Keeping your van warm in the winter plays a critical role in your well being. However, decent insulation is far more important than deliberating over which type of heating system you want to use. Ignore it and you’ll be fighting a losing battle with the elements, pumping precious heat through the walls just as fast as you can produce it.
Insulation is often overlooked as boring, time consuming work but it is the most crucial aspect of heat regulation. Neglect it at your peril.
When my boyfriend and I converted a Peugeot Boxer into our home, winter proofing the van was a top priority. We spend the colder months skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing in the mountains, so we need somewhere comfortable and cozy to recharge after a long day on the slopes.
As well as covering the walls, floor and ceiling with multiple layers of blanket insulation concealed by plywood boards, we cut out extra squares of an aluminium roll camping mat which fit snugly over each of the windows when we are sleeping. Having done this, we are able to keep the van at a comfortable temperature without using much fuel at all.
In fact, a combination of our body heat and making a cup of the tea on the gas burner goes a long way to keep us warm, despite thick snowflakes falling past the windows. In Summer, the same measures keep us cool in the midday sun and save us a huge amount of money and discomfort.
Once you have done the groundwork to keep your van at a safe and comfortable temperature, you can decide which kind of heat source you want to invest in. There are several different options, including Butane, Propane, Electric, Diesel or Wood fueled heating systems.
The 4 best ways to heat your van in the winter:
1. Butane and Propane
Butane and Propane are two different liquid forms of Petroleum gas. They are both popular options as fuel for heating systems and can also be used for cooking. Butane is an extremely clean burning fuel type and is usually a little cheaper than Propane. However, Propane is more efficient at below freezing temperatures and is typically easier to get hold of.
We chose to install the Propex HS2000 Blown Air Space Heater which can run on either gas type. At the moment, we are using Butane but it’s comforting to know that we can simply switch to Propane if required. The heater wasn’t cheap, costing around 930 Canadian Dollars. However, my partner installed it himself which cut down costs and it is extremely efficient.
We normally put it on for just 20 minutes in the evening to top up the heat, so it hardly uses any fuel.
Your ideal temperature can be set on a thermostat and in summer months it can be used as an air conditioner. As it is fan assisted, there is a quiet whooshing noise when the heater is in use, but we don’t find it very intrusive. What’s more, it’s extremely small and is installed inside a cupboard with a vent to release the heat, so it doesn’t take up too much space.
It costs 50 dollars to fill up our large Butane tank, which meets all our heating and cooking needs for about 3 months at a time.
If you aren’t going to be camping in cold weather very often and just want to have a heater for the odd weekend, you could consider the much cheaper option of a portable cartridge heater. These also run on either Butane or Propane, and cost around 50 dollars. However, unlike the heater we installed, these get extremely hot to the touch which could pose a burning hazard as well as a fire risk.
If you have pets, they are particularly risky and need to be watched carefully. They are less efficient, and you’d need to allocate space to store the little gas canisters. However, if you’re a fair weather van lifer who just needs the occasional heat boost, the price difference means that they are worth considering.
Gas is naturally scentless, but the familiar smell that we have learned to be wary of is added to liquid petroleum for safety reasons. Be wary of the smell of gas and avoid smoking or lighting candles in the van in case of a leak.
We custom built a wooden cupboard for the gas bottle which has an air vent cut into the floor. This keeps us safe from any leakages and doesn’t affect van temperature because the cupboard is firmly sealed.
2. Diesel Heat
Diesel heaters have been a popular choice in the boating community for decades. They are increasingly appealing to vanlifers as they become more affordable and space efficient. They have a bit of a reputation for noisiness, but the newer models are getting progressively quieter, especially if you use a silencer.
Webasto is a well-known and respected brand, but it is also expensive. The Russian brand Planar has recently come up with an alternative which is of similar high quality and a much lower price, making it a very attractive option. Choosing which model to buy can depend on your cash flow.
After all, the initial cost of the 5kW system is higher than the 2kW, but the more powerful model heats up the space more efficiently leading to lower running costs.
The Planar air heater only turns itself on when it’s needed, so it isn’t running constantly. It also has a thermostat and you can even install a sim card and send it a text to turn on remotely. My cousin installed a Planar heater in her 26 ft narrow boat, and it costs just 17 dollars a month for her to heat the space. However, the system itself cost her 1,500 dollars.
Like with any heating system, it’s important to install good ventilation in case of harmful fumes and you should buy a cheap carbon monoxide alarm to be on the safe side.
3. Electric Heat
Whilst diesel, propane and butane heaters typically use some electricity, this is just to power the unit and the fan rather than provide the heat. Therefore, the electrical use is actually very low.
Alternatively, there are plenty of plug in heaters that run on electricity alone. They are easy to source, inexpensive and don’t require any installation. However, these are largely designed for a home or office environment and aren’t really appropriate for use outside of the mains.
A small 2000 watt heater would drain both of our 110-amp batteries in 1 hour and 20 minutes, whereas they can provide our lighting, device charging, and water pumping needs for up to 5 days at a time.
Electric heaters are more suitable for those with access to an electric hook-up. For anyone who doesn’t want to rely on camping grounds with facilities, they will quickly drain your power source.
If you do have access to mains electrics, electric heaters are a perfectly viable heating source. They are generally silent, have different heat settings and don’t pose the same kind of toxic fume risks as Wood Stove, Diesel, Butane and Propane heating. They are more practical in a bigger skoolie conversion than a small van conversion due to the space that they take up.
Resist the temptation to drape damp clothes over electric heaters as this poses a fire risk.
4. Wood Stove Heat
The dream of installing a wood stove in your van conversion is massively alluring to the more romantic among us. Gently crackling flames, the smell of pine, a comforting orange glow. What could be better?
The reality can be a bit of a come down. Wood Stoves don’t have a thermostat and controlling the heat output can be very difficult. Whilst gas and diesel heaters tend to have a combined fan to move the heat around, wood stoves can be made more efficient by buying a stove fan.
Friends who opted for wood stoves complain about temperatures yo-yoing between way too cold and unbearably hot, with stoves taking a good hour to start making a dent in low temperatures. Lying in bed with cold breath swirling around your face isn’t the most motivating wake up call.
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times; insulation is your friend. If you properly insulate your living space, then it won’t matter that wood stoves take a while to get going.
You will have to consider where you would store firewood, and how you can make sure this is ethically sourced. Collecting firewood is one of few rituals that has remained unchanged throughout human history. As we increasingly live in a world where we press buttons and point remote controls to get what we want, it can be therapeutic to connect with our roots and gather wood to keep us warm.
There are some beautiful examples of wood stove installations, like this stunning skoolie conversion by @wetravelbybus.
Just because something isn’t easy, doesn’t mean it should be avoided. That being said, deadwood and detritus are the building blocks of biodiversity. The humble seeming branches that you might gather are a vital part of ecosystems, which could be unbalanced by collecting too much from one place. Be mindful of this and only take what you need.
If smoke enters the van when adding more fuel, you’ll soon find the smell ingrained in your hair and clothes. It’s hard enough to keep clean as a vanlifer! Make sure you release the vents before you crack open the stove door to whisk smoke away from the grate.
You’ll need to keep the glass clean to benefit from the infrared heat, which you can do by mixing a little ash and water and rubbing it over the glass with some screwed up newspaper. Make sure you have a smoke detector and remember that the flu gets extremely hot and could pose a fire risk if it touches anything.
If you’re prepared to make the effort, wood stoves are a totally stunning addition to an RV which transform the atmosphere into a cozy home. Beyond the nurturing aspects of the sound, sight and smell of a real fire, you can heat water and slow cook pulses on the stove top. What’s more, the more traditional method is less likely to pose you complicated technical issues that leave you stranded without heat.
The best way to heat your van depends on your personal situation. If you are going to pass the winter in your van, investing in a quality heating system makes an enormous difference to your comfort and morale. Then again, there’s no point spending 1,000 dollars on a sophisticated air heater if you rarely camp outside of summer months.
Stock up on woolly sweaters, hot water bottles and blankets for emergencies and remember that insulating your van is the crucial stage of keeping warm that people often forget.
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Rachel is a full-time traveller, living in her self converted Peugeot Boxer transit van with her partner. Powered by solar panels and a lot of love, she travels slowly around the most beautiful places of Europe. She spends her days hiking, wild-swimming and long boarding down the oceanfront. Her blog can be found at www.highlysensitivenomad.com