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Since campers are made of lightweight material that's known to be extremely flammable, the idea of building a fire in side of one probably seems crazy to most people. But with so many people choosing to live in an RV to save money or go “off grid”, often living stationary year round in a cold climate, some people are turning to wood as a cheap, readily accessible alternative to propane.
However, not all wood stoves are created equal, and heating an RV with wood isn't as simple as buying a stove and installing a stove pipe.
In this article, I'll go over some important things to consider before purchasing a wood stove for your camper. I'll also talk about the pros and cons of some of the popular RV wood stove models.
Is it Safe to Use a Wood Stove in an RV?
Trailers and motorhomes are not designed to be heated with wood (with the campers from this company being the only exception I've seen so far). Any time you modify a camper and use it in a way other than originally intended, you are taking a risk. You're also likely voiding your factory warranty and possibly your insurance coverage (but that's a question to for your insurance agent).
That said, using a wood stove in an RV isn't necessarily any more risky than using one in a small cabin, and running a space heater in an RV is also a risk, yet many people don't think twice before plugging one in.
Ultimately it will be up to you to weigh the risks and benefits and determine whether the risk is one you're willing to take, and to do the research to make sure you're being as safe as possible. If you do decide to install a wood stove in your RV, these are some ways you can reduce the risk:
- Follow the stove manufacturer's directions for installation and operation, especially when it comes to the stove pipe, building a heat shield around the stove, clearance between the stove / stove pipe and the wall, floor, etc. I'm not going to list here everything you need to pay attention to, because you need to be getting that information from your stove's manufacturer. Just know that a wood stove installation is not something you should be improvising.
- Don't use an old antique wood stove. While there are actually a lot of RVers who put old antique stoves in their campers, I would avoid one myself. Newer wood stoves tend to be better sealed and burn more efficiently, which is not only more environmentally friendly but also saves money on wood and requires less frequent feeding. Newer stoves are also often less smoky, which is better for your health. And finally, if you buy a newer wood stove, the company that makes them is more likely to still be in business and publishing up-to-date guidelines for safe installation and operation.
- Don't use a tent stove. Some people might argue with me on this, since I've seen quite a few pictures of tent stoves in RV's, and I've chatted with some people who put a tent stove in their RV or converted bus and are happy with it. I can certainly see the appeal since these are some of the cheapest tiny wood stoves you'll find, but since they are designed to be used in a tent and not in an enclosed space, if you choose to use a tent stove, it will be completely up to you to figure out how to do it safely because they are not intended to be used that way and so won't come with guidance from the manufacturer.
Also, tent stoves are made of lightweight material that doesn't hold heat to release slowly the way cast iron does, so they heat they generate is less even. That said, I did chat with someone who installed a tent stove in a converted school bus and built a housing around it out of cinder blocks to hold in the heat, so if you're resourceful and don't mind the risk (or the added weight of cinder blocks), the choice is ultimately up to you!
- Make sure your RV has functional smoke and CO2 detectors and a fire extinguisher.
Other Considerations for Heating an RV with Wood
In addition to the safety risks, here are some other things to keep in mind before deciding to install a wood stove in your RV:
- Not all wood stoves are EPA approved or UL listed, including several on this list. This doesn't necessarily make them unsafe, but depending on the model, it may mean they produce more smoke, require more wood, or release more pollutants into the air, and for this reason some localities have ordinances in place restricting their use. Go here and here for more information about this. You can search the EPA database here to see which brands are on the EPA approved list.
- If wood is your only heat source, you're going to need to do some extra preparation to make sure your plumbing and fresh water system warm so that it doesn't freeze. Many RV's depend on the furnance to heat these components, so you may need to come up with an alternative. Some RVers solve this problem by winterizing their rig, installing a composting toilet, hauling in fresh water for drinking and cooking, using a dishpan for waste water, doing their laundry at a laundromat, and taking showers at a campground facility or fitness center.
- When price shopping, be sure to include the cost of the materials needed for installation in addition to the price of the stove itself. It's not uncommon for the stove pipe and and other materials to cost far more than the stove itself does.
- Your local government may have ordinances in place governing the use of wood stoves. It would be a good idea to research these before spending a lot of money only to be slapped with fines and prohibited from using your setup.
- If you intend to move your RV, you'll want a setup that can be taken down and put back up without too much trouble.
- The cute little wood stoves that you often see people putting in tiny homes, boats, and RV's have a very small capacity for wood. This means you have to feed them frequently to keep them going. If your wood stove is your only heat source, you may have to wake up several times throughout the night to add more wood.
RV Owners Share Their Experiences With Different Types of Wood Stoves
As part of my research for this article, I contacted RVers and bus dwellers who have installed a wood stove to ask them about their experience. Keep reading to see what these people had to say about some of the more popular wood stove models.
Grizzly Cubic Mini
The adorable Grizzly Cubic Mini is one of the most popular models of wood stove with RVers by far. It's lightweight, relatively easy to install, lightweight, and the rail can be removed to create a cooking surface.
However, most of the RVers I talked to felt that due to its size, the Cubic Grizzly Mini is best used as a supplementary or backup heat source, especially for a big rig. RVer Kimberly Kinsey, said, “I have a Cubic Grizzly and I really am thinking of going way bigger. It’s not got the capacity I want and you never get a three-hour burn time. It’s one hour or less, especially if you have it opened up enough to put out actual heat.”
RVer Kylie Vincent, who has an off-grid setup with a combination of solar power and propane in addition to a wood stove, said, “We have a [Grizzly] cubic mini and we love it. Doesn’t last through the night, not by a long shot. But I couldn’t imagine this place without it. It staves off the chill like nothing else.”
Airstream owners Clint and Ericka (@LoveInATinCan) have shared on their Instagram page that they love having a Cubic Grizzly in their RV, which they live in full time, but they also have a propane furnace that they run at night.
Grizzly Cubic Cub
Even smaller than the Grizzly Cubic Mini is the Grizzly Cubic Cub, an adorable “countertop sized” wood stove.
RVers Ryan and Toshi installed a Grizzly Cubic Mini in their Airstream (“McStreamy”), and they love it. They told me, “It’s the best thing ever! We have it running alll day in the winter and it’s just the best!” They are in the Seattle area, where winter temperatures are often in the 20's but don't frequently go below zero.
RVer Flynn Fezatte posted on Facebook, “I love my new Cubic Mini Cub! It isn’t my primary heat source but makes a difference in humidity and power bill.”
An RVer named Adam Gardener told me, “We had one [a Cubic Mini Cub] in our 34’ Georgie boy. It was awesome – even in winter at 7000 feet! The best part is that you can cook/heat water on it. They also make a roaster oven that sits on top.”
RVer Tim Mikos uses a Grizzly Cubic Cub as the main heat source in his tiny Scamp camper, even in extreme winter weather in Michigan. He wrote on Facebook in 2019, “Another happy Cubic Mini user. I have the Cub model. Has kept me toasty for 2 winters now. I also cook on it. It was -40°F last week and mid 70's inside my small home. Only downside is waking up cold because it burns out after I fall asleep. Not a huge deal as it's warm again 15 minutes after I wake and start another fire.”
The Hobbit wins the prize for best name as far as I'm concerned! It's manufactured by a company located in England called Salamander Stoves, making it a good option for European caravan travelers and van dwellers. However, you can order them and have them shipped to other countries, including the U.S., Canada, New Zealand, and more.
An interesting feature of the Hobbit is it can be fitted with a boiler and used to heat water for shower and kitchen use. You can also burn various types of “eco logs” in them as a more environmentally friendly alternative to wood.
I chatted with an American woman named Shannon Hamley who uses a Salamander Hobbit to heat her Keystone Cougar fifth wheel. She travels throughout the Pacific Northwest in her RV with her wood stove setup. Her stove is vented through a window, and she added a small Ecofan on top.
An Ecofan, pictured below, is a small fan that sits on top of a top of a wood stove to help distribute the heat. It does not require electricity as it's powered by the heat of the stove. You can get them fairly cheaply on Amazon.
RV owner Amber chose a larger wood stove to go in the fifth wheel that would be her family's home. She told me, “You can buy smaller and lighter but we knew we kind of wanted ours to be the center of our space and had taken out so much weight other ways so went slightly larger.”
Amber's wood stove is the Shetland model from the Hi-Flame company, which has lots of options to choose from.
The RVer whose installation is pictured below, says this wood stove keeps her fifth wheel nice and toasty. I do want to mention that a firefighter who saw her picture felt that it would be a good idea to put spacers between the RV walls and the corrugated metal paneling to create an air gap, as recommended in this article about how to build heat shields to go around a wood stove.
Another RV owner, Jill Conner, chose a larger Summer's Heat wood stove for heating her camper. She shared her opinion on wood stoves in a comment on Facebook: “I don't recommend the [brand of tiny wood stove]…[it's] more of a gimmick stove. I'm using a big stove and its working overtime to heat a 26 ft. fifth wheel. I've had many of stoves in many different trailers. Go big or go home.” She added that her stove weighs 250 pounds, but that weight isn't an issue for her because her camper remains stationary.
The Kimberly by Unforgettable Fire
The Kimberly stove from Unforgettable Fire LLC is like the Cadillac of small wood stoves. I had a phone call with Roger Lehet, the company owner and inventor of the Kimberly who explained to me some of the stove's benefits.
One of its main advantages is that spite of its small size, the Kimberly will keep burning all night without you needing to get up in the night to add fuel or wake up cold in the morning. This also means less fuel is required, and the exhaust produced is far more environmentally friendly than the smoke produced by most wood stoves. In addition to the added convenience, Roger emphasized that the Kimberly stove is EPA/CSA Certified and UL-tested.
Another thing that stood out to me from talking to Roger was his commitment to making sure that the stoves he sells are safely installed. His company's relationship with you doesn't end after they get your credit card information; they walk you through the entire installation process to make sure it's done right.
The one downside to the Kimberly stove is its cost, which is four or five times that of the others on this list, but like they say, you get what you pay for, so if it's in the realm of possibility for you, the Kimberly is worth a look.
Tiny Wood Stove Dwarf
This small company is owned and operated by a team of people who live tiny themselves (in vans, buses, RV's, etc.) and actually use the products they sell, and they too offer extensive support to help their customers learn and safely set up and maintain theirs stove (those who purchase their stoves as well as the ones who purchase their accessories for a different stove).
I interviewed Jesse Duran, who installed the Dwarf 5kw in a skoolie (converted school bus) he lives in full time (pictured below) and asked him how she felt about it compared to the Grizzly stoves. This was his response: “It kills them in comparison. We have multiple friends that have them. They work great but you have to feed them constantly. Especially if you want it to warm up a 40’ bus. Granted, [Grizzly stoves] are a lot cheaper. You could do 3 of them for the same cost. Once we got our stove down pat we can get a good fire to burn 4.5-5 hours and be able to start with coals again. Usually 4 hours is what we plan. So one of us gets up at night and feeds it. That’s with it being 20° outside.”
How to Determine Which Stove is Right for Your RV
One thing you may have noticed while reading about various RVer's experiences with different wood stoves is that the size of the stove plays a huge part in whether or not it can be used as a reliable heat source. A bigger stove can hold more wood and can therefore stay burning longer. It also retains more heat that will continue to radiate into a space even after the fire has burned out.
The drawback, of course, is that in an RV, extra space and extra weight are probably not something you can spare a lot of, so the key is in finding the smallest stove that will put out enough heat for your space, will burn as efficiently as possible.
As you shop for a stove, consider these factors:
- Do you plan to drive / haul your RV with the stove in it? Or will your RV remain parked in once place where weight is less of an issue?
- Would you be using a wood stove as a primary source of heat, or just to supplement your propane furnace and/or electric heaters?
- Are you okay with possibly having to add more wood to the stove every 3-4 hours to keep it burning (including during the night)?
- How cold will the weather get where you'll be?
- How big is your space?
To help with your shopping, you can calculate the BTU (heat output) you'll need to heat your RV in the kind of weather you anticipate, you can use this handy calculator.