Survivalist Vandweller: Staying Warm in Winter, Cool in Summer
We are continuing with our look at Practical Survival for Vandwellers and today we are going to continue looking at staying comfortable in the heat and cold. In the last post we reviewed ways of doing that by the way we dress and sleep, this time we’re going to look at mechanical ways to beat the heat and cold using various devices. 1) Move with the seasons: The very best thing about being a vandweller is that you always have your shelter with you and because it is on wheels you have the ability to travel with the seasons and maintain a nearly constant temperature. Among vandwellers and RVers that is known as being a snowbird, flying south or north with the season. When I say north and south I don’t mean that literally because a much better way is to move up and down in elevation. It’s a law of physics that for every 1000 feet of elevation you go up, the temperature goes down by about 3 degrees.
Let’s look at a real-life example of that. Right now I’m at Quartzsite, AZ (400 feet elevation) and it is 95 degrees, that’s starting to get uncomfortably hot. But if I drive north for 200 miles I can be camped outside of Prescott, AZ in the Prescott National Forest at 5500 feet. Since the temperature drops by a little more than 3 degrees per 1000 feet, if I go up 5000 feet the temperature will be 20 degrees cooler so it will be about 75 degrees. That’s a big improvement!! Eventually though, it will get hot at Prescott as well, usually up to the mid 90s. When that happens I can just move another 100 miles to the Coconino NF outside of Flagstaff AZ at 7500 feet and the temps will drop another 6-10 degrees putting them into the 80s. But more importantly, I will be surrounded by huge Ponderosa pines so I can park in the shade and stay very comfortable. Moving with the seasons is your best choice, but what are you going to do if you can’t move? Many of us are tied to an area by obligations to jobs, family or friends and as the price of gas keeps going up, eventually many of us will come to the point where we just can’t drive long distances anymore. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to be as comfortable as possible if you can’t move with the seasons. Let’s look at them:
2) Cover the windows with Reflectix. With every vehicle I’ve ever lived in the first thing I did was buy a roll of Reflectix and cover the windows. Reflectix is two layers of a heavy duty aluminum foil-like material with bubble wrap sandwiched between them. It adds a small amount of insulation, but what it does extremely well is reflect the heat of the sun away from the van. If you cover all your windows with Reflectix, your van will be much more comfortable in both winter and summer. Reflectix 24-Inch by 25-Feet Bubble Pack Insulation
Here are four ways to install it:
- By far your best choice is to cut it a little large and simply press it into the window frame. It stays remarkably well.
- You can use two-sided Velcro to attach it.
- You can use magnets glued to the van and washers glued to the Reflectix to hold them in place.
- You can duct tape it in place but the heat may make it a mess.
3) Insulate the roof and walls. I’ve insulated every vehicle I’ve lived in. In the winter the insulation holds the heat inside and keeps me warm, and in the summer it holds the heat out and keeps me cool. There are several ways to insulate but I’ve always used Styrofoam sheets because they have a high R-value, they’re cheap and easy to work with. Recently I’m only using Polyiso sheets because they are R6 per inch, one of the highest of nearly all insulation. It’s a little more expensive but you can use less.
4) Use weather-stripping and hang blankets to prevent drafts. As our vans get older the weather-stripping loses it shape and dries out and the van rattles things so they don’t fit as well. Chances are very good your van has quite a few drafts and they are going to make you feel much colder in winter. So replacing it or improving on it is a very good first step in preparing for winter. Another great idea is to hang a blanket over the entire side and back door. I have a tarp over mine to stop drafts and then an older wool blanket to keep the heat in. It works well.
5) Park to maximize or minimize passive solar gain or heat. The sun is always putting out some heat so you want to park in such a way so that in the summer you get the least heat inside and the heat that does get inside can escape. In the winter you want the opposite; to park so you get the most heat inside, and once the heat is in you want to store it by covering all the windows that don’t have heat coming in. Because the sun puts out the most heat at noon, you want the van to point either due north, or due south at noon.
- In the winter I park my van with my windshield pointing due south so the most sunshine can get inside as possible. I cover and insulate all the windows that are not being hit by the sun so the least amount of heat can escape through them. So in the morning the West windows are covered and the East are exposed to the sun, and past noon when the sun has shifted I reverse that. As soon as the sun goes down I cover and insulate all the windows to prevent heat from escaping through the windows at night.
- In the summer I park with my windshield pointed due north and cover and insulate all the other windows that have the sun hitting them. As soon as a window is not being hit by the sun I uncover and open it.
6) Put screens over all your windows that can open. That way you can have them open in the heat.
7) Paint your roof. If possible, you want a white van because white doesn’t absorb heat like dark colors do. But if you already own a dark colored van you might want to paint the roof white so it doesn’t absorb as much heat. This is the product I recommend and my friend used in this picture from Amazon.com: Kool Seal Elastomeric Roof Coating
8) Create shade and put out an awning. If possible you want to find shade to park under, but that rarely is possible, plus with my solar panels I need to be under the sun. So I create my own shade. The first thing I did was put a piece of plywood over the ladder racks that hold my solar panels which puts my roof in constant shade. The next thing I do when it’s hot is drape a tarp over the side of my trailer that is exposed to the sun so it’s always in the shade. The result is that the roof and wall are in constant shade, greatly cooling the van. Finally, I put out my ARB Awning so I can have someplace in the shade to sit outside. ARB Brown 8′ Awning
9) Install vents and vent covers in the roof: Having a roof vent to let the hot air escape will dramatically cool the van. This is the exact vent I bought from Amazon.com Heng’s 14″ White Universal Vent
I also strongly recommend that you get a vent cover to go over it so that you can leave the vent open in the rain and while you drive. This is the one I bought from Amazon Camco RV Roof Vent Cover (White)
Since mine are covered I open them when spring starts to get warm and never close them again till fall when it cools off. I don’t worry about rain or having them blown off by the wind blast as I drive because the cover protects them. You will want to get an insulating cover to put up into them in the winter so they don’t let all the warm air escape through the thin plastic lid.
Here is my roadpro fan from Amazon: RoadPro 10″ 12V or Battery Dual Power Portable Fan And here is my Endless Breeze fan made by Fantastic Fan: Fan-Tastic Vent Endless Breeze 12V Fan
10) Buy several fans. Everything else we’ve done is to keep the heat from coming in or to get it out, but a fan does more than that and actually makes you feel cooler, so it is one of the single most important things you can do!! You have two choices for a fan:
- A fan mounted into the roof vent. A powered roof fan can be set to blow outward and push hot air out of the van, or it can be reversed to pull air into the van and. Ideally you will have two, one pulling air in and the other pushing air out, that way you get a lot of air movement. But they are expensive so if you just have one that’s fine. The best powered vents are made by Fantastic Fan. They are expensive but they are very reliable and very powerful, they move a lot of air! The company is famous for its lifetime warranty on all its products. You can get them from Amazon here: Fan-Tastic Vent Vent with Reverse and Thermostat
- Another option is a 12 volt portable fan. If you can only afford either a roof mounted fan OR a portable fan, I recommend the portable fan. It gives you so much more flexibility it is mandatory in the heat. You can set it beside you up front while you are driving or take it outside and sit under the awning; when you go to bed you can set it next to the bed; when you are sitting at the computer you can have it beside you aimed right at you. This ability to move it as close or far away as you want it, aimed directly or indirectly at you makes it an essential item in the summer, no matter where you are. If you can afford to get both a vent fan and a portable, they work extremely well together. Set the portable fan in front of a window aiming at you and turn the vent fan on blowing out and you will have a wonderful cooling cross-draft in the van! Fantastic Fan makes a portable fan called the Endless Breeze which is their fan from the roof vent put into a portable housing. I own one and they are expensive ($65) but they are also extremely high quality! It should last you the rest of your life and if it ever fails they will fix or replace it for free! For a portable I recommend a O2 Cool 12 volt fan. They are fairly cheap but reliable and great fans. They rebrand them under the WalMart house brand, Ozark Trails and the truck stop brand Roadpro. They are all the same fan and highly recommended. You can get them at WalMart, every truck stop or at Amazon.com. I have a Roadpro fan I got on sale at Flying J for $20 and it’s a great fan! Make sure it is 12 volt, some aren’t. Nearly all of them will also work on D cell batteries also.
11) Use a heater. In the last post we talked about bedding so you can sleep warm in the cold, but I don’t want to just sleep warm, I want to spend the evening in a warm van. In the winter the sun sets early and you have 14 hours of darkness but you’re only sleeping 8 hours. What are you going to do for the other 6 hours? If you are a boondocker you’re going to sit in the van and entertain yourself and you don’t want to be cold when you’re doing it; that’s miserable! So you need to warm the van. Here are your options:
- Use Thermal Mass. While you are driving put several gallons of water in front of the heater vents in the van and let the water get really hot. When you stop it will radiate out its stored heat.
- Coleman Propane Stove. When you make a meal inside at night after dark the van will warm up and if it is well insulated it may stay warm the rest of the night. If it doesn’t you can turn it on later and warm up water for hot chocolate and get the van warm again that way. That’s usually enough as long as you are dressed for cold weather but if it is very cold I have even turned on my stove and just left it on low as a heater. I’ve done that literally thousands of times and never died once!
- Mr. Buddy Portable Heater. These are wonderful heaters used by the majority of vandwellers in cold country. They are highly recommended! You can get it from Amazon here: Mr. Heater Buddy 4,000-9,000-BTU Indoor-Safe Portable Radiant Heater
To save propane you are going to want to buy a bulk refillable bottle and an adapter hose to plug the Mr. Buddy to it. They make a filter that MUST be used whenever it is hooked up to a bulk bottle You can get the filter from Amazon here: Mr. Heater Fuel Filter for Portable Buddy and Big Buddy Heaters
- Coleman Propane catalytic heater. These are very good little heaters that also work well for us. But they are harder to connect to a bulk bottle so generally you are better off to get a MR. Buddy.
- Olympian Catalytic Wave 3 heater. This is by far the best of all heaters and it’s a low pressure device so it can only be used off a bulk bottle and does not need a filter. Because it is a true catalytic heater it produces much less carbon monoxide than any other heater and is the only one I would use at night while I was sleeping. The whole 6 years I lived in a van in Anchorage, AK I used multiple Olympian heaters and they ran 24 hours a day 7 days a week the entire winter. The only time they were ever off was when I changed bulk bottles. They are more expensive but they are simply the best, easiest to install and safest you can buy for the money! Get them from Amazon here: Olympian Wave-3 3000 BTU Catalytic Heater
About heater safety: portable heaters are dangerous, they have killed many people and they can kill you! They are exactly like a gas dryer, gas hot water heater or gas furnace in your house (or even a gun) used right they are a safe and marvelous tool, but if used wrong you can die! Your heater will come with instructions in exactly how to use it. It will include an exact number for the square inches of ventilation it needs and the exact numbers for clearances around it. If you follow their rules it is a totally safe device, if you fail to follow them, you can die. For example my heater needed 35 square inches of ventilation to be safe. By lowering each front window by one inch I had more than enough ventilation and I knew I was safe. Some people say, “But, having to open your windows means you won’t be any warmer because you will lose all the heat you gain.” Believe me, nothing could be further from the truth! These heaters put out many times more heat than you will lose from the open window and their problem is you will be too hot not too cold with one on!! They are so hot that they can ignite items left too close to them so they require a clear area around them. Mine needed 15 inches of clearance from any combustible material, all around. Fortunately, that was easy to provide. Then I knew I was safe.
Be sure to read and follow all your heaters warnings and rules and you can be confident you are safe. But, I also strongly recommend you have a carbon monoxide detector with you as well. If you are using a portable heater You MUST have one!!