We have found that the best way to stay warm when living in a van is to have a small propane heater. This not only keeps us cozy in our vehicle, but it’s portable, doesn’t use up any electricity and best of all…it’s cheap. We are able to keep ourselves nice and toasty for about ten bucks a month. Not too shabby!
Do you consider the months between November and May to be hell, or is it just me?
Van living is a wonderful and freeing experience for those of us with a nomadic lifestyle. I can afford to work as little, or as much as I would like; I can explore fun new locations, and I can afford to go out to dinner or a movie when I want. Unfortunately, with that freedom comes a price, and that price is temperature control.
In this article, I’m going to share six tips to survive the winter living in your van.
Personally, I would love to just drive south for the winter, but my boyfriend does have a day job that he has to stay in town for which means we get to enjoy cold winter nights snuggled up together.
Turning the heat up in your van isn’t as easy as walking over to the thermostat and cranking it up to 90 like you would in a house. Heating a van takes a little more finesse and you’ll have to be a little more careful with your methods.
1. Making Sure Your Van is Well Insulated
Just like you would in a house, you want to insulate the inside of your van and that starts with the build out. Before you think about how cool the ceiling is going to look, or what kind of custom cabinetry you want, you need to think about the stuff that goes between your walls and the frame of your van.
Lining the interior with a Polyiso Insulated Foam piece before putting your interior walls in will make a world of difference when it comes to keeping you warm in the winter and cool in the summer. It basically turns your van into a Styrofoam cooler on wheels. Not only will it keep you warm, but it’ll also give you a bit of extra sound-proofing which will help out when you want to watch a movie while stealth camping and don’t have headphones handy.
When we purchased our van, the build-out was already done, so we had to come up with a few more creative solutions to try to keep the heat in.
2. Window Coverings
In addition to thick light blocking curtains, you can buy sheets of this neat stuff called Reflectix. It’s very easy to use! All you need to do is cut it with scissors to fit over your window, tape it in place, and you’re done.
It’s an easy and cheap way to boost the temp 10 or more degrees in the winter.
3. Consider Carpeting Over Laminate Flooring
Our van came with beautiful laminate flooring which looked so lovely in the summer when we bought it; but as soon as November came, we realized it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Stepping onto that ice-cold surface early in the morning after you’ve slept in a cozy bed, will wake you up faster than a cup of coffee!
After deciding that fleece lined socks weren’t cutting it anymore, we decided to get a cheap area rug from Ikea and place a nonskid pad, like this one, underneath it. It has worked wonders for us. Not only does it hold that rug in place all the time, but it’s super soft, and feels wonderful under my feet.
4. Sleeping Bags and Wearing Layers
My next tip is a no-brainier, but I’ll go into it anyways. Dressing warmly is always your first line of defense against that bitter winter cold. Fleece and wool items should always be priority number one.
Invest in a solid set of thermal lined long johns. I am partial to a brand called Cuddle Duds. I think I have probably 3 pairs that I’m constantly rotating, but I can’t recommend them highly enough! Though, any pair in which you feel comfortable will work. Also, hats, scarves, and fuzzy socks will be lifesavers for sure!
We keep a nice memory foam topper on our bed, and to top it off, each of us also has our own sleeping bag rated for low temperatures. Snuggling is great and all, but when you have a partner that steals your blankets like I do, you’ll be thankful you have your own bag.
When all else fails and the insulation and warm clothes bring you no relief, there are a few real heater options for you to use.
5. Hot Water Bottles:
No longer just for grandmothers and menstrual cramps, hot water bottles are a cheap and effective method for braving the winter cold. All you need is a kettle, a hot water bottle, and you’re guaranteed a solid 6 hours of warmth. If you don’t have a hot water bottle, you could use a Nalgene bottle or something similar as long as it’s rated for hot liquids. Make sure the water you pour into your vessel isn’t boiling, and always wrap the bottle in a towel so as not to burn yourself!
6. Heater Options:
- Electric Heaters- These come standard in most RV setups, but can burn through your battery reserves pretty quick in a van. If you are boondocking out in the middle of nowhere and you have a generator on hand, they do work quite nice. But again, they’re not something we regularly use since we are often parked on city streets and try to conserve as much energy as possible.
- Wood Stoves- Honestly, I had no idea this was an option, but I’ve read more and more stories about
people installing wood-burning stoves into their vans. I found a great video on Youtube the other day about this couple in Finland, and they show the entire install process. They make it look incredibly easy and it’s something I might consider for the future. Again, probably not the best option if you’re trying to park discreetly in a neighborhood, but it’s great if you spend a lot of time dispersed camping in the woods.
- Propane Heaters- This is by far my favorite option. There are a myriad of different models out there, but the Portable Buddy Heater from Mr. Heater is by far my favorite. Propane is cheap which means we can heat the entire van for long periods of time and not have to pay a bunch of money to do it. It doesn’t drain any power, and it’s also what we use to fuel the stove in the kitchen. When we’re done cooking we just hook the line up to the heater and go nuts.
Of course, with great heat, comes great responsibility!
When using propane heaters in an enclosed space you need to be incredibly careful about carbon monoxide build-up, and accidental fires. Nothing tells a city to ban van dwellers faster than a propane-fueled explosion in the middle of the night!
Van Heating and Safety
The great thing about the Buddy Heater I listed above is its ample safety features. Not only does it auto shut off if you bump it, but it also has an oxygen sensor on it, so if you don’t have proper ventilation it’ll shut down. Either way, you’ll want to invest in a carbon monoxide detector, but at least you’ll have a little extra piece of mind.
As with any of these options, you never want to leave them on while you’re sleeping. The ideal situation is only using it an hour before bed, and maybe first thing in the morning When you wake up. Safety is paramount, and you have to be a little more aware of it when you live in a vehicle than you would if you were in an apartment. If a fire breaks out, it’ll spread fast and since you’re in such a tight space, it could all be over in an instant.
My last point here is that with all of these heating options, you’ll also want to be careful about condensation. Build up on your windows is one thing, but when it builds up inside your walls, it’s a whole other issue entirely. Unfortunately, this is one lesson we had to learn that hard way.
After our first winter, I started to notice our walls felt a little soft in some places. We purchased some small dehumidifiers thinking that would do the trick, but alas, a few months later, I noticed the walls starting to split.
This is something that could have easily been avoided with a few quick modifications during the build-out process, as well as proper ventilation inside the van.
This will eventually lead to us having to rip those walls out and redo them, but at the end of the day, we learned an important lesson.
ALWAYS HAVE PROPER VENTILATION IN YOUR VAN!!
Yes, even when you’re sleeping, you’ll need to keep a window or two cracked. I know it sucks because it’s cold out and you think you’re just letting the cold in, but in the long run, you’ll be much happier not having mold growing in your tight living quarters.
Regularly check under your mattress, in corners, and under cupboards for hidden moisture buildup that could lead to mold. Leaving condensation unchecked will quickly destroy the interior of your nomadic home on wheels.
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