How To Survive Winter in a Van
Let me describe what sort of winter I am talking about so we’re all on the same page. We live in our van at just about 6,200 feet elevation on the western edge of the Colorado Rocky Mountains where winter’s average daily temperatures are about 25 degrees Fahrenheit with nightly lows dipping below zero, not every night but enough nights. With about 300 days a year of sunshine we can’t complain about that, but when those cold fronts come through and it doesn’t get above ten degrees for a few days, things get interesting in the van.
In complete honesty, I hate winter. I am suffering through it this year because we traveled in the van last year chasing warm weather, and this year my boyfriend needed to ride the mountains. So, here we are. I love where we call home, and I am constantly reminding myself to acknowledge the necessity of this season within the cycles of life, as well as take in all of the beauty of the snow-covered peaks. If I had it my way though I would be back in Joshua Tree or zig-zagging through southern Arizona sweating my ass off. I look at this three-month period as just another fun challenge…I have to or else I would go nuts. We’ve lived in our Ford Sportsmobile camper van who we call Tatanka for 14 months (as of today!) Here’s how we stay warm and I stay sane rocking out winter in the van.
Numero uno: Find the humor in everything. It’s not always easy, but it’s always necessary. You have to laugh and remember that nothing lasts forever. Spring will come, and it will be so glorious when it does. But in the meantime, find the humor in things. It’s funny when you wake up and the eggs are frozen solid and you can’t make breakfast. It sucks, but it’s funny, and there’s a coffee shop around the corner with eggs if that’s what you want. When you’re sleeping with so many down blankets it feels like you have one of those dental X-Ray coats on…that’s funny to me. Sure, I look like I live in an igloo sometimes, but I’ve always got a new story to share with everyone that asks about what froze that night…shampoo, olive oil, all of the water, all of the produce, the soup, the water in the bubbler, but not the wine!
One night we had freezing rain that turned to single digits overnight and I couldn’t get any of the windows open or the exhaust vent. I really wanted some tea so I took the screen off the ceiling vent and used the screwdriver to help push the vent open. Of course, this is not convenient and it was the hardest I’ve ever worked for a cup of hot tea, but shit, it was pretty funny to watch I’m sure.
Get used to your water being really cold, all the time. If it’s not frozen solid, it’s partly frozen solid, and that’s some icy aqua for drinking and teeth brushing. Also get used to wearing a lot of layers all the time. This is not my favorite thing to do as I would prefer to be in shorts and a bathing suit on the beach somewhere, but it is really cozy I suppose. I pretty much live in leggings and base layers.
Be resourceful. Get creative and find ways to be more comfortable. If you’re cold at night, get another blanket. I found my huge down comforter in great shape at a second hand store for twenty bucks (it was clean and I washed the duvet cover). We use extra pillows against the windows by the bed to keep it warmer at night. Burlap sacks from my job as a coffee roaster work great on the floor as added insulation and as floor mats for all of the snow and mud that get dragged inside in the winter. We keep our clothes cabinet nice and full, both for more insulation and because we have so many more layers and larger, warmer pieces of clothing.
On that note, someone asked where we put all of the extra clothing and outerwear needed for winter in such a small space. Our coat hanger (a metal towel rack that we bent to work as a coat hanger) has a lot of hoodies and fleeces on it, and then a big tupperware bin in the back of the van stores extra outerwear. Casey can also keep his snowboard and gear in this area under the bed. We have an extra shoe bin in the back for boots and hiking stuff and a storage compartment on one of the doors where we keep all of our hats, gloves, and scarves. We usually throw the coats we wear everyday in the drivers’ seat.
Insulate anything that isn’t already insulated. There are many ways of doing this. Lucky for us, our van was built as a camper so the topper, walls, and floor were all (relatively) insulated before we got it. We have bought Reflectix to insulate our windows, with a removable piece for the main door window to let in sunlight during the day. We painted it black on the outside to not draw as much attention to us.
To close off the non-living areas of the van at night (the cockpit and storage under the bed) we made makeshift, blanket “walls” that we roll up and down. On the single-digit nights we move our water jug and some of the food into this area to prevent freezing. We have made sure all other areas that heat could escape are closed off, and as mentioned before, we use burlap sacks on the floor for more insulation.
Be open to going out for breakfast more because your breakfast food might freeze overnight. Since I roast coffee for a local cafe, we often get breakfast at Bonfire during the winter. Making morning coffee is one of my rituals that pains me to sacrifice to winter, but again, nothing lasts forever (and I can get the same coffee that I roast at the cafe). It makes us really appreciate the nights it doesn’t dip below freezing and we can have a normal morning to ourselves again.
We do end up going out for food more often than in warmer weather. I’m not super stoked on this, but we are lucky to live in an area with good, healthy options. If I need to work on the computer I often go out for a drink or a meal and post up for a few hours getting work done. Because this is home for us and we know so many people, I am always happily welcomed “at my office” at any of the local cafes, bars and restaurants. I don’t mind at all and am very grateful for everyone’s generosity and hospitality. You guys know who you are!!
Okay, I’m sure you’re thinking, “Yeah, great Jane, but how do you actually heat the van?” We do not waste energy and pollute the air idling the van with the heat blasting; we only run it when we’re driving somewhere. For warmth we use the Mr. Heater Buddy heater. This option comes with some strings attached, but all in all we have enjoyed the Buddy heater and it has done it’s job very well. The Buddy runs on propane and has various safety features built into it to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning or an explosion. Feel free to read more about them here. We do open our small kitchen window when it’s on and have a carbon monoxide detector mounted on the wall. We do not run it overnight, only in the evenings and mornings to get it toasty inside, which doesn’t take long. Occasionally I will still work on my computer in the van snuggled up in bed with the heater on intermittently, but we try not to use it for prolonged periods of time.
Besides carbon monoxide, there is another downside to this option. A byproduct of burning propane is good ol’ H20, so the more we use it, the more condensation is in the air. If you are using the Buddy heater, be conscious of this fact and aware of where this water is going in your small home. Be careful not to let black mold grow under your mattress or on or under wood, and get your expensive electronics out of there and stored somewhere else. Yesterday I learned just how absorbent Himalayan salt crystals are of the water in the air, so if you have some, beware.They will create small pools of water on and around them, which can abet mold growth. There is also the issue of recycling the empty canisters or hooking up a hose to a larger propane tank. We still use the smaller ones and take them to the recycling center when needed.
Now you might be thinking, “Well, these guys don’t have an extensive, expensive, fancy winter setup. They just use a lot of blankets and stuff.” And you would be correct. We don’t have really expensive insulation and catalytic heaters because…we don’t need them. We do what we can with what we’ve got and do our best to solve problems as they arise. Why do we do this? Well for one, it’s free housing in an area experiencing a housing crisis and skyrocketing rent rates, so that speaks for itself. We also just enjoy it; it’s as simple as that. Life is more interesting…it’s like we live in a fort on wheels Check out my last van life article Van Life, Back to Balance for more on that.
I hope that what I have shared here is helpful for those who need it, but no matter what setup you’ve got, being resourceful and creative are key to keeping yourself and your little home warm and cozy. Everyone’s got their own setup, income level, and goals, so find what works for you. There are plenty of options out there!
To sum up, I think it all comes down to taking things day by day. Learning to go with the flow of the weather patterns is part of life. Some days are much colder than others and some days are close to setting a record high. Whether temperatures dip below freezing or not can make a huge difference. If it’s really fucking cold, go find something to do indoors. Winter won’t last forever, and before we know it we’ll be back to bare feet and tank tops and trying to figure out where to put all the extra blankets and jackets and insulation. Until then, I’ll just live in leggings and down moon boots and try to laugh as much as I can, because honestly, who lives in a van in the middle of winter in the Rocky Mountains? That’s funny, right?
And just for fun, here are two of my girlfriends who live here as well and are killing it in their vans: