Keeping Warm and Cool

When most people think of “RV camping”, they immediately picture the advertising images of people sitting in lawn chairs next to their camper, by a lake, with the sun shining and everyone gathered around a barbecue grill. In reality, of course, the weather isn’t always so idyllic; it gets hot in the summer, it gets cold in the winter, and it rains in between.

On the one hand, people in camper vans can deal with seasonal weather better than people in houses can. In a house or apartment, you are stuck year-round in one place, and have to deal with the weather as it arrives throughout the year. In a camper van, however, you are mobile, and can move to whatever weather you want. As long as you have the gas, you can be anywhere in the country within a week. In Florida, vacationers who live in the north during the summer and who move south to Miami to spend the winter are known as “snowbirds”. RVers and van-campers are the ultimate snowbirds. To avoid the heat, we go north; to avoid the cold, we go south. Just like the birds.

On the other hand, though, people in RVs or camper vans have disadvantages. While we can move freely and follow whatever weather we like, we still have times when it will be unseasonably hot or cold. Even in Florida, there will be stretches of winter days when it will drop below freezing at night, and even in Minnesota there will be summer days when it gets into the 90s. People in houses or apartments have air conditioners and furnaces to deal with the weather; people in campers have only what they can fit into their van.

Vans, of course, like all vehicles, have built-in heaters and air conditioners. Long-distance truckers, who usually spend the night in their vehicles, depend on these. The diesel engines used in 18-wheeler rigs use very little fuel when idling, so it is a common sight to see trucks parked in the Walmart lot with their engines running all night, to power the cab’s heater or A/C.

For van campers, though, this isn’t really an option. Not only will it suck up a lot of gas, but the sound of an idling engine will attract the attention of everyone who walks by, which is something we want to avoid.

So, how do you deal with hot days or cold nights while living in a Walmart parking lot?
Let’s start with keeping cool. A camper van is essentially a metal box on wheels, which sits out in the sun all day. As you can imagine, it gets hot in there. Really hot. On a summer day when it is 85 degrees outside, the inside of a camper van can easily reach over 100 degrees during the afternoon. You can of course leave the windows open a bit to let the heated air out, or install a roof vent, but these have limited effectiveness—it will still unavoidably get very hot inside the van during the day.

On vans with windows in the back, I have seen some ingenious ways in which people have rigged up ordinary household air conditioners to cool the inside of the van. These of course use a lot of electricity, and require a very large solar panel array and battery storage capacity. And there is no way to be “stealthy” with a big humming A/C hanging out the side of your van.

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My solution is a simple one—I avoid the heat by not being in the van during the day. By doing all my housekeeping tasks in the morning while it’s still cool, I can be out of the van before it begins to heat up. And by not returning home until 8 o’clock or 8:30, I can get back to the van after it has already cooled off in the evening air. Even if it’s 95 during the day, it will usually have cooled off inside the van to 80 or so by the time the sun goes down. If it’s still warm inside the van when I get back, I use a small electric-powered fan that runs off the solar system: it’s wattage is so low that I can run it overnight if I need to, without depleting the battery too much. It’s enough to stay comfortably cool while I watch TV, read, and sleep.

When it comes to staying warm, there are similar solutions. Some people use small electric space heaters in their van. But like electric A/C’s, these use a huge amount of power, and you’ll need a very large solar system to run them. Another option are the small propane-powered heaters intended for tent campers. These run off the same propane canister-bottles that backpacking stoves use. They give pretty good heat and will keep you warm through the night. But they burn through fuel pretty quickly, and you’ll be constantly replacing the propane canisters. You do not want to ever use a gasoline or kerosene fueled space heater, intended for a house, inside a van. They create fumes and carbon monoxide that are deadly in an enclosed space. And if you are using any combustion-type heater, such as propane, a carbon monoxide/carbon dioxide monitor is cheap and potentially life-saving.

In many ways, the problems of staying warm in a van are the same as those of a backpacker—both of us want to warm ourselves with materials that use no fuel or electricity and don’t take up much space. So it is no surprise that the best solution can be found in the backpacking section of the sporting-goods store: the sleeping bag.

For maximum flexibility, I keep three sleeping bags in the van, each for a different temperature range. “Summer” sleeping bags are just a thin flannel blanket with a zipper. They are intended for mild summer conditions where it doesn’t get below 75 or so at night. They are also intended to be used as “liners” for heavier bags. “Temperate” sleeping bags are usually rated down to about 55-60 degrees. (Sleeping bag ratings, btw, should be taken with a grain of salt—though everyone’s metabolism is different and everyone feels temperatures differently, I find that the rated temperatures on most sleeping bags are five or ten degrees warmer than reality—a 60-degree bag is really good for about 65-70 degrees.) For most people, these will keep you warm for most of the year, perhaps with a liner added on particularly cool nights. Finally, I have my “cold-weather” bag, rated to 35 degrees. Cold-weather bags have improved greatly since I was a kid. Back in the 70’s when I was hiking the Appalachian Trail, winter sleeping bags were made with goose down; they were heavy, bulky, and they didn’t work if they got wet. Today, “mummy bags” made with synthetic fibers are light, thin, and weatherproof. A good cold-weather sleeping bag will keep you toasty on virtually any winter night you are likely to regularly face as a snowbird.

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No matter where you are, however, there will always be winter nights when it gets exceptionally cold. One way to deal with these occasional nights is to layer a couple of sleeping bags together, one inside the other. But if it gets too cold for you to be safe, the best solution is to find a motel, wrap yourself in a nice warm blankie, turn up the heat, and watch “Game of Thrones” reruns all night.


3 thoughts on “Keeping Warm and Cool

  1. Yet another comment related to DC power – if you’re able to switch over to DC, PC fans are designed to run on 12V DC power inside a PC and you can get a protective cover for them inexpensively if you feel the need. For use like this you’d probably want a 120mm fan with a “manual speed control” either integrated on the cable or as a separate kit. There are larger fans (250mm and up) but I think availability is lower.

  2. You are dead wrong about kerosene. Kerosene is safer and cheaper than propane, and it also provides a much drier heat to help combat moisture problems. Experienced full timers always prefer kerosene. I run mine all night on a regular basis, and it never even registers on my carbon monoxide detector.

    You neglected to mention 12 volt electric blankets too. They use very little power, and are very effective and cheap. They can be found at many truck stops. 12 volt heated or heating/cooling seat cushions can be found at many truck stops too. These can go a long way for adding comfort too.

    12 volt air coolers have been around for many years, both commercial versions, and numerous types of DIY versions, all of which work extremely well. Of course one of the most effective solutions is to just park in the shade too. A simple 12 volt fan and a trigger spray bottle of water also work quite well regardless of the humidity level.

    While traveling with the weather may seem ideal, most of us full timers that aren’t yet of retirement age are tied down to a regular job and unable to travel with the weather. Where I’m at, -20 to -40 is normal for winter, and 90’s+ is normal for the summer. Dealing with the temperatures is extremely easy, the snow and ice on the roads in the winter are by far the most challenging.

    When dealing with the cold, make sure you don’t block off the cab, or it will collect moisture and freeze. I did this in a previous van and it led to screwing up all my gauges and my electronics under the dash. It also killed my power seats, power windows, and power mirrors. Keep your cab heated if it’s below freezing out, or you will regret it. Propane produces a lot of moisture, we produce a lot of moisture just through breathing and perspiration, condensation produces moisture, and cooking produces moisture too. Cutting out propane is a huge step in the right direction, but good ventilation and keeping your cab heated as well as your cabin can go a long way towards avoiding future problems. When moisture freezes it expands, and it can really play havoc with your electrical systems. Moisture is inevitable, but with lots of dry heat and lots of ventilation, it can be kept pretty well in check. Be wary of moisture trapping insulation as well. After many years of experimentation and failures, I have found the greatest success with the “Ventilation not Insulation” theme. Staying warm is no harder, and cooling is much easier. Heat your whole van in the winter, and cool mainly just your body in the summer.

    Window vans make the best camper vans. They can provide you with free heat in the winter if the sun is shining, and far better ventilation in the summer than roof vents can provide, and all without using one bit of battery power. House style air conditioners are energy hogs, and totally unnecessary. I work rotating shifts and I’m 40 miles from the nearest town, so I spend 16+ hours a day in my van, in both the coldest and hottest parts of the days and nights. Temperature control only requires good heating and cooling methods and equipment, moisture control rules out unvented propane entirely.

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