What are the best van life heating options if you plan to spend time in colder temperatures? Getting a diesel, gas, or propane heater is going to have the largest impact on warming your living space. But there are other options available to keep you warm.
I traveled in my van for over a month without a heater and then many months with a heater. Purchasing a heater was the single biggest comfort improvement I made to living in my van.
In this article, I’ll be going over the various van life heating options. Here are the categories I’ll cover:
- No Perfect Heating Solution
- Staying Warm Without a Heater
- Diesel / Gas Heaters (Webasto, Espar, or Budget)
- Propane (Propex / Mr. Buddy Portable)
- Wood Stove
- Condensation and Moisture
No Perfect Heating Solution
There is no one-size-fits-all perfect solution for heating all vans. It’s dependent on a variety of considerations such as:
- Where will you be traveling and how long you’ll stay there?
- How cold will it be?
- What’s the altitude?
- Will you be stealth camping?
- Costs (of fuel, heater installation, maintenance, etc)
Many van lifers take advantage of the fact that their home is on wheels and will drive somewhere warmer if the temperature drops below a certain threshold. Where that threshold is will depend on you, your van, and how well it’s insulated.
My van is insulated quite well so I was able to operate without a heater down to roughly 40 degrees Fahrenheit using alternative heating solutions. Colder than that and I was pretty uncomfortable doing anything other than lying in my sleeping bag.
Altitude is important if you’ll be running a heater as oxygen levels are different at different elevations. Thus requiring an adjustment to the burn rate.
Built-in heaters make noise and will impact your ability to blend in with your surroundings if you plan to stealth park.
If you’ll be spending extended periods at below-freezing temperatures, you’ll want to prevent your van from freezing. If your van isn’t heated correctly your water and water system can freeze. This could damage your water system and the batteries you’re using for your electrical system might not function properly.
Cost is the final consideration. Propane is more expensive than diesel. Using a Mr. Buddy heater and getting wool blankets is cheaper than installing a built-in heater.
If you plan on spending extended periods in very cold temperatures, consider backup heating plans in case your primary option doesn’t work. Heaters break. Fuel runs out. Have a plan in place for what you’ll do to stay safe and warm in the event of an unforeseen circumstance.
Staying Warm Without a Heater
There are many ways to keep you and your van warm without using a heater.
Insulation is one of the most critical components of successful temperature control in your van. If you don’t insulate the walls, floors, and ceiling, it doesn’t matter how robust your heater is because that heat is going to escape rather quickly. Installing proper insulation will keep your van warm in the winter, cool in the summer, and help deaden sound.
Popular insulation materials include:
- Thinsulate – There are no chemicals added and it’s easy to install.
- Havelock Wool – Natural, absorbs water from the air and is also easy to install.
- Foam Board
- Spray Foam
- Fiberglass Batting
Windows are great for those vast scenic views, but they’re horrible for temperature control inside your van. The best way to prevent losing this heat is to use window covers. Even if you can’t afford high-quality insulation, using window covers will have a big impact on heating your van. Besides helping keep your van warm, window covers are great for privacy. If it’s dark outside and you have your lights on inside your van and nothing covering your windows, it can feel quite exposed to the outside world.
There are pre-made window covers for the most popular van types. Many van lifers make custom window covers that attach with magnets or velcro. The material most used by van lifers, myself included, is Reflectix. It’s great for keeping the heat in during the winter and out during the summer.
There are several other ways to stay warm without using a heater, starting with an insulated curtain.
An insulated curtain divides your main living area of the van away from areas that don’t need heat, such as the cab or the garage. You can find pre-made curtains for popular van types. Many van lifers make custom curtains by using a heat-reflecting material.
Using rugs is another way to keep your living space warm. A well-placed wool rug or two can make a massive difference in your comfort.
Wearing the appropriate clothing can go a long way to keeping you warm when it’s cold outside. A good rule of thumb for materials is that wool is better than synthetic and synthetic is better than cotton. Wool is great because it can retain heat even when wet. Wool fibers are durable, meaning that they’ll keep you warm for years to come.
Quality bedding and sleeping material are your next defense against cold weather. I carried a cold-weather sleeping bag with me as a backup in case my heater wasn’t working or I ran out of propane. A cold-weather sleeping bag might keep you warm, but it’s not optimized for comfort.
Get some quality cold-weather bedding if you plan to spend extended periods in colder climates. Optimizing your level of warmth and comfort will happen through experimentation and layers. I bought a set of fleece sheets for my bed that I’d use in colder climates. Get yourself a wool or down blanket, or a duvet cover. Many van lifers love the Rumpl down blankets.
If all else fails, getting an electric blanket can sometimes provide that last bit of warmth needed to keep you comfortable on a cold winter’s night. But keep in mind that anything you use in your van that generates heat is going to draw a lot of power from your electrical system.
This means that you’ll want to keep a close eye on your battery levels. You will want to get an efficient blanket. And you will want to limit the usage to a few minutes at night before going to sleep and a few minutes in the morning. Many 12V electric blankets come with timers so they’ll switch off automatically, preventing you from draining your batteries.
If your van connects to shore power you’ll have more flexibility. Some electric blankets are battery-powered so you don’t need to worry about it impacting your van’s battery system.
Tips For Staying Warm
Another hack to stay warm is to use a hot water bottle. Most pharmacies carry these or you can use a Nalgene bottle wrapped in a towel. Fill it with hot water and put it in your sleeping bag. The heat will radiate for hours.
You can help stay warm by adding fat to what you’re eating. This might be a spoonful of butter to your coffee or some coconut oil to your soup. You can store some hand warmers in various places throughout your van.
If all else fails, you can run your van’s engine and the heater in the cab to warm things up for a few minutes.
The various methods of staying warm thus far can be effective for shorter periods and certain cold temperatures. Spending extended periods in very cold temperatures, 30s Fahrenheit and below, and you’re going to want a dedicated heater in your van.
If you’ll only find yourself in colder climates for brief periods, you might be able to get away with using a portable heater such as a Mr. Buddy propane unit. But these units are far from perfect and a built-in unit is often a better choice.
A built-in heater doesn’t require you to frequently change out portable fuel canisters. This is more affordable and more convenient. Being built into the design of your van means it doesn’t take up space when in use (or when stored away in the garage). Built-in heaters don’t need you to be mindful about an open flame in your living space (such as the case with a Mr. Buddy heater).
Most built-in heaters go underneath the passenger seat with the hot air flowing backward into the living space. This is not always the case as there is an argument to place the heater back in the garage. If you’ll be spending long periods in freezing temperatures, you might consider placing your heater in the garage. If your water and electrical system are in the garage (as it often is), you’ll want to avoid these systems from freezing. You don’t want your water to freeze and if your batteries freeze they won’t charge correctly. For this reason, some van lifers will choose to place their heater in the garage to prevent these systems from freezing.
Before diving into specific heaters, a quick note on elevation. If you know you’ll be visiting areas of high elevation and expect to use your heater, you’ll need to research this in advance. At higher elevations, oxygen levels are different so the burn rates on heaters need adjustment.
Now let’s explore the various types of heaters and the pros and cons of each.
Diesel / Gas Heaters (Webasto, Espar, or Budget)
- Most affordable after install
- Dry heat / low levels of condensation
- Expensive purchase and installation costs
- Difficult installation
- Requires routine cleaning and maintenance
Diesel and gas heaters heat an exchanger coil inside a combustion chamber that warms the air. If you have a diesel van this heater can tap into your main fuel supply. If you operate a gas van but want to use a diesel heater, you’ll need to install a separate diesel tank. Depending on the settings, you can run one of these heaters for 20-50 hours on one gallon of fuel.
The heat produced is dry, meaning that it’s not creating as much condensation as you’d get from an open flame such as a Mr. Buddy propane heater. Diesel and gas cost about half as much as propane, but burn dirtier than propane. This means that carbon will build up and you’ll need to clean and maintain these heaters every year. Not a small or easy job.
Installing a diesel or gas heater is not an easy task. You need to drill a hole in your van for exhaust. If you’re confident in your abilities you can install this yourself. Otherwise, you’ll want to hire a professional.
Webasto is a German company that has been making reliable quality heaters since 1935. They come with a Multicontrol programmable thermostat. It can schedule when the heater will turn on or off. Great if you’ll be out hiking or skiing all day and want the van to be warm when you return.
Webasto heaters are quite noisy. Most van lifers say that they get used to the noise and if you do find it a serious issue, you can install a noise silencer. One thing to keep in mind with the noise level is its impact on your ability to remain stealthy. If you plan to stealth camp on residential streets, it’s a dead giveaway if you have a noisy heater running. Even with the noise silencer installed, it’s directing the noise outside. So while you may not hear it inside your vehicle, it will be heard outside.
This 2kW Webasto heater produces 6,820 BTU of heat and runs at 13-30W of power.
While I haven’t owned a Webasto, in my research there were more complaints of it malfunctioning than the Espar diesel heater.
Espar is another German company that has been manufacturing heaters since 1977. The most popular Espar model for van lifers is the Airtronic D2 Air Heater.
Unlike Webasto, Espar has a night-time operating mode that quiets the heater down while you’re sleeping.
Most of the Espar heaters come with a Digi-Max controller. This is a digital display that shows temperature and maintenance information.
This 2.2kW Espar heater produces up to 7,500 BTU of heat and runs at 8-34W of power.
Budget (Chinese / Russian)
I typically wouldn’t recommend a budget option for something as critical as a heater. But over the last few years budget diesel heaters have been gaining a significant following. There are so many happy customers and these cost a small fraction of the Webasto and Espar heaters. So this list wouldn’t be complete without including them.
These heaters likely won’t come with English instructions or have a reliable warranty. But there is a sizeable Facebook group of customers that will likely be able to answer any installation or troubleshooting questions that you have about them.
I didn’t seriously consider purchasing one of these for my van build. But given how popular they’ve gotten over the last few years and how much more affordable they are, I’d consider one for a future van build. Here’s an article we wrote on Chinese diesel heaters.
I’ve heard good things about the Happybuy brand, but I’d recommend doing your own research. This Facebook group is a wealth of information.
Propane (Propex / Mr. Buddy Portable)
- Quietest heater
- Propane is a cleaner fuel than gas or diesel
- Doesn’t need annual maintenance or cleaning
- Requires a large propane tank
- CO2 risk
- Propane is more expensive than diesel or gas
Propane heaters are popular amongst van lifers because propane is convenient to find and other van systems often already use propane. This means it’s easy to tap into an existing system.
Mr. Buddy Portable Propane Heater
A common choice for van lifers who only need to temporarily use their heater or are on a budget. This heater can pack away when not in use and is easy to operate. 1lb of fuel will last four hours with the heat on low.
Because this heater uses an open flame, you’ll need to be very careful about where you place it and will not want to run it all night long. As this heater is burning propane, you’ll need to have a carbon monoxide detector and proper ventilation.
Unlike the built-in heater options above, the portable Mr. Buddy heater puts out wet heat. This means there will be a lot more condensation buildup when running it. It’s important to ventilate the air in your van to both keep the condensation levels down as well as limit the amount of carbon monoxide.
If you decide to use a Mr. Buddy heater, make sure that it has a low-oxygen shut-off sensor and a tip-over switch. This will turn it off if the oxygen levels get too low or if it tips over.
There is also the Mr. Buddy Little Buddy heater which is an even smaller version of the Mr. Buddy heater. This is unlikely to heat your entire van but is an option for certain circumstances or as a backup solution.
Propex Propane Heater
The Propex propane heater is a built-in unit like the diesel heaters in the sections above. Propex heaters are quieter than diesel heaters and don’t need cleaning and annual maintenance.
The Propex heater has external ventilation. This means it won’t contribute as much to condensation buildup or be as much of a carbon monoxide risk as a Mr. Buddy heater.
The two most common Propex heaters are:
- HS2000 which installs horizontally inside the vehicle
- HS2211 which installs inside or outside the vehicle in a variety of orientations
If you’re going with a Propex heater you might consider getting a sensor that monitors your propane tank levels. It’s pretty annoying to have your propane heater go off at 2 am and wake up freezing cold. This sensor attaches to the bottom of your propane tank and allows you to track propane levels on a smartphone app that connects via Bluetooth.
For my van build I went with a Propex HS2000 heater and it was one of the biggest comfort upgrades I made. I chose a propane heater because my stove already ran on propane and I knew that I wanted the option to stealth park. Thus I wanted the quietest heater I could get. I also didn’t want to deal with the cleaning and maintenance that went with a diesel heater.
One downside to having a Propex heater is that you’ll need to store a sizeable propane tank somewhere in your van. Most often it goes in the garage. If you go with a small, unconventional-size tank, you’ll need to consider how you’ll refill it. Likely needing to find a propane refill location that is open, go through the hassle of getting it custom refilled, etc.
I went with a standard 20lb tank as these exchange easily at many gas stations, Walmarts, and pharmacies. Propane tanks need to be stored in a propane locker for safety reasons.
- Dry heat
- Huge power draw
- Not as powerful as other options
Electric heaters use electricity to heat your van. These are not common options for van lifers because they use too much power. By using an electric heater often you’ll be draining your batteries so they’ll need replacement more frequently.
The only circumstances in which an electric heater might be a viable solution would be:
- You frequently find yourself using shore power (external electrical hookups) or a generator. Thus you wouldn’t be running the electric heater off of your batteries.
- You only plan to run your electric heater for very short periods or as a backup heat source.
- Cozy and comfortable dry heat
- Inexpensive to operate
- Requires wood (finding, chopping, and storing)
- Takes up a lot of space
- Expensive purchase and installation costs
- Not stealth
- Fire hazard
- Can invalidate insurance
While it might sound romantic to have a wood-burning stove in your van, it’s a pretty inconvenient option. First off, the constant need to find wood, chop it down to a small enough size to fit into a tiny wood-burning stove, and keep it stoked is a hassle. Do you want to get up in the middle of the night to add more wood to the stove?
I’m also reminded of something I heard from another nomad out on the road. If you carry wood in your rig, you’re also carrying bugs because every piece of firewood has bugs inside of it. Not to mention the amount of space that a wood stove and firewood will take up in your van. Smoke rising from a chimney eliminates any option of being stealthy. Not to mention everything you own will smell of smoke.
Wood stoves are expensive to buy and need an intricate installation with a heat shield to operate safely. The wind drag of a stove pipe when driving down the road is a recipe for damage, thus routine maintenance is a requirement. Lastly, it’s quite possible that by having a wood stove in your van you’ll be invalidating your insurance.
Condensation and Moisture
These are constant issues that you’ll be dealing with living in a van regardless of what you do. Even under the best of circumstances, you’ll likely wake up in the morning with some condensation on the windows. This is because you’ve been breathing out carbon monoxide all night while sleeping. Most of the heating options provided in this guide will provide dry heat, other than propane.
The Propex heater is externally ventilated so it’s better, but the Mr. Buddy heater will add a lot of moisture to your van. One way to reduce moisture in your van is to crack a window or two and run your fan to ventilate the area. You can also use humidity capture bags and take off the window covers 15 minutes before leaving to dry out the condensation with a towel.
Without a doubt, installing a heater was the number one thing I did to improve the comfort level in my van. There’s nothing like being able to push a button and start blowing warm air when it’s cold outside. That said, there are a variety of risks associated with having a heater so it’s important to take precautions:
- Install a carbon monoxide detector, propane alarm (if using propane), and smoke alarm
- Get your heater installed by a professional unless you’re confident in your ability to install it correctly
- Read your heater’s manual thoroughly
- Keep a fire extinguisher nearby in case of an emergency
This article has shown you that there are many ways to stay warm inside your van, even if the external temperature is uncomfortably cold.
Now that we’ve got your van life heating covered, go check out our ultimate beginner’s guide to van life.