Warming up in the winter
Your priority is always to keep your body above a survival temperature. Set up multiple failsafes so you are never at risk of freezing if one approach fails.
The key to efficient heating is to limit the heated area to as small a space as possible. It’s a lot easier to heat a tiny section of your vehicle than to bring the whole vehicle up to temperature, especially in larger vehicles.
The smallest “room” and your first level of protection is your clothing. Always keep several layers of extra clothing available if needed. Moreover, keep your clothes dry! Wet clothes wick heat away from the body, which can rapidly lead to hypothermia. If your clothes get wet in freezing temperatures, you’re better off removing them and wrapping up in dry blankets.
Blankets - how many and what type?
The number and type of blankets really depends on the type of environment where you will be traveling. Prepare for a little worse than the coldest environment you expect to encounter.
Carrying one cold-weather sleeping bag is better than nothing, but having a multitude of regular blankets can be more versatile. By keeping a few extra blankets around, you can set up makeshift heat barriers within the vehicle, and you can layer up when it’s too cold for the sleeping bag alone.
Heated electric blankets / seat cushions
If you already have a luxury van with heated seats, then this suggestion will be less useful. For the rest of us, a heated seat cushion or electric blanket can seriously improve your comfort in freezing weather. Always remember to unplug any electric blankets when the engine is off, or you will surely wake up to a dead battery.
Perhaps adding and removing layers of clothing will be enough to maintain your personal temperature, but it is also nice to bring external heat into your personal space. And during a deep freeze, an extra heat source will be essential.
During a deep freeze, your goal isn’t really to bring the interior up to “room temperature” but rather to get the air warm enough for your clothing and personal heating strategy to work.
Propane is a fairly cost-effective option for heating if you take safety seriously. Please, please, please give yourself adequate ventilation. Burning propane in an enclosed space depletes oxygen, replacing it with carbon dioxide and highly toxic carbon monoxide.
If you’re burning anything in an enclosed space, you need a carbon monoxide alarm.
Many people have luck with camp stoves that use small tanks of gas. If you have a larger van, bus, or RV, you might consider installing a standard propane tank, i.e. the ones that can be exchanged at most gas stations. It is essential to install these larger tanks outside the vehicle. And since they are rather valuable, you will also want to find a way to hide and secure the tank.
Electric personal heaters
Tiny DC-powered heaters up to around 200 watts, such as those for defrosting windows, won’t be able to warm the whole interior by more than a couple of degrees. However, these devices can blow warm air directly on your hands, feet, or face for added comfort. This can actually be just as effective as a larger heater, which may still struggle to bring the whole van up to room temperature. What really matters is how much of that heat reaches your body.
More in this series:
- Which vehicles are most suitable for living
- Finding overnight parking anywhere
- Cooling off in the summer
- Warming up in the winter
- Insulating your vehicle from heat and cold
- Effective habits for safe van dwelling
- Getting a restful night of sleep
- Earning income as a van dweller
- Maintaining connectivity anywhere
- Preparing for the move
- Preparing meals on the road
- Staying clean when water is scarce
- Supplying electricity to your dwelling
- Receiving mail and official documents
- Essential maintenance for your vehicle
- Adding your personal touch