There are many different ways to stay warm in an RV in the winter. The best heater for you will depend on where you plan to spend the winter, how much money you are willing to spend to stay warm, the availability of electricity and fuel, and your personal preference. Below are some of the best and most common heater options for an RV:
The 8 best heaters for an RV:
1. Wood Stoves
Wood stoves are a common heat source particularly in school buses that have been converted to RVs (skoolies). This is generally because school buses do not have any kind of furnace or heat source built in that can run when the bus isn’t turned on, and a wood stove is easier to install than a furnace or other permanently installed heating option.
However, that’s not to say that you couldn’t install a wood stove in your manufactured RV or trailer as well.
There are many different brands of miniature wood stoves that are designed to heat small spaces like RVs, such as those made by Cubic Mini, Tiny Wood Stove, and North Woods Fabrication. For a full review of the seven best wood stoves for RVs, check out this article: The 7 Best RV Wood Stoves? (Pros/Cons and Owner QnA)
The benefits of using a wood stove heater in an RV is that it will provide dry heat (which means much less condensation), it does not require electricity/gas/propane, it can also be used for cooking, and it only requires small amounts of wood to quickly heat a small space and keep it warm. Plus, it’s aesthetically pleasing and cozy to curl up next to a crackling fire.
One downside of using a wood stove is that there are some safety concerns with having a fire in confined space. The stove needs to be vented properly to avoid smoke entering the living space, and the venting system will need to be sturdy enough to withstand the movement of the RV as it’s driven.
Additionally, wood pieces need to be chopped up quite small in order to fit into some of the smallest stoves, which can be a bit labor intensive – although there are compressed wood pellets available for purchase that eliminate this step. Finally, you then have to store firewood or pellets somewhere in your RV, and the stove itself requires proper clearance space and insulation.
I just recently spent some time with friends who had a little wood stove in their 22-foot bus conversion and although it was in the low 30s at night, the stove cranked out heat very quickly. We even had to crack a window after a while because the stove works so well.
2. Diesel/Gas Heaters
There are a few different types of heaters that run on diesel or gas, such as Webasto or Espar heaters. These heaters are small and very efficient, often able to run for nearly 24 hours on one gallon of fuel. You can simply tap into your vehicle’s fuel tank to run the heater, which makes fuel storage easy and you only have to refill one tank.
These types of heaters are installed inside the vehicle – often under the driver or passenger seat – and they just require an air intake/exhaust hole to be cut through the floor. Certain models have continuous heat modes that work with a thermostat to keep the temperature consistent within the RV, while others have simple on/off switches.
These heaters can be a bit loud, especially when they are cycling on and off frequently, but there are muffler kits available. Additionally, they can be finicky at high elevation, and some require adjustment or extra equipment for optimal performance.
These heaters do not generate any moisture, which is helpful for avoiding condensation problems. They also do not produce any harmful fumes or deplete the oxygen levels, so you don’t have to crack a window or worry about venting.
If we were to install a heater of any kind in our bus, a diesel heater is probably what we would choose, since we already have a 55-gallon diesel tank.
3. Propane Space Heaters
Another option is to use propane space heaters to warm up your RV. The most common options among RVers are the Mr. Heater Buddy and the Camco Olympian Wave. These heaters are technically designed for indoor use so you are not required to vent them, but it’s always a good idea to keep a window cracked just in case and make sure your propane detector and carbon monoxide detectors are working.
The Mr. Heater Buddy uses a one-pound propane tank and is conveniently portable, so you can use it for many different applications. My boyfriend and I had one in our bus conversion but to be honest, we only used it once on the road in two years, because of the condensation it produced and just because it was nerve wracking to have a propane burner going in an enclosed space.
However, it was great for working on our build in the chilly Washington winter when we had the bus doors always open.
The Olympian Wave is designed specifically for RVs and can be mounted on the wall or stand on the floor. Propane is generally easy to come by, but it’s one more thing to remember to refill. Additionally, since these heaters are not externally vented, they can create a lot of condensation so they aren’t necessarily a good heating solution for an entire winter.
4. Built-In Propane Heaters
There are a couple of different types of built-in propane heaters that are commonly used in manufactured RVs, although they can be installed in any type of RV. There are forced air propane systems which require electricity (often a battery) as well as vent-free propane heaters that do not require electricity but do need ventilation.
These heaters are externally vented so they won’t create moisture or carbon monoxide, and they won’t deplete oxygen. They are also fairly common, so it’s easy to find parts or replace your heater entirely. Additionally, you can use external propane tanks that are easily detachable, so you can take the tanks to a station to refill rather than having to move your entire RV.
However, using propane to heat your RV all winter can get expensive since fuel burns quickly and, depending where you buy it, propane can be costly. Additionally, you need to have enough electricity to run the fan and/or charge the fan’s battery regularly. If you run out of propane or electricity to run the fan, the heater won’t work.
5. Electric Space Heater
There are many different options as far as electric space heaters go, including infrared heaters, ceramic heaters, portable faux fireplaces, oil-filled heaters, micathermic panel heaters, electric blankets, and so forth.
Electric space heaters are great for heating very small RVs or as supplemental heat for larger spaces, but they are really only practical if you are staying at a campground where unlimited electricity is included in the campsite fee, since they will gobble up electricity. They aren’t so reasonable for boondocking where you are depending on solar energy or a generator.
Electric heaters generate dry heat, they don’t require installation, they are portable, many options are aesthetically pleasing, they are inexpensive to purchase, most are very quiet, and they can be used in a variety of different applications.
However, they take up storage space when not in use and floor space when they are being used, they require 110V outlets, they won’t adequately heat a large RV, they won’t heat the ‘basement’ area underneath an RV, and they aren’t practical for off-grid use.
You can also look into small 12 volt heaters that are great for small spaces.
6. Built-In Electric Heaters
Newer RVs often have electric heaters built in, like faux fireplaces or mini-splits which provide both heat and AC. Again, since these need electricity to operate, they are most effective at campgrounds with free electricity. They provide dry heat and no ventilation is required, and they do not need much maintenance.
However, these types of heaters will generally not operate at temperatures below 40 degrees F, they guzzle electricity, and they can be loud. The limited temperature range means they won’t prevent your tanks or water lines from freezing, which can be disastrous.
7. Radiant Floor Heating
For some true RV luxury, you can install radiant floor heating, which runs off diesel or propane – or purchase an RV that has this built in. While this generally isn’t an efficient way to heat your entire RV, it’ll keep your tootsies nice and warm and increase the temperature a bit.
In this article, you can see radiant heat being installed in an RV.
8. Chasing The Sun
Finally, you can choose to simply chase warmer temperatures as the snowbirds do. As I mentioned, my boyfriend and I had a Mr. Heater Buddy for a while but essentially never used it, so we left it behind the last time we were visiting family.
We generally spend our summers in the northwest and our winters in the southwest, aiming for days in the 60-70 degree range and nights above freezing ideally. This was our plan when we built out the bus, so we didn’t spend too much time or money on insulation or heating sources, and it has worked just fine for us for the last two and a half years.
We still have dash heat and air conditioning, so when we are driving we can be perfectly comfortable no matter the outside conditions, and we have developed some methods for staying comfortable when parked in the cold.
We open all of our curtains during the day to get heat from the sun (quite effective in what amounts to a giant metal tube with a million windows) and close them as soon as it gets dark to hold in the heat as much as possible. Our curtains have blackout material backing, and we put Reflectix over most of the windows as well for extra insulation, including the driver door window and the windshield.
When it gets chilly in the bus, we bundle up in cozy socks and sweatshirts, pile the blankets on the bed, and cook hot meals to warm up – which also heats up the bus quite a bit. We have spent nights in 17-degree weather and been just fine. We leave a window cracked slightly to help cut down on condensation, which is a concern on very cold nights when our breath vaporizes.
And, if it’s ever TOO hot or cold, we simply move the bus to somewhere more comfortable – that is the main benefit of living in an RV after all. If we can’t move for whatever reason, the cold serves as character building/Wim Hof training.
How can I make my RV furnace more efficient?
Your RV heat source will be most efficient if you have it optimized for your altitude and all the ducts and components are clean. Beyond that, you can minimize heat loss by insulating your RV well and choosing a heat source that does not require venting (i.e. having to keep a window cracked to run some propane heat sources, which decreases efficiency).
As far as space efficiency, if you use a diesel heater that taps into your vehicle’s fuel tank, you can avoid hauling around another fuel source and the heater itself can generally be tucked away under a seat or in another small unused space.
How much propane does it take to heat an RV in the winter?
This depends on several factors, such as your minimum acceptable temperature, the type of propane heater you are using, the size of your RV, the outside temperature, and so forth. However, for reference, most propane RV heaters use about ⅓ of a gallon per hour of runtime. There is about 4.6 gallons of propane in a 20-pound tank, so that’s just under 14 hours of heat per tank.
How do you keep RV tanks and pipes from freezing?
If you are parked in one place for the winter and using your RV, the best bet is to skirt your rig, use a heat source that heats this ‘basement’ area, and use tank heaters and water line insulation or heat tape as necessary. If you are not using your RV in the winter, simply drain all the liquids out and winterize it so that there is nothing to freeze and cause damage.
If you are moving around a lot, tank heaters, line insulation, and heat tape will be your friends, especially if your tanks and lines are outside of the RV. If your pump, tanks, lines, and so forth are all inside the RV, you can help keep them warm by leaving the cabinet door open at night so your heater can reach those components.
Finally, letting your faucets drip continuously can also help prevent freezing, but this uses precious water and the noise might drive you insane. Our tanks and pump are all inside our rig and they have never frozen, even on the coldest nights and with no overnight heat source.
How do you prevent condensation?
Using a dry heat source is the best way to eliminate condensation. Since we don’t have a dry heat source, we keep a window cracked all night as I mentioned and we use DampRid bags to keep the humidity under control. Condensation is a bigger deal than you might think – we had a mattress mold when we stayed in the PNW for too long during the rainy winter, so it’s definitely important to manage it.
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Cat is originally from Seattle, WA but has traveled around the US and Canada full-time in a self-converted school bus with her boyfriend Aaron since April of 2018. She enjoys rock climbing, paddleboarding, hiking, and generally being outdoors!