Campervan fire safety guide for vanlife peace of mind
One piece of campervan gear we all hope to never need is a fire extinguisher.
Unfortunately, even a small fire can cause extensive damage to your much-loved van.
Without a swift response using an adequately sized extinguisher of the correct type for the blaze, fire can quickly threaten more than just your belongings.
Discover vital tips on campervan fire safety, learn about the fire extinguisher types, and understand which you need for your campervan.
Before we delve into the details, let’s get acquainted with exactly what fire extinguishers are for.
Understanding the following points could save a life and prevent a disaster.
Can you answer this fire safety question?
Most people can’t answer this question correctly, so don’t feel bad if you can’t, because it’s not as obvious as it seems.
Years ago, I was set right on this topic by an industrial fire prevention expert.
When he asked me what a fire extinguisher is for, I got the answer completely wrong. Like most people, I assumed it was for putting out fires. His answer surprised me and opened my eyes.
What are fire extinguishers for?
Fire extinguishers are primarily for enabling you to get safely out of your campervan (or building) should fire break out.
Many people underestimate the speed and ferocity of fire. They try to tackle a “small blaze” without first getting to a safe place and then calling for help. Others decide to re-enter a structure to retrieve valuables.
In both cases, lives can be lost.
From the Wikipedia article: (a fire extinguisher) is not intended for use on an out-of-control fire, such as one which has reached the ceiling, endangers the user (i.e., no escape route, smoke, explosion hazard, etc.), or otherwise requires the expertise of a fire brigade.
Our campervan fire safety equipment Top Picks
Kidde Pro 5 Carbon Dioxide Extinguisher
Our #1 Top Pick
Tundra Aerosol Extinguisher 2 Pack
|Amerex 5lb Halotron I Class B C Fire Extinguisher||
Amerex 2.5lb Halotron I Class B C
|Amerex 2.5 Gallon Water Class A||Fiberglass Fire Blanket|
What to do if a fire starts in your campervan
Again, seems obvious… You don’t want to get this wrong. Your first and primary concern needs to be about the safety and well being of the people involved.
- Get out of the campervan immediately, by the door (or window if the blaze is blocking the door)
- Move everyone at least 150 feet from the van. Propane canisters, gas tanks and other accelerants are likely to explode or cause a fire burst at any moment.
- Raise the alarm. Call 911 (or your national emergency number) and give clear information about your location.
- Camped near others? Alert them and help move vehicles a sensible distance away, if possible to do so safely.
Above all, stay calm and clear headed, and don’t be a hero. Objects and campervans are replaceable; lives are not.
How you’ll know there’s a fire in your campervan
Many of us are acutely attuned to the air in our vans and we know when something’s not right. Maybe it’s some expired food in the fridge, moldy clothes, a dog in serious need of a bath, or extra ripe shoes.
Or it could be a new gas odor or a faint burning smell that sets us on a search for a leak or a short. While this awareness helps keep things ship-shape, tidy and safe, we can’t depend on our nose alone to catch safety issues.
Unfortunately, fires don’t conveniently wait to break out when inhabitants are wide awake and alert.
Or what if you’re hauling down I-5 at full bore, windows open, tunes blasting… Will you smell a faint electrical scent then? Or even an actual early stage fire?
For this, we need fire alarms. The good news is there are plenty of great alarm products. I like to have one hard wired in to the electrical system and at least one more battery powered fire and smoke alarm in my van.
How fire extinguishers work
Fire extinguishers are pressurized tanks with a nozzle on top that is controlled by thumb pressure to release the fire retardant contained inside.
Fire requires three main components to burn: oxygen, fuel and heat. Fire extinguishers work by eliminating one or more of these elements, causing the fire to die.
As we’ll see below, the different types of fire extinguisher need to be understood in order to apply these concepts according to specific types of fire.
How to use a fire extinguisher to put out a fire
Assuming that all of the concerns and precautions mentioned above have been met and you can safely try to put the fire out, follow the PASS technique for maximum effectiveness:
- P – Pull the pin (which is in place to avoid accidental discharge)
- A – Aim low at the base of the fire
- S – Squeeze the lever (or press the button) to start the flow
- S – Sweep from side to side until all the flames are extinguished. Check to make sure the fire does not re-ignite
What are the fire extinguisher classifications?
Fire extinguishers are marked with a classification system of letters indicating the different fire extinguisher types and their uses. The classes denote what is in a fire extinguisher.
There are five different classes of fire extinguisher used in the USA: A, B, C, D and K. These identify the different types of fire, which require a particular type of fire extinguisher.
European and Australian fire extinguishers have a similar classification system, but they are not the same as the US system.
Please see this Wikipedia article which clearly defines the different types of extinguisher and suppression suitability for USA, Europe and Australia.
What are the types of fire extinguisher content?
Before you choose, install or use a fire extinguisher, it’s helpful to know what is in a fire extinguisher. An extinguisher that is the wrong type is almost as bad as no fire extinguisher at all. It’s important to get it right.
There are three primary types of fire extinguisher content. You should become familiar with each type of fire extinguisher and carefully place them in your van according to their best use.
1. Water fire extinguishers
Water fire extinguishers are used to remove heat and reduce the availability of burnable fuel. However, water is not suitable for all substances. Burning gasoline will simply float on the water, continuing to burn and spread.
Similarly, pouring water onto an electrical fire can be lethal to the operator as the electricity is conducted back up the water jet.
Great on wood, cloth, paper, dry grass aka “ordinary combustibles”. Easy clean up. Good stream distance (our recommendation provides up to 50 feet and over 50 seconds!).
Not good for electrical, liquid gas or oil fires. If you’re not sure of the source of the fire, you’ll need to grab another extinguisher.
2. Dry fire extinguishers
Dry Chemical Class ABC
These contain monoammonium phosphate, a hazardous material that is also toxic. Though they’re not the best option for fighting common combustibles fires, they’re the most common because they’re inexpensive and easy to find.
All dry fire extinguishers lose pressure over time and therefore need to be recharged or replaced. Also, the dry chemicals tend to become compacted in the bottom of the unit.
Dry Powder Class BC
The fire fighting component in these extinguishers is sodium bicarbonate, a non-toxic and non-hazardous powder. BC Class fight liquids, electrical fires and gasses.
Like the ABC class chemical type, the powder will become compact, rendering the unit useless to fight fires, and they tend to lose pressure over time.
3. CO2 (Carbon dioxide) fire extinguishers
Co2 Fire Extinguishers are used for class B flammable liquid fires and Class C Electrical fires since they don’t conduct electricity.
Carbon Dioxide is a non-contaminant and an odorless gas.
Carbon Dioxide Extinguishers satisfy most medical equipment requirements. They’re often used in factories since they don’t leave residue.
We believe their diversity and effectiveness make them well worth the higher price, especially if you have a larger van.
4. Potassium Lactate and Nitrogen Gas Class ACK
These extinguishers spray a foam material that’s biodegradable and easy to clean up. Effective for fighting cooking oil and many other common household fires.
The only potassium lactate and nirtogen gas extinguishers we’ve found are small and disposable, though they provid
e a longer spray time than many extinguishers. Their small size means less projection and limits them to smaller blazes.
5. Halotron Class BC
Often used in electrical rooms and electronic data centers because they conduct no electricity back to the operator. Halotron extinguishers also fight most other fire types including flammable liquids, oils, grease and both liquid and non-liquid gases.
The primary raw material is HCFC-123, a clean agent, low global warming potential (GWP) and low ozone depleting potential (ODP). Short atmospheric lifetime means it leaves no residue to clean up.
Keep in mind that size/weight impacts spray time and volume. For example, only 5 pound or larger Halotron extinguishers are approved for boats and marine.
6. Fiberglass Fire Blanket
Starve the fire of heat, fuel or oxygen, and you’ve got it licked. Should a small oil fire break out in a frying pan on the stove a blanket may be enough to stop it. I may not need to go all in with an extinguisher.
A Fiberglass fire blanket can also be used to protect yourself while you quickly move past a hot area when exiting the vehicle and to otherwise protect yourself or others from flames.
Choosing the best fire extinguishers for your campervan
IMPORTANT: We’re not professional fire fighters and therefore cannot be responsible for your personal safety or the safety of your belongings. We recommend that you consult a fire safety professional so you can choose and install the correct fire extinguisher types.
That said, here’s how I deal with fire safety preparation in campervans:
The most common types of fire encountered in a campervan are general combustibles such as paper, cloth (furnishings) and wood (Class A); propane liquids and gases (Class B); and cooking oils and fats (Class K). But electrical fires are not uncommon and you should have fire extinguisher types for fighting them.
In any van I’m traveling in, I carry, at a minimum, a carbon dioxide extinguisher, at least two Potassium Lactate and Nitrogen Gas Class ACK aerosol cans, a class BC dry powder (sodium bicarbonate) extinguisher, a fiberglass fire blanket, and in larger vans, a water extinguisher.
I don’t carry an ABC monoammonium phosphate extinguisher because the resulting mess is so bad that whole vehicles sometimes have to be trashed after their use. At a minimum, carpet and other surfaces will have to be torn out and replaced. Also, there are great alternatives readily available that work as well or better.
I do carry a BC sodium bicarbonate extinguisher because they’re great on common blazes and the clean up, while unpleasant, isn’t terrible. Also, they’re reasonably priced.
My reasons for carrying the other types will be evident in the next section.
With this setup, I feel comfortable and confident that I can get myself and anyone traveling with me out of the van if a fire breaks out, and I can extinguish virtually any class of fire, assuming I can get to it in the early stages.
But again, we recommend that you consult a fire suppression and control professional to determine your particular fire safety needs.
Where to install fire extinguishers in your van
Having more than one fire extinguisher means you can mount them in different places within your van.
It makes sense to have a type K (for cooking oils) extinguisher and a fire blanket near your cooking gear.
A Class BC fire extinguisher within reach of the beds, whether gas, dry chemical or dry powder is a good idea, especially if your beds are elevated, as heat and smoke rise.
You can arm yourself with the extinguisher upon being awakened by your alarm, and fight your way of the van if necessary.
A fire extinguisher up front in the cabin where either the driver or passenger can reach it is important.
I keep Potassium Lactate and Nitrogen Gas aerosol cans mounted in the kitchen, the engine compartment, in the garage aka outside storage compartment and near electrical areas.
There are a number of fire extinguisher mounts for your campervan. Be sure to get the right size for each of yours.
Make sure they are all easy to access, possibly in the dark. Fix them in place using proper brackets so they don’t roll around, which can break the nozzle on top.
I like to have a water fire extinguisher in a compartment accessible from outside the van. Good water extinguishers project a stream up to 50 feet which would allow me to stand way back to stop flames that might catch dry grass on fire.
I could also use it to assist another person to move away from a fire, keep a fire from spreading to a neighboring RV or bushes…
Ongoing campervan fire safety
If your campervan fire safety does not measure up to the above, don’t procrastinate. Decide what fire extinguisher types you need for your campervan and put our advice into practice without delay.
Once you have chosen suitable fire extinguisher types for your campervan, remember to keep them maintained. Check that the pressure gauge is in the green zone and put the service dates in a calendar app with a reminder alert.
Prevention is always better than cure. Be aware of the dangers of fire in a cramped campervan and minimize the risk by avoiding naked flames, candles, smoking in the van, keep combustibles away from cooking devices and heaters…
Battery-powered fire alarms are very easy to install using a stick-on pad, and a hard wired alarm will provide that extra peace of mind and safety.
Finally, talk about fire safety with your travel companions. Discuss Campervan fire safety and ensure that everyone knows how to use them. Have a practice drill and make sure everyone understands safety first so that, should the worst happen, you will all stay safe.
Thank you for reading. Please share your fire safety knowledge, resources, ideas…
Leave a comment below. Have a question? We’ll do our best to answer.
That’s good to know that different fire extinguishers will only be good against certain types of fire. I had no idea that there was more than one type of fire, so that’s good to know. I’ll have to make sure that I get one that will cover the most common types of fire in a campervan if I get one to put in there.
I think your article can be better if you can show the pros and cons of all fire extinguishers’ types. By the way, I still like your post. Thanks for sharing!
It’s nice to open an article and see straightforward Good/Bad recommendations for complex products.
The problem with offering pros and cons in this case is that each type of extinguisher is specific to fire type and other issues, so it’s best if we keep our opinions out of it and let you decide based on your specific needs.
We highly recommend that you read the details carefully and choose the right fire gear for your particular van build.
Thanks for the comment.
Having a experienced a fire in my neighborhood last year, I am looking into getting my own fire extinguishers. The article does a great job explaining how an extinguisher works. I didn’t know about the PASS technique and it helped to understand the process.
Glad we could help, Peter.