I’ve spent countless nights in my car. This article is all about the best car camping heaters, found in years of trial and error.
One thing I learned is: You can make any night comfortable & warm with the right preparation, even without much special gear.
Or … to be honest … almost any night. Some nights are just doomed to be freezing cold.
And for those freezing cold nights, all you think about is “why didn’t I bring a heater?”.
At least that was my thought when I spent a night out in the mountains at 15°F (-9°C) in my car without any heat source.
I woke up with a nasty cold the next morning, having shivered through a long night. And that was just the start of a long day of trying to climb a snowy peak. We eventually gave up half an hour of ice climbing away from the peak due to our energy levels fading.
The day would have looked completely different had I slept in a car even a tiny bit warm.
This article is all about proper car heating in freezing, harsh winters, and snow storms.
Here’s how to stay warm in your car during winter:
Best Car Camping Heaters for Winter
First of all, you need an active source of heat. An active source of heat is something that produces heat in your car.
Active heat sources are heaters of all sorts.
Without an active heat source, eventually, you’re going to cool down and freeze.
Later, we’ll also check out passive heat sources, which are things that insulate, such as clothes and sleeping bags.
Let’s have a look at the best heaters for winter car camping:
Cheap, adjustable, small, simple & lightweight. The Stansport Portable Propane Heater is the perfect car camping heater in many regards.
Actually, I wanted to place the Mr. Heater Little Buddy (from the next section) on rank #1 first. But then I discovered this Stansport propane heater. And it’s much better. By a large margin.
For a comfortable night of sleep in winter, you need to be able to set just the right heat output so you can sleep through the night without waking up.
Too cold, and you’ll wake up freezing. Too hot, and you wake up to turn the heat down.
For winter car camping it’s critical to have a heater with which you can fine adjust heat settings and pick one of several low heat settings (ideal for small to medium-sized cars).
And that’s critical! Most propane heaters are too strong for most cars. So, you can only run them on the lowest settings, which might still be too hot. And if that doesn’t suit you, you have to turn the heater off entirely.
The Stansport portable propane heater outputs a 3,100 BTU/h at most. Which is more than enough to heat a car. And you can choose between low (1,000 BTU/h), medium (2,000 BTU/h) and high (3,100 BTU/h) heat settings.
Other propane heaters start at 4,000 BTU and you can’t adjust the heat to be any lower than that.
So, the Stansport heater is ideally sized for winter car camping.
Additionally, the Stansport heater is small & lightweight (1.8 pounds) and easily stores away in any car.
And it is very affordable! Currently, It’s selling for $41.
It’s a very simplistic heater. But it’s just right for cars. And that’s why I put it on #1.
The only downside I can think of is that this heater is not great for heating large spaces. So, it’s not very versatile. But if you intend to use it only in your car and in small rooms, it’s perfect.
The Mr. Heater Little Buddy is a small portable propane heater. With a heat output of 3,800 BTU/h, it outputs a similar amount of heat as an electric space heater on a medium heat setting.
In freezing winter, the Mr. Heater Little Buddy won’t be able to turn your car into a sauna. But it will definitely keep you comfortable!
The Mr. Heater Little Buddy is a good winter car camping heater because it
- takes up very little space: it is the smallest portable propane heater I know (but still larger than it appears in the pictures)
- consumes very little gas: on a grill-sized propane tank, it lasts for weeks
- outputs more than enough heat to keep your car warm when it’s freezing outside
According to one buyer, the Mr. Heater Little Buddy makes “all the difference between having an enjoyable trip and freezing your toes off”.
I put it as the #2 car camping heat because it’s got just the right size and just the right heat output for most cars.
However, there are some downsides:
The Mr. Heater Little Buddy has no temperature control. In small cars, it can be too hot and you have to fully turn it off. And when the temperature drops, you have to manually turn it on again.
The Mr. Heater Little Buddy is, in this regard, very simplistic. For deep winter and snowstorm conditions, it takes off the cold and adds comfort to your car.
I’d get the Mr. Heater Little Buddy for winter nights in a moderately sized car, with some free space to place it.
The Mr. Heater Buddy is a larger portable propane heater that provides heat of up to 9,000 BTU/h. So, it is more than twice as strong as the other recommended heaters.
Its strength makes it perfect for large cars / camper vans and even RVs. On the lowest setting, the Mr. Heater Buddy outputs 4,000 BTU/h. So, you can run it on a similar heat setting as the Mr. Heater Little Buddy.
The Mr. Heater is the most versatile heater in this list. You can use it outside of car camping as well and even use it as an emergency heater in family homes / garages and workshops.
Because of its high heat output capability, the Mr. Heater is ideal for extreme cold, as you encounter in the northern states of the US / Alaska and Canada.
And the Mr. Heater Buddy works in high altitude as well.
You should get the Mr. Heater Buddy if:
- you’re car camping in extreme cold
- your car has enough space to place the Mr. Heater Buddy (it must stand upright, otherwise its tip-over protection triggers and stops the heating)
- you plan on using your heater outside of the car as well (in tents, at home, etc.)
The by far most efficient form of heat transmission is always direct touch. When you touch a radiator, it feels a lot hotter than when you hover your hand 1 inch above it.
You can make use of this principle in your car using hot water bottles.
Hot water bottles are perfect when combined with good sleeping bags. In a well-insulated winter sleeping bag, a hot water bottle stays warm the entire night, since the heat can’t escape.
I remember when I was trekking the Himalayas, the mountain huts we were sleeping in sold hot water bottles to put in your sleeping bag. One hot water bottle was $5, which is very expensive for Nepal, but in the freezing Himalayan cold, and the high altitude, it is worth its weight in gold. Especially when there’s no other source of heat.
Hot water bottles are much cheaper than running a fuel-based heater (such as a propane heater) for the entire night.
You’re only expending energy to boil a kettle of water (which is about 5 minutes of heating) and that’s it. After heating it, the heat energy will keep you warm the entire night.
A gas heater, on the other hand, requires constant running to keep you warm.
Probably the main downside of using a hot water bottle is that your car stays cold. Unlike a heater, a hot water bottle heats only the immediate space around it (your sleeping bag), and not the entire car.
So, in extreme cold, you can’t unfreeze your car with it.
But using a hot water bottle is incredibly energy-efficient. If you want to save money, get a hot water bottle and try it.
Lastly, I want to also mention diesel heaters. Diesel heaters run on diesel and usually don’t have their own tank. So, you either have to get a separate tank to supply your diesel heater, or you have to somehow drill a hole in your tank and connect your diesel heater to it.
Some camper vans have a separate diesel tank for diesel heaters. But cars usually don’t have that.
Overall, diesel heaters require quite a bit of technical setup. Additionally, you need to connect them to your car’s electric circuit.
Diesel heaters inconveniently require electricity to run their built-in electric thermostat controls, blowers, and electric autoignition.
So, diesel heaters are very bad emergency heaters. As soon as the electricity goes off, they won’t heat!
Diesel heaters output a large amount of heat (similar to a propane heater). But I don’t really like them because of all their technical complexions, while still not being able to run on their own, without electricity.
You can’t really depend on a diesel heater.
One more advantage is that you can refuel your diesel heater whenever you refuel your car.
Overall, I’d get a diesel heater, if you want to install a permanent heat source in your car, you enjoy the installation process, and you don’t need to rely on the diesel heater, because you always stay close to civilization.
Diesel heaters are a good choice for people living in their cars and sleeping in parking lots, for example.
But they are not a good choice for anyone exploring the wilderness during winter. In that case, rather get a propane heater with a large backup propane supply.
More Essential Gear for Winter Car Camping
Aside from a heater, you should also bring a sleeping bag. I can recommend this Bessport Sleeping Bag.
I have used it on multiple cold nights in cars, as well as for wild camping in the Swiss Alps. It really works in cold weather.
This sleeping bag is not a winter sleeping bag, but a 4-season sleeping bag, so you can use it anytime. Although, in summer it’s too hot for me, so I use it as a blanket.
In regular cold winters, you can use this sleeping bag without a heater. The coldest temperature I used this sleeping bag (without a car which provides insulation from cold weather) was 15°F (-9°C), sleeping on just a sleeping pad, without a tent. So, it definitely works. But that night was very uncomfortable and I was waking up shivering, although I wore a hat and multiple layers of clothing.
With a heater, the Bessport sleeping bag is always comfortable & warm. I’d say as long as you can keep the temperature in your car above 35°F, you’re fine with the Bessport sleeping bag.
For below 15°F (outside) get a dedicated winter sleeping bag.
Bonus Tip: Bring Someone
An extra person in your car will help keep the car warm, even without a heater. With someone else you can keep the temperature in your car above 50°F (10°C), even if the outside temperature drops below 35°F.
Electric Car Heaters: Should You Use Them?
In this article, I haven’t covered any electric car heaters. I can’t recommend them. Here’s why:
A regular 12V outlet in a car can only provide 120 Watts to 240 Watts.
That corresponds to a heat output of roughly 800 BTU/h at most. While that’s better than nothing, it is by far not enough to keep your car warm in freezing winter.
There are some stronger 600 Watts to 800 Watts electric car heaters you have to hard wire into your car’s circuitry to bypass the 12V outlet.
All of those car heaters, however, will drain your car battery.
A 200W device would take approximately 3.6 hours to drain a typical car battery with a capacity of 60 ampere-hours and a voltage of 12 volts.
So, your car battery won’t last for a full night with an electric heater. And in the morning, the car won’t start anymore.
Electric car heaters are dangerous and potentially life-threatening when they drain your car battery.
Conclusion: What’s the Best Car Heater for Winter?
The best car camping heaters for winter are propane heaters. These output enough heat to keep your car warm, last a full night, and don’t drain your car battery.
Diesel heaters are a good pick for anyone who wants to live in their car long-term and needs a fixed installation below a seat.
Electric car heaters are a bad idea! They drain your car battery within a few hours after which you can’t start your car anymore.