There are several different ways that you can get hot water in your campervan. These can be roughly organized into the categories of Propane, Electricity and Engine Heat, though there are various different methods using each heat source. Your decision should come down to the space available, your personal budget and also how much comfort you need in order to ensure your own well being.
We all have different priorities when preparing ourselves for a life on the road. Some people are quite happy to set off with nothing but a hammock and a camping stove, whilst others will spend years designing the perfect tiny home on wheels. No matter what your budget, there is always a way for you to get enough hot water to bathe in!
Here’s the 8 best ways to get hot water in a campervan:
1. Electric mini-tank water heater
I spoke to Jess and John (@dwnshifters featured image top of post) about their electric hot water heater. These guys have done a spectacular job on their conversion, creating a really beautiful and effective living space that took a great deal of consideration and planning.
They opted for a 4-gallon hot water heater by Bosch. They told me that the unit is reasonably small, but meets all of their hot water needs. Unfortunately, it does use up quite a lot of power, but they have been able to offset this using their alternator charger to help them heat the water when driving.
“Shower days are typically coordinated with nights we have campfires, as it’s nice to enjoy the fire, but also nice to go to sleep without smelling like we were IN the fire.”
2. Propane ‘shower in a box’
One of the easiest and most efficient ways to get a hot shower on the road, is to bring along a fully portable propane water heater. They are really safe to use and move around with you and can provide instant hot water via the gas tank that it is hooked up to.
They come with their own faucets and a 12- volt electric pump already installed so you do not have to worry about any of the plumbing. Although they can be used all year round, they should not be used inside a closed vehicle due to a potential build up of fumes.
3. Solar water heater
In my self-converted Peugeot Boxer transit van, I chose to go for a solar camping shower. This was due to a tighter budget than many, as well as the fact I only have 5 square meters of living space. I simply could not justify installing anything that would take up more room. My solar camping shower is a PVC bag attached to a hand pump and shower head and can be collapsed when it is not being used.
I use this outside in good weather, leaving it in the sun before hitting a trail and then returning to a gorgeous hose off in the great outdoors.
For the colder months, I have a pull-out shower tray than can be emptied by hand after each shower. I use plant-based soaps when bathing, so the water can be emptied when I am way off the beaten track without doing any harm to the local plants of animals.
The shower area has also become an additional storage space, where we keep our portable camping toilet out of sight and hang wet ski gear to dry. In the depths of winter, I sometimes heat the water on the stove and pour it into the shower because otherwise it would take too long for the water to heat up.
In the summer, this set up works really well, and I really enjoy parking far from civilization and taking a shower beneath the open sky. In winter, it is not so comfortable, and the tiny shower tray surrounded by waterproof curtains has the dimensions of a vertical coffin. However, it is better than nothing! Sometimes we meet friendly locals as we travel and are invited into their home for a shower and cup of tea. Bliss!
We use a solar water heater in our van in the form of a solar camping shower. This works great for us in the summer months and can heat up to a comfortable temperature in a few hours. The passive nature of the heating means you don’t have to use any fuel and can just leave it in the sun in the morning and let it do its own thing.
After letting your water heat, you hold the shower head in your hand which has a release button you press down to let the water flow. The flow is not particularly powerful and if there are multiple people taking a shower in the same day, it might be less convenient due to the long waiting time to heat the water. Then again, you can always heat the water in a pan and transfer it into the shower if in a tight spot.
This method is really good if you are boondocking and do not have access to running water. This is because the water only flows when you actively press the release button, so you have full control over how much water you are using.
4. Diesel water heater
Originally developed for the houseboat community, diesel heaters are a brilliant water heating system to consider as a vanlifer. You can buy these in total kit forms, but many models can only be installed by a professional fitter due to safety standard concerns. They can now be made very unobtrusive with a silencer but beware, diesel water heaters are notoriously expensive.
Diesel water heaters can be used as both air and water heaters, the latter of which would come with its own water tank. The technology has come a long way and you can now get bonus features like a sim card which you text when you want the water to start heating – perfect on your way back from a day on the slopes!
5. Tankless electric hot water heater
An electric tankless hot water heater creates hot water instantly, removing the need for a storage tank. It just needs to have a cold-water inlet and be hooked up to the electrics. The fact that you don’t need to store the hot water can be really useful in small space living, and the system can be directly hooked up to your cold-water tank!
You can often save money by installing an efficient tankless heater, because you are only heating the water that you really need, but you can still have hot water on demand. By installing this full time in your shower, you can have instant hot water at the click of a button.
Alternatively, you can get a more portable setup which you attach to the cold water tap in your kitchen and plug in to the electrics when in use, quickly creating a hot shower outdoors. This is a better option for people with really small vans and can also give you the chance to hose off your sandy body after a day on the beach.
Bear in mind there is a few seconds delay between turning on a tankless water heater and the water being hot, but this doesn’t seem to pose a problem for most vanlifers.
6. Boil water on a camping stove
Sometimes the simple way really is the best. People have been heating their water on a stove top for thousands of years, and if it was good enough for all of them – it is good enough for me!
By boiling your water on the camping stove, you don’t have to invest the time or money into a more complicated water heating approach, it doesn’t take up any additional space and you can prepare the right amount of water that you need in just a few minutes.
Downsides are that you may not want boiling water in your small living space, particularly if you have small children or van dogs running around at your feet. Also, it can be a bit tricky to pour it into a camping shower without burning your hands or wasting water down the sink.
7. Calorifier tank
Another fantastic option for heating the water in your van is to get a calorifier tank. This system uses the heat of the engine to warm up your water whilst you are on the move. It is a wonderful way to make the most of the resources that you are already using and means that you can have a hot shower as soon as you park up at your next destination.
I would recommend a 10-liter single coil tank for the average van conversion. Like the diesel heater, these are generally used in the boating community more than in van conversions, but they really are perfect for vanlife. The only downside is you won’t be able to have hot water if you’re parking up in the same place for a long time.
Here is a helpful YouTube video if you would like to find out more:
8. Wood stove coil heat exchange
You do not have to look far to see stunning pictures of wood stoves installed by vanlifers on Instagram. The crackling flames, the soft orange glow – what is not to love? Well, for those who would like to install a wood stove in their own van conversion, it is possible to use this to heat your water as well.
To heat your water through a heat exchange coil, you would have to run a coil (normally stainless steel) from inside the stove, out the back and connect it to your hot water tank. This coil would of course be insulated to protect you from the risk of fire.
You need to have a reasonable understanding of plumbing and welding in order to do this well. The method is normally used in a traditional domestic setting rather than a van, because of the space it takes up, and because you would not typically need so much hot water on the road. You can see a well explained example of this system in its largest scale in this video, but this would have to be scaled down for vanlife.
Alternatively, you could just heat water in a large pan on top of the wood stove, which would still capture the energy that you are using to heat the van without an additional complicated set up or taking up even more room with a hot water tank and pipes.
The pros of wood stove water heating are that you can heat your van at the same time as you heat your water, preventing you from wasting any fuel. This is great in winter time, but could be a nightmare in summer if your van is already overheated.
Though stunning, wood stoves take up a lot of space, they are heavy, and they can be dangerous if not watched carefully. They can also invalidate your insurance, so make sure you are properly covered!
There are several viable options that you can consider when choosing to heat the water in your van. If you can find a way to heat your water without using additional fuel, I would always recommend this.
For example, the calorifier tank that uses engine heat or the solar camping shower that passively heats your water whilst you get on with other things. No matter what you decide, you’ll find you take a lot less showers on the road than at home, but that’s all just part of the adventure!
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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