Wherever you park, there may come a time when you want (or need) heat in your camper van. Even in the middle of summer, you can easily experience a cold night caused by coastal winds, high elevation, or a cold front coming through.
Trust me – I once found myself stuck in a snowstorm at the peak of a mountain pass in Utah! As I fishtailed my van into a rest stop parking lot, I realized I needed to stay there for the night. Without a portable heater, I used my camp stove and my selk’bag to get me through the night. (I didn’t run my camp stove all night, but periodically to make tea and warm my hands!)
If I had a proper camper heater, my night could have been a bit more pleasant.
But what campervan heating system suits you the best? There are four main types of van heating systems that vary in cost, functionality, efficiency and safety:
1. Propane heaters
2. Electric heaters / blankets
3. Diesel heaters
4. Wood stoves
Let’s dive into the best heating method for your campervan.
Propane, Electric, Wood, Diesel–Which Heater is Best for You?
The right option for you will depend on how you use your camper van. If your van has electrical hookups and you’re camping with access to a power source (e.g. a state park campground), then electric heaters are a great way to go. But many vanlifers won’t have that option.
Propane heaters are a very popular choice because they are easy to use and they won’t break the bank. But if you have a little more money to put into your camper van, a wood stove or a diesel heater may be an attractive option. Woodstoves actually put out more heat than many expect (and are very cozy), but a diesel heater can heat your space more efficiently. Let’s take a closer look at each of these methods.
Top Camper Heater Picks
Propane Heaters for Camper Vans
Propane heaters run on liquid propane, the same stuff that many vanlifers already use to run their stoves and grills. This is another benefit, as you may already have propane at hand. If you don’t, propane is very easy to find and relatively inexpensive to use for heating.
There are drawbacks, though. The main drawback is that these heaters can create carbon monoxide if they are not properly ventilated. Also, propane heaters can cause condensation in your van, and prolonged exposure to moisture can create mildew.
– Easy to use
– Propane is easy to find
– Risk of carbon monoxide poisoning
– Condensation can occur
My Top Propane Heater Pick
Mr. Buddy Heater
This is one of the most popular portable heaters used by vanlifers. It’s an open-flame heat source that is inexpensive (currently $90), indoor-safe and runs on 1 lb. propane tanks. The heater can easily heat up a small van or small RV quickly and will automatically turn off if tipped over, the pilot light turns off, or low oxygen levels are detected.
The Buddy heater is powered by propane (no plugin or batteries are necessary). Igniting the pilot light turns it “on”, which you do by opening the propane valve and hitting the big button to create a spark and create the flame.
But you should only use this heater with proper ventilation and a carbon monoxide detector installed. Even though it’s marketed as indoor-safe, you can never be too careful. I’ve heard stories of campers accidentally burning down their home on wheels because they left their Buddy heater running unattended…
Electric Heaters for Camper Vans
Electric heaters are a fantastic option for heating your camper van. They plug into regular power outlets and come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. Those same space heaters that people use in their homes and offices can be used for heating a camper van.
But your van battery won’t be able to run an electric heater for very long, which means that you will need an outside power source. For many vanlifers that is a dealbreaker, but never fear, there is another option. Electric blankets that run off of cigarette lighters won’t draw so much of your power and can be a great option for keeping you toasty at night.
– Very inexpensive
– Widely available
– A range of models and power levels
– Actual heating units will require an outside power source
– Blankets are the only option without outside power
My Top Electric Heater Picks
Car Cozy 2 - 12V Heated Travel Blanket
This electric blanket plugs into your vehicle’s cigarette lighter and is big enough for two people to use. While this is a super low-maintenance and low-power option for road travelers, it’s probably only ideal for those in really small overlanding rigs. Because if you’re in an RV or campervan, chances are your bed will be in the back and the electric blanket’s cord won’t reach to the front where the cigarette lighter plug is located.
But if you use a portable battery (such as the Jackery 240) you could plug into the battery and keep it by your bed.
Caframo True North Heater
This is a corded electric heater that packs a punch, with a slightly higher price tag (~$128) than the electric blanket. It has a built-in adjustable thermostat with anti-freeze setting that will automatically come on at 38F degrees. The Caframo True North heater uses forced air method to help disperse the heat (think of a fan blowing the warm air away from the unit). Unlike the Mr. Buddy heater, the warmth doesn’t just stay by the unit.
That being said, this heater will make more noise than the Mr. Buddy heater due to its fan that helps disperse the warm air.
Diesel Heaters for Camper Vans
Diesel heaters are a great option for heating your van. Diesel is relatively cheap and burns much more efficiently than propane because it’s denser, so it takes less per BTU to heat the same amount. Diesel can be slightly harder to find than propane since it isn’t always available at local grocery stores or gas stations, but since it burns slower, you won’t need to refill as often as you would with propane.
Diesel heaters also produce much lower levels of carbon monoxide than propane heaters, making them a slightly safer option. But typically, heater units can be pricey and more complex to set up than, say, an electric blanket that just needs to be plugged in.
– Fuel is cheap and easy to find
– Better job at providing heat
– Easy to control with thermostat and remote
– More difficult to install
My Top Diesel Heater Pick
Happybuy 5KW Diesel Air Heater
The Happybuy 5KW diesel heater is specifically designed for RV motorhomes, trailers and campervans. It also uses a forced air system to help disperse warm air throughout your rig without depositing carbon into the environment. This heater also comes with an LCD display and remote control setup that let’s you turn it on from outside your rig, so you can heat up your rig by the time you’re in there. I don’t super recommend using this feature just to be safe, but it’s an option.
Since it has a remote control, you can turn it on and off from your bed–no need to get up!
Wood Stove Heaters for Camper Vans
Wood stoves are small, enclosed fireplaces. They burn cut firewood to heat your camper van. Firewood is relatively cheap to find and easy to use. But installing a properly ventilated wood stove will take a bit more time and money than a propane heater.
Many vanlifers want a wood stove for more than just heat. It sure sounds cozy to curl up with a book and a glass of wine by the fire. But there are also risks that come with having a wood fire in an enclosed space, so make sure to properly install your stove.
– Easy to use
– Can run all night
– Aesthetically pleasing
– Wood is inexpensive and easy to find
– Can be expensive/time-consuming to install
– Must be ventilated properly
– Risk of fire and smoke
My Top Wood Stove Heater Pick
Guide Gear Outdoor Wood Burning Stove
Not only is the Guide Gear stove the most stylish of heating options, it will also impressively heat up a space for how small it is. And unlike a propane or diesel heater, you can keep the stove running all night for an incredibly toasty sleep.
Of course, you still need to make sure ventilation is set up correctly so your rig doesn’t fill with smoke. But since the wood stove is a permanent fixture in your rig, once it’s set up correctly it shouldn’t need to be constantly monitored like a propane or diesel heater needs.
Things to Consider Before Choosing a Heater for Your Van
As you know, the larger the van, the more heat you’ll need. Many heaters will tell you the recommended square footage they will heat.
A major factor, if not the chief factor for many vanlifers. If you don’t have much money in the bank, you may be looking more at propane heaters and electric blankets. If you have more to spend, you may want to go with a more elaborate build.
If you don’t have any help and aren’t build-savvy, propane heaters and electric options may be your only choice. While many wood-stoves and diesel heaters require more work, they may be easy installations for handy people.
A major issue with any heat source other than electric heat. Whether it’s wood or gas, if you’re burning fuel there will be fumes and/or smoke produced, and those can be deadly. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions and ventilate your heater properly.
Whether heat for your camper van is a seasonal issue or a year-round priority for you, having a way to heat your van is essential. Whether you choose propane, electric, wood, or diesel, be sure to install it properly and use it safely.