold nights. This combined with a good hat and socks can allow you to adjust for most situations.
Hot Water Bottles
Sleeping with hot water bottles is another method among vandwellers. If you happen to find yourself on a cold night with no Mr. Buddy heater around this is a cheap and easy way to stay toasty. Simply boil some water and pour it into a water bottle or covered container that you can use to heat the bed or lay next to. Bottles can stay warm for up to 6-8 hours at night and may be all you need to stay warm.
A word of warning: Do not overfill your water bottle, ¾ full is all you need to keep the bottle hot. Cover the bottle with a towel or cloth while pouring warm water inside. Keep the bottle covered while lying beside it. These bottles can get HOT, use extra caution not to burn yourself. Make sure the lid is twisted on very tightly so there are no spills. Finally, never use a hot water bottle at the same time you are using an electric blanket for heat. You do not want to take the risk of water and electricity coming into contact with each other.
The five most common heating solutions for people in vans, RVs, or tiny houses are: Electric, Wood, Propane, Butane and Diesel. Each has their advantages and disadvantages and the one you should choose depends a lot on your setup.
If you are parked in a friend’s driveway or have the luxury of an RV park or campsite with hookups, electric heating is a great option. Electric heaters are lightweight, emit no sound, have no smell, and are safe to use in tight spaces. There are many different types of electric heaters with the most common being ceramic, infrared, and oil radiators. Although they may seem like the ideal solution, do not assume your van’s battery will keep you warm all night and startup in the morning – it won’t.
If you do have a power source, ceramic heaters can be a great option. They produce a consistent heat output that can be easily adjusted. In addition, electric heaters often will expel hot air in one direction allowing you to aim the heat where you need it. Most electric heaters will range between 500 and 1500 watts. The lower the wattage, the longer it will take to heat an area. Electric heaters are relatively inexpensive to purchase, often they can be found for under $50. Once you own one however, it is the cost of electricity you need to worry about.
When running an electric heater there are a few things you need to remain cautious about. Many heaters have safeguards build-in to avoid overheating or tipping over. Being in a small area like a vehicle, you should be aware of your surroundings to avoid burns. In addition, not all electric heaters are quiet, so be prepared for a soft hum.
Electric blankets do use a lot of power as well, and are largely unrealistic to run for an entire night. However, if all you need is a quick warmup a few minutes before bed they may be a good choice for the job. Some blankets come with timers to keep them from running too long and eating up your battery. The Trillium 12V electric blanket can plug directly into your car’s cigarette lighter and uses approximately 4.5 AH.
Realistically if you are going to be van dwelling full time, electric heat may not be a very feasible solution. You would have to carry around some serious battery power to keep yourself warm all night.
There is nothing more enjoyable than the scent, view and novelty of a wood burning stove. Wood heat is much more cost effective than other sources of heat. This can be a great choice if you plan on spending many nights out in nature, parking at campgrounds or boondocking. If you want to van life in the city however, a wood burning stove is not very stealth; and hauling around wood may be impractical.
Some wood stoves are no more than a foot and a half tall, and two feet deep. Wood stoves and their required components can be expensive to setup and their install is quite involved. However, once the initial investment has been made, they will cost little to nothing to operate and maintain. If you can collect your own wood, they will be practically free to upkeep. This sounds great, but wood stoves can turn out to be very time consuming.
In order to operate a wood burning stove, you will need to consistently fill it with chopped wood. The size of the wood pieces are going to be dependent on the type of stove you chose to buy. Some very high efficiency stoves can heat up and burn with just a few small sticks. Based on your activity level, constant wood collection may or may not be a deal breaker. Not only is it labor intensive to chop wood, but firewood also takes up space and you will need to either store it in or near your vehicle.
Parts of a wood stove
When setting up a wood burning stove inside a van you are going to need a few key items. Along with a stove and a chimney, a chimney cap will insure the smoke and ash coming from the stove will make its way outside rather than filling up your car. It will also withstand large gusts of wind preventing blowback.
Pipe flashing will seal up the space between your stove pipe and roof to inhibit heat from escaping. This will also prevent burning around your chimney pipe. From the outside, pipe flashing will keep rain and snow from entering your van. It is also possible to create your own pipe flashing using sealant and silicone.
A heat powered fan will allow you to direct the hot air flow throughout the van rather than straight out of the chimney. With one of these, you will need to burn significantly less wood to stay warm. Heat powered fans can withstand the extremely hot temperatures inside the stove and generate power using this same heat.
It’s important to know how efficiently your wood is burning and how much heat your stove is producing. A stove pipe thermometer uses magnets to attach to the pipe and give an accurate reading of the stove’s temperature. Wood generated heat means dry heat so you will not have an issue with condensation. You may want to install a humidity monitor inside your van as well. Wood heat literally sucks the moisture out of the air with a relatively small stove. If your vehicle gets too dry, you may need to boil a pot of water to add some moisture to the air.
Wood Stove Safety Warning
Wood burning stoves can be a cost effective and long term solution to heating your van, but there are a few downsides to be aware of. Prepare for dust and wood bits around the stove area. Wood stoves use fire, they can get hot to the touch and cause burns. Never leave your heater on when you are away from your vehicle and never place wet, damp or flammable items near your stove. Always keep a fire extinguisher on hand and available. Wood stoves need to be ventilated with a fresh air intake and upper heat escape. You will want to make sure your car’s windows are cracked a few inches. A carbon monoxide detector to monitor the levels inside your vehicle is mandatory! Carbon monoxide has no smell, no color and no taste. It is virtually impossible to know if you have a leak without proper monitoring.
Propane heaters are an easily accessible and very popular heating solution among van dwellers. Because propane is often used as fuel for camping products, you may already be using it for cooking! Propane heaters will require you to purchase either disposable canisters or refillable propane tanks to keep them running. If you are already using propane tanks in your van, you may be able to tap into your existing propane lines to heat your vehicle.
Unlike wood stove heaters, propane furnaces can cause a huge amount of condensation. You’ll want a constant source of airflow throughout your vehicle both to limit the moisture buildup and reduce the amount of carbon monoxide within your van.
There are two different type of heaters to research when deciding which propane furnace is best for you. These include: the standalone portable heater, and the externally ventilated propane heater. An externally ventilated heater is a unit mounted into the wall of your van which goes all the way through to the outside.
Standalone Propane Heaters
Standalone portable heaters have plenty of advantages. You may have heard of the popular Mr. Buddy heater, or the Olympian Wave Catalytic heater. Standalone heaters can warm up a space in a very short period of time. These heaters are very compact, can be packed away when not in use, and pulled out when the air gets chilly. Because propane furnaces will blast very hot air straight out, some heaters come with a built-in fan to help circulate the air. Many come without this feature and have to be aimed appropriately if you want to try and spread heat to a larger area.
Propane furnaces are inexpensive and can often be bought between $100 – $200. They will also require a constant supply of propane. Propane is common and can be found at many outdoor gear shops, grocery stores and other large box retailers such as Walmart. Smaller heaters will run on 1lb. canisters that can be purchased for just a few dollars.
Many propane furnaces do not take the smaller cans and must be attached to a separate propane source. This is great if you are already traveling with propane, if not larger tanks might be a little bulky. When attaching your heater to a separate propane source you will need a fuel hose and regulators, often these come included with the product. Some heaters require filters as well.
Just to give you an idea of how long that propane will last, 1 lb. of propane when burned will produce 21,600 BTU. So if you have a 6000 BTU/hr heater, this will run for roughly 3.5 hours straight. Keep this in mind as the price of the cans will add up fast! Luckily, these heaters get hot. So you should not need to be running them the whole night. All the more reason to have good insulation!
Externally Ventilated Propane Heaters (Wall Mount)
An externally ventilated propane heater operates just like the standalone units; however, they are built into the wall of the van and vent all the way through to the outside air. Propex makes a number of popular external heaters. One of the advantages to an external heater is that it won’t contribute to the condensation buildup within your vehicle. This type of heater draws fresh air from outside your van and and vents combustible gasses including condensation back outside. The heat from the combustion is drawing into the vehicle.
Because these are wall-mounted units, you will be required to hook them up to a separate propane tank using fuel lines and regulators. You won’t be able to move it around since it will be built into the wall. As a benefit, you will never have to worry about tipping this heater over!
Both portable and externally ventilated heaters do tend to shoot air on one-direction, so you may want to use a fan to spread the air in multiple positions. Externally ventilated heaters can be slightly more expensive than their portable counterparts, and will require a bit of construction to install. However, once setup they will take up less space and be off the floor as well as reduce poisonous gas buildup.
Safety Considerations For Propane Heaters
If you plan on van dwelling or camping out at higher altitudes, be aware that the lower oxygen levels may trigger an emergency shutoff on some heaters. Learn the regulations of your type of heater and keep elevation in mind. Some heaters will not start if you are as low as 7,000ft.
Smaller, portable propane units can be easily tipped or knocked over in the confined space of a van. Many modern portable heaters have emergency shut-off switches that will shut it down when tipped over or oxygen levels drop. Do no depend solely on these emergency shutoffs, never run the heater when you are not in the vehicle.
Burning hydrocarbons creates water and CO2, so unlike wood burning stoves, propane heaters do not dry out the air. They create large amounts of condensation! This can be a big turnoff for some, but there are sacrifices to be made in all heating solutions. In the morning as you’re driving off, open the windows and use the engine for a bit of dry heat. This should help eliminate excess condensation.
Finally, when using a standalone propane heater, having a ventilated space is necessary! It may seem silly to crack the windows a few inches while you’re trying to keep your van warm, but this is a safety precaution to keep the oxygen levels from dropping too low. In addition, you must keep both the heater and the lines clean to prevent buildup of oil. Many propane heaters come with an emergency cut-off switch that kicks in when the oxygen levels dip too low. Do not rely solely on this emergency cutoff, it is up to you to monitor oxygen levels and keep the area properly ventilated.
Heating With Butane Heaters
Butane heaters are inexpensive and work in very much the same way as propane heaters. They are not currently as popular among van dwellers and this may be due to the fact that butane fuel is slightly more expensive than propane. Butane canisters cannot be refilled, and they are also harder to find in stores. Recently however, this trend has started to change as fuel becomes more available in larger retailers and box stores. There are many portable butane heaters available online. As a bonus, butane also burns a little bit cleaner than propane.
Much like propane, butane heaters are very compact, can be moved around easily and stored away when not in use. These heaters require a constant source of fuel. If you are using butane for cooking, the same canisters may work well in a portable butane heater. Individual canisters contain 8oz of fuel. Similar to a propane furnaces, butane heaters push hot air in one direction. If you want the air to circulate through the vehicle, it might be wise to install a multi-directional fan.
To give you an idea of the fuel requirements of a butane heater, a typical heater can burn 3 – 4oz per hour. Based on this, an 8oz. canister will burn for 2 hours at high heat, and 4 hours at low heat on an adjustable furnace.
If you are currently cooking on a butane stove, you may be tempted to ask why you can’t just run that as your furnace. Although similar, they are not the same. A butane furnace is a catalytic heater which produces less carbon monoxide than a stove. In using a furnace, you also won’t have to worry about that open flame in your vehicle.
Safety Warnings Of Butane Heaters
Risks of a butane heater include tip over, burns, and carbon monoxide poisoning. Butane heaters often come with emergency cut-off switches. This is not to say that you don’t need proper ventilation: you do! With a butane heater it is just as important to monitor oxygen and carbon monoxide levels as propane heaters. Butane heaters must be ventilated. Remember to keep your windows cracked, and don’t run the heater all night. Never place wet or damp clothes near the heater. Due to low oxygen, some heaters may shutoff when operating above 7,000ft. Butane canisters are pressurized, if the cap is off they can leak fuel. Always keep your canisters capped and never pack away your furnace with the canister inside.
Heating With Diesel Heaters
If your vehicle runs on diesel, this type of heater may be something to look into. Some vanlifers have chosen to utilize their existing diesel systems to heat the interior of their vans. Espar and Webasto are companies that makes compact diesel heaters which can run directly off the fuel in your gas tank. The biggest advantage to this is it’s extremely easy to fill and the cheapest option to keep running.
Diesel heaters are a much more expensive initial investment than some of the smaller propane and butane heaters. Be prepared to spend a few hundred dollars in startup costs. They will also require an extensive installation including cuts through the bottom of your floor. To setup a diesel heater, you’re going to need an air intake, an air exhaust, a fuel line running from your gas tank to the heater, power wiring, and thermostat control wiring.
A few vans come ready-made with an additional fuel tap for utilizing something like a heater. If you own a Sprinter that is from 2008 or newer (that’s the NCV3 or newer), you are one of the lucky few who have a fuel tap pre-installed! If you need to install your own fuel tap, be sure not to place it too close to the bottom of your tank. In doing this, you risk running out of gasoline and getting stranded! This may sound complex, but it comes with the advantage of never needing an additional fuel tank.
Diesel heaters warm with a slow steady blow rather than a furnace blast and should be a very comfortable compared to some of the other heating options. Many people place these heaters right under the front passenger seat of the van. As mentioned before, they are also one of the cheapest heating solutions once installed. A single gallon of gas can run the heater between 20 and 50 hours depending on your settings.
Diesel heaters can be a quite noisy and many have suggested purchasing a muffler to tone it down. Diesel furnaces are externally combusted. This means that it is not using or venting the atmosphere withing the van. They have lower levels of condensation compared to other alternatives and significantly reduced chance of poisons gas buildup. You will still want to be sure to monitor your carbon monoxide levels, but the heater likely won’t the the thing that triggers it.
Much like propane and butane, diesel heaters might also stop working or become less efficient at higher elevations. There are high altitude kits available for purchase if you plan to spend a lot of time in the mountains. Be sure to regularly check that all of your fuel lines are clean.
If you’re looking for a good step-by-step guide on how to install a diesel heater, checkout this install of an Espar D2.
Standalone diesel heaters can also be purchased that do not require a connection to your gas tank. These are less popular but should be mentioned.
Safety Considerations of Diesel Heaters
It cannot be overstated that heating your vehicle can be one of the biggest hazards in vanlife. Running a heater could be a fire hazard, and along with carbon monoxide poisoning, these two should be your biggest safety concerns.
Carbon monoxide is odorless, colorless, and has no taste. It is virtually impossible to know if you have a leak without the proper monitoring. When a fuel source is not burning correctly because it doesn’t have enough oxygen CO gas is created. Carbon monoxide can fill your van and take you out swiftly.
Always keep your heater clean, this includes any tubes or pipes. Be sure to dust off any debris that may accumulate on your unit. Excess dirt buildup within tubing can lead to oil being released from the tubes or restricted fuel flow. Either of these will result in more carbon monoxide being released.
Be sure to use a CO detector and monitor your levels. Get one with a digital readout of levels. Many carbon monoxide detectors will not go off until the level is getting lethal so it’s important to be aware of the levels at all times. Make sure your levels stay below 15ppm, preferably 10ppm in the area surrounding your furnace. If the detector does go off, open the windows, turn off all sources of CO, and go outside to get some fresh air right away. Some symptoms of CO poisoning are nausea, drowsiness, feeling faint, dizziness, and lack of breath.
Always have a fresh source of air and upper heat escape, preferably away from each other. Remember, you are dealing with heat so keep a fire extinguisher on hand! Never place wet or damp items next to your heat source. Keep flammable objects clear of your heater and be aware of your surroundings. Vans are tight spaces so be careful not to burn yourself or knock the heater over.
Condensation, insulation, ventilation and heating all go hand in hand. In fact, one could easily write an entire article on dealing with condensation. Almost any running heater is going to lead to excess condensation within your vehicle. Even with proper insulation, many people will find there are still spots where moisture likes to hide. Proper ventilation will be the most effective way to mitigate moisture. Be on the lookout for a future article on avoiding excess condensation!
Heating Solutions In A Nutshell
No matter what heating source you choose, always start with proper insulation, lots of blankets, and wool clothes. These things are a must. The level of skill, the time spent, and the amount of concern you have are all factors in determining the best portable heating solution for you. It doesn’t take much and you will be sure to stay warm through the cold times living the van life!
Heating your space and being safe are the number one priorities if you are going to do this properly. You must have a plan before the snow flies. If you don’t, I highly recommend finding alternative accommodations in the colder climates. Hostels, house sitting, or a work-exchange program are all inexpensive ways to enjoy a break from the van and gain access to hot running water, and a warm place to rest your head.
If you have any experience with heating your van we’d love to hear from you! Our goal is to keep this article as updated and thorough as possible for the next generation of vanlifers.