Winter Vanlife Guide

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Winter Vanlife Guide

Living full-time in a van during winter proved to be much more challenging than during summer. Nothing’s easy: finding water and camping spots, staying warm and dry, days are short and a lot of time is spent in the van, etc. It’s not a glamorous life but it is extremely rewarding if, like us, chasing epic skiing / snowboarding conditions is what you’re after… Let’s review the challenges we faced and how we mitigated them. We hope you like cold and snow as much as we do!

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Last Update: March 2019, after our second winter in the van.

1- Traction and Driving in Snow

1.1- TRACTION CONTROL SYSTEM (TCS)

The Ford Transit’s Traction Control System (TCS) is a safety system that prevents loss of control during acceleration, by limiting power transmitted to the rear wheels when slip is detected. In other words, it prevents unintentional fishtailing. As opposed to what the name suggest, its role is not to improve traction; it’s to keep you safe

turn OFF the TCS temporarily in these situations to increase traction:

Before getting stuck.
After getting stuck.
When climbing a steep slippery incline at "low" speed.
Weight Traction Uphill

Remember that turning off the TCS is a temporary measure; don’t turn it off for highway driving even in winter conditions.

To deactivate or re-activate the Traction Control System, press the TCS ON/OFF button for 2-3 seconds:

1.2- Limited Slip Differential (LSD)

The Ford Transit’s Limited Slip Differential (LSD) is a feature to increase traction. If the propulsion wheel slips, power is transmitted to the other wheel simultaneously; in other words, both wheels are helping together. It is not an electronically controlled system (by sensors or such); it’s actually a mechanical device (clutch) on the differential. The LSD system cannot be turned off (which is fine).

The LSD is an optional feature. We HIGHLY recommend it as it makes a huge difference! (On a non-LSD Transit, all the power is transmitted to only one wheel at a time.)

1.3- 4x4

Is a 4x4 necessary for winter Vanlife adventures?

It's not necessary.

We spent the last two winters snowchasing all over the place: Utah, Wyoming, Washington, Montana, British Columbia up to the Alaska border. 

We skied the resorts, but we went mostly 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… 

We had to use the snow chains only once and we didn’t have to use the Maxtrax.

But yeah, 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 so far, 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 to get to the trailheads, not because we enjoy it) or if you don’t like shoveling or using the recovery devices, 4×4 is the way to go.

HINT: Ford is introducing AWD on the Transit for 2020, sweeeet!

1.4- Rear wheel drive (RWD) vs Front wheel drive (FWD)

We often ask the Ram ProMaster owners why they chose it: FWD is almost always one of the reasons why.

FWD is known as being superior for winter driving. We agree to this statement for cars, empty pickup trucks and empty vans, because most weight is in the front. More weight on the powered wheels = more traction.

But for converted vans, there is most likely more weight in the back. For example, here is the actual measured weight of our van’s front and rear axles (including conversion AND payload: gas, water, propane, driver & passenger, etc):

Axle Weight Traction

Knowing that MORE WEIGHT = MORE TRACTION, we’re glad our van is RWD!

Weight Traction Uphill

We get more traction when climbing a steep incline, because there is even more weight on the rear axle!

That being said, don’t go crazy and add too much weight in the back, or you will experience “steer drifting” (i.e. the front wheel won’t have enough traction to turn left or right)…

1.5- Winter Tires

Are winter tires necessary in winter?

Yes they are!

Don’t get fool by the “All Seasons” appellation on some tires; they’re NOT made for winter driving. In Quebec (Canada), they are simply illegal during winter. You want true winter tires; it’s day and night in term of traction! And remember that traction is not just about moving  forward; it’s also about slowing down, taking curves and having better response during emergency maneuvers. 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 first. EXCEPT: if you’re from an area where you have to drive only occasionally in snow (i.e. to go across a pass at higher altitude), snow chains (without snow tires) are probably fine. 

We run the BFGoodrich KO2 tires year round; full review in the following article:

Ford Transit larger tire upgrade

1.6- Snow Chains

You should know that vans are not renowned for their excellent traction on ice… 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 had our first “real” use of snow chains when trying to get to Hankin Evelyn Backcountry Skiing Rec Area near Smithers, BC. The following video shows our second attempt at climbing that hill. It doesn’t look that steep in the video, but it is relatively steep and the road condition is a thin layer of compacted snow on top of blue ice…

In our first attempt (no chains, TCS turned off), we made it to about 30%, then the van lost its momentum. I activated the 4×4 (slammed the brakes…), but the van just started sliding all the way back down. Trying to steer (in reverse) a 8850 lbs sliding object is not great. Pumping the brakes to regain control wasn’t very useful, so the van just followed the “fall line”; fortunately we didn’t go off the road.  With the chains on, there was no wheel slip at all.

This place was literally in the middle of nowhere: no cell signal, 30 minutes drive from the main road, and there’s pretty much no one coming here during the week. So that’s a pretty good testimony of why we categorize the snow chains as “Safety Gear”…

We are using the Thule/Konig XG-12 Pro snow chains (Buy on Amazon) and we wrote an in-depth review/guide here: faroutride.com/thule-snow-chains-review

1.7- Maxtrax

We also carry Maxtrax (Buy on Amazon). 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 would have save us a few hours of digging!!

So far we used them once, but not for us. A pickup truck was parked beside us and he couldn’t engage its 4×4; he was parked on ice without any load in the back. It was totally flat, but he couldn’t move an inch! We were in the same situation and the van got out without any problem at all…  Again: more weight = more traction!

1.8- How to climb like a boss

Here is our approach to climb sketchy off roadS:

If it’s safe to attempt (and potentially fail) to climb that hill (for you and for others):

  1. Choose your favorite tune and crank the volume to 11.
  2. Deactivate the TCS.
  3. Use the manual mode to prevent shifting during the climb.
  4. Keep the RPM steady throughout the climb.
  5. If loosing traction, don’t release the gas. Keep going so the LSD can work its magic! You want to keep your momentum here!
  6. Some fishtailing might occurs; it’s fine as long as you can stay in control.
  7. No luck? Time to put the snow chains on…

2- Staying Warm

Park-Ride-Warm-Up-Relax-FarOutRide

2.1 - 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 Webasto/Espar (both are available for diesel or gasoline) or the Propex (propane). 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.

Webasto or Propex?

The main advantage of the Webasto is that it is fed from the van’s fuel tank; there is no need to monitor anything (as long as we keep the tank above 1/3 full)! For this reason, we use almost exclusively our Webasto over our Propex. We found that the Webasto produces a little more heat too. For a full analysis, we published the following article:

What size heater?

Are the 2kW Webasto Air Top 2000 and Espar D2 powerful enough? See our observations below, but keep in mind you might get different results depending on your insulation, window covers, layout, etc…

Above 3°C (37F)

If you don’t plan on travelling where temperature drop below about 3°C, the Webasto/Espar are probably overkill. If they run on “low” too much, that could lead to carbon buildup issues. A Propex might be more suitable.

3°C to -18°C (37F to 0F)

The Webasto Air Top 2000 or Espar D2 are perfect for the job!

-18°C to -26°C (oF to -15F)

The Webasto Air Top 2000 or Espar D2 are OK, but don’t expect them to warm up your van real quick… it takes time to reach the desired temperature. You might want to use your van’s heater as a “boost” if you’re in a hurry, or program the heater to start a few hours before. 

Colder than -26°C (-15F)

At -26°C (-15F), the maximum temperature in the van is about 15°C (58F)*… It’s nice to have the Propex as well for “boost” or as a safety backup!

*Measured early in the morning to discard the effect of the sun and of the thermal mass (residual heat from the day).

2.2- Insulation

We used Thinsulate to insulate our van and we’re very happy with it! It’s very easy to install, there are no chemicals added and it keeps us warm even in extreme cold:

2.3- Insulated 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:

3- Condensation and Moisture

We were pleasantly surprised to find out that the humidity level in the van stays around 15-35% in winter without too much efforts, sweeeet! Here is our recipe to stay nice and dry in the van:

  • We use a dry heat source (section “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 overnight. 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).

We have an in-depth article about managing condensation and moisture in a van:

SensorPush Screenshot Humidity
Humidity inside the van (screenshot taken from the SensorPush app)

MONITOR YOUR VAN (OR RV) TEMPERATURE AND HUMIDITY REMOTELY

4- Electrical & Solar

4.1- Daily Consumption

60Ah

60Ah

Our consumption is quite similar for summer or winter. That’s because our biggest loads (fridge and Webasto) balance each others. In summer the fridge runs a lot, but the Webasto don’t. In winter the Webasto runs a lot, but the fridge don’t.

So the “problem” with winter is not the high-consumption, it’s charging the battery… keep reading!

4.2- Solar Charge

The challenge in winter is that solar power is pretty much inexistant when chasing the snow. Here is some data we recorded using our Victron MPPT Solar Charger (faroutride.com/victron-review):

Daily Solar Input, Summer VS Winter, Van Solar Power
NOTES: 1- Winter data gathered between January 14th to February 14th. 2- Once the battery if fully charged, there is no more solar input recorded. It means we could harvest more solar power than the graph shows during summer. 3- Winter data was gathered during an unusual stretch of “nice” weather here in the Pacific North West; it’s normally even worst…

4.3- Alternator Charge

For winter adventures, charging from the alternator (when driving) is the solution. How’s that? The Sterling B2B charger uses the van alternator power to charge our house (auxiliary) battery while we drive. It’s an install-and-forget device: it turns itself ON/OFF automatically when driving the van, doing its things without user intervention. Neat! It means that we don’t have to worry about running out of power AND that the house battery lifespan is maximized. Sounds too good? Keep reading this review as we get into more details…

5- Water & Showers

5.1- Water System

We’re happy to report that we can use our water system in winter (tested down to -30°C/-22F)! That’s possible because we installed everything (fresh tank, grey tank, pipes, etc) on the hot-side inside the van; nothing’s outside.

We do, however, winterize the bike wash and the hot shower by draining the water thoroughly out of them (no antifreeze added).

5.2- 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, etc. are usually fine because the temperature is mild. Otherwise, you have to be creative: there is no easy way! It’s case-by-case. 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)

5.3- Showers

We obviously don’t use our exterior shower (faroutride.com/exterior-shower)… We spent the last two winters mostly in British Columbia and most towns (large or small) have out-of-this-world municipal Aquatic Centers! For about $5 to 8$ CDN (if you’re flexible on time, they sometimes have the “toonies” = $2), you get access to:

  • Swimming Pool
  • Hot Tub
  • Steam Room
  • Dry Sauna
  • Lazy River
  • Waterslides
  • Wave Pool
  • And of course the SHOWERS!

Not all the Aquatic Centers have all the amenities; check out online to find out. 

Aquatic Centers British Columbia
Revelstoke Aquatic Center.

We experimented with an interior shower at some point, but it was a pain in the neck to use (setup, operation and drying the curtain). So we never really used the shower and eventually got rid of it. It’s not worth the hassle for what the Aquatic Centers cost.

And in retrospect, it’s probably better that way for moisture-control! And, we kind-of got use the hot tub sessions too…

6- Finding Camping Spots

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).

7- Drying Our 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 ski 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! It takes about 2 hours to dry one pair of boot (we need 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.

Conclusion

With proper planning, winter vanlife is a magical thing! Go get it!

Rogers Pass Skiing Overnight Camping Van
Faroutride Sixth Month (3)
Seventh Month on the Road (4)
Seventh Month on the Road (5)
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about us

Nice To Meet You.

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!

28 thoughts on “Winter Vanlife Guide”

  1. Awesome article, super informative. I am looking to purchase a transit but really want LSD installed for the winter months. I am running into trouble finding parts and dealerships that will install. Would you be able to share some greater detail on what you purchased for this upgrade?

  2. I’m shocked by how few people say 4WD is necessary! I was sure at least those who did skiing and stuff would need it. As a midwesterner (grew up in Omaha, NE), I’ve always envied 4WD and in planning my van I’ve never ever considered not getting it until reading this! I can tell you just driving around the city (let alone trying to get around the state) in winter I’ve had tons of slips and near death experiences, and witnessed tons more.

    Not sure if you’ll be able to say, but do you know why you don’t struggle with the van in mountains as much a normal car in urban areas (let alone the mountains!)? Is it from the weight? Is it because of the features (like the LSD and TCS)? Do the tires really make that big of a difference? Or are we all just sucky drivers (don’t even get me started about the time we drove down the mountains to get to Pheonix in the snow and the desert-accustomed drivers there…) lol

    Just curious as I’d love to be able to not shell out the big bucks but I’m still very nervous about it from my experiences! Thank you so much for any guidance! And for real thanks for this whole site, I’ve been hungrily devouring it as I dream and plan for when I graduate (will definitely be supporting y’all when that happens 🙂 )!!!

    • Hi!
      1) Good winter tires make a HUGE difference. 4 seasons tire are simply ILLEGAL back home in Quebec during winter.
      2) Weight also make a huge difference. I recently had to drive a 2wd pickup (empty) here in Squamish up a hill (dust road) and it slipped a lot; we normally have no issue with our van.
      3) LSD is also great. Helps a lot.

      Not sure about the “near death experiences” you had/witnessed, but remember that a 4wd won’t help you stop or turn faster…

      Hope that helps!

  3. This is a really good article. Ive been chasing powder for 20 years in campervans in colorado. First a vanagon, then a ford e-150, now a promaster. Ive never been a full timer, more of a weekend warrior. My anecdotal experience is that the promaster (FWD) has no better traction in the snow than the Ford E-150 and the Ford had better ground clearance. The chart with solar inputs is really useful, would like to know which months were chosen for winter and summer. I will also note that AGMs support very high charge rates which is useful for quick alternator charging. Amazingly, I sometimes see 100 amps going to my single 100 AH AGM battery when battery is down to around 60%. I often see 50+ amps. So, it is possible that a B2B could actually limit bulk alternator charging.

  4. Excellent and very useful article, especially on the heater capability. Love the photos and candid sharing of your experiences! Great job driving in the spot where you slid backwards! That got my heartbeat raised just reading about it!

  5. The problem with ski area parking lots is very early morning plowing on snow days. I am surprised that I have not run into you guys at the aquatic centers in Canada.

  6. thanks for all your reviews.
    Curious if anyone considered making a DIY traction board. I think MAXTRAX at $350 is expensive.

    • We go to Aquatic Centers. In British Columbia, it’s about 5$ and you get access to the swimming pool, hot tub, steam room & waterslides (!)… it’s worth it!

  7. I’m just starting my first van build and one of the things I keep see people mentioning is the noise the Webesto and Espar heaters make. Do you fine this to be an issue when trying to be stealth in neighborhoods with your setup. I’m in the SLC area and will be living in the van full time.

    • The heater definitely isn’t stealth, but it’s better than freezing in your van! Also people will notice condensation/ice in the windows and some light coming out as well, so.
      Just follow the #1 rule: don’t park twice at the same spot and you’ll be fine. We spend a week or two in SLC and we found it super easy to park in residential streets.

      Good luck!

  8. Je viens de trouver votre site. Wow, vraiment bien fait. Une tonne d’information basé sur vos expériences. Moi aussi un jour je ferai ma conversion pour courir les montagnes l’hiver. Vraiment inspirant. Merci du partage.

  9. Just superb you guys – tons of information from hard-lined experience. Interesting about the snow chains and the 4-season tires – I wondered if the tires were enough. Thanks for the info 🙂

  10. A-

    We did lots of sheath van camping in Oregon, mainly in Bend, mainly weekends but sometimes week long, in the late ’80s and early ’90s, in the winter. We are cross county people so we would sleep low (5-6000 ft) and drive up high in the day time (8-9000 ft). Most of the time we used condo and apt parking lots, where we would pull amongst the cars and go silent (running our little propane heater until our extra battery went dead). (Oh, and we even had a husky we had to walk.) The great thing about these places is that we sort of felt we could use them over and over, and we did, and no trouble ever.

    Also, you failed to mention expressway rest areas, I am sure you use those.

    Agree with your Snopark comments, very unpredictable, except in warm spells, and then, who cares.

    Agree with your views on 2W vs 4W, but I am originally from Buffalo, so using 4W drive seems unsporting. Also, I really dislike my front wheels skidding when I am in dodgy steering conditions, ie, coming down from a pass. In terms of troubles, we have unburied ourselves using chains a least 5 or 6 times, one time backing up a half mile because of no room to turn around. I sometimes wish I had winch, but never needed it. Maybe that’s good, perhaps if I had it, would have gotten in more trouble, at least with my wife. Never mind.

    -d

  11. Hi Antoine, quick question: In your older post detailing your pressurized water system installation you say it will need to be winterized it once the weather was below freezing. But in this post, you talk about finding winter water sources to fill up the tank. Does that mean you were able to use the system all winter? Did it require any additional insulation or modifications? or were you just careful to keep the interior heated above zero as much as possible?

    • We’re happy to report that we used our water system all winter, even when it was -25C! Of course we had to keep the van above freezing temperature at all time, but that’s OK since we live full-time in the van. If the van was let to freezing, we would have to empty the tank and all the plumbing (winterizing).

      cheers!

  12. Hey Antoine, Stoked I may actually have something that will blow your mind for winter van-life! I have taken so many nuggets off your site with useful information, but you need to check these out: MaxxDry Traveler boot dryers

    https://amzn.to/2EpeT7j

    I have used them for the past 5+ years, and installed dedicated 12volt cigarette ports in the back of my transit for them. They warm up and create a convective drying process in your boots (no fans just a metal plate). They only draw 1amp so they take several hours to dry but I just plug them in before bed and boots are dry by the morning.

    I also agree with the 2wd vs 4wd. We did a 9 day ski trip in the transit last month with winter conditions almost 100% of the trip and did not have to use chains once. Be sure to let us know if you make it to the Truckee/Lake Tahoe area in your travels.

    • Nice, thanks for the tip! But I think we will keep using the Webasto to dry our boots; it works just fine for us! 🙂

      I will contact you if we make it to Tahoe! Have a good day!

  13. Great write up. Did you rly stuffing wet boots with newspaper? In a dry alpine environment that will normally suck all the moisture out overnight. Works me us!

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