Van Life in Cold Weather and the Winter While Vandwelling, Guide
If you’re living the van life in any weather already or you’re in the planning stages of making the transition and looking for ways to survive and thrive cold weather during the winter you’re in the right place! Whether you can’t chase 70 degrees because of your job or you’re chasing fresh powder on the slopes this is the winter van life guide to read.
Winter & Cold Weather Heating Options
There are two types of heating options available for living the van life and we will divide them between unvented and vented for the purposes of this guide. Unvented heaters are inferior for a number of reasons but they are also cheaper to get started with. Over time vented heaters may be more cost effective.
Read this guide thoroughly along with the manual for your heater. Always consult a professional if you find yourself confused, never chance it.
Unvented propane heaters require ventilation even if it’s cold outside. Always have a carbon monoxide detector in good working order, and test it regularly regardless of which type of heat source you go with.
You can read more about carbon monoxide, related hazards, symptoms and more over at the CDC.
Please keep a charged and working fire extinguisher. You can learn more about fire extinguisher types at OSHA.
Unvented Propane Heaters for Van Life
Pt. 1. Safety and outline
Unvented heaters generally use propane as fuel and their combustion requires oxygen in your living space to fuel their ongoing heat production.
Coincidentally, you also require oxygen to live. This means an unvented heater can be deadly if not used with open air access to the outside (cracked window, vent fan cracked, etc). This can not be stated enough, always follow the instructions that come with your unvented propane heaters.
Every year people die trying to run unvented heaters without providing ventilation to the outside, so remember, if it isn’t ventilated you need to provide ventilation, even if it’s cold out. I do not recommend attempting to sleep with these types of heaters on.
The unvented heater options we will be discussing here require propane, which naturally produces some amount of moisture. Moisture can be your enemy in cold weather as it gets into the walls of your build and causes mold and water damage if not properly vented to the outside.
Often moisture will begin to accumulate on exposed metal and windows before dripping down into crevices in your house on wheels. This is the secondary reason (of course, staying alive is the first) for why you absolutely need to provide ventilation for these kinds of heaters.
Pay close attention to clearance requirements (in front of, to the side, below, and above) for the unvented propane heater you purchase and always obey these directives. Failure to do so could cause a serious fire, in a vehicle, with a tank designed to hold highly combustible gasoline along with a propane source- which can cause serious injury or death.
Always secure your unvented propane heater and fuel source so it doesn’t tip over or get knocked over if someone runs into your vehicle. Never use it while driving.
Be sure to check all propane fittings and hoses for leaks with soapy water in a spray bottle regularly. If any of the fittings begin to bubble it means they are leaking, turn off your propane source, vent the area and replace the parts or tighten immediately. If you smell propane, turn everything off right away, vent the space and leave as soon as possible.
As stated earlier, a carbon monoxide detector in good working order that is tested regularly is required.
Pt 2. Mr. Heater’s Buddy Series – Ventilation required
The cheapest and most popular option in the van life community is the Mr. Heater’s Buddy Series of heaters, otherwise known as the Mr Buddy Heater or Mr Heater Buddy. This heater is propane fueled and designed for indoor use with proper ventilation.
Most models in this line feature a safety shut off sensor in the event that the heater falls over or tips. Assuming you’ve secured the unit, you shouldn’t have to rely on the shut off switch. The heat produced will still be enough to start a fire if the unit tips over so do not rely on this alone.
Low oxygen sensors are also a feature some of these heaters are equipped with, but they should not be your first line of defense. Always ventilate and never wait for a low oxygen sensor to kick off the heater. Do you really want to put your life in the hands of a sensor? Probably not. I know I wouldn’t.
The heater is equipped to handle between one and two small canisters (single lb) of propane depending on the model but fittings exist that can be purchased to connect a larger propane tank for more use between refills which tends to be the most cost effective method.
The low oxygen sensor has been known to cause issues at higher elevations where oxygen is already low, so for applications like cold weather snow sports above 10,000 ft I would recommend using the next option instead.
Pt. 3. Camco’s Olympian Wave Series – Ventilation required
Camco’s Olympian Wave Series heaters are another popular choice for cold weather. The catalytic system uses a complex chemical process to produce heat which results in lower propane consumption and less moisture than the Mr Heater Buddy series.
These heaters do not take small canisters and typically require a special camco low pressure propane hose to run properly. This heater is probably the best unvented heater on the market, especially if you’re going for fresh powder at high elevations.
As this heater does not consume as much fuel it will be the cheaper and better option over the long run, compared to the cheaper Mr. Buddy. The price on average for these heaters are typically much higher than Camco’s Mr Heater Buddy offerings but the fuel savings will pay you back with your use.
Olympian Wave heaters have mounting holes on their back surface and can be mounted and secured.
Be sure to read the manual for clearance, mounting and ventilation requirements. Even though this heater is more fuel efficient it still requires ventilation to the outside of your vehicle.
Without being too redundant, a carbon monoxide detector is required for this application as well.
You will want to cover this heater after it has cooled and is off, when not in use, as debris collecting on the surface of the heating element can damage the chemical reaction responsible for producing heat over time.
Pt. 4. Propane Storage – Ventilation required
Depending on where you’re staying, you may be able to store such a tank outside of the vehicle. If you are to employ the use of a propane tank it may be advisable to look into deals for used campervan propane tanks rated for use and mounting on a moving vehicle, those that are typically found on a recreational vehicle. These can be fitted and installed as the safest solution. These are the only two methods that I personally endorse for the purposes of this guide.
I discourage the use of larger tanks designed for grills in this kind of winter / van life application but if you are set on it, be sure they are stored in an airtight area with ventilation out of the bottom of the vehicle for propane to “fall” (propane is heavier than air so it sinks out of the vehicle through a ventilation hole) in the case of a leak.
If you go this route be mindful of vehicle exhaust location and other heated parts and be absolutely sure they will be secure in the event of an accident. Still, these tanks are not designed and rated for crashes like their RV counterparts, meaning I can not personally endorse this method for safety reasons.
If you depend on smaller single pound propane bottles be mindful of where you store these. The ideal location for these would be outside of the van in a hitch mounted cargo box or something similar. Always use these canisters entirely before disconnecting them from the unit, as they are known for occasional sticking valves that can slowly leak out deadly propane.
Vented Heaters for Vandwelling
While vented propane is an option for people with deep pockets looking to transfer a system out into their setup, we will mainly be concentrating on vented heaters that fuel via the main vehicle fuel reserve tank.
I will mention that one popular vented aftermarket option does exist for propane. Propex heaters can be installed inside and outside of the vehicle depending on the model. These do not produce moisture and generally cost around $700 assuming you’re installing them yourself.
Pt. 1. Safety and Outline
The vented heaters we will be discussing operate by consuming diesel fuel from the vehicle’s main tank but variations exist that can run on gasoline as well. Early on gasoline options were quite rare but are becoming more plentiful and accessible as different companies compete.
These are by far the safest kinds of heaters for cold weather use as they are vented to the outside, only consuming oxygen from the outside environment to produce heat inside. You won’t have to worry about your heat source consuming the oxygen you need to survive.
If you skipped to this section, be sure to use a carbon monoxide detector and follow all directives found in the product manual.
Typically these heaters carry a higher price-tag and some models will require at least some electrical source for thermostats and other electronics, please research thoroughly before you buy.
Personally I find the higher price tag worth it because you can’t put a price on safety when dealing with cold weather. Many large companies outfit their work vehicles with these for their employees and rely on them every day, so that should speak to their safety in the scope of using them for van life in the winter.
For the purposes of this guide we will cover two of the most popular vented options available on the market. These two options comprise a vast majority of vented heater installs in the van life community at this point in time.
Pt. 2. Webasto Heaters
The pricier option is of the two is the Webasto solution, but with the name comes reliability and reputation. These heaters may cost upwards of $1,400 to have installed by a professional. If you know what you’re doing, the install the cost may come down substantially. Webasto dealer searches can be done on their locator tool. Typically their dealers can perform installs on site.
These heaters can be optioned out with digital thermostats for an additional fee.
Pt. 3. Happybuy Heaters
If you know of a reputable place that has experience doing these kinds of installs, or you know how to do one yourself a cheaper option exists on Amazon. These are extremely similar to what Webasto offers and come in both gasoline and diesel versions.
The brand goes by the name of Happybuy. I personally know a number of dwellers and van lifers that use these heaters with no issues so I will include them here, but please keep in mind that this company is relatively new in the space.
Pt. 4. The Verdict
Overall I strongly recommend the use of a vented heater if you’re serious about planning and making the van life happen. These vented heaters are well reviewed, safe and used every day in professional settings.
There’s no headaches about finding a used rv propane tank, dealing with moisture, providing your own ventilation and so many other problems related to unvented heater options.
These heaters require far too much electricity to often be sensible for your average application. In theory you could plug one into a generator and run it this way but the cost effectiveness of this is questionable at best. Another possibility is to rent out an RV spot where you can plug an electric heater in.
Doing this would require the purchase of the heater, a properly rated extension cord and a conversion for the type of outlet provided at the RV park. If you can afford it and happen to be in a single location for a while, it might be worth it. An added benefit of electric heaters is that they do not produce moisture.
Multiple heat sources can save your life. Cold weather alone is enough to kill, so you need to respect it as such. Keep multiple sources of emergency heat and remember, redundancy is always best. A simple camp stove can be an emergency heat source.
A basic fire-starting kit with some lighters, matches, flint and fire starting bricks can save your life in a bad situation.
If you have a vented heater, considering carrying a spare unvented heater in the event that you encounter problems. Keep in mind, the vehicle itself as an additional redundant source of heat.
If you have a non-electric cooktop and follow this advice you would have already amassed four sources of heat in case of an emergency for a winter time mishap. Don’t ever rely on a single, or even two sources of heat to save your life.
The topic of proper winter attire often gets a lot of debate among the hiking, backpacking and van life communities so I will outline my experience, having personally worked atop a mountain in the rockies during the winter while staying in my camper van.
I will not lay out materials too much here or tell you what strategy you have to use, just that layers are key. Everyone has their own comfort zone and preferences. In general I want this guide to work for everyone.
An under-layer is essential. I recommend under-layers designed for snowboarding and other winter sports, ones rated for very cold weather. These are generally comfortable to wear (in most circumstances) along with a hoodie, long sleeve shirt, pants and a good winter coat.
Covering your ears will help reduce your heat loss substantially, so look into knitted caps and beanies. If you can find materials that break the force of the wind, I would recommend it.
I personally prefer to use a down puffy rated for cold weather and wool or synthetic options when possible. Avoid cotton at all costs as the material tends to hold moisture and needs washed much more frequently.
Of course, keep proper footwear suited for the weather. A good practice is to keep a pair of slippers for inside and have an area to take off your outside footwear.
Finding the proper mix for sleeping doesn’t have to be difficult while the winter while doing this van life thing. Be sure not to fall asleep with any unvented heater running. If you have condensation issues you may need to crack a window. Read on for the basics.
A down or synthetic sleeping bag or quilt is a must for sleeping in cold weather. Be sure to choose options from reputable and well reviewed brands. You will want a layer below you and the sleeping platform as well to help retain heat if you go with a quilt or comforter.
As is the case with clothing, layering is the answer so be sure to have on hand at least a few layers you can apply if needed. Foam mattress pads will usually insulate better over a traditional box spring mattress. Keep proper airflow under your mattress by constructing your bed with slats or drilling holes to prevent moisture build up.
Wearing a hoodie or a hat that covers the ears can help retain your body heat and keep you well rested. If you have a cat, dog or van life partner the additional heat is definitely a huge plus in the cold. A simple water bottle with hot water and a tightly fitted cap can be placed at the foot of your sleeping bag or sleeping arrangement to help keep you comfortable all night long as well.
I recommend keeping a small shovel, a tow strap, battery jump box, extra windshield wiper fluid, and other roadside emergency items you might normally carry. Winter emergency roadside kits can be purchased at most auto outlets and box stores.
Tow straps can be critical to retrieving your vehicle from patches of ice or snow during cold weather winter events.
Depending on where you’re going during the winter, tire chains may be wise to have as well. Also as mentioned earlier an emergency fire kit and multiple sources of heat are a must-have when the weather dips. Always make sure you have a way to reach emergency services if needed.
Depending on where you are this means something as simple as having access to a cell phone or as complicated as purchasing a dedicated GPS distress beacon.
If you do go with a heating option above, be sure to check how well your heat source keeps up with the outside temperature and prepare accordingly for the weather. Again, the less exposed metal and glass the better you’ll be at avoiding condensation situations.
Please don’t be the statistic that goes without a carbon monoxide detector or proper ventilation. Life can be good living the van life, and being here to enjoy it is something I highly recommend.
I’ve personally done this over winter, even in some really harsh weather and have come out alive while rarely having experienced discomfort, if any. With a little ingenuity you will be just fine on the road.
Make sure you follow instructions in product manuals and do additional research if needed. Don’t let any of the information here discourage you, but rather let it act as solutions to allow you to enjoy van life no matter where you find yourself.
Surely, few things in life are as good as waking up to a snow covered mountain during the winter and being the first one on the slopes, even if it’s a bit cold!