Camping out of season can be fantastic – more space, fewer people and more months of fun and adventure. But how do you keep a campervan warm in winter? Here’s our guide to the best caravan and campervan heaters…with best buys for portable electric heaters, portable gas heaters, blown-air parking heaters and more.
Portable electric heaters for campervans and caravans
Possibly the cheapest and simplest option (after a hot water bottle and blankets), a portable electric campervan heater will give you instant heat in a compact package. You do, of course, need hook-up.
Simple, cheap and small, there’s nothing like a fan heater for instant warmth when you get back to the van after an autumn walk. A fan heater blows out warm air, so there’s some noise. Go for one with a decent thermostat, an auto shut-off and as quiet as possible.
A step up from a standard fan heater, these are safer and more efficient and still very affordable. They’re essentially fan heaters, but with a PTC heating element instead of a resistive wire. They don’t go red-hot if something gets in the way of the airflow, so they’re less dangerous in a campervan or caravan.
Sadly, we haven’t been able to find a halogen heater we can wholeheartedly recommend. Most are a bit too bulky for small campervans or are cheaply made and unreliable. The best we’ve found is the Prolectrix, but it’s 1200W and quite large at 10x31x52cm. Around £18. Halogen heaters are the bright glowing ones – basically halogen lightbulbs that radiate infrared rather than light. They only warm up what’s directly in front of them rather than the air, but they look cosy.
Carbon heaters use a lamp very similar to a halogen heater, but with a carbon filament. The type of infrared is better at warming our skin, so a 500W carbon heater will give you as much warmth as a 1kW halogen. They’re efficient, but are really too tall for most campervans or caravans (in our opinion!). They also cost around £150. Best of the bunch is the Veito – 8x17x70cm and 2kg
Very safe for campervans because there are no naked flames or heated wires. Oil-filled are slower to heat up than an oil-free, but retain heat better. There’s a teeny risk of oil leaking, but very rare.
Our choices would be these 500W models:
DeLonghi – 17x34x40cm and weighs 6kg
Heatrunner – 13x23x38cm and weighs 5kg
Igenix – 10x28x35cm and weighs 4kg.
Whereas oil-filled radiators use electricity to warm up the thermodynamic oil stored inside, oil-free have aluminium or ceramic inside. As well as safety, the advantage is that they’re silent. The disadvantage can be the size and weight.
There’s only only one oil-free small enough to go in a campervan or caravan. Fortunately, the Dimplex Baby (Eco Chico) is also great.
We use this mini oil-free radiator in our campervan (and in the porch at home when we’re not travelling). It’s small and light, heats up quickly and has a thermostat control. Around £40. Output of 700W, weighs 5kg and 19x30x45cm. 30% more efficient than an oil-filled (apparently).
Don’t get excited! There are no 12V heaters that will keep you warm enough. You’ll see lots that look like this one (in black, grey or red, but all the same). They’re described as windscreen demisters and car heaters, but they really don’t do much at all. In fact, they’ve been known to simply fuse the system. Don’t bother!
On the other hand, heated seat pads do seem to work well. If your van has a 12V socket in the rear as well as the dashboard, then you could quite cosy sitting on one of these with a blanket or sleeping bag wrapped around you.
Portable camping gas heaters
If you wild camp or won’t have electricity, you’ll need either a built-in diesel or propane heater (see the next section) or a portable gas (propane or butane) heater. These portable heaters are not ideal and we really don’t recommend them for inside a campervan because of the very high risk of carbon monoxide poisoning and fire.
If you really must have one, make sure you get an excellent CO monitor and always have plenty of ventilation. Never leave it unattended. As well as the danger of fumes, all gas heaters produce a lot of condensation.
Please avoid the Kampa Hottie, we’ve heard some near-horror stories about this one’s safety.
There’s nothing to choose between the Yellowstone, Topflame, Bright Spark and Highlander gas heaters.
They take butane cylinders and have piezo ignition (no matches needed).Heat output is around 1.3kW and the size around 28x19x28cm.
If you swivel the heater section to horizontal and add a little grill, you might even be able to make toast. Around £25.
We’ve had a lot of recommendations for the apparently indoor-safe Mr Heater ‘Buddy’ range. However, we can’t absolutely recommend them because they work inconsistently and cost a lot more than other options.
They’re worth a look for their better design features, but make sure you buy from somewhere you can easily return to if needs be.
Blown-air parking heaters for campervans
Many campervans come with heating as standard. That heating will be a blown-air system from the likes of Webasto, Eberspacher or Propex. The standard on the VW California, for example, is the Webasto Thermotop. You’ll hear these installed systems called ‘auxiliary’ or ‘parking’ heaters too.
Once installed, they’re cheap to run (diesel more so). You no longer need hook-up, so you’re free to wild camp in the snow. They give you the equivalent of central heating, often with a timer, remote control or app control.
The key, though, is installation. All the top brands are reliable, so your choice of system should be guided by finding an installer you trust and who can put you in touch with previous customers. Check with those fellow campervanners how the installation went and whether they’re happy with the result.
Installation usually involves cutting through the bottom of your floor. Yikes! That’s why you don’t want a cowboy riding into town. There’ll be an air intake, an air exhaust, a fuel line running from your tank to the heater, power wiring and thermostat control wiring.
Of course, if you’re a skilled mechanic and you’re building your own van from scratch, you can just buy the kits for diy installation.
Diesel and propane heaters warm slowly and steadily rather than the blast of a fan heater, so tend to be more comfortable. They create little condensation too. Expect to pay between £1,000 and £2,000 for the equipment and installation.
Questions to consider and ask your installer:
- Can you put me in touch with previous customers?
- Can you show me what the internal fittings will look like? We’ve seen some outlet pipes that stick out rather obviously, for example, and plastic grilles that don’t match the inside colour scheme.
- Can I check how much noise one makes (both inside and outside? Could you (and your neighbours) live with that level on a quiet campsite in the dead of night?
- What are my options for controlling the system?
- What about SIM-enabled systems that I can control from an app? These are expensive. Do you want the extra expense of a SIM contract? What happens when you’re in a no-signal area? What happens to data roaming if we leave Europe? We chose NOT to have this control based on all those uncertainties.
- Should I pay extra for a remote control? Again, this adds cost. They only work within a short range. Given that it’ll take five to 10 minutes for the van to warm up, it’s only really useful if you’ll use it from the comfort of your house before you get into the van in the morning. If you’re imagining turning it on as you walk back to the campervan after a hike…well, you’ll be back at the van before there’s much warmth.
Diesel parking heaters draw fuel from the main diesel tank and through a burner/heat exchanger under the vehicle. They then duct hot air into the van through a small grille. The combustion happens safely underneath the van.
You don’t need to run the engine. They work independently.
Diesel heaters can be a bit noisy, but some come with mufflers and insulated boxes to lessen the sound.
You’ll get around four hours of continuous run-time for around a litre of diesel (based on Webasto Airtop 2000)
The main brands are:
Propane campervan heaters
Propane-fuelled systems are similar to diesel systems but, of course need a fuel supply. This could be a disposable canisters or refillable propane tank. If you’re already using propane tanks in your van, you may be able to tap into your existing propane lines.
Propex is the brand of choice (the other is Truma, but these seem to be preferred by motorhome and caravan owners). The Propex systems come in a range of sizes for small campervans to big motorhomes. Some models are installed underneath the vehicle, others go in a bed-box or cupboard.
A 13kg propane tank will give you around 90 hours of heat from the smallest Propex furnace.
Propex also do a dual-fuel gas/electric heater for when you’re on hook-up.
Propane systems will often struggle or not work at all above a certain elevation. Ask your installer if you expect to be camping in the mountains.
Those factors aside, there are those who love their woodburner, and there are stoves small enough to fit. Consider, though, how much space you’ll also need for the heat protection around it, for the chimney and for the fuel.
The photo of that cute stove and kettle might make some of you go: “Yes! That looks gorgeous”. I just get the collywobbles.
Get yourself an Anevay Frontier stove for outside instead and get your woodburning kicks that way. You can cook on it and boil water for your hot water bottle in the great heater attachment.
If you’re a safe and happy campervan woodburner, set us straight, of course.
Keep warm in a campervan the low-tech way
- Insulated thermal (silver) screens for your windows will keep in a lot of heat. Buy them off the shelf or get them custom-made. Maypole are great for VWs.
- If you’ll be using the pop-top roof, think about insulation there too. You can make your own inside using insulation fabric (be careful you don’t create condensation between the fabric and the roof canvas). Or get a cover that goes over the outside to keep in heat and keep out rain (or snow!) Khyam make the Kamper Cozi but there are lots of alternative toppers. We like the German-made Calitop because it comes in separate parts, which makes it easier to fit.
- Don’t forget the hot water bottles.
- Read our articles on out-of-season campsites and winter wild camping for more ideas.