Tips & Tricks for Surviving Winter in a Van
How to Make the Most of Your Home on Wheels
Winter is here, so it’s time to switch out the tires, grab an extra down blanket or two, and follow these simple tips and tricks for an epic season full of chasing winter storms for the next powder day.
Whether you are a full-time van lifer or a weekend warrior, winter in a van might seem like a great idea until you’re shivering in your sweaty clothes after a full day of skiing. Your boots liners are damp, your water is frozen, and the bottom of your socks keeps getting wet from melting snow that was tracked inside. Sounds miserable, right? Thankfully, winter in a van is anything but miserable with a few additional items and some slight modifications to your rig.
Adventurer Ali Lev and her husband don’t live in their converted Ford E350 full time but have spent many chilly nights cozied up in their van at their home mountain, Wy’east (Mount Hood). When they aren’t backcountry skiing around Wy’east they can usually be found exploring other wilderness areas in the North Cascades, sleeping in different parking lots along the way or on BLM land. After some trial and error, they’ve got their system dialed down to stay warm and have fun in their van during the winter months. Follow some of her tips and tricks so that you will have a winter not just surviving but thriving in your home on wheels.
As with all activities this winter, be sure to check your local regulations for travel and access in light of COVID19, and check the CDC website and local case rates to make informed decisions.
Keep the Heat In
Proper insulation is the most important factor for keeping your van warm but if your van is already built there’s not much you can do to change the insulation. Spray foam insulation into the noticeable cracks and crevices may help, but in the big scheme it won’t make much difference. Any exposed metalwork in the van will instantly create a colder climate so be sure to cover up doors and walls. If you sleep with your head in the back of the van like we do, layer extra pillows up against the door to keep the warmth in.
Windows are going to be the weak point of any van when it comes to losing heat. While having views of the outdoor scenery is nice during the day, in the evening you’re going to want to insulate them. If you’ve done any research on van insulation then odds are you’ve already heard of reflectix. Reflectix can be used as insulation during your build but it also makes for great window coverings that keep the heat in during the winter and keep your van cool during the summer months.
If you don’t have a built-in furnace in your van, then propane heaters are an easy and relatively cheap heating solution because propane is often used as fuel for cooking and something you probably already have on hand. We use the Mr. Buddy heater in our van and have loved having it the past two winters. The Mr. Buddy heater is great because it is compact enough to be stored away when not in use, it has an automatic low oxygen shut off system, and an accidental tip over safety shut off. That being said, you should never depend solely on emergency shut offs and never run the heater when you are not in your vehicle or while you are sleeping.
Isolated propane heaters are a great solution but they do come with a downside: increased condensation. Condensation will occur anyways in your van due to your breath and potentially wet clothes from outdoor activities. Moisture buildup can encourage mold to grow, something you definitely don’t want in the walls of your van. Adding a propane heater will increase condensation so it’s important to always leave your roof vent cracked (if you have one) to have a constant source of airflow and limit the moisture buildup. If it’s snowing, crack your front windows instead so snow doesn’t melt through the roof vent.
During the winter months the days are shorter and darker forcing us to huddle up inside more. Even if you spend a full day skiing or hiking you’ll still have a few hours left in the day to keep yourself busy before bedtime. Stock your van with a few games and a deck of cards. Grab some books that have been on your list to read or download some movies to your computer.
Whether catching up on your latest TV show or reading a book, you’ll want to stay warm. Slippers or down booties will protect your feet from the cold van floor while keeping your toes toasty warm. Merino wool PJ’s or base layers will keep you warm while you make dinner, and flannel sheets will help give you a comfortable night’s sleep. For extra coziness consider adding an extra layer to your bedding with a down blanket from Rumpl.
Depending on temperatures, your water might freeze at nigh Consider filling a couple water bottles with hot water and sleeping with them under your extra pillows or down by your feet. It’ll help keep you warm at night and ensure you have some water in the morning to make coffee.
Winter brings wet, cold weather in most parts of the country. Whether you’ll be in the snow or rain, consider how you’ll manage melting snow on your floors. Rugs or mats can be an easy and inexpensive option for keeping slush from soaking your socks. Finding a good place to store your boots is also key for not tracking in snow, mud, and salt.
Propane heaters can also double as a dryer for our wet, sweaty gear after a day of skiing. Hang gloves, hats, and socks from line above the heater and lay your boot liners out in front of it. If you travel with a pet, keep an extra quick dry towel by the door to wipe them down after your winter adventures.
When on the road in the winter, driving conditions can change every hour. Icy highways and canyons present dangerous conditions for top- or rear-heavy vehicles like vans. Since weather can be unpredictable, make a habit of checking the road conditions ahead of time on the Department of Transportation website or app for your state.
In some winter areas, chains or snow tires are required for travel. Make sure that you are well-prepared for winter driving conditions. It’s also important to make sure that your van’s engine can perform well in below-freezing temperatures. Make sure that your washer fluid has de-icer in it and that your antifreeze and oil has been serviced as needed.
You never know when you could potentially get stuck in deep snow so be prepared to dig yourself out with a shovel if necessary. A bag of sand or kitty litter can also be incredibly helpful in providing traction on ice or snow. Your van should be equipped with an emergency kit that includes things like towing straps, jumper cables, a vehicle toolset, and a first aid kit. It’s also worth considering signing up for AAA or look into other roadside assistance options in the event of an emergency.
Alexandra (Ali) Lev is a freelance writer and content developer on subjects ranging from womxn in the outdoors to mental health, the environment, and social justice issues. As a passionate outdoor enthusiast, it’s her mission to inspire others to connect with themselves, their communities, and the planet in a deeper way. A Salt Lake City native who now lives in Portland, OR, her free time is spent adventuring in the backcountry with her husband and their two Siberian huskies. Follow her at luckyalexandra.com or @luckyalexandra.