Written by Renee Hartwick of @thevanlifers.
Let’s talk about “that photo.” You know the one...the wanderlusty summertime photo that looks out the back of a built-out van onto a spectacular beach (at sunrise no doubt) while someone sips coffee in a bathing suit on the bed next to their surfboard. You know, “that photo.” Ahh...isn’t that the life?
As most full-time vanlifers know, that’s not (real) life—at least not all the time. While those moments certainly exist (and we love them when they do), other parts of vanlife are a little grittier, a little messier and a little tougher.
And, for a portion of the year, a little colder.
Many folks know how to handle too much heat in their vans. Some install window ventilation, put up bug nets, run ventilation fans or park in the shade. But what about when the temperatures drop and open windows are the last thing you’d want?
When you’re living full time in a van (or you don’t want to stop being a weekend warrior just because the seasons change), the reality of winter is very real. And finding safe ways to stay warm and cozy are paramount to being able to enjoy your home on wheels all year round. But where do you start?
Lucky for you, Vanlife Diaries reached out to six of our favorite tried-and-true vanlifers to get the best tips and the good dirt (snow?) on how to prepare for and survive winter while living in your van.
The one thing all of these vanlifers agreed on without hesitation: Insulation. This is a must-do step during the initial build-out process, and it’s one you won’t want to miss.
@viathebay (Lucas & Willa): Don't skimp out! There are a lot of insulation options out there, but we ended up going with a combination of Reflectix and denim insulation. Be sure you insulate the floor and the ceiling, too.
@threeweekstowander (Krissy & Mitch): Before putting up the walls, we lined the interior metal structure with closed-cell foam boards, like those you would use in a regular home.
@soweboughtavan (Katie): I did my best to prepare for low temperatures during my build process by using a variety of insulation throughout the entire van. However, I also made insulated window covers for any areas of the van which could let out heat easily.
@gnomad_home (Jayme & John): Speaking of insulated window covers, we made curtains out of a material called “Insul-Shine,” which consists of batting on one side and a reflective material on the opposite side. In the summer, the reflective side faces out to keep the sun’s heat out of our home. But in the winter, we flip them around to reflect the radiant heat inside the van and this helps keep our van’s internal temp at the very least 20 degrees warmer than the outside temps.
@We_Who_Roam (Bec & Gary): Don’t forget adding covers to roof fans or gaps where heat can escape from.
It’s Gettin’ Hot In Here…
It may seem obvious, but one sure-fire way to make sure there’s heat in your van? Install a heater! And according to our vanlifers, if you’re going with a heater, it’s best to go diesel (although if you think we haven’t seen a couple of incredibly cool wood burning stoves in DIY campers...you’d be wrong. Hey, whatever floats your boat.):
@viathebay: We’ve found that the most effective heating systems for Sprinter vans are diesel-powered heaters. Espar branded heaters are popular, though expensive. However they produce an incredibly amount of heat and safely keep all exhaust fumes outside the van (woo!). Be sure to vent any heaters running off of propane, though. Also noteworthy: For those traveling to extremely cold environments, be aware that diesel fuel can freeze or gel.
@soweboughtavan: When it gets brutally cold outside, I rely heavily on a Mr. Heater Portable Buddy, which allows me to heat up the van in just a few minutes. However, it's important to note that I don't use this for more than 15 minutes at a time, and never sleep with it on.
@threeweekstowander: Later in our build process, we opted to install the Espar Diesel Heater with the high altitude kit (so that we could keep warm high in the mountains).
@nclineadventures (Greg & Danielle): In our experience, most Sprinters are designed to run while parked, so we can run the van for a bit and just put the heat on. Once our van warms up, it holds the heat really well.
...So Take Off (Keep On All Your Clothes)
The good ol’ dependable advice to “bundle up” is alive and well. No matter where you’re from (unless it’s south of the Equator), you know that layers can do wonders for keeping you toasty in the winter months. But how does that advice hold up when you’re basically living outside? We’ve got you covered (literally).
@viathebay: Purchase down insulated slippers, a down jacket, wool sweater and keep blankets in the van. We’ve slept in our van without a heater running when it’s been 17 °F and were able to stay warm with proper attire and down blankets.
@soweboughtavan: I usually sleep with long pants, wool socks and a sweatshirt. And don’t forget the power of a beanie when it's really cold outside.
@nclineadventures: Smartwool socks are the best thing ever. Honestly though, we opt to use layers of blankets at night rather than sleep with clothing on. It's better for our core temperatures, which makes it easier to sleep. Blankets are easier for us to take on and off as well.
@threeweekstowander: Speaking of blankets, for a cozy finish in our van, we fitted the bed with amazingly soft flannel sheets and an Aztec style wool blanket.
Let’s Get Physical
Never underestimate the heating power of a higher heart rate (within healthy reason, of course). Our vanlifers stand by the fact that getting up, out and moving—even in the cold temps—will actually save you from the winter blues.
@viathebay: Honestly, we keep out of the van for as long as possible. We're a big dive-bar-pool-table-cards-in-the-corner-by-a-fireplace kind of couple, so we didn't feel there was much of a sacrifice to bopping around at night before tucking in. Once inside? Lock up, brush up and cuddle as fast as possible.
@nclineadventures: We definitely stay active. The van acts more as a convenient base camp for us. We are always moving during the day instead of sitting around, and that helps a ton. Especially in the morning, if it’s really cold outside, we get up and go for a walk right away. It gets the blood going and heats up the core.
We’ve covered all of the usual topics: insulate the van, heat the interior, dress for the weather, get out and play, etc. But what about the little quirks that every vanlifer figures out for themselves? You know what we’re talking about: those small (van)life hacks that you figure out by accident or on the fly that actually turn out to be lifesavers at the end. Well, our vanlifers have got them too, and you won’t want to miss out on their solid gold winter weather secrets.
@soweboughtavan: My #1 secret is my queen-size sleeping bag that is rated for 25 degrees. This always keeps me warm throughout the night, and even during the coldest temperatures.
@nclineadventures: We put hand warmers in our bed 10 minutes before we go to sleep. We sometimes put four inside the bed or if we’re using sleeping bags, two in each bag.
@we_who_roam: For us, heating the van just means making a cup of coffee. We boil the kettle (with the door open a crack...carbon monoxide and all that). The warmth coming off the kettle and stovetop quickly heats the interior. As soon as the kettle is done, we switch off the flame; close all of the doors, windows and curtains; and the heat remains in the van, keeping us toasty. A second hack we discovered: If we string up a rope in the van cabin, we can use it as a “drying cupboard” to hang all of our wet gear if we’ve been romping around in the snow.
@gnomad_home: We were recently gifted a hot water bottle from a friend and it’s come in handy. We fill up our hot water bottle with boiling water, tighten the plug into the top and wrap it in a scarf or a t-shirt. Then, we set it in the middle of the bed near our chests. When we lay down, we hold one another with the hot water bottle between us. It keeps our little family warm all throughout the night. Another “secret” thing that keeps us warm: dogs who curl up close to us at night.
At the end of the day, pictures of a van on a warm, sandy beach spells dreamy to almost everyone. But winter scenes and snowy weather are a reality in vanlife. With just a few good tips and some thoughtful preparation, they can be a fun, dreamy, cozy ones too. Just don’t forget your down-insulated slippers.