Vanlife is hard enough as it is, but add in freezing temperatures and snowy conditions and Vanlife is a whole new ball game. Regardless of if you’re a snowbird and migrate south or you’re a snow bunny and head to the mountains, you will need a winter weather plan. If you’re a snowbird, you will probably still have a few nights every year where you get caught in unexpected colder temperatures or a snow storm. Your winter weather plan could be more basic, but you should still have a plan. If you want head to the mountains or the northern states, it is possible, but there are quite a few extra steps and precautions to survive Vanlife in the winter. This blog will prepare you for both!
My first winter in the van didn't go as planned and I only lasted a few weeks in Colorado before heading south. The next winter I was better prepared and survived the harsh New England winter and now I'm currently back for another. Through a lot of trial and error and research, I learned how to survive Vanlife in the winter. I’ll share all the tips, hacks, and must do’s I’ve learned to stay warm and prevent diasters.
Before you begin your build, you will need to insulate the van. Don’t skimp or rush through this step. A well insulated van is essential to regulating the temperature, preventing mold, and reducing outside noise. It is not a step you can go back and easily redo so make sure to get it right the first time. There are so many options for insulation, but the frontrunners among Vanlifers are Thinsulate or wool. Mine was insulated with Rockwool and Fatmat Sound Deadener.
My biggest source of staying warm is a heater. If you’re planning on doing a real winter in the van I would argue that an installed heater is necessary. If your plan is to travel south for the winter you can probably get by without one or using a portable propane heater.
Types of Heaters
Diesel Heaters: Espar and Webasto are the two most popular diesel heaters, but the Chinese diesel heaters are starting to appear more since they come at a much lower price point. Diesel heaters are a frontrunner compared to other types because they burn clean and don't produce a lot of moisture. If you have a diesel engine you can tap a line into your fuel tank to connect to your heater. If you don't have a diesel engine, you can still use this type of heater, but you will have to carry a separate tank for diesel. The heaters are small and most commonly installed under the passenger seat to not take up any precious space in your van. I have the Espar Airtronic D2 installed in my van which I will go into more detail below.
Propane Heater: Propane heaters, such as the Mr. Buddy, are popular because they are inexpensive and don't require an installation. The downside of the propane heater is it produces a lot of condensation which could lead to a mold problem. They also produce carbon monoxide so it is essential to properly vent your van. I have used the Mr. Buddy heater when my diesel heater is not working, and it works great for heating up the van quickly, but personally, I would not sleep with it on. I have the smallest model, but they do come in multiple sizes.
Electric Heater: Electric heaters or electric blankets are only realistic when you are able to plug your van into shore power or run an extension cord into your van. If it's not plugged into an outside power source it will drain your batteries.
My experience with the Espar Heater: Like I said, this heater taps into my diesel fuel line and it uses about a gallon of fuel every 24 hours. If you are going to be using the
heater in high altitude (above 7500 ft), you will also need to have the high altitude kit installed. Without it, the fuel burns at a much slower rate increasing carbon build up within the heater. If there is too much build up the heater won’t work. I learned this the hard way my first winter. After only 4 days at high altitude my heater stopped working completely and when I had it repaired the chamber was completely full of soot. If you are planning on being in the mountains for ski season, you will need the high altitude kit.
If you’ve been following me for a while, you will know I’ve had a handful of problems with my heater. That said, if I were to do another van build, I would still go with the same heater. I recommend having it installed by a certified Espar technician which you can search for by location here. The first time I brought my heater into a certified technician to be repaired, he said most of the self-installs he sees are not done properly, including my own. It ended up costing me more money to have it re-installed properly. Additionally, you should have the furnace maintained every winter or at least every other winter. A lot of Vanlifers do this themself, but I go to a certified technician for this as well.
Tips for using a diesel heater:
Run the heater at least once a month for an hour; even in the summer.
Don’t turn off the heater mid cycle. Turn the temperature down on the thermostat so the heater cycles down. Once the cycle is over, then turn off the heater.
A heater that is properly installed won’t produce carbon monoxide, but always keep a CO detector in your van.
The exhaust pipe should point out the side of your van so the exhaust doesn’t pool under the van. Thick white smoke coming from the exhaust pipe is a sign something is wrong with the heater.
You do not need to leave a window cracked when the heater is on.
Make sure the warm air output is not obstructed by other items.
In the winter, I leave my heater running constantly, but on warmer days I will turn it off for a few hours to give it a little break. I also turn the heater off when I’m driving.
Down Comforter: In my opinion, no other blanket is as warm as a down comforter. I have spent a few winter nights in my van with a broken heater and with the down comforter I was plenty warm. Down comforters can be expensive, but a lot of them go on sale during the summer months. I got mine for over half off.
Selk Bag: A sleeping bag you can wear! It has arms and legs so you can wear it and still go about your normal activities. It has booties you can zip on and off and pockets so you can completely enclose your hands. It’s a great way to keep warm when you need to move around and comfy for when your lounging. Thanks to Covid, I’ve also used it a lot this winter for outdoor social hangs. Get 10% off yours with the code: MICHAUD. #ad
Hot drinks/soup: Cooking in the van actually creates quite a bit of heat. Sipping on warm liquids will warm your core.
Sleep with a hot water bottle in your bed: For those extra chilly nights, boil some water before bed, put it in a Nalgene, and place it at the foot of your bed. You’ll be surprised how much heat this generates.
Warm clothes: Wearing warm clothes and thick socks or slippers is obvious, but here are some of my favorite picks. I basically live in this outfit in the colder months. I also recommend a hat since you lose most of your body heat through your head.
Traction and snow chains: Some states/cities have traction and chain laws, meaning your vehicle either needs to be 4WD, have winter tires, or you must carry snow chains and to use them during inclement weather. Practice putting the chains on before inclement weather hits. You may need to watch a Youtube video the first time you put them on and for that you’ll need cell phone service. I have Konig Snow Chains which go on the rear wheels. To get them on, ALL the snow around the tire has to be cleared away. Your tire will have the size printed on it, after you know the size of your tire, pick out the correct chain size.
Don’t let your plumbing freeze: Frozen water pipes could lead to cracked pipes and a big mess. To prevent my water pipes from freezing, I leave my heater running constantly in the van. If this is your solution, just make sure the hot air can get to where your plumbing is located. My plumbing is in the “garage” area which runs colder than the maine part of the van. At night, I leave the door that accesses the garage from the interior open to allow the heat to spread evenly throughout the van. If your plumbing runs underneath your van or you do not have a heater, you will need to insulate your pipes.
Don’t let your batteries freeze: The batteries I have, Renogy Deep Cycle Hybrid Gel Batteries, are made to perform stable, even in low temperatures. However, I do notice they charge slower once the temperatures drop. As I mentioned already, I run my heater constantly in the van to maintain a normal temperature.
Don’t let your diesel freeze: This is for diesel engines only. Diesel fuel will start to gel at about 17℉. This could cause fuel lines or the fuel filter to get clogged. Once that happens your engine may not start. This could also lead to costly repairs. Once the temperature drops into the teens you should add Winterizer/AntiGel to your fuel when you’re filling up. Some states will have winterized fuel at the pump and you don’t need to add the AntiGel. You should do everything you can to prevent your diesel from freezing, but if it does, you can use Diesel 911, to help turn your diesel back into liquid. You might also need to unclog your fuel filter. I always keep a bottle of both the AntiGel and the 911 in my van.
Note: The diesel heaters do not like the AntiGel which seems counterintuitive since you’re mostly using your heater in colder temperatures. The additive can cause the heater to produce more carbon, but every technician has told me it is better to not let your diesel freeze then for your heater to carbon up. So use the additive, but use it sparingly.
Prevent moisture buildup: Your heater, breathing, and cooking are all sources that cause moisture/condensation. If moisture goes uncontrolled, this could lead to mold problems. Diesel heaters burn the cleanest causing the least amount of condensation. Propane heaters will produce more and you’ll need to vent the van while using (which you have to do anyway for CO). When I’m in the van by myself, condensation isn’t a big problem, but when I have a guest in the van, I have to vent the van overnight. I always vent the van when I’m cooking. Wireless dehumidifiers are great for absorbing moisture in your van.
Less Daylight to Charge your Solar Panels: Since the days are shorter in the winter, charging your batteries solely through solar panels can be more of a challenge. Consider ways to conserve power such as:
Charge devices while driving
Use battery powered string lights
Turn off any unnecessary appliances that use power (WeBoost, propane detector, toilet fan)
When the sun is out, make sure your van is not parked in the shade. I move my van multiple times a day to make sure I’m parked in the sunniest spot possible. If it's snowy out, make sure to keep your solar panels free of snow. Some days, even with all the hacks to conserve power, there isn’t enough sun to keep your batteries charged. I highly recommend having a back up way to charge your batteries either through shore power and/or a battery to battery charger.
A lot of heat is lost through your windows: Insulated curtains make a huge difference in the summer and in the winter. In the summer they keep direct rays out of your van. In the winter, they keep the warm air from escaping. Plus they also provide privacy. I have been very happy with my insulated curtains from Moohah Creatives. This family-run business makes their curtains with high quality materials, they are easy to put up, and you can customize your fabric.
Blast the van's heater: I don't recommend idling your vehicle for long periods, but when I’m driving, I initially blast the van’s heater to warm up the van. Then about 10 minutes before I reach my destination I blast the heater again.
Vanlife in the winter isn’t for everyone. You’ll actually find most Vanlifers travel south once the temperatures start to drop. However, some of us are crazy and love the winter. It definitely has its challenges, but I couldn't imagine not having a White Christmas and all the winter outdoor activities that follow. Check out my Guide to Hiking in the Winter if you're looking to get outside too!
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