- 1- Traction
- 2- Electricity
- 3- Finding Water
- 4- Finding Camping Spots
- 5- Staying Warm
- 6- Managing Humidity
- 7- Drying Gear
- 8- Tales from the Road
- 9- Conclusion
This article was written following our first winter in 2018.
1.1- Traction Control System (TCS)
As opposed to what the name suggest, the TCS role is not to increase traction; it’s role is to keep you safe by preventing loss of traction. The TCS will apply small braking force on a spinning wheel when it detect loss of traction. If you are in a situation where maximum traction is needed (i.e. driving in sand, in deep snow, going up a steep icy road, etc) and your speed is relatively slow (let’s say under 20 MPH), make sure to deactivate the TCS! This will also ensure the LSD (see below) can do its job properly. Be aware that by deactivating the TCS, the back wheels are allowed to spin freely and the rear end could drift; it’s your job to stay in control now!
To deactivate or re-activate the Traction Control System, press the TCS ON/OFF button for 2-3 seconds:
Is a 4×4 necessary in winter?
It’s not necessary.
We spent last winter snow chasing all over the place: Utah, Wyoming, Washington, Montana & British Columbia (see our Fifth and Sixth month report). We went to ski resorts but also to remote places for backcountry skiing. We drove on all kinds of conditions: dry pavement, black ice, hard pack snow, fresh fluffy snow, you name it. We could go everywhere we wanted (keeping in mind we’re not a snowmobile) and we didn’t have to use the snow chains (except once where it was mandatory) or the Maxtrax. We made it.
But it would be nice!
If you don’t mind the price tag (it’s about 13,000US$ aftermarket), go for it! We say 4×4 is not necessary, but it’s a nice-to-have feature for sure. We didn’t get stuck last winter, but there was a few close calls and it will happen eventually. If you are an off-road enthusiast (personally we go off-road just because we sometimes have to, not because we enjoy it) or if you don’t like shoveling or using the recovery devices, 4×4 is the way to go.
1.3- Winter Tires
Are winter tires necessary in winter?
Yes they are!
They make a TREMENDOUS difference compared to 4 seasons tires! While we think of 4×4 as an improvement (optional), we think of winter tires as a safety feature. If we had to choose between 4×4, LSD, chains, etc, we would choose winter tires. EXCEPT: if you’re from an area where you have to drive only occasionally in snow (i.e. to go across a pass), snow chains are probably fine.
Any tire recommendation?
Upgrading our tires is the very first mod we made on the van: faroutride.com/ford-transit-larger-tires-upgrade
1.4- Snow Chains
You should know that vans are not renowned for their excellent traction on ice, it’s in fact the opposite… once you lose your momentum on a small icy incline, you’re going nowhere. For example: an icy inclined parking lot of a ski resort. Or an icy/snowy road going up a pass. We remember specifically going up Crystal (Washington) and Whitewater (BC) ski resorts: the road was icy those days and if people in front of us would have stopped for some reasons, we would have need the chains to get moving again. In fact, a RV tried to make it up to Whitewater one day and the road had to be closed for a few hours… We didn’t need the snow chains last winter, but we would never leave without them! First they might get you out of trouble; second they are sometimes mandatory.
1.5- Limited Slip Differential (LSD)
If you’re into the market for a Ford Transit, GET THE LSD! It works! We made a short video to demonstrate how it works:
We also carry Maxtrax (amzn.to/2pG7trP). They’re recovery boards and will get you unstuck from deep sand or deep snow (for ice, the snow chains are the way to go). It’s after we got stuck in sand that we decided to get them; it turns out getting a 8000 pound van unstuck is not an easy task! It’s our last resort, but at that point it is extremely satisfying to get unstuck!!
More info about the Maxtrax here: faroutride.com/maxtrax
There are a few changes in our consumption habits in winter versus summer: we use the ceiling LEDs and the Webasto heater more, but the refrigerator and the Maxxair roof fan usage is reduced. When we designed and sized our electrical system (faroutride.com/electrical-system), we made the assumption that the consumption would be similar in summer than winter; that’s because the fridge run less, but the Webasto heater run more. While we don’t have the actual consumption numbers, we feel our assumption was about right. The major winter VS summer difference is in charging the battery. Keep reading…
Let’s start by saying that we didn’t spend the winter in Baja; we spent it chasing the snow in the PNW and the Rockies, mostly. That means lots of snow, lots of clouds, all the time. The input we got from solar is pretty much ZERO (as of June 2018, we just upgraded of solar charger from a Bogart PWM to Victron MPPT; we’ll see if our new charger performs better in winter conditions!). And the fact that days are so short and sun angle is so low doesn’t help too. So if, like us, winter is all about finding the best snow conditions, then make sure to design your system so you can charge from the alternator (most frequent) and from shore power (then you can steal electricity from your friends!). If we were fully stationary, we would consider a generator. It’s all here:
3- Finding Water
In summer, easy peasy. Most RV dump stations have drinkable water faucet: we use sanidumps.com to find water 95% of the time. We also sometimes use ioverlander.com or just inquire when fueling at a gas station.
In winter, it’s a different story if you find yourself below freezing temperature. Most faucets are closed to protect the plumbing. We found that places like Salt Lake City, Seattle, Vancouver, Squamish, Nelson, Revelstoke, etc. are usually fine because the temperature is mild. Otherwise, you have to be creative: there is no easy way! Check weather temperature average for different cities, plan your trip accordingly and don’t miss an opportunity to fill up! Here is where we filled our fresh water tank last winter:
- Friends’ house (and seize this opportunity to shower and to charge your house battery too!)
- Gas stations (say thanks by fueling at the same time)
- Random commercial building (we inquired before using the faucet)
4- Finding Camping Spots
Summer vanlife is all about sleeping at epic places…
… while winter vanlife is all about finding
epic places to stay! We normally use freecampsites.net or ioverlander.com to find campsites, but in winter most of them are covered in snow: BLM, National Forest, etc. So we’re left with this:
- Ski resort parking lots. Be careful, most of the ski resorts are pretty aggressive with their “No Overnight Parking” policies! If they allow it, please follow the designated overnight parking zone not to interfere with the snow plowing. As a general rule, Canadian resorts are more RV friendly than in the USA. Here is a good list to start with: https://www.curbed.com/maps/ski-resorts-overnight-parking-rv-camping
- Residential streets. As a general rule, this gets easier in the smaller, less-touristy towns. Make sure there is no overnight parking restrictions. We normally try to get there late (when it starts to get dark), leave early (but not too much we don’t like to use alarm clock) and it’s a good idea not to stay twice at the same place.
- Hotel/Motel parking lots. Obviously we’re not welcome here, so this is more like a “last-resort” option. But it worked every times. Just get there late, leave early and be stealth so they think you are staying at the hotel/motel…
- Making business at a small ski shop? Drinking a few beers at a small craft Brewery? Ask them if you can sleep in their lot! Some will be very happy to help you, some won’t. If they can’t they might give you some hint…
- Sno-Parks. There are Sno-Parks (snow-plowed parking lots) throughout California, Oregon and Washington state. You need to buy a permit to access them: http://ohv.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=1233. Honestly, it’s a pain in the neck to figure which Sno-Parks allow overnight parking let alone to find them; we couldn’t find a user-friendly map and the permit system is quite confusing. So we didn’t really used that option a lot (only once in fact and we’re not sure we were allowed to sleep there).
5- Staying Warm
We covered the basics here (faroutride.com/climate-control), but we have some real-world observations.
5.1- Heat Source
If you have enough budget to invest in a van, ski gear and ski passes, then you have enough budget to invest in a dry heat source; we can’t recommend that enough. The most popular options are the diesel or gasoline Webasto/Espar (faroutride.com/air-heater-installation) or the propane Propex (faroutride.com/propex-installation). Here are a few pros:
- Because the combustion is external, these heat sources are SAFE; no carbon monoxide is released inside the vehicle.
- They produce a dry heat. This will keep you comfortable and prevent mold.
- They push a lot of heat and have an integrated powerful fan to help distribute the heat evenly in the van. Both options we mentioned are rated at 6500 BTU.
We used the Mr. Buddy (amzn.to/2DXkpO9) as a backup last year and we would not recommend it because:
- The combustion happens inside the van, therefore carbon monoxide is released. Enough ventilation is a MUST if you want to wake up in the morning.
- The propane combustion release a lot of humidity. As soon as we ignited it, windows got covered in condensation and we could feel the air becoming “heavier”. It’s just not a comforting heat. We read numerous reports of people getting mold in the long run…
- It transmits heat by radiation, meaning there is no fan to move the heat around. When we used it, we found the heat in the van was VERY uneven.
- If using the small 1lb camping propane cylinder, it only last for about 6 hours.
5.2- Window Covers
Can’t recommend them enough. The windows are the weakest link and you will feel cold drafts if they’re not properly covered. It truly is a game changer. Here is how we made our own:
6- Managing Humidity
We were pleasantly surprised to find out that the humidity level in the van stays around 35-40% in winter, sweeeet! Here is our recipe to stay nice and dry in the van:
- We use a dry heat source (check out section “5- Staying Warm”)
- We run the roof fan when cooking or drying gear, then we turn it off with a small crack most of the time. The amount of ventilation depends on the outside temperature a lot; you will soon learn what’s your own recipe!
Even with low humidity level in the van, expect some condensation/ice in the windows when the insulated window covers are installed. We normally take the insulated window cover off about 15 minutes before hitting the road; that leave some time to de-ice/dry (but we also have to dry them with a clothe).
7- Drying Gear
We installed a clothesline between the Webasto outlet and the roof fan; it creates the perfect giant drying machine 🙂
It takes about 1 to 3 hours to dry our skiing gear:
As you know, drying boots is not that easy… but the Webasto makes it really easy since it blows a nice stream of hot air right into them! That being said, it takes more time to dry the boots because we have to alternate them.
Note: the drying time will vary with outside temperature! Let’s say it’s 15F (-10C) outside, the heater will run much more than if it’s 42F (+5C); it means more hot & dry air for drying. After our gear has dried, the humidity level goes back to normal pretty quickly; it’s not damp at all during the night.
8- Tales from the Road
With proper planning, winter vanlife is a magical thing! Go get it!
Thanks for reading! Cheers!
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Hello! We’re Isabelle and Antoine 🙂 In 2017 we sold our house (and everything in it), quit our engineering careers and moved into our self built campervan. We’ve been on the road since then and every day is an opportunity for a new adventure; we’re chasing our dreams and hopefully it inspires others to do the same!