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Diesel Heater Guide for Overlanding, Adventure Vans, and Winter Camping

If you’ve ever spent a night shivering inside of a cold tent, you’ve probably thought about getting a heater to take the edge off when you are camping. If you get serious about the idea and start digging around for more info, you’ll quickly learn that there are serious barriers to safely heating a tent, particularly if your desire is to heat it while you’re sleeping.

The best solution to this conundrum, in my opinion, is to use a diesel heater. Originally used mostly in boats and RVs, in recent years, diesel heaters have become popular among adventure van and overlanding enthusiasts.

What’s so special about diesel heaters you ask? Let’s dive in.

What is a diesel heater?

Diesel heaters are designed to warm the interior of a boat, RV, van, or other small space, and use diesel fuel or kerosene as a fuel. They are typically marketed to the RV and boat owners, but are an increasingly popular solution for many vehicle-based adventure enthusiasts who are looking for a way to heat a converted adventure van or even a roof-top tent.

The primary advantages of a diesel heater over other heaters is safety and low fuel and energy consumption. 

Unlike propane heaters that must be used entirely inside your RV, van or tent, diesel heaters are mounted outside and air is pumped inside via a vent tube. This reduces the risk of fire, as the fuel and heating element are kept away from flammable materials such as interior fabrics and tent walls. 

Also, the exhaust from the heater’s burner is released outside your enclosure, so there is less risk of dangerous fumes entering your vehicle or tent. 

Diesel heaters vs. propane and electric heaters

Thanks to these factors diesel heaters overcome some of the limitations to using propane or electric heaters for vehicle-based adventure. Propane heaters present a couple of significant dangers, including fire risk and risk of suffocation. 

Because they need to be used entirely inside of your vehicle or tent, the heating element of a propane heater presents a risk of catching flammable materials on fire. Also, propane heaters produce harmful exhaust that, if not properly vented, can build up inside your enclosure. 

Because of the fire and suffocation risk, it’s never a good idea to sleep with a propane heater running. Fires and suffocation have resulted in fatalities. So propane heaters are typically only used during waking hours and only with vigilance to prevent fires. Diesel heaters largely mitigate these concerns, as the heating elements and exhaust remain are located outside.

As with propane heaters, electric heaters also present a fire hazard when used inside vehicles and tents. They also present an energy challenge, as they consume a great deal of electricity, something that’s not available when you are off-the-grid. Because of this, electric heaters really aren’t a viable option for heating your adventure home. Maybe someday…

Diesel heaters on the other hand are highly fuel efficient and, while they require electricity, can be powered by a vehicle battery or a portable power station. This makes them a great option for heating when off-the-grid.

Best Diesel Heaters for Overlanding and Adventure Vans

Diesel heaters come in many sizes, but a number of manufacturers make smaller units that work well for heating small RVs, adventure vans and trailers, and roof-top tents. One of the first choices you’ll need to make is deciding how much to spend and how much time you want to put into a DIY project. Several reputable manufacturers make diesel heaters, including Webasto, Erberspacher, and Planar. These companies make professional-grade heaters that are incorporated into vehicles by manufacturers of RVs, trucks and boats.

At the other end of the spectrum, is the Chinese Diesel Heater–as they are affectionately known by their enthusiasts. Chinese manufactures have knocked off the diesel heaters made by the brands mentioned above, and sell them on Amazon and other places for about a fifth the price. This price savings has proven irresistible to many adventure seekers, who are often trying to build their adventure vehicles on a tight budget.

The trade-off with these is that you’ll need to do a lot of research on how to set them up and use them, as they typically come with instruction manuals and controls written in Chinese. The good news is that if you want to go that route, there is a lot of information online in English nowadays on setting up a system using them, including Facebook groups. As with all cheap knock-offs, do your homework and make sure you are comfortable with the reliability of what you’ll get. Buyer beware.