How To Stay Warm Without a Built-in RV Furnace

By Alexis Chateau \

truck pulling Mantis in snow

I spent the first 26 years of my life in the tropics, on the beautiful island of Jamaica. Despite frequent trips to the United States, I never acclimated to cold weather. When it drops below 75 degrees in the RV, I’m ready to pull a sweater over my head. Nevertheless, cold weather won’t put an end to my camping plans. I have tent-camped in below-freezing temperatures and spent winter nights without propane in the RV. So, how does an island girl stay warm without a built-in RV furnace, and how can you do the same?

Dress for the Weather

Pack enough clothes to dress in layers and prioritize warmer fabrics, such as wool and fleece. When layering, start with a base layer of long underwear, followed by a pair of pants, and a shirt. Next, add a middle layer of either a sweater or fleece jacket. Finally, top it off with an outer layer of either a coat or windbreaker.

One of the best tricks I learned for dressing warm was to keep the head, feet, and hands warm. If you can master that, you can wear just about anything else that suits you. I wear a fleece hat and thick socks to bed. When I wake in the morning, I wear gloves until it warms up.

Light a Campfire

Take advantage of available firepits or bring your own. In addition to providing warmth, it’s a great way to socialize with other campers. Be sure to check the fire warnings before lighting a fire. Sometimes, parks have burn bans―yes, even in the firepits. This can change depending on the risk of wildfires at the time.

Wildfires are primarily a risk during the summer, but they can happen at any time. Lucky for you, I spoke to the experts and wrote two articles about wildfire safety at camp:

Get Some Exercise

You may not feel like it, but a little physical activity will help you stay warm. Getting the blood flowing will also help you wake up and start the day. Try going for a walk or doing some yoga in the morning. If you have kids, pets, or both, go out and play with them. The key is to get moving without breaking a sweat.

Here are some of the activities I tried in cold weather:

  • Riding my electric unicycle
  • Riding my mountain bike
  • Hiking to see stunning mountain views
  • Scrambling up rocks at a beautiful waterfall

Choose the Right Sleeping Bag

Running out of propane happens to RVers all the time. It has happened to me thrice because I prefer to travel with just one full tank. Why? I tow with a V6, and every pound I can shave off is a pound worth losing. A fellow RVer shared that he keeps a sleeping bag handy. So, when he runs out of propane, he climbs in and zips himself up nice and tight. He’s a warm burrito until the morning.

For years, my sleeping bag was rated for mild weather and kept me warm enough. When camping in below-freezing weather, I upgraded to a sleeping bag rated for that temperature range. It was frigid outside that sleeping bag, but I was nice and toasty inside. I threw a comforter set on top to provide extra warmth for myself and my adventure cat, who was camping with me at the time.

Use Electric Heat Sources

The sleeping bag was an excellent way to stay warm without a built-in RV furnace, but it was only useful at bedtime. So, what can you do when the sun has gone down, but you’re still wide awake? I bring my Goal Zero solar generator with me when camping and have a small, 400-watt heater. In a tiny space, that is plenty of heat. After half an hour or so, I can turn it off. I also have a rechargeable hand warmer.

State and national parks increasingly provide electrical hookups for campers. Examples include Elephant Butte Lake in New Mexico and Red Feather Lakes in Colorado. Not all electric pedestals have connections for regular 15-amp plugs, so I recommend bringing a 30-amp-to-15-amp adapter and a 50-amp-to-15-amp adapter. These are useful for people who camp in tents and tiny travel trailers that don’t use standard RV connections.

Fill a Bottle With Hot Water

This is my absolute favorite way to get nice and warm before bed. I first discovered it atop a windy hilly in the Nevada desert. I had propane, but my used RV battery had failed its first boondocking test. Propane furnaces need electricity to start up and run the fan, so it was as good as having no furnace at all.

I did, however, have my stove! So, I boiled water and poured it into a metal water bottle. It was a cozy companion in bed that night. I also use this method when tent camping, even if I have access to electricity. Metal conducts heat very well, so take care not to burn yourself.

Use Indoor-Rated Propane Heaters

There are two types of propane heaters that look identical but serve very different purposes: one for indoor use and one for outdoor use. Make sure you purchase the right one. Outdoor propane heaters produce too much carbon monoxide for you to use them safely indoors.

A lot of people swear by the Mr. Buddy heaters. They have an automatic shut-off switch that kicks in if the heater tips over or the room’s oxygen levels drop too low. Be sure to read the manual carefully and follow the instructions.

Now you know how to stay warm without a built-in RV furnace!

The best part about a vacation home on wheels is that you can always travel to warmer climates in the winter! Even so, knowing how to stay warm without conventional heat sources is a critical life skill. And, as that winter blackout in Texas showed, that skill can come in handy anywhere―even when you live in one of the hottest states in America.

Happy travels!