26 Essential Winter Van Life Tips
We love a bit of winter van life! We’ve spent two winters in our van and there’s nothing better than opening your door to a foot of fresh snow, just waiting for the hound to dive in to! Our very first trip in Genevieve (our van) was skiing in the Alps. Then we straightaway headed north to the Arctic for a month in Norway. We had a lot of snow and survived temperatures as low as -29.7ºc (that’s -21.4ºf for our American friends!).
We also had a lot of problems, including frozen/leaking pipes, frozen tanks and being completely stuck on ice! We’ve put together our essential winter van life tips based on our experiences over the last couple of years to help you avoid the same fate!
Driving in Winter
Tip #1 Get snow tyres – If you’re heading to the snow this winter you’ll need snow tyres. Many Alpine countries require winter tyres by law but you’ll need specific snow tyres if you’re heading skiing or somewhere with a lot of snow.
Look for tyres with the official 3PMSF rating to ensure they’ll do the job. Three Peak Mountain Snow Flake tyres are designed for demanding weather conditions and still perform at temperatures below 0ºc. They also go through rigorous testing to ensure they meet the requirements for traction and braking in snow.
We use Michelin Agilis Cross Climate tyres and have been really impressed with them so far. They not only perform well in snow but are also good in wet conditions all year round. Goodrich All Terrain tyres are also a popular option for off-road and snow conditions. We’ve heard they’re not great for wet motorway driving though, so it very much depends on your preferences.
Tip #2 Practice putting on snow chains – As well as using snow tyres we also carry snow chains in our van in the winter. It’s really important though to know how to put your chains on! We picked our first set up on the way to the Arctic in Norway and whilst there was only one occasion we needed to use them, in the end we gave up! -12ºc at night, in two feet of snow with all the instructions in Norwegian was not a great combination! Needless to say we couldn’t figure it out!
If you know how to put your chains on it’ll be a lot easier when you’re under pressure and your hands are freezing. I’ll be honest though, we still need to practice, it’s on the to-do list!
Winter van life parking
Tip #3 Be realistic – Travelling in winter requires a bit of realism! Found the perfect spot high up in the mountains on Park4night? Unless it’s the route to a ski resort the pass may be closed or could be dangerous to get too. Be realistic about which parking spots are safe to get to if there’s a lot of snow around.
One other thing to remember if you’ve found a parking spot on Park4night and you’re near a ski resort is it might currently be under a ski run. It’s not uncommon for small roads and summer hiking car parks to be under a piste for 6 months of the year. We visited the Dolomites in June and one spot we hoped to park was still firmly buried under a tempting looking blue run!
Tip #4 Know the avalanche risk – Also, bear in mind the potential for avalanches if you’re wild camping. We parked up in a remote valley in Norway a couple of years ago and ended up moving in the night as we could hear lots of small avalanches around us. They probably weren’t as close as they sounded but it was very hard to tell! After all, it just not worth the risk!
Tip #5 Park in gear –We always park in gear, all year round. If it’s very cold it’s a good idea to leave your handbrake off so it doesn’t freeze on, just make sure you’re definitely in gear!
Parking at ski resorts
Tip #6 Keep out of the way of snow clearing – Part of the reason ski resorts can be unhappy with vans spending the night in their car parks is it makes it harder to clear snow in the morning. If snow is forecast overnight be prepared to be woken up by an unhappy snow plough operator (we’ve met some lovely ones too!). Alternatively, if you’re awake when snow clearing starts move to a part of the car park that’s already been cleared so you’re out of the way.
Related to the above, if you’ve parked overnight at a resort or somewhere you’re trying to be a little more stealth clear the snow from your van first thing. Nothing makes it more obvious you’ve spent the night than a foot of snow on your bonnet and roof!
Clearing the snow from your van can make it look like you’ve only just arrived. Last winter we spent a night in Italy by a lake. A car covered in snow that was there overnight with us got a ticket from police in the morning. Luckily we’d cleared the snow off our solar to charge the batteries and the police assumed we had just arrived. Moving to another side of the car park can help too so there’s tyre marks to your spot in fresh snow.
Tip #7 Be careful how you park –We love our own space! Whilst we love meeting other people on our travels we also like our own space when we’re parked up. Sometimes this just isn’t possible in winter. There’s less spaces to park and snow piles often cut parking down even further. Park considerately so other people can fit too… just don’t park so close your neighbour can’t get out their van (yep, we’ve been there!).
Prepare to get stuck!
Tip #8 Don’t forget your shovel – You’re going to need a shovel! If you have lots of space a grain shovel or snow shovel is ideal but otherwise grab a collapsible shovel. Whilst these aren’t the most durable they’ll do the job, albeit a little slower than their larger counterparts.
There’s been a couple of occasions we’ve had to dig ourselves out of snow. That being said you don’t just need a shovel for getting out, they’re also useful for digging out spaces to park too. If you’re wild camping moving snow can ensure you’re well off the road and out of harms way. If you’re staying at an aire/stellplatz it’s not uncommon to have to dig your own space in winter.
Tip #9 Use your doormat – Winter van life requires tools to get you out if you’re stuck. A shovel, snow chains, snow trax and a tow rope are all on our essentials list. Did you know your door mat is vital too? Coir door mats are great for putting under the wheels for extra traction if you’re stuck. I’m pretty sure we’d still be on the ice in Sweden without our doormat!
Winter van life: Keeping warm
Tip #10 Don’t skip the insulation – If you’re planning on heading to the snow it’s vital you insulate during your van build. Without insulation your precious heat will be lost incredibly quickly. Amazingly, if we’re parked up somewhere cold we can see by the ice patterns on the outside of the van where we’ve insulated the best.
Tip #11 Insulate your windows – Windows and vents are responsible for a huge amount of heat loss. The best way to keep heat in your van is to avoid installing any windows, however, this isn’t ideal for creating a light and airy living environment.
We have both side and rear windows in our van so we use insulated window and vent covers to keep in the heat as well as black out the windows at night. They feature magnets all around the edge so they attach quickly and securely to the wall of the van around the windows.
Tip #12 You need a heater! – We could not survive in our van during winter without heating. We use a diesel heater and they’re so effective at heating up the space quickly.
If your heater has a thermostat leaving it on at a set level is considerably more efficient than leaving it off all day and trying to heat a van that’s at near freezing levels. It also means your home feels a lot more cosy after a day outside.
Keeping your living space warmer will also ensure nothing freezes inside. Frozen pipes and tanks can lead to leaks, which are definitely not fun!
Tip #13 Keep your feet cosy – This might seem like an obvious one but don’t underestimate the importance of slippers! Even though our floor is insulated it definitely feels cold in winter. A cosy pair of slippers to put on as soon as you enter your living area not only keeps your feet warm but also keeps the floor a little cleaner/dryer too (well, that’s the theory anyway!).
Tip #14 Ventilation is vital – Ventilation is essential in winter. It may seem counterintuitive to leave your vent or window open when the heating is on but it’s essential to stop condensation building up. Leaving a window or vent open just a little will help reduce moisture build up considerably. MaxxAir fans are perfect in winter as you can leave them open without needing to worry about snow or rain getting in your van.
Tip #15 Fill your water up whenever you can – Water is much harder to find in winter. A lot of taps are turned off, even in official aires and camper service areas, therefore whenever you find water we recommend filling up.
Tip #16 Buy water at campsites – Many campsites on the continent will let you pay to fill up with their water (and use disposal if you need it). It’s not the cheapest way to fill your water tank but it’s a useful back up for winter van life if you’re struggling.
Fresh and grey water tanks
Tip #17 Keep your tanks inside – Freezing tanks can be an issue in winter. If you plan on spending a lot of time in cold conditions it’s advisable to have your tanks inside and not underneath your van. Or alternatively have a back up option for winter use.
Tip #18 Heat external pipes – If your pipes or tanks are outside running a heat trace around them may help. This is a heated wire that warms up on a thermostat to melt frozen pipes. It does require electricity though.
Tip #19 Manage your tank levels – Another thing to think about is the levels of your tank. If a completely full tank freezes the water may expand and damage your tank. It also takes an incredibly long time for a huge block of ice to melt (take it from us… our grey water tank didn’t unfreeze until we got back to England after our trip to northern Norway!). On the other hand, a three quarter full tank will take a lot longer to freeze solid than a tank with a a few hundred ml left in the bottom. It’s a balancing act!
Tip #20 Drain your grey water tank – If you’re parked up at a stellplatz or campsite you might notice other vans with buckets below their tanks. It’s common to leave grey water tanks open and catch the water in a bucket. This can then be easily poured away down the drain before it freezes. Collapsible buckets are really useful for this!
Electricity and power generation
Tip # 21 Charge your batteries as you drive – If you’re reliant on solar power to charge your batteries you may struggle if it snows non-stop for a few days. Plugging in is also not always possible as some official camper stops turn off the power for the winter months. We highly recommend a split charge system so you can charge as you drive.
Tip #22 Get an extra long cable – If you’re lucky enough to find power or are staying at an aire/campsite an extra long cable might be handy. There’s been a few times we’ve parked up and couldn’t get close enough to reach the tower with our shore power cable. Parking isn’t as flexible in winter if there’s mounds of snow around so it’s not always as easy to get close to the socket.
Tip #23 Avoid damage to your cable – In deep snow it may be necessary to lift your cable off the ground to avoid damage. Cables buried in snow are easily damaged by snow ploughs and other snow clearing equipment when they’re not visible. It’s also not a good idea to coil up your spare cable in the snow. The cable may give off a small amount of heat, melting the adjacent snow and then freezing into a block around your cable when the temperature drops.
Solar power during winter
Tip #24 Keep your solar clear – Clearing your solar panels is vital in winter to take advantage of any sun on offer. Make sure you use something that won’t damage them. Shovels are not always the best option and a snow broom might be a better choice.
You’ll also need a ladder of some description. If you don’t have a fixed one we recommend a collapsible one. We spent a winter trying to climb on walls and shoulders etc to clean our panels, it’s just not worth it… get a ladder!
Winter van life final thoughts
Tip #25 Hit the Spa! – One of our favourite things in winter is visiting outdoor pools and thermal spas. In Austria and Germany especially there’s some amazing thermal spas that are just the perfect way to spend an evening. Many have outdoor pools that are lit up at night with beautiful views of the mountains and surrounding snowy landscapes. Pure bliss! Great for a nice warm shower too!
Tip #26 Keep snow out of your van – We have a fixed bulk head in our current van layout, which we love. There are a few downsides though, one of which being how much snow ends up in our living area. No matter how hard to try snow will come in on your boots and dog’s paws! If you can go in through your cab and leave wet gear in the front on the rubber floor, perfect! If not, we stand everything on a towel to try and absorb as much of the wet as possible.
Winter van life is a lot of fun, and definitely possible so long as you’re prepared. It’s certainly not as easy when there’s snow around but we absolutely think it’s worth it.
We hope you’ll find these tips useful if you’re heading to the snow. Hopefully they’ll help you avoid some of the problems we’ve had! Is there a tip you’d add to this list? Drop it in the comments below. If you’ve found this post useful and would like to support our content you can buy one of our van life stickers or magnets. Alternatively you can buy us a virtual hot chocolate to enjoy whilst we write our next article.
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