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So, you’re planning on living in a van in a chilly climate? Maybe you have to stay near a northern city to work for the winter, or you love to go on ski trips.
We typically go south for the winter months, and the only time we’ve needed a van heater was in Puerto Penasco, Mexico in January, where we used small electric heater to warm up our Sprinter van in the mornings and evenings. We had access to shore power, making this an obvious and easy choice.
If we’re off-grid and it’s a chilly night, we simply bundle up in warm clothes and warm sleeping bags and possibly light a cozy campfire.
Whether you’re looking for a more permanent option like the brand new Columbia Hydronic floor heating system, or more portable van heaters like propane, diesel or electric, we have a few options for you.
Table of Contents
1. Diesel or Gas Air Heaters for a Campervan
- Dry heat
- Heats up a van quickly
- Permanent install makes it out of sight, out of mind
- Expensive (unless you buy a Chinese diesel heater)
- Requires drilling holes in your van
- Requires a lot of power upon startup
- Affected by high altitudes
One of the most popular options we’ve seen in both professional and DIY van builds is a permanent diesel or gas heater. Diesel heaters (or gas) are usually mounted beneath the passenger seat and sip off your van’s diesel or gas tank to create a nice, dry heat.
We love that this unit is permanently hidden away and connected to your van’s electrical system, so all you have to do is flip a switch to access heat. You don’t have to worry about digging your heater out and storing it when not in use.
If you have a 2007+ newer Sprinter van, your fuel tank most likely already has a fuel tap installed. All you’ll need is a 5/16″ nylon line which can connect the heater to an adaptor like this one. While some people choose to DIY their diesel heater, you can also pay a professional shop to do the work.
The main benefit of vented gas or diesel air heaters is that they create dry heat This is really important in a van because adding humidity can wreak havoc on your van interior and build. You might notice an increase in mold or rot inside your van. Propane heaters will add humidity to your van’s interior, while a diesel or gas air heater dries it out.
For more information about choosing or installing a diesel heater in your campervan, check out this helpful post by Far Out Ride: https://faroutride.com/air-heater-installation/
If diesel heaters seem too expensive, you can check out Chinese diesel heaters, which are a fraction of the cost but can be less reliable. There’s an entire Facebook group dedicated to these heaters which you can check out here.
2. An Electric Heater for a Campervan
- Dry heat
- Quiet operation
- Small size
- Easy to Use
- No installation required
- Power hog
- Must be stored when not in use
- Not as powerful as other options
When we brought our Sprinter van down to Puerto Penasco, Mexico to do some work on our sailboat last winter, it was CHILLY. Nights got down into the 40s sometimes. We were really happy we brought along a small electric heater which we used morning and night. Since the boatyard had shore power, using the electric heater wasn’t a problem at all.
However, without shore power, an electric heater draws quite a bit of power and might run your power system down. You’ll need a beefy battery bank, solar panels and inverter to run an electric heater for any extended period of time. Even though we’ll eventually have 400 amp hours of lithium batteries in our van, we wouldn’t leave an electric heater plugged in overnight.
We’d run it just to take the edge off, then would rely on warm sleeping bags and clothes the rest of the time.
Some van lifers say the best approach is to run an electric heater for just 20-minutes at a time to heat up your campervan.
We do love that an electric heater provides dry heat to the inside of your van just like a diesel or gas air heater. You can lay a pair of wet socks in front of the heater and it will help dry them out! This is great for keeping mold and mildew out of a van. We also love that a really small electric heater will heat up the space of a campervan quite well. It’s easy to store and doesn’t take up much space.
However, if you’ll be spending extended periods in cold climates off-grid, we recommend a gas or diesel heater as it sips power compared to an electric heater.
If you can be plugged into shore power, an electric heater is easier to deal with and requires zero installation.
3. Propane Van Heaters
- Easy to use
- Doesn’t require a power source
- Adds humidity to a van
- Can cause carbon monoxide poisoning
- More expensive than electric heaters
- Might not work well at really high altitude
- Can be noisy
- Must be stored when not in use
Propane heaters are popular options for van lifers but must be used with a great deal of caution. Anytime you burn propane it releases carbon monoxide, which is especially dangerous in the closed space of a van. If you are going to use a propane heater for your van, we highly recommend adding a carbon monoxide detector to your setup.
You’ll also need to make sure you are adding fresh air into your van while using a propane heater, which means cracking a window even in super cold temperatures.
While propane heaters are easy to use and can quickly warm a small space, they do release humidity. This can be detrimental for van life as it will increase the instances of mold and mildew inside your van. You do want to avoid this at all costs, because it can spell disaster if mold starts to grow in the small spaces of your van build that aren’t easily accessible. Plus, mold spores can cause respiratory issues.
Of course, propane heaters require a fuel source. You can either use those 1-gallon single-use propane bottles, which aren’t environmentally-friendly or buy a hose adaptor for a larger propane tank.
If you’re okay with cracking a window and buying a carbon monoxide detector, a propane heater might be the right option for you!
- 4,000-9,000 BTUs
- Heats up to 225 square feet
- Auto shut-off if tipped over, if pilot light goes out, or if detects low oxygen levels
- Might not work over 7,000 feet
4. A Wood Burning Stove
- Dry heat
- Energy efficient
- Requires intricate installation
- Not stealth
- You’ll always have to find a source of fuel
- Takes up a lot of space in a van
- Requires Venting
- Not the cleanest choice environmentally
Some van lifers swear by using wood stoves inside a campervan. Who could argue against a cozy, crackling fire and the smell of wood? However, installing and maintaining a wood-burning stove can be a pain. You’ll also have to deal with a chimney pipe poking out of your van’s roof, which drastically reduces the stealth factor. A wood stove will need a dedicated space inside your van, and can’t simply be put away when not in use.
You’ll also need to build a heat shield around the wood stove to protect your van walls and floor.
According to van lifers Camper Dreamin’, they only need to add wood to their Cubic Mini Wood Stove every 45 minutes, and it creates a very warm dry heat. They don’t leave the stove running when they go to bed. You’ll need to keep a fuel source on hand or camp in a place with lots of dry firewood for collecting. This might not be as easy in wet climates or if you’re camping near a ski hill with lots of snow.
You’ll also have to consider the smoke output from your tiny wood stove. While Cubic Mini doesn’t release much smoke due to its secondary combustion chamber, it still releases smoke. This might be a problem in areas that ban wood smoke burning due to environmental pollution and smog. However, if you’re mostly traveling off-grid in remote areas this shouldn’t be a problem.
5. Radiant Heat for a Campervan
- Out of sight, out of mind
- Creates a warm floor, air heating and hot water
- Most comprehensive and advanced heating system
- Automatically works at high altitude
- Highest BTU option of any heater
- Requires significant installation
- Lots of components
The Columbia Hydronic Floor Heating system is an advanced water and air heating radiant heating technology currently available for Dodge Promasters, Mercedes Sprinters and Ford Transits. Rixen’s Heating and Just Roaming Design collaborated to build this hydronic heating system which is sold exclusively on CampervanHQ.
When installed, here’s what you’ll get:
- Air heating pumped through your van’s living quarters
- Radiant heat from your flooring
- Hot water heating for showers and dishes
The entire system runs using just 3-4 amps, which is a low power draw for such a large system. While expensive, the Columbia Hydronic Floor Heating system includes:
- A hydronic heater system that provides heated fluid
- A dense, hardy subfloor made out of closed cell foam reinforced with fiberglass
- A beautiful top floor of your choice made out of Lonseal, or 2Tec2
You can either DIY this campervan heater system or bring it to Just Roaming Design in Portland, Oregon for installation.
We haven’t read many reviews on this system yet, but it seems like a good option if you’re looking for a comprehensive heating solution with both air heat, floor heating and hot water.
How Many BTUs Do You Need?
Knowing how many BTUs you’ll need to heat your campervan’s space is especially important when putting in a diesel or gas air heater so you know which size of heater to get.
Air heaters come in many different sizes, from 7,000-21,000 BTUs.
You can use this BTU calculator to calculate the interior dimensions of your campervan, your insulation level (typically “poor” in a van), and how much of a temperature increase you desire, and the BTU calculator will spit out a number.
This will help you figure out what size heater you need!
Safety Considerations for Campervan Heaters
Using any type of heater in a campervan can be considered hazardous. Electrical components can get too hot and catch fire, propane heaters emit carbon monoxide and humidity, wood stoves have a live fire component and can be a fire hazard, etc. You’ll have to be cautious and take preventative measures to ensure your safety while using a campervan heater.
Even when we are simply using an electric heater, my partner Tom regularly touches the wires to make sure they aren’t getting too hot.
Here are a few safety tips to keep in mind:
- Read instructions carefully to ensure proper installation, or get your heating system professionally installed. This is especially for diesel heaters and wood burning stoves
- Never leave a heater running unattended in your van
- Get a carbon monoxide detector
- Make sure you have proper ventilation when using a heater that emits carbon monoxide, like propane heaters
- Make sure your heater isn’t running next to components where it could catch fire
- If using a wood stove, set up a proper heat shielding element
- Make sure wires aren’t getting too hot when using electric heaters
- Keep a fire extinguisher on hand in case of emergencies
- Make sure your heater has safety features like automatic shut-off if tipped over or if the heater detecgs low voltage
Choosing the Right Campervan Heater for Your Situation
Everyone has different tolerances for cold weather, and different amounts of time they spend in colder climates. Here are some things to think about before choosing the best campervan heater.
Some campervan heaters take up more space than others. If you aren’t going with a permanent solution like radiant heat, wood stove or air heater, you’ll have to store your heater when not in use. An electrical heater is probably the easiest to store when living van life, with propane heaters being a bit bigger.
Some campervan heaters come with a big price tag. A good diesel heater will cost you around $1,000, with radiant heat taking an even bigger bite out of your wallet. Wood burning stoves also cost a pretty penny to buy and set up. Most electric heaters are the cheapest option and might be a good way to go if you aren’t spending tons of time in cold weather.
Ease of installation
Diesel furnaces, radiant floor heat and wood stoves all require quite a bit of setup to use. In some cases, you’ll have to drill holes in your van. If you don’t want to deal with installation, an electrical heater or propane buddy heater might be right for you.
The stealthy factor
If you spend a lot of time stealth camping, you won’t want a wood burner in your van conversion. These require a chimney and will draw lots of attention if you’re trying to stay warm while parked in a city. For stealth camping, we recommend any of the other heaters on this list.
Tips for Living in a Campervan in Winter
There are some important steps you need to take if you’re considering living in your van in winter. Here are some of our suggestions:
Insulate your van
It’s important to add the proper insulation to your campervan to make sure it holds in heat in winter and stays cool in summer. In our new Sprinter van, we chose to stuff the walls with Havelock wool insulation. We’ve noticed a huge difference in both heating and cooling and also sound deadening.
Read my entire article here: Why We Chose Wool Insulation for Our Campervan
Cover your windows
Another way to keep heat in is to use insulated window covers in your van. We chose these insulated covers from Van Made Gear for our front window and passenger and driver’s side windows. The window shades have Low-E SSR aluminum-backed insulation to keep heat out in summer and heat in during winter.
Check out my article about VanMade Gear Window Shades.
Have double-paned windows
Glass campervan windows let in a lot of heat and cold, which is why some van lifers choose not to put many windows in at all. However, doubled-paned acrylic windows have good insulating properties, which is why we chose this option for our Sprinter van. We used double-paned windows from Wilderness vans, but Tern Overland is also a popular choice.
Divide your van with curtains or insulated dividers
If you are heating a campervan in winter, it will be more efficient if you’re able to seal off parts of your van. Some van lifers choose to hang a curtain or insulated divider to seal off the cab area from the rest of the van. I’ve also seen some insulated dividers closing off the garage, which is under the bed.
The smaller the space you have to heat, the better. Check out this cab privacy curtain by Tourig.
Add a rug to your campervan’s floor
We also recommend adding a rug to your van’s floor if you’ll be camping in cold climates. The floor is one of the first things that feels really cold – I even noticed this during winter in Mexico. I’d wear slippers all day long, just to keep my feet off that chilly floor. Some van lifers recommend this washable rug by Ruggable.
Have a good subfloor
If you’re building out a DIY campervan, you’ll have control over what type of subfloor goes in. We recently learned about the Rainier Flooring System by Just Roaming in Portland, Oregon, which has an R value of 2, featuring closed-cell foam and fiberglass. The floor weighs 90 pounds, is CNC cut for your van’s footprint, and is easy to install with a puzzle-piece type pattern. The Rainier subfloor adds both insulation and sound deadening.
Have warm clothes
When living in a van in the winter, it’s important to have warm clothes in case your heater fails or if you don’t want to have a heater at all. We invest in good down jackets from REI, wool base layers, a wool hat, gloves and wool socks. I’ve w
Alternatives to Using a Campervan Heater
If you aren’t in a cold climate very often or aren’t living in a van all winter, you might not want to run out and buy a campervan heater. Here are some alternative ways to keep your van warm!
Run your van’s engine
Before we had access to an electric heater and shore power for our Sprinter van, we’d turn the van on and run it for about 15 minutes to get our van warmed up inside. Running your van briefly off and on is an okay way to create some temporary heat without a campervan heater. Add proper insulation, a rug, and window coverings and your van will retain that heat.
Run your 12-volt refrigerator
I know this sounds weird, but we turn off our fridge at night and then turn it back on in the morning. A 12-volt fridge with a compressor emits heat out of its vents when cooling down its interior. We’ve found that on semi-cold mornings, just running our fridge for awhile introduces enough heat into our Sprinter van.
Get an electric blanket
If you don’t want to bother installing or powering a portable heater, you might want to consider an electric blanket. There are both 12-volt and battery-powered blankets. We’d recommend a battery-powered one as it can last all night without needing to be plugged into your van. Using a 12-volt blanket all night long can drain your van’s start battery; if you do want one of these, we’d recommend either a portable power station or a house battery system.
Use a hot water bottle
A hot water bottle is surprisingly effective in keeping you warm while you sleep. You can find tons of hot water bottles on Amazon. You can choose one that’s rubber and retains heat, or buy a cover if you don’t like the rubber texture. Simply fill the bottle with hot water before you go to bed and put it next to or into your sleeping bag at night. A great way to stay warm!
Invest in down sleeping bags or a down blanket
Even if you do have a heater in your van, we still recommend having good bedding to keep you warm because what if your heater fails? We both have REI down sleeping bags that are comfortable down to 21 degrees. If you don’t want to buy and store a sleeping bag, many van lifers swear by the Rumpl Puffy down blanket. You can use it on your bed, outside or while hanging out inside your van.
Make a campfire
When we’ve found ourselves in a chilly climate with no heater, we’ve often simply built a campfire to warm up before bed. If you’re boondocking, make sure to use a preexisting fire ring and keep your fire small and manageable. Also, research local fire restrictions and make sure you have the right permits. In California, all campfires on public land require a free permit.
Head south for winter
Instead of dealing with a cold climate, many van lifers choose to go south for winter and spend time in states like Arizona, Utah or New Mexico, which have ample boondocking opportunities and stay warmer than northern states.
If you feel adventurous, you can drive your van to Baja for even warmer temperatures.
Conclusion on the Best Van Heaters for Your Campervan
We hope this article has given you some tips and inspiration for living the van life in winter. There are tons of heating options available for a campervan, including air heaters, electric heaters, wood burning stoves and propane heaters. If you’re doing a DIY build you can even consider radiant heat like this Columbia Flooring system.
Or, you can be like us: head south for winter, build campfires, wear warm clothes and use down sleeping bags. You don’t necessarily have to use a heater in your van tiny home.
Which heating option will you choose in your van? Let me know in the comments!