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Quick Tips to Stay Warm

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Even a Snowbird can find him/herself in cold weather. I try to be prepared for the worst.

It’s October and winter will soon be on us and one question we will all have is, “How do I stay warm when living in my van?” That is a question I have a lot of experience answering because I lived in a van in Anchorage, Alaska for 6 years and had to deal with some extreme cold. Chances are none of you will have to deal with those kinds of temperatures so in this blog I will give you some general advice on staying warm, from cheap and easy to more expensive and difficult.
Preventing Air-infiltration with Weather Stripping:
Moving air makes you feel cold, that’s why they developed the wind-chill chart. That is just as true of a very slight air movement even while you are sitting inside your van. If your weather-stripping is old and leaking, air will blow in and make you feel even colder than the actual temperature would make you feel. Check out all the seals around openings into your van and upgrade them with new seals or caulking. This is especially true if you are in an older RV. They have so many openings that chances are they leak like a sieve. Hanging Reflectix or a Space Blanket over the entire door or window can make a huge difference also.

Covering Your Windows and Vents:
Warm air passes through the glass in your windows very easily, so covering them is one of the very first things you want to do in the winter. I highly recommend Reflectix over all your windows. There are four ways to install it: 1) Magnets 2) Velcro tape 3) Duct tape 4) Compression, just press it in. If you are in an RV a very good way to cover your windows is with the shrink-to-fit plastic window covers designed for houses. I have a friend who did this in his older Class C and it made a big difference. If your vehicle home has vents, you will lose a lot of heat through them also. You can buy a foam piece designed for standard 14×14 roof vents that work great. You just press them in.
Hang a Divider Between the Living and Driving Area:
Whether you live in a car, van, or RV, the living area is usually open and exposed to the driving area with all its glass. That makes it much harder to keep the living area warm. Hanging a divider between the two will keep you much warmer. The divider can be an old blanket or thermal curtains. I think your best bet is a double layer. The first layer, (toward the inside of the van) being Reflectix. Using the 48 inch wide variety will make it easier, but you can also tape together the 24 inch kind. The second layer (toward the driving area) should be the blanket or curtain. The Reflectix on the inside will act as insulation, a vapor barrier and also reflect light and heat back into the living area. A Space Blanket also works very well for this. You will need to cut it to allow you to pass through, then overlap the two halves and use Velcro tape to keep them closed but easily opened.

Dress Warmer:
In all but the coldest temps you can stay surprisingly comfortable by simply following these other tips and dressing warmer. The first thing to do is wear synthetic fabrics and not cotton. Cotton works great in the summer where it absorbs your perspiration and holds it tight to your skin, making you feel cooler. But in the cold you want your skin to stay dry, because the dampness makes you feel cold. Synthetics are hydrophobic, in other words they absorb very little moisture. Instead they wick it away from your skin. So you want to wear multiple layers of synthetic fabrics so each layer wicks away moisture further from your body, keeping you dry and warm. The base layer should be light and small enough to be close to your skin. Each layer going out should be heavier and looser fitting. The outside layer can be down or wool. This goes for your upper and lower body.
Wearing a comfortable winter cap will keep you much warmer. For gloves I buy the cheap one-size-fits-all stretch gloves and cut the fingers tips off. You will want heavy wool or synthetic boot socks for your feet. If they get damp they will make your feet cold so always have plenty of clean dry ones to switch into, especially just before bed!! In the evening I always wear slippers and keep my feet elevated because the floor is almost impossible to keep warm. A good pair of down-booties can be a life saver in the cold!! Before you go to bed wipe all the moisture off your feet with a dry cloth and put on clean, dry, heavy wool or synthetic boot socks.

Sleep Warmer:
When I lived in Alaska, I had catalytic heaters and used them even when I slept. But in the Lower 48 I never use a heater over-night. My trailer is so well insulated I just get it warm before bed and use plenty of blankets and nearly always stay warm. Sometimes it gets cold enough that I have to wear extra clothes to bed and that has always worked for me. I like multiple thin blankets to regulate warm to cool temperatures, and then I add either a down comforter or heavy wool blanket for deeper cold temperatures.
If it’s cold I sleep in a base layer of synthetic top and pants. If it is real cold I will add a middle layer of each and if it’s very cold I will add a third layer. So if I go to bed and I have underestimated how cold it is and wake up cold in the middle of the night, I just grab another layer of clothes and slip it on and then I am just right. I think that is much easier than adding another blanket.
That’s what is most comfortable for me, but I have friends who use two different sleeping bags. One is a light bag for warmer temperatures and a second heavy sleeping bag for colder temperatures. They zip-or unzip them for even a greater range of comfort. For extreme cold they throw a blanket over the top of the winter sleeping bag. Everybody is different so give both systems a try and see which you like best.
This is a big topic and I am not going into it in depth right now. The bottom line is that I recommend you use Styrofoam. It is cheap, light, easy to work with, and has a fairly high R Value. Every vehicle I have ever lived in has been insulated with Styrofoam. The white works okay but the blue and pink are much better so use them if you can find them. You can glue it on or screw it on. While I am a huge fan of Reflectix, it is not a good insulation. Styrofoam is better in every way.
Getting Passive Solar Gain:
Everything we have covered up till now was about keeping heat inside the vehicle, now we are going to switch gears and talk about how to create heat in your van or RV. The best and cheapest way is with passive solar gain. By that I mean parking the van so the most heat from the sun gets inside it during the day, then you seal it up at night to keep that heat in for as long as possible. This works fairly well in the southerly areas, but the further north you go the less it works. In Anchorage, AK, there is zero passive solar heat gain in the coldest months of winter.
Here is how you do it. You want to park the van/RV so the greatest number of windows are pointed south. In a cargo van that would be the driving area pointed due south. In a passenger van that would be the side with the most windows. You want the heat from the sun to shine through the windows and heat up everything it can inside. So you will remove all the coverings from the windows that have the sun shining in through them. All the windows without sun shining through them, you want to cover as well as you can so no heat can escape through them. So all the North facing windows will be covered as well as you can and never be uncovered. In the morning you will uncover the East facing windows, and leave the West facing windows covered. As soon as the sun passes mid-day you will cover the East facing windows and uncover the West facing windows. The south facing windows will be uncovered all day. If you are getting a lot of heat from the sun, leave the door open while the sun is hitting it. Just be sure you are gaining more heat than you are losing. As soon as the sun gets low enough to no longer have any heat, cover all the windows up tight and close the door to keep the heat in. That may seem like a lot of work, but I doubt it would take 20 minutes a day. That’s pretty easy to get free heat.
If you have insulated your vehicle well enough, and followed all the above tips, this will probably be enough heat to keep you comfortable all evening in moderate temperatures. Obviously, this only works when the sun is shining. On a cloudy day, keep all your windows covered. Living in a cave is no fun, so you may want to uncover a few windows.
Use Your Propane Cook Stove for Warmth.
As the temperatures drop, and passive solar heat won’t keep me warm all evening, I use my Coleman Propane Stove to keep warm. When the sun sets I cook a meal inside the van. If it is cold, I try to make it a meal that requires a lot of cooking time so the stove is on for a long time. An example is spaghetti, which requires a lot of cooking (fry the hamburger, boil the noodles, simmer the sauce. That will get the whole van warm and usually keep it warm for several hours if it well insulated. Later on in the evening if it cools off more than just dressing warmer can keep me comfortable I will heat some water for hot chocolate. If that doesn’t get it warm enough, I will leave the burner on for another 20-30 minutes until it warms up, then turn it off. That will usually keep it warm until bed time. While it is on, I keep a close eye on it so I am aware of any possible danger. I have a carbon monoxide detector in the trailer with me.
Buying a Heater
It’s rare, but sometimes just the Coleman Propane Stove won’t keep me warm. When that happens I get out my Mr. Buddy Portable heater and use it to stay warm. I personally would not run a MR. Buddy while I slept, although I have friends who do and think it is safe. In normal climates, the Mr. Buddy works fine–I have one now. But for really cold climates you are much better off with an Olympian Catalytic heater because it is a better, safer heater

The Olympian is a true catalytic heater while the Mr. Buddy is not. It is much safer! Catalytic is a chemical process (no flame) so it produces virtually no carbon monoxide. When I lived in Alaska, I turned my Olympians on in October, and they ran 24/7 till April. The only time I turned them off is when I changed or refilled the bottles. I would never do that with a Mr. Buddy.
One important note is that you must use the fuel filter if you are going to connect your Mr. Buddy to a bulk bottle. The Mr Buddy is a high-pressure appliance and the plasticizers in the hose will plug up its jets without a filter. The Olympian is a low-pressure appliance (it needs a regulator) so it doesn’t have that problem. Whenever you use a propane heater in your vehicle, be sure you have a carbon monoxide alarm. You want to buy a detector certified for RV use. They have been tested to stand up to the temperature extremes and vibration vandwelling throws at them.

I hope all this helps you to have a comfortable winter. For more tips on staying warm check out this page on my website:


  1. Michelle(She)

    Great advice Bob!! As usual. 🙂

    • Bob

      Thanks for the kind words Michelle! Bob

  2. Kim

    Great stuff. Microfleece is incredibly warm. I bought a nighshirt made of the material recently and it’s almost too warm with the overnight temps in the high-40s. But I think in the 20 – 30 range, microfleece would be the way to go. Cap, PJs, socks, and a fleece throw under the sleeping bag to top it off.

    • Bob

      Kim, I’m with you, fleece is great stuff! Most of my cold weather stuff is fleece. I checked out your blog and really liked it. I loved the cards!! Especially the map!! Very creative. I get a mouse in my rig generally once a year so I will be curious if it works. But, wouldn’t you have to replace it every so often? Bob

      • Kim

        Thanks! I believe the recommendation is to replace the mint-infused cotton balls once a week. Kind of a PIA but worth it if it works. Certainly makes the van smell minty fresh. Getting really excited about the RTR!

        • Bob

          Thanks for the info Kim. ME TOO! I am very excited to get to the RTR. I think it could be really large. And there are so many wonderful people I can’t wait to see how many life-long friends I will make this year. I think it is going to be a GREAT time!! Bob

  3. Linda Sand

    A friend recently recommended bubble wrap for window insulation. Let’s the light in while keeping the cold out. I haven’t had a chance to try it yet but it makes sense to me.

    • Bob

      Linda that is such a great idea! I hate the feeling of being in a cave when the windows are covered, so I uncover some of them even if it lets in more cold. I will give the bubble wrap a try. Bob

  4. Boonie

    You mentioned gluing Styrofoam into place. Don’t most caulking and constructive adhesive products specifically warn against use with styrofoam, since these products have solvents that attack the styrofoam?
    I’m not near a Home Depot at the moment but don’t they sell a competitor to styrofoam called poly-iso-something or other. It has reflectorized kraft paper on its faces, and is a 35%-50% better insulator than styrofoam, on a per inch thickness basis. It saws beautifully and easily with a sabre saw.
    Sorry I can’t button these questions down. I need to be in town with a store or two!
    Anyway, perhaps I’m quibbling. There was lots of good advice in this post, Bob.

    • Bob

      Hi Boonie, I have never used glue, but I do know they make a glue specifically for foam. And you are right about the other foam, it is better, but a little harder to find. I use the term “styrofoam” generically and include it in the class. Styrofoam is so easy to find I have always used it even though you are right, the polyisocarnate is better. Bob

  5. Trisha

    Great info! For those who have a really “cold feet problem like I do, those inexpensive chemical hand warmers (they now make them for feet) work well by placing them inside your socks or booties! I used the old fashioned thermal underware, with a sleeping bag and blankets (as many as were needed) with the hand warmers and I stayed toasty warm over nite in 30 + below weather, in a non insulated vehicle. But the getting up in the cold mornings was not at all fun! Tip for those who may not be prepared for cold weather, place the clothes you are going to wear that day under your blankets to get them warm before you put them on. Makes a huge difference!

    • Bob

      Those are great tips Trisha! Thanks! Bob

  6. Trisha

    Great info! For those who have a really “cold feet problem like I do, those inexpensive chemical hand warmers (they now make them for feet) work well by placing them inside your socks or booties! I used the old fashioned thermal underware, with a sleeping bag and blankets (as many as were needed) with the hand warmers and I stayed toasty warm over nite in 30 + below weather, in a non insulated vehicle. But the getting up in the cold mornings was not at all fun! Tip for those who may not be prepared for cold weather, place the clothes you are going to wear that day under your blankets to get them warm before you put them on. Makes a huge difference!

  7. Cedric

    Get yourself a piece of soapstone. When you make that cup of tea on the stove throw on the soapstone and let it get hot. Then shut off the flame and the soapstone will radiate heat for a very long time (depends on the size you choose). Then for a bonus stuff it under your covers to warm your feet when you go to bed!

    • Bob

      Hi Cedric, I like your idea a lot. I used to pit a 2 quart of water on to boil with the same idea of storing the heat, but it put too moisture in the air and seemed to cool off fast. The soapstone sounds perfect. But, how big a piece of soapstone and where do you get it? Bob

  8. John Lamb

    I often have wondered how the Amish stay warm in their buggies….recently while in northern Indiana working I had the opportunity to speak with an Amish man getting out of his buggy. When I quizzed him, he told me that they heat up a few bricks in the fireplace in the house, then put them in a metal bucket in the buggy……supposedly radiates heat for a good while! But since I don’t have a fireplace, or a supply of bricks in my STEALTH cargo camper, perhaps I will just head for Florida instead!

    • Bob

      John, it must be true that great minds think alike, because I like your thinking!! However, I have been in Florida when it was surprisingly cold. And the desert can be very cold, so it’s always good to be prepared for the worst you think you might run into. Bob

  9. Steve & Zeke the Mountain Dog

    Lets not forget the old school way of staying warm at night… Hot water bottles… Cheap, easy and they still work in this day and age…

    • Bob

      Steve, very wise and simple, as usual! Bob

      • Dave

        Let’s not forget the leak proof version of a hot water bottle, the Nalgene (non clear ones). Boil some water, pour it in a nalgene and throw that puppy in your sleeping bag and you are in for a toasty night sleep !

        • Bob

          Great suggestion Dave. It is actually a little hard to find a hot water bottle and they are expensive. The Nalgene is cheap, found everywhere, ultra-durable and multi-use. Hard to beat that! Bob

  10. Brian

    Great sight and great advice! I am going to be making a go of it in my chariot in St George, New Brunswick…and I sure am glad I’m not back in Calgary right now…props to you for surviving Alaska’s weather!!
    I have it pretty easy because I can use power from a few friends but the electric cost and distance I am running the power don’t make me happy.
    My ideal would be to find a wood stove solution but my van is not all that big for fooling with wood. However I have been researching stirling engines and I am wondering if a small heat source providing friction to something like a 20gal RV water container might work. You could power the stirling off a cheap flammable liquid (pure alcohol isn’t cheap but it would burn clean and dry)…then the stirling will warm the water continuously providing a much better heat source than trying to warm the air.
    I too use reflectix but am behind you that stryo is the way to go. Current my upper windows are all blocked and window wrapped. It’s cozy at -8c but I’m curious to see how the rest of the winter goes…

    • Bob

      Brrrrrrrr, just thinking of living in a van in new Brunswick makes me shiver Brian!! Since I have left Alaska I have become a complete baby about the cold, I can’t stand it anymore!! One thing I would suggest is a propane wall lamp. They produce a lot of light, but a byproduct is a lot of heat-easily enough to heat the van. However, every time you move the van, you will break the mantle so it only works if the van remains stationary.
      i wish you the best in keeping warm! Bob

  11. Gus

    As always; good stuff Bob.

    • Bob

      Thanks Gus, I try! Bob

  12. Bernadette Morrall

    I thoughly enjoyed reading your article and all of the comments. Thankyou for all of the valuable information. Bernadette a wanta be van dweller

    • Bob

      Bernadette, I’m very glad to be helpful, that’s my goal! Don’t give up on your dreams! Bob

  13. Michael

    If you have room on your dash or front seat, set black jugs of water there to absorb the sun’s heat during the day. When the solar gain drops, move the containers back into the living area and drop the insulating curtain. The water will slowly release its heat through the night. Plus side is if the containers are potable, you have an emergency supply of water. Or hot shower water. And unlike carrying around a bunch of heavy bricks or stone, you can empty them during the times of the year you don’t need ’em.

    • Bob

      Michael, that is a very good tip! I will start including it in all future articles about heat. Thanks! Bob

  14. Cyrus Palmer

    Great tips Bob, thanks! I’m beginning my vandwelling adventure in winter in Washington state, so this is exactly the kind of info I needed. I already thought of a lot of it, like the Mr buddy and cooking soon after the sun goes down, but I didn’t know about the fuel filter for the heater, so it’s a good thing I read it!

    • Bob

      Cyrus, we found out the hard way about needing a fuel filter. There is another choice though. Mr Heater makes a 12 foot hose they made special so that it won’t damage their heater. It’s $27 on Amazon, that’s $17 more than the fuel filter but it has multiple uses and it’s extra length will give you more flexibility.

    • Bob

      Terry, thanks for the link. It looks really good but it seems like it is very expensive. But a product that works really well generally does cost more. Thanks for the recommendation!

  15. Yuna

    Awesome tips to stay warm living in an RV during the winter! Thanks for these practical and definitely helpful advice!

    • Bob

      Thanks Yuna, having lived in my van for 6 years in Alaska, I picked up a few things!

  16. Barbara

    Bob, looking for your suggested down slippers using search bar on your site & blog but can’t find the Amazon link. Would you please send it along?
    Thank you.

    • Bob

      Hi Barbara, I have Baffin booties I get from Amazon. Here’s a link:
      I am very, very happy with those down booties (not really down and you don’t want down since our feet sweat so much). That link isn’t through my account but if you go into Amazon from a link on the website and enter this number in the search bar B002C75I4M they will come up and I will get credit.

  17. PAMELA Rawls

    I am going into my third winter, living in a 1976 21 ft dodge motorhome.
    *bubble wrap in windows- but not the packing kind. Get the stiff kind.
    *hay bails for skirting, for those who stay in one location.
    Best money I ever spent!!!

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