Portable Water Heaters Guide for Camping, Overlanding and Vanlife
Hot water feels like home. Hence the existence of camping water heaters that produce hot water on demand for taking showers, making hot chocolate, washing dishes, and other activities.
If you rarely camp, a portable water heater is probably overkill; a simple solar heated shower might do the trick. But if you’re planning on spending lots of time in an overland rig, converted van, rustic cabin, or even simply car camping, an instant tankless water heater can dramatically elevate your experience. Along with your camp stove, your water heater will serve as the center of your camp kitchen.
These water heaters are called tankless because instead of keeping water warm in a tank, they warm it instantly as it’s passed through a heating element, drawing from an external water source — typically a portable water container.
In this guide, we will focus on tankless portable water heaters that use some kind of fuel (typically propane or diesel) to instantly heat water while camping.
While there are many, many such heaters on the market for use in RVs and boats, we will focus here on models that are compact and durable enough for overlanding, truck campers, vanlife rigs, and car camping.
How to Choose a Camping Water Heater
When picking a portable water heater for camping there are a number of factors to take into account. The list below isn’t exhaustive but gives you some of the most important characteristics to consider when finding a water heater to work for your use case.
Type of fuel
The most common fuel used for camping water heaters is propane. It’s relatively cheap and easy to come by and the tanks can also be used for camping lanterns and stoves.
For ease of use and versatility, if traveling primarily where propane is easy to come by, a system that uses propane is our preferred set up.
Diesel-powered heaters have grown in popularity in recent years, as the technology has rapidly improved. They are particularly popular among people on extended international overland adventures, as diesel is available in most countries. If your vehicle uses diesel or you are headed abroad, these models might be your best option.
Hot Water Output
Portable water heaters provide a rating for how much hot water they can produce per unit of time. This is one of the most important factors to consider when choosing a unit. Depending on your needs you might want a higher output. However, that needs to be balanced with other factors, as higher output units will typically be larger, heavier, more costly, and use more fuel. In the recommendations below, we’ve done our best to indicated the flow rate of the units.
Some camping water heaters are more efficient than others, generating hot water using less fuel than other units. Ideally, you want a more efficient unit, but that calculation may be less important than other factors, such as size, weight, cost, and flow capacity. All else being equal, go with the more efficient unit.
There are many tankless portable water heaters on the market, but not all of them are cut out for serious camping. Many are meant for RVs, where they are relatively protected and typically not subjected to off-road driving conditions. In this article, we will focus on units designed for a rugged adventure.
While instant water heaters typically use fuel of some sort to warm the water, they often have an electrical control system and water pump that requires a power source. This power is typically provided by batteries or power from a vehicle, wall socket, or other external power sources, such as a generator or portable power station.
When relying on the internal batteries, the water heater a limited run-time per charge. For instance, the Coleman unit highlighted below can run for 40 minutes on a charge. If you are planning to plug the water heater into an external power source, makes sure you choose a unit that will work with and connect to your source.
Mr. Heater Basecamp BOSS Shower Systems
The Mr. Heater Basecamp BOSS Shower Systems are a serious step up in capability for camp showers, allowing you to have hot water in camp. The systems use propane, from an external tank to heat the water, typically 1-pound propane tanks you can find at many stores. The water pump is driven by electricity from batteries and includes a hose so it can be dropped into your water source. There is no integrated water tank. The system comes in three models, with the biggest distinction being how the volume of hot water they can produce in a given amount of time. They can provide hot water for showering, cooking, and cleaning. These are instant water heaters, meaning they heat water quickly, in 15 seconds or so.
This video from Mr. Heater shows the systems in action:
BaseCamp BOSS XCW20
The BaseCamp BOSS XCW20 camping water heater is the largest of the three Mr. Buddy units, an 18,000 BTU system capable of producing 1.18 gallons of heated water per minute. The system can operate using propane or an integrated rechargeable lead-acid battery. You can choose your water temperature using a dial on the unit. The design allows you to use it as either a shower or a faucet.
- Max flow: 1.18 gallons/min
- Weight: 22 pounds
- BTUs/hour: 18,000
- Power: Rechargeable lead acid battery
The BaseCamp B.O.S.S XW18 camping water heater is the middle capacity unit made by Mr. Heater, an 17,000 BTU system capable of producing .8 gallons of heated water per minute. Similar to the larger unit, this system uses propane or an integrated rechargeable lead acid battery. You can choose your water temperature using a dial on the unit. The design allows you to use it as either a shower or a faucet.
- Max flow: .8 gallons/min
- Weight: 15 pounds
- BTUs/hour: 18,000
- Power: Rechargeable lead acid battery
BaseCamp BOSS-XB13 Battery Operated Shower System
The BaseCamp BOSS-XB13 water heater is the smallest capacity unit made by Mr. Heater, a 12,000 BTU system capable of producing .6 gallons of heated water per minute. Unlike the other units, this one uses D-Cell batteries to power the water pump. Like the others, it uses propane to heat the water. You can choose your water temperature using a dial on the unit. The shower screws directly into the unit, and there is no faucet like the larger models.
- Max flow: .6 gallons/min
- Weight: 14 pounds
- BTUs/hour: 12,000
- Power: D-Cell Batteries
Coleman H2Oasis Portable Water Heater
The Coleman H2Oasis Portable Water Heater camping shower extends Coleman’s wide range of gas-burning camping gear. The company has been making durable and affordable propane lanterns and stoves for decades. This portable water heater is designed for use with a 16.4 oz propane tank. The pump is driven by an internal rechargeable lithium-ion battery that can provide 40 minutes of heated water on a single charge and propane tank. The heather comes with an external water tank for holding your source water.
- Max flow: 1 gallon/min
- Max temperatures: 125 degrees (F)
- Weight: 17 pounds
- BTUs: Unknown
- Power: Rechargeable lithium-ion battery