There’s nothing more freeing than getting in your van, hitting the open road and seeing where it takes you. However, if there’s one thing that can stop even the most passionate traveler in their tracks, it’s the winter weather.
Can I Live in a Van in the Winter?
Not only are cold temperatures uncomfortable to deal with, but things like snow, sleet and ice can make driving dangerous. Despite these hindrances, you can still live enjoy winter van life — as long as you protect your vehicle first.
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How Do I Winterize my Van?
Winterizing your van involves sheltering it from cold temperatures through a few adjustments. If you’re traveling in freezing weather, winterizing is an absolute must. In this article, we’ll cover everything you need to know about the process, including:
- How to keep the van interior warm
- How to make driving safer
- Where to camp during winter
By the end, you can consider yourself an expert on van traveling in winter!
How to Stay Warm Inside Your Van In The Winter
When cold weather hits, most homeowners increase heat inside their homes — this same logic can be applied to your van. Here are our winter van life tips for staying warm.
Install a Heater
The simplest way to keep the interior of your van warm and toasty is by installing a heater. Let’s review a few popular van heating options.
Electric heaters are portable devices that can be plugged into your van’s power supply.
- Easy set-up process
- Quick transfer of heat
- Requires high levels of power
- Heat may not spread very far
Propane heaters rely on tanks filled with propane (a special type of gas that’s stored as a liquid).
- Environmentally friendly
- Strong heating capabilities
- Difficult installation
- Requires consistent refills
- Few maintenance requirements
- Consumes space
Diesel heat uses a tank and diesel fuel to supply heat throughout your van. Out of all the different heating options, diesel heat is usually the most popular due to its accessibility and strength.
- Powerful heating abilities
- Easy to find
- Limited CO2 emissions
- Low costs over time
- Potential for high upfront costs
- Maintenance requirements
Insulation helps retain heat and prevent cold winds from infiltrating your van by blocking any cracks in the floor, ceiling and walls. By covering exposed areas, you can naturally increase heat and lower the amount you spend on external heating devices. There are several options for insulation materials, including:
- Sheep wool
- Spray foam
- Bubble foil
Before choosing a material, check its R-value — this measures its ability to resist heat transfer. The higher the R-value, the stronger the insulation will be.
Keep Warm Materials On Hand
Accidents happen — you never know when your heating system might malfunction. To ensure you don’t freeze, it’s a good idea to keep a few of these winter van life materials in your van:
- Clothes: Keep extra warm clothes (such as sweaters and jackets) in your van in case you need to bundle up at a moment’s notice.
- Sleeping bags: Considering they’re designed for camping, it’s no surprise sleeping bags can keep you warm — they preserve heat by trapping air.
- Down comforters: Down comforters, which are usually made of duck or geese feathers, manage to stay lightweight while increasing heat.
Warm clothes, blankets and sleeping bags are great for emergencies or even for supplementing other heating systems.
What You Need to Winterize The Outside of Your Van
Winterizing the outside of your van is just as important as preparing the interior. If you don’t protect your van against snow, sleet and ice, you risk damaging your vehicle and potentially causing a road accident. Here are a few materials you’ll need.
Snow tires, or winter tires, have unique features that make it easier to drive in winter conditions. These include:
- Extra gaps: Winter tire tread designs have extra large gaps that boost traction on slippery surfaces like snow. If a tire has passed a winter traction performance test, it will feature a special label: Three-Peak Mountain Snow Flake (3PMSF).
- Temperature optimization: Snow tires have a flexible tread compound that lets them operate smoothly at temperatures under 45 °F (7 °C).
- Studs: Some winter tires have small studs made of metal or ceramics — they stick out of the tires, heightening traction on ice and snow.
While there are no U.S. federal regulations that mandate the use of winter tires, it’s advisable to utilize them during the winter months (especially in colder states). You can view a map of these states here.
Snow chains cover tires to deliver better traction in winter weather. By adding extra texture, the chains can dig into a surface, slow the vehicle and prevent skidding. There are three main types of snow chains:
- Automatic tensioning: These chains tighten as you drive, optimizing functionality on their own. They’re ideal for frequent drivers.
- Manual tensioning: These chains require a separate chain adjuster to be tightened. They’re ideal if you don’t plan on driving in icy conditions often.
- Assisted tensioning: These chains range in terms of quality — they’re more functional than manual tensioning tires, but less effective than automatic ones.
If you have evenly studded tires, it will be difficult to manage steering or braking during winter without snow chains. However, they can damage softer tires — always check with your automotive manufacturer to ensure your tires are suitable for chains.
Shovel and Supplies
During the winter, it’s common for cars to get stuck in the snow — to prevent getting stranded in the cold, keep a shovel in your vehicle. Not only can you use it for digging snow, but it’s also effective for sand, mud and dirt. Along with a shovel, you may want to invest in the following winter van life supplies:
- Hi-lift jack: This handy tool is designed to lift your tire, enabling you to slip cardboard or another material between the tire and the snow.
- Recovery straps: You can attach these straps to your stuck van and another vehicle, then use the second vehicle to pull your van out.
- Jumper cables: The cold weather can fry your car’s battery, especially if you overwork the engine trying to get the vehicle free. Jumper cables will help you restart the van.
When pulling a stuck van, always wear gloves. Engines can quickly become overheated — gloves will reduce the risk of burns.
How to Winterize Your Van’s Plumbing
It’s no secret that water freezes in cold weather. However, many people don’t realize that freezing water also expands. When this occurs in a pipe, it can add extra pressure and lead to leaks or even bursts. The last thing you want to do is deal with is a leaking van in the middle of winter. Fortunately, you can protect your van’s plumbing by following these van life winter tips.
Keep Pipes and Tanks Inside
If you intend on driving in cold climates, it’s a good idea to install your plumbing (which includes pipes and connected water tanks) in the interior of your van. You can place a tank and any attached pipes inside a small storage space, then cover it with paneling.
Not everyone has the space or means to place their pipes and tanks inside their van. In this case, you should preserve your materials through insulation. This involves wrapping the pipe with a protective material to limit exposure to the cold. There are many supplies available for pipe insulation, such as:
- Flexible foam
- Foam and foil
- Bubble wrap
- Foil and cotton
To attach the insulation, use special tape designed for pipes.
One of the best ways to keep the cold away is to utilize heat. By wrapping your pipes with a heating material, you can keep them warm and prevent freezing. The most common method is using a heat tape, which can be applied directly to the pipe. Alternatively, you can wrap a heating cable around it — however, this will need to be plugged in.
Where Can You Van Camp in the Winter?
Before you embark on your van adventure, it’s important to consider where you’re going to stay. Of course, you can’t drive 100% of the time — you’re going to need to park your van to sleep, eat and replenish supplies.
If you have a winterized camper van, you should have no problem traveling anywhere. However, if your vehicle is not protected against the elements (or if you’d rather just visit warm climates), you should stay in areas with high temperatures, such as the southwest.
In addition to providing warm weather, the southwest offers plenty of land for sprinter van winter camping. Unfortunately, some popular campsites may be shut down to road closures, maintenance or vandalism. Here are our winter van life recommendations for which southwestern campgrounds you should visit (and which campgrounds you should avoid).
Visit: The Cosmic Campground
The Cosmic Campground, situated in sunny New Mexico, offers warm weather, spacious landscapes and a stunning, panoramic view of the night sky. The campground features several sites, including concrete pads that can fit vehicles up to 32 feet long.
Avoid: Brantley Lake Park
Brantley Lake Park in New Mexico is known for its stunning lake views and abundance of activities, which include kayaking, fishing and hiking. While the park itself is still open, overnight camping has been prohibited since December 2020.
Visit: Saddle Mountain Overlook
Saddle Mountain Overlook in Arizona provides a nontraditional (but beautiful) view of the Grand Canyon. This free campsite is ideal for vanlife travelers that want to stay warm and take in some of America’s greatest sights.
Avoid: Grandstaff Campground
Found in Utah, Grandstaff Campground offers great views of the Colorado River and plenty of places to park your van. Unfortunately, the site is shut down for the current winter season and is projected to remain closed until at least February 2022.
Visit: Bryce Canyon County
Bryce Canyon County, located in Utah, is filled with a sea of bright, breathtaking canyons. With so many sights to see, it’s not uncommon for the area to become packed with tourists during the summer. You can avoid the crowds and still enjoy reasonably warm weather by boondocking here in the summer.
Avoid: Crested Butte Valley
In the past, Crested Butte Valley (located in Colorado) allowed travelers to drive up and settle down in any part of the valley. Sadly, vandalism and littering have compelled the state to shift gears and create stricter regulations for who can camp and when.
Visit: Anza Borrego Desert State Park
Anza Borrego Desert State Park in Southern California lets campers go boondocking without requiring a permit. The loose restrictions, coupled with the expansive mountains and open sky, make it popular among travelers in the southwest.
How Cold is Too Cold to Sleep In My Van In The Winter?
Once you’ve winterized your camper van, you should have no problem driving in the coldest of climates. The most important factor is heat — as long as you have a powerful, functional heater, you should be good to go.
If you don’t have a heater, or if it’s malfunctioning, you can still fight colder temperatures by using sleeping bags, comforters and clothing. However, the weather can quickly become dangerous and lead to health problems like hypothermia and frostbite. Thus, you should always make sure you have a reliable heat supply before venturing into freezing temperatures.
Winterize Your Van Today!
Got any questions about living in a van in the winter? Whether you’re trying to decide on a heater or you’re unsure where to camp overnight, our team is here to help. Feel free to leave a comment or contact us directly for any winter van life assistance!