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If you camp or live in an RV in extreme cold weather, you'll probably want to purchase some kind of heater to supplement your propane furnace. In this guide, I'll go over several different types of electric heaters as well as a few other styles of portable heaters ideal for RVs. I'll also recommend a few models of heaters most popular with RVers to help you decide which one would be the best space heater for your RV.
Space Heater Safety
Before choosing and buying a heater to use in your RV, I strongly recommend reading my article titled “Is It Safe to Use a Space Heater in an RV?”. Using a space heater in an RV, or anywhere for that matter, is a safety risk, and I believe it's important to understand the risk involved before deciding whether or not it's a risk you want to accept.
We do use an electric heater in our fifth wheel to supplement our propane furnace. We have a Dr. Infrared heater (which I'll talk about later in this post) as well as a cheap ceramic heater as a backup. Since we are full time RVers in a climate with winter temperatures that often go below freezing, it's important to use to have a backup heating source.
See also: How We Prepare Our RV for Winter Living
A few times we've run out of propane in the middle of the night and awakened to find it's in the 40's inside the RV, even with our space heater running (which we do leave on, but with the thermostat turned down to where it will only run if the furnace shuts off).
We also find electricity cheaper than propane, so when we're home and the temperatures outside are chilly but above freezing, we run our space heater in our RV instead of running the furnace. However, when it's below freezing, we always run our furnace because it heats the areas where our water and sewer systems are located and keeps them from freezing.
That said, please extensively research, compare, read reviews, etc. before buying any heater with the intent of using it an RV. In this article I've only listed heaters with lots of positive reviews, but your situation may be different from that of the people who recommend these space heaters. If you have any doubts about your RV's electrical capabilities, consult an electrician for a second opinion.
Portable Electric Heaters
Ceramic space heaters
Ceramic heaters work by running an electric current through wires that pass through ceramic plates. This plates get warm and heat the air around them through convection, and a fan blows this air into your room.
If you're looking for a cheap space heater for only occasional use, like a chilly fall morning on a camping trip, a small, portable ceramic heater is probably all you need. The one pictured below has a built-in thermostat and will automatically shut off it if overheats or tips over.
Most tower style heaters are ceramic heaters. Features like oscillation, remote control operation, and timers make them a step up from the basic “plug it in and turn it on” ceramic heater. The Lasko model below also has a safety feature now common in many heaters that will automatically shut it off if it begins to overheat.
Built-in faux fireplace insert heaters
A lot of RV's come with a pre-installed electric heater designed to look like a fireplace. Most of these are ceramic heaters as well. If your RV didn't come with one, or if you need to replace your RV fireplace heater, you can find several models of fireplace style insert heaters online.
Portable fireplace style heaters
Decorative space heaters that look like a small wood stove are an affordable choice popular with a lot of RV owners. Some of these heaters are ceramic, but the one pictured below is actually an Infrared heater, which I'll be talking more about in the next section.
Infrared heaters use radiant heat to transfer warmth to objects in a room (like how the sun warms objects it shines on) rather than simply blowing hot air into a space (though most infrared heaters also include a fan to help diffuse the heat). The Dr. Infrared heater pictured below is the model we use in RV. So far we're on our third winter using it and we love it.
I especially like that it has a built-in thermostat so it's not running constantly and having to be turned up or down all the time, but only comes on once the room drops below a certain temperature. I also think this heater is a great choice for people with kids because the whole thing stays cool to the touch except for the small area the heat comes out of, and even this spot is not hot enough to burn you if you accidentally touch it for just a second. You can't tell in the picture, but this heater also has wheels and is very difficult to tip over, but would shut off instantly if it did.
Update 11/2020: We like our Dr. Heater Infrared heater so much we decided to purchase another one now that we live in a house again and have more space to heat, but for our second one I decided to purchase their newer model (shown below), which has the exact same specs but is a little smaller but is a bit cheaper due to being in a black metal housing instead of a wood housing. I actually like how it looks better and it works just as well!
Tied with infrared heaters as the most popular choice among RVers are oil-filled radiator style heaters like the one shown below, which is one I purchased myself from Walmart.com.
Oil-filled heaters don't burn oil; they circulate heated oil that diffuses steady, radiant heat that warms you gradually, kind of like having the sun shining on you. There's no fan blowing, so the heat produced isn't instant, but once it warms up, it does a good job of maintaining an even temperature with the help of a thermostat.
My husband and I once stayed at an AirBnb located in the basement of an old brownstone home in Boston that had a heater like this as its basement's only heat source. Even though we were there in November and temperatures dropped below freezing at night, the oil-filled heater kept us plenty warm and we even had to turn it down a few times.
More recently, I bought the heater in the photo below to help keep the kitchen of my house from being so chilly, and I really love it. It takes a little while to get the room warm, but then it really keeps the whole room nice and toasty.
Micathermic Panel Heater
I don't have personal experience with this type of heater, but when I asked some full time RVers on Facebook which types of heaters they liked, one type that came up was a micathermic panel heater. Micathermic heaters use a combination of radiant and convective heat: Sheets of mica are warmed through convection, and these emit radiant heat, similar to that emitted by the fins of an oil filled heater since no fan is involved.
The slim, flat design of the DeLonghi micathermic panel heater pictured below would make it a good choice for someone looking for a heater that won't take up too much space in a small room. (For your daily dose of cuteness, scroll down to the reviews of this heater and check out the photos of one customer's pets laying in front of it to soak up the warmth! 😊)
Running an Electric Heater Underneath an RV
RV owners who have skirted their camper for winter sometimes run a space heater under their RV inside the skirting in extreme cold to keep pipes and things from freezing. Personally, I'd be wary of leaving an electric heater running under my RV, since doing so would likely require leaving it unsupervised.
Additionally, I would assume doing so would require the use of an extension cord, which adds extra risk (especially since the standard orange outdoor extension cord that many people might choose is not of a gauge low enough to handle the 12.5 Amp draw of most space heaters.)
There has been one time, however, that we did run a portable space heater under our RV for a few hours, and that was when our black tank's gate valve froze shut one day. Normally our homemade vinyl skirting kept things plenty warm under our RV, but on this particular day the highest temperature was in the single digits, which is fairly exceptional for Missouri. In order to thaw our gate valve as safely as possible, we purchased a 10-gauge 50-ft. extension cord and plugged it directly into the electric post (instead of plugging it into our RV), bypassing our RV's wiring circuit. We also used an infrared heater that would have shut off instantly if it had tipped over.
If we lived in a colder climate where temperatures were often below zero in winter, I would not only make my skirting out of reflective foam board instead of vinyl, but I might consider placing a couple of work lights underneath for occasional use, which I've heard several RV owners say they use as they put out a fair amount of heat without drawing as much electricity as a space heater would.
Most RVers will want to choose electric rather than fuel-burning heaters as a supplemental heating source. However, when RVing in extreme cold, it's a good idea to have a backup source of non-electric heat (and also a generator) in case a snow storm causes a power outage.
Not only is an indoor-use propane heater a good backup heating source for emergencies, it can also be used for boondocking in chilly weather.
The type of propane heater that seems to be the most popular with RV owners is the Mr. Heater “Buddy” propane heater. It's rated as “indoor safe” which makes it ideal for emergencies (though I would still make sure your RV is well ventilated and your propane detector is in working order). It runs off 1 lb. cylinder propane tanks like those used for camp stoves, but in a pinch you could connect it to standard RV propane tanks if you have an adapter hose.
Another propane heater popular with RVers is the Olympian Wave made by Camco. It can be mounted on a wall or stand on the floor, and is designed specifically with RVers in mind.
When researching the types of propane heaters used in RV's, I came across this discussion thread about Mr. Heater vs. the Olympian Wave that may be helpful for comparing the two; many seem to feel that the Olympian Wave is the best propane heater for RVs.
Wood Stoves in RV's
It sounds crazy, I know. But believe it or not, I have seen several RV's with wood burning stoves used for heat. Many of these are in stationary RV's, but some RVers and van lifers who travel use wood stoves as well.
You can see one example below from a Winter RV Enthusiast (who preferred to remain anonymous). This RV is stationary, but the owners do dismantle the stove setup during summer in order to use the space occupied by the wood stove for extra seating.
Other RV Heating Alternatives
Run your RV furnace on electricity
Would you like to be able to avoid space heaters altogether and run your RV furnace on electricity instead of propane at the flip of a switch?
A company called RV Comfort Systems makes this possible with their product CheapHeat, which you can have installed by an RV dealer. Find out more at their website. (And get a 10% discount on your purchase by using the code “RVINSPIRATION”!)
It's not exactly a heater, but if you're just looking for a way to supplement your RV furnace in chilly weather so you can keep the thermostat a set a little lower and keep from burning through quite so much propane, an electric blanket might be a good option.
This electric throw blanket comes in several different colors and would be lovely to use while reading or watching TV:
And this bed-sized electric blanket with dual temperature controls would be perfect for couples who can't agree on the ideal temperature for sleeping:
For more winter RV tips, check out my Winter RVing Resource Page: