Having a heater in your camper van is essential for many van dwellers, and can make the difference between a comfortable living space and some uncomfortably cold nights. Of course which heater you decide to buy, and whether you decide to install one at all, depends on your personal needs, and a whole host of questions you need to ask yourself first.
Firstly, what type of climate will you be traveling through, and for how long? If you’re planning to head South for the winter or do a lot of summer traveling, a heater might not be a necessity for you. If you’ll be traveling throughout the winter, and to high altitudes, you’ll want to take this into account as not all heaters are capable of working at high altitudes due to lower oxygen levels, and you’ll want something powerful to take the edge off the cold.
Secondly, the size of your van will largely determine how powerful a heater you need, as some types spread heat better than others, so you wouldn’t want to install something designed to heat a minivan in your skoolie conversion, right?
Then there’s the practicalities to consider: the cost of installation and the cost of running, availability of your chosen heating fuel, and safety issues like ventilation and naked flames.
Additionally, having a properly insulated van, particularly the floor and ceiling, can make all the difference in trapping heat indoors, and will make sure you’re not throwing money out of the window by allowing the heat to dissipate instantly out of your van.
If this all seems a bit overwhelming don’t worry, we’ve compiled a breakdown of the different types of van heaters, their pros and cons, and our top three picks of each kind to help you make your decision.
A safety warning
Carbon monoxide is a tasteless, odorless gas that is poisonous and can be fatal at higher doses. Always get your heating system installation approved by a safety engineer, ensure the proper ventilation has been installed and make sure to install a carbon monoxide detector in your van.
+ Can run off van’s diesel supply (or independent fuel source)
+ Use 12V, low energy
+ Exhaust fumes are blown outside
+ Able to operate in lower temperatures
+ Low running costs
– Difficult to install (requires cutting hole in van for exhaust)
– Cheaper ones are prone to breaking
– Can be noisy
Diesel or gasoline heaters are a great, low energy consumption heating option for your van. They operate by drawing fuel and combusting it inside a heat exchanger then a fan blows the hot air into the room. They generally take a few minutes to reach peak heat, and most consume no more than 0.3L of fuel per hour as well as a very low 12V current, making them extremely efficient to run. Some are quieter than others, many operate as a night heater maintaining a constant temperature throughout the night, although these programmable heaters are significantly more expensive than manually operated ones.
While the wiring is usually fairly straightforward, running a fuel line into your van’s tank can be a tricky process, and installation will require cutting a hole in your van’s floor or wall through which the exhaust will be installed. Fortunately, a diesel or gasoline heater can be a fairly flexible option as many people opt to install them underneath their van’s seats or under the bed, so an independent fuel supply tank can also be installed alongside it, which eliminates the risk of accidentally running your main fuel tank low.
Our top three
Webasto Air Top 2000 STC diesel heater – $1,081 on Amazon
When it comes to diesel heaters Webasto is the go-to name, a German company who has been making heaters for vehicles since 1935. Their Air Top 2000 is a whisper-quiet, fully programmable diesel heater with a Rheostat temperature controller, and its tiny size makes it easy to install just about anywhere. It kicks out 2kW (6,820 BTU) of heat, consuming between 0.12 – 0.24L of diesel per hour and running at between 14 – 29W, consuming a tiny 1.16 – 2.4 amps per hour.
The Air Top 2000 comes with an optional 7 day timer which can be programmed to turn on as and when required; before you get out of bed in the morning, or half an hour before you return from your walk for example. It also comes with all of the necessary electrical harnesses and connections, pipes and a 60mm directional air outlet.
The only downside of course is the price. At just over $1000 this is a serious investment, but if you’re planning a ski season away, an epic winter adventure or maybe you have pets that need protecting from the cold it’s a worthwhile purchase. Another thing to note is that the Air Top will not function without the additional purchase of a Webasto MutliControl timer to turn it on and off, and that this control must be fitted in order for it to function at high altitudes.
Eberspacher Espar Airtronic D2 air heater – $1,285 on Amazon
Eberspächer, like Webasto, are one of the major players in the vehicle heating industry. Operating from their HQ in Germany since 1977, they have been supplying everything from air and water heaters to truck engine pre-warmers for over 40 years.
Their Airtronic D2 heater is a virtually silent, self-regulating diesel-fired heater capable of producing up to 2.2kW (7,500 BTU) of heat. It consumes between 8 – 34W of power and between 0.1 – 0.28L of diesel per hour, and comes with an electronic control and optional 7 day timer. All of the electrical harnesses and connections are provided but the exhaust clamps and muffler are not.
There seem to be virtually no drawbacks to the Airtronic D2 apart from the price, but again for anyone thinking of traveling long term through cold climates, or anyone who is particularly sensitive to the cold it’s a worthwhile, reliable and quality investment.
Happybuy 12V 3KW diesel air heater – $166 on Amazon
Before you run away screaming at the sight of a cheap Chinese knockoff, hear us out. Although we wouldn’t usually be recommending such cheap, unbranded technology, these cheap Chinese-made diesel heaters have built up somewhat of a cult following on the internet. They’re a bit hit and miss but also childishly easy to repair, and about a tenth of the price of anything else you can find online. Some people swear by them, others wouldn’t go near them. We’ve included one on this list so you can make up your own mind.
While not completely silent when running, the Happybuy diesel heater offers a competitively low fuel and energy consumption, albeit not as low as other heaters in this list. Its emissions do meet Euro 6 and American IV requirements though, and it can also be used as an engine pre-heater.
When running it consumes between 0.1 and 0.35L of fuel an hour, running on between 10.5 and 32V and using 0.7 amps of power. However this higher consumption is accounted for in the heater’s 3kW (10,230 BTU) output, and it comes with its own 10L fuel tank and air filter.
As a side note, these heaters are also able to run on either gasoline or diesel, and come with a control switch and all the necessary wiring. One thing they do lack however are English instructions, which seem to be a main gripe with them across the internet, although you can find plenty of helpful tutorials on Youtube. Buying a cheap Chinese diesel heater may seem like a gamble, but if it fits your budget and you know some basic electrics then why not give it a shot?
Propane Van Heaters
+ Uses van’s propane supply
+ Cheap to buy and run
+ No electrical draw
+ Can maintain a constant temperature
+ Operate in colder temperatures
– Create condensation
– Fire hazard
– Require ventilation
– Carbon monoxide risk
If power consumption is your main concern then a propane heater may be the way to go. They are generally portable heaters, silent, use very little propane to operate and heat up a space very quickly. Unfortunately, they also carry risks, such as carbon monoxide poisoning and fire, although they do come with built-in safety features to minimize these risks. Another issue is that they do create a lot of condensation in a small space, which is generally the opposite goal of having a heater in a van, but proper ventilation should reduce the amount of condensation and the risks of carbon monoxide gas build up.
Propane should also be stored externally to the van. An underslung LPG tank is a large initial investment but will make refueling cheap and easy with no risk. Any propane installation must be signed off by an engineer to guarantee its safety.
Our top three
Mr. Heater Buddy – $88.99 on Amazon
The Mr. Heater Buddy might just be one of the most popular propane heaters online, rated for its portability and safety features and offering a low gas consumption of between 0.044 and 0.099 gallons per hour. It can deliver between 4,000 and 9,000 BTU of heat and heat up to a 225 square foot area making it ideal for even the largest vans or buses. Its porcelain coated heating surface heats up in seconds and is built with shock-absorbing insulation, while its steel, plastic and nickel construction is lightweight and strong.
The Mr. Heater Buddy can run for up to 3 hours at a time and will shut off automatically if tipped over or if it detects low oxygen levels. It features a fold-down handle for carrying, and a swivel-out regulator connects to the propane tank.
The key with the Mr. Heater buddy is to allow plenty of ventilation or it will not work, and to be careful of the risks of carbon monoxide in a small space as well as not allowing anything to touch the open flame. Otherwise, it’s a solid, low cost choice for heating your van.
Camco 57331 Olympian Wave-3 Catalytic Heater – $170.55 on Amazon
The Olympian Wave-3 by Camco is another great portable heating option for your van. Although slightly less powerful and a bit more expensive than the Mr. Heater Buddy, this might suit someone who finds a more powerful propane heater heats up their van a little too intensely.
Consuming between 1/15lb and 1/8lb of gas per hour, the Camco heater delivers between 1600 and 3000 BTU of heat, and what’s more it can be wall-mounted to save on floor space. The catalytic heating element is up to 99.98% effective when compared to flame heaters, so it wastes virtually no propane when operating. Its main drawback however is the amount of ventilation area required, which often draws the heat out of the space and somewhat cancels out the heater’s functionality. However, it’s still a great quality option to consider.
Suburban 2438ABK Nt-16Seq furnace – $355 on Amazon
If you’re looking for something that fits neatly away inside your van instead of something that needs to be stored in a cupboard when driving then you might want to consider the Suburban 2438ABK nt-16Seq furnace. The unit can be fitted anywhere you might install a diesel heater, and the hot air is produced internally then exhausted through the furnace’s front grille.
It runs on 12V, draws just 2.7amps and delivers a toasty 16,000 BTU of heat. Its direct discharge and electronic ignition are completely safe to use, so it runs a lower fire risk than open front propane heaters, and runs extremely quietly. A Suburban thermostat can be purchased separately to control the heater. The only downside is that the heater casing is a little flimsy and if damaged can make contact with the rotating fan, creating a noise. But otherwise the Suburban furnace is a far safer and significantly hotter option for a propane heater, and the added advantage of being able to directly install it in a van is a huge plus.
Electric Van Heaters
+ Safe to use
+ No smell
+ No carbon monoxide risk
– Uses constant power
– Often require an electric hook up / shore power
– Aren’t available in 12V so require’s inverter
– High wattage
Electric heaters generally aren’t the most practical type of heating for a van, most importantly because they require a constant power draw. If you plan on living primarily off the grid then an electric heater isn’t going to be any good for you. That said, if you do plan on spending a lot of time on campsites which provide power, or if you have a mighty battery and solar set up, then having an electric heater to take the edge off at night could be a huge bonus. We wouldn’t recommend however using it as your primary source of heat.
There are many different types of electric heaters such as ceramic and oil-filled, offering different warm up speeds and heat outputs. Unfortunately, there does not yet seem to be any option for a 12V electric heater, so you will need to have an inverter with a peak output capable of running your chosen heater. Most come with built-in thermostats, although a programmable timer can also be purchased to program the heater to come on at different times of the day.
Our top three
AmazonBasics 500W ceramic personal mini heater – $15.99 on Amazon
This tiny 6” high heater from AmazonBasics offers the lowest wattage of any electric heater we could find, and is perfect for heating small spaces or the immediate area if you want to defrost your fingers. Its ceramic coils heat up within seconds and it runs particularly quietly. It has no temperature control but just a simple on/off switch and an automatic tip-over shut off for safety.
It’s also available in 4 different colors and at just $15.99 it’s a steal. The only problem is it’s really only suitable for smaller vans, and in anything larger than a Sprinter van it’s probably not going to do much to raise the temperature. However power consumption is very important to watch when you’re living off the grid, and this heater’s low wattage makes it about as economical an option as you can get, and an ideal back up to your primary heating source.
Andily space heater – $22.99 on Amazon
Although the Andily space heater consumes three times as much power as our first offering, it does heat a space far more efficiently with its built-in automatic temperature regulation, ceramic heater elements and adjustable thermostat. Standing at a slightly higher 8.3” tall it runs on 120V AC, consuming 750W on its lowest setting and 1500W on its highest, and weighs just 2.42lbs.
As with most electric heaters, it will shut off automatically if tipped over, and its power light lets you know when it’s still plugged in. The main issues seem to be that the Andily space heater can often be noisy when running, and it does not distribute the heat as evenly as other heaters. That said the noise does seem to be a design fault that is common but not present in all heaters, and for the price and the heat generated it will surely keep a small space toasty.
Costway oil-filled radiator – $41.99 on Amazon
The Costway oil-filled radiator is different to the aforementioned space heaters in many ways. First and foremost that its sealed oil-filled center will take a significantly longer time to heat up and the heat it generates is not instant but rather a long, slow heat that will gradually warm the space, much like central heating would in a house. It runs at 700W which is not a great deal of power, is safe to use and radiates heat evenly in all directions, albeit slowly. It features an adjustable thermostat, automatic shut off and a front carry handle.
The main bonus to this type of heater is that it runs completely silently, however many users do complain of a slight smell of burning oil when operating, and due to the fact that this heater will need to be plugged in for an extensive amount of time to operate it’s not ideal when it comes to the power draw. However, if you don’t mind the time it takes to heat up and you’re searching for something akin to central heating, an oil-filled radiator could be your best bet.
Wood Burning Stoves
+ No electrical components to maintain
+ Hot, dry heat keeps damp out of van
+ Free to run
+ Adds ambiance
– Fire hazard
– Wood is not always easy to find
– Carrying wood takes up space
– Can be too hot
– Many set up costs / components
– Takes up a lot of space
– Requires cutting a hole in the roof
– Can invalidate insurance
Wood burning stoves are kind of the classic hippy van accessory, and the smoke billowing out of the flues of traveler vans and buses was an iconic scene at many festivals or Solstice gatherings. Still today, they’re just as popular as they ever were, competing for top spot with diesel and gasoline heaters, and it’s easy to see why. The romantic notion of curling up by the fire at night, and the appeal of free fuel for heating and cooking forever are hugely attractive. Unfortunately however there are many practicalities to consider too.
Although the fuel may be free the initial costs of setting up a wood stove and buying so many components to go with it are high. They take up a lot of space in your van and as such should seriously be considered before the conversion as they can be difficult to add in as an afterthought. Cutting a hole in your roof is also a big commitment, but the hot, dry heat of a burner is a wonder for drying out clothes and keeping condensation at bay.
If a wood burner is your only heating source however it can be a huge drawback for stealth camping, as the smoke rising out of your flue is like a big neon sign saying camper! Everything you own will smell faintly of woodsmoke, which can be a pro or a con depending on your preference. However one of the most important things to consider is whether the installation of a wood burner is going to wash with your insurance company, and in some cases it can even invalidate your insurance so make sure to check first.
We recommend purchasing a heat-powered stove fan to help spread the heat evenly around your van too.
Our top three
Kimberly wood stove – $3,995
The Kimberly wood stove is a stylish, premium option designed with tiny homes and yurts in mind. It is capable of heating a 150 square foot space right up to a 1,500 sq. ft. space and can burn for an astonishing 8 hours thanks to its built-in dampener and unique venting system. It is built from American-produced steel in a gorgeously classic design, available in either polished stainless steel or classic black.
It does weigh in at a hefty 56lbs however, and may be over-powered and oversized in smaller vans, and of course the price tag attached to it isn’t going to appeal to everyone. However, the Kimberly stove really is a thing of beauty, and would add a touch of homely style to just about any small space.
Anevay Shepherd stove – £599 ($745) on Amazon
Anevay is a small but upcoming company based in the South West of England, and their wood stoves are simply divine. Designed for vans, shepherd’s huts, small bell tents or tipis and with a beautifully modern design they make a great centerpiece. We’ve picked out the smallest of their offerings: the Shepherd Stove, which kicks out 1.8kW (6,140 BTU) of heat and burns either wood or eco fuel.
The lid on top lifts for cooking or boiling water, and a secondary air intake helps it run efficiently. It’s available in satin black, forest green or beautiful honey glow brown, and best of all Anevay ship worldwide so their stoves are available to anyone. The Shepherd Stove may actually be a little too compact for larger van conversions such as buses and RVs, and the flue and installation kit is sold separately, but otherwise it’s a unique little stove and bound to become a talking point inside your van.
England’s Stove Works Summer Heat Tranquility wood stove – $649.99 on Amazon
This Summer Heat wood stove by England’s Stove Works is the perfect blend of style and functionality, combining European-inspired looks with American build quality and innovative technology to create the perfect heater for small to medium-sized spaces. The stove is composed of a welded steel body with a cast iron door and hidden door hinge, with a plate steel base and a choice of nickel or brass handles. It is crafted with convection channels for even heat distribution and non-catalytic XBT technology unique to England’s Stove Works.
It’s capable of heating a room of between 800 and 1,200 square feet which means it will have no problem heating the space inside a van and can take up to 16” logs. The only downsides are its hefty mass, weighing in at an eye-watering 239lbs, and the fact that the heat it produces may be overkill in a small van and you’ll end up opening every available door and window. That said this would be a stylish, quality choice for a larger van, RV or bus, and will surely become the main feature of any room.
Installing a heater in your van is an exciting and essential part of your build, and something that takes careful consideration and planning beforehand. There are so many factors to consider; set up costs, space-saving, energy consumption, and even simply style and personal taste.
A heater can be whisper quiet and hidden away, or become a feature point of your tiny home on wheels. It can be permanent, semi-permanent, instantly hot or slowly warming. The choice is entirely up to you, but don’t forget to always consider the dangers of carbon monoxide and open flames.
We hope this guide will help you narrow down your choices, and allow you to create a warm, comfortable space inside your van conversion.