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How To Stay Warm In A Van: 6 Tips To Managing Winter Vanlife (…without insulation)

I use extension cords and heaters and electric blankets and all the things they say you shouldn’t. Here’s how.

Pretty sure I’m going to upset some people with this post. Anyway, I’m going to lay out how I keep warm in a van without insulation or propane. Here’s what I’ll cover. Feel free to scroll ahead:

  1. Sealing up Doors and Windows
  2. Choosing the Right Blanket
  3. If You Only Buy 3 Things: Cold Weather Socks, On Using a Sleeping Bag
  4. Running an Electric Blanket
  5. Should You Use an Extension Cord With an Electric Heater
  6. What To Do When You Wake Up in a Cold Van

Winter Forest Light Dusting

Step 1: Seal Up Windows and Doors

Can you even have a vanlife post without Reflectix?

I use Reflectix because (I have a ton of it and) it does a great job of maintaining my privacy. We all know its summer attributes of keeping the heat out. But I have a winter and summer set of inserts for my front and rear windows. With the winter ones, I’ve attached a thin piece of foam to the back for a bit of extra cold-blocking.

I check my door and window seals before cold weather sets in.

I do this just to make sure I haven’t earned any new gaps or holes in the rubbery portion. If you notice something squirrely, you can find replacement seals at any Advance Auto, O’Reilly or Auto Zone – I have not seen them at NAPAs.

Finally, I have a coworker who temporarily “insulates” his camper by placing padded moving blankets over any drafty doors or windows.

Step 2: Which Blanket Should You Get?

A thick one. Pay top dollar for this. Get a duvet/comforter of medium thickness and a heavier duty one. I’d avoid relying on the heaviest-blanket-of-all-time because you may start to sweat under it. Sweating in the cold sucks. Don’t do it. Go ahead and layer.  I keep a summer blanket, a winter comforter, and a thick fleece throw. I also have a winter sleeping bag. Way too much of my under the bed storage goes to staying warm. Be smarter than me.

Step 3:  If You’re Only Going To Buy Three Things:

  • Heated Thermal Socks by Arctic Extreme – These are as awesome as they sound. They will keep your feet warm…sometimes too warm. I’ve had to toe them off a few times. Warning: they are THICK.
  • A beanie or skullcap – Preferably one that covers your ears. Heat leaves through your feet and head so, ya know, cover your feet and head.
  • A winter sleeping bag – I’m weird. I don’t like the sound sleeping bags make. That “whirsh-whirsh” gets on my nerves. That’s probably why I have a billion blankets. A normal person could get on with just a good sleeping bag. Again, be smarter than I am.

Step 4: Heating Blankets Are What’s Up

I use to laugh at my grandmothers for having these. I was a fool. These things freaking rock. I have an adjustable 12 Volt Fleece Heated Blanket.

Because it is 12-volt, you could run it off the car battery to warm your bed as you do your last bit of driving. Typically, I plug it into my Schumacher power station five minutes before I dive under the covers. I run it on low – it shuts off automatically in 30 minutes. I’m dead asleep by then. It’s also the first thing I flip on in the morning.

Step 5: Use an Extension Cord With a Heater? Yes, I do this.

Dodges incoming fire.

Generally speaking, this is a fool’s game.  A 0.001 second Google search will bring up thousands of heartbreaking stories of using a heater with an extension cord.

  1. I am not telling you to do this.
  2. I do this.

Whenever I buy a new heater, I buy a new extension cord. Since this combo can kill you, I always buy both new and always at the same time.

Why?

Because I want to make sure that I have the correct amps/watts to make both work together. Watts and amps are listed on the bodies of the cords and heaters, but those numbers can wear off or rub away. Not worth buying those used. Y’all know I love thrift stores – you’ve seen my Instagram – but I don’t play around with used heaters. My life is worth the extra scratch. So’s yours.

Why are extension cords different colors?

Companies use different colors to mean different things. Instead, focus on the numbers. Some extension cords are rated for outdoor usage. Some are rated from heavy duty, high amp usage. Some, like the ones from dollar stores, should never be used for anything…ever…in life.  Do not go cheap with an extension cord. A $35 extension cord is cheaper than….say….. a new house or van. Just saying.

You want an extension cord with a HEAVY GAUGE

Extension cords have gauges – in layman’s terms, they come in various thicknesses. You want a low number. Low = heavy = good. For instance, a 10 or 12 gauge extension cord is stronger/can hold/is better than a 20 gauge extension cord.

So a 18 gauge cord = a lamp in a house

But a 10 gauge cord = chainsaw

Somewhere on the body of your extension cord, you’ll see what it’s rated to handle. The one I use for my heater reads:

125v/15A/1875w

Running this 800-watt heater on my 1875watt/12amp extension cord isn’t a worry to me. On high, it kicks up to 1000 watts. Still good.

For reference, the heated blanket is rated:

  • 2.2A/26.4w on low
  • 3.2A/39w on medium
  • 4.2A/50w on high

Note: Be careful buying most off-the-shelf heaters from big box stores – they are usually 1500 watts and should be plugged directly into a wall. I also have this little 200-watt heater (in purple, obviously), but it wasn’t doing what I needed it to do. I had to be RIGHT up on it to feel the heat. I’ll use it on a chilly fall morning, but the 200-watts didn’t cut it when it got super cold last year. That’s why I switched to the 800-watt heater.

Other Extension Cord Tips

  • Get an extension cord with three prongs. This helps ground the power and lowers the risk of shock or fire.
  • The shorter the cord, the better.
  • Don’t cover the extension cord or run it under a rug.
  • Every so often dip a toe or touch the cord with the back of your hand. Make sure it isn’t warm.
  • Do not hook an extension cord into another extension cord, especially if you’re using something to conduct heat. That’s blowy-up-super-boom-boom bad. If you’ve gotten away with it for all these years, great. Now, stop.
  • When in doubt, go the firehouse. I had no problem taking my heater and extension cord to the department and asking them to explain this stuff to me last year. I figured, either they were going to come to me on a bad day, or I could visit them on my lunch break.  *shrug*

Step 6: In the Morning

I immediately turn on my heating blanket before getting out of bed.  Once I’ve warmed up from that, I sprint to the stove and start boiling water for my coffee. Bonus, the heat from the butane stove is enough to heat the van.

If I’m plugged into a site, I’ll now turn on my electric heater and recharge my power station. This will help with the condensation before I start moving the van. By the time I’ve made my breakfast, I’m good. I’ll turn on the van a few minutes before leaving. Once I get on the road, I turn up the dial to get that air circulating through the van to clear out any remaining condensation.

Now, if it’s super duper cold and I don’t have an electrical hookup, I bounce. There’s no way I’m staying in below freezing temperatures for days at a time without electricity. For that, I look at the last minute deals page on Hotels.com.

So that’s how I handle it. Let me know if you have any questions. I’ll be happy to answer them as best I can.

21 comments on “How To Stay Warm In A Van: 6 Tips To Managing Winter Vanlife (…without insulation)

  1. Great tips! Ones I hope to use some day. 😀

    Liked by 1 person

  2. We LOVE our electric blanket in our rv.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Love the idea of an electric blanket particularly for the grandkids in the pop-up. I’ve got lovely woollen socks I’m crocheting as van socks – wool is best for the job. Stay warm folks

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I would LOVE to be able to crochet! Each time I try I make a mess of it, lol.

    Like

  5. Wow, you HAVE figured this out, haven`t you! Any ole’ fool can be uncomfortable. 😊

    Like

  6. Doing just a little strenuous exercise (think jumping jacks) before climbing into bed gets the blood flowing and the body heated enough to not need an electric blanket. When it’s really cold I use a very thick, light and fluffy down comforter – but that’s not often, as it’s too warm if the temp is above freezing!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Nice suggestions. I also recommend getting a hot water bottle. They are cheap to buy, fill up before bed and can keep you warm for HOURS!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Awesome suggestion, Yvette 💜

      Like

      • One more thing I wanted to mention is that for folks who use hot water bottles on the road, you can go to ANY gas station and fill them up for free. Gas stations have a hot water spout right at the coffee pots (don’t use hot tap water, won’t work well and won’t stay warm as long). Just ask/let them know you’re going to use the hot water and that’s that! Hope you’re staying warm!

        Liked by 1 person

      • This is a great idea, Yvette. Thank you!!!

        Like

  8. I read this in hot weather but kept it in my inbox. I’ve been making the transition from 90s to suddenly lows in the 30s. I was glad to read this again and will put some tips to use. Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Great post! best sleeping bags EVER for camper vans come from DUVALAY. Yes, expensive. Yes, totally worth it! they incorporate a sponge base layer, and you can add or subtract duvet tog weight to them. Always remember to keep yourself wrapped under as well as over! keep travelling!

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I hope to upgrade from truck camping to van camping sometime in the near future. Such great tips. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. sopranoanarchy

    Great advice-especially the parts about avoiding fire and death! 😀 Small suggestion-have your links open in a new window/tab, so people are sure to finish your post and don’t get sucked into the deadly Amazon perpetual product search. Maybe only I have this attention span challenge?

    Like

  12. Great advice! We’re getting ready to take our little homestead on the road in our travel trailer and these tips will be very useful! Thanks for sharing! ~ Sheri

    Like

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