Recently we looked at the pros and cons of diesel versus LPG ducted central heating. In a perfect world every RV owner would be able to afford such a system, or it would come as original equipment. For many, however, making do with what came with a RV is the norm. The good news is this doesn't mean you have to freeze on a winter’s night or only travel in summer.
The most obvious way to avoid freezing in your RV is to head north. Way north. In North America, ‘Snowbirds’ is the term for those who seasonally migrate from the frigid north to sunny Florida in winter. It's more elegant than our ‘Grey Nomad’ equivalent, but whatever you call such travellers, joining them is being part of the herd.
Winter in Australia can reward with crisp, clear days and starry nights, plus largely empty roads and campsites. All you need is to be prepared – particularly at nighttime. While winter travelling here might not require the insulated water tanks and anti-freezing infrastructure of RVs our Northern Hemisphere cousins drive, reliable heating is still essential, especially when venturing inland or to alpine areas.
Most Aussie RVs have a roof-mounted air-conditioner with a heating function. This forms the basis of many people’s winter heating strategy, but obviously requires 240-volt power. Also requiring the same power voltage, but much less of it, is a portable ceramic fan heater. Either way, you’ll need to be on a powered site in a caravan park or campground to ‘plug-and-play’. Of course, a small portable generator will also supply the requisite power, but running one through the night when free camping isn’t a realistic option, both because of noise for you and any fellow campers, and concerns it might disappear…
Those considerations aside, comfortable Winter RVing isn’t all about heating. Other considerations critical to cold-weather comfort include appropriate clothing (think beyond shorts, t-shirts and thongs) and bedding. Don’t forget proper window insulation, too. Systems like SolarScreens to not only keep-in heat, but greatly reduce (or prevent) condensation – especially on the windscreen and cab side-windows. In summer, they’re surprisingly effective at keeping heat out, so they are win-win.
The heating side of most RV air-conditioning units is similar to a regular fan heater – a metal coil element with air blowing over it. This is actually a better heating option than a reverse-cycle unit, which doesn’t function well at very low outside temperatures – precisely when you are likely to be using the heater!
Although it’s handy to have, the roof-mounted unit is the least preferable heating option. Quiet outside, the fan is relatively loud inside and generally quite intrusive when cutting in-and-out on the thermostat. Think of it as insurance: nice to have but hope you’ll never need it!
That Ceramic Fan Heater
When mains power is available this is the best heating option. A ceramic fan heater is small and quiet, and relatively inexpensive. The ceramic system is preferable to a regular fan heater from both a safety perspective and for overall efficiency, because electricity heats a ceramic plate rather than a coil of exposed wire that can become a fire hazard. It also comes with a shut-off switch if it tips over, and you want one with an adjustable thermostat with over-heat protection.
While most heaters in this category have similar heating specifications, physical dimensions vary considerably. A portable fan heater is something that will most likely be stored more often than it is used, so choose a heater that fits your storage space. And pay a little more for a name brand as it’s less likely to fail when you’re miles from anywhere (in that situation burning the extended warranty card is a justifiable survival solution, but photograph it first!).
On the Inside
With your van up to temperature, the right attire and good quality bedding will keep you warm for the evening and overnight. If you turn-off the heater when you go to bed, it’s common on cold winter nights for the RV’s interior to remain about 5°-10°C warmer than outside – blizzards and extreme locations/weather events excepted! In the morning, running the heater on high while the kettle boils and you remain snuggled under the covers is the way to go. Of course you can always run the heater all night on low, using the thermostat to guarantee a minimum temperature.
Finally, don’t overlook old-tech: Hot water bottles are a terrific way to go, just be sure to also use a proper cover (best practice) or towel (whoops, forgot the cover) to avoid accidental burns when piping hot. Check the manufacturing date-stamp and if it’s more than a year old, replace it. Rubber perishes – usually, at the most inconvenient times. One last tip: If you reuse the water due to limited supply, don’t boil it in your normal kettle unless you don’t mind rubber-tasting tea, which is more ‘orrible than ‘erbal…
Elephant in the RV?
The elephant many RVers don’t talk about but at least think about is the portable LPG heater. Cheap and effective, such heaters are a tempting alternative – and potentially deadly. When used in a small enclosed space, a portable LPG heater (or any heater that burns your breathing air and isn’t externally flued), can be an express ticket to the afterlife. Read my lips: Under no circumstances run a portable LPG heater in your RV!
They might be fine outside under the awning or in a large shed that’s well ventilated, but that’s it. Similarly, never run a gas cooktop for heating. Carbon Monoxide is a clear and odourless byproduct of combustion and it is deadly. Don’t be dying to find out the hard way…
The Bottom Line
Comfortable winter RV travel can mean more caravan park stays than you might like, but that’s easier on the cash-flow than spending thousands on a quality, ducted diesel or LPG heater. It also helps local economies in these post-Bushfire/Covid/Flood times and that’s got to be a good thing.
Like all facets of RV travels, a bit of planning goes a long way. When travelling in winter, use the BOM app or similar for enroute temperature forecasts and amend travel plans if required. Being properly equipped can make winter adventures some of the most memorable of your RVing life. You might even warm to it…