Living in a van full-time 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!

 

This article was written following our first winter in 2018.

Faroutride Winter Vanlife (4)

Ski in, ski out, beer in! (Teton Pass, WY)

 

Faroutride-Winter-Vanlife-(2)

The reward. (Kootenay Pass, BC)

 

 

1- Traction

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:

Ford-Traction-Control-System-TCS

 

1.2- 4×4

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.

We got the Thule/Konig XG-12 Pro snow chains (amzn.to/2pGCA6D) and we wrote a review here: faroutride.com/thule-snow-chains-review

Thule Konig XG-12 PRO Snow Chains (1200px)

 

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:

 

1.6- Maxtrax

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

MaxTrax-Heading-(1200x627)

 

2- Electricity

2.1- Consumption

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…

 

2.2- Charge

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…

Faroutride-Dirt-(5)

Gooseberry Mesa

 

 

 

 

… 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).
Winter Overnight Spot

Kootenay Pass, BC

 

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).

We use a “weather station” to monitor the temperature and humidity inside, outside, in the refrigerator and at the water pump. Buy from Amazon.

 

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.

Webasto Drying Boots

 

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

 

9- Conclusion

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

Faroutride Snow (7)

Rogers Pass, BC.

 

 

Thanks for reading! Cheers!

 

 

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ABOUT US

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!

15 comments

  1. Comment by Don Kane

    Don Kane Reply August 6, 2018 at 8:29 pm

    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

  2. Comment by Drew

    Drew Reply June 18, 2018 at 9:44 pm

    How do you shower in the winter, as I understand you only have an outdoor shower?

    • Comment by Antoine

      Antoine Reply June 19, 2018 at 12:49 am

      Most town have aquatic center; we just look online to find them. There is also truck stops but they’re super expensive.

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  5. Comment by Alex

    Alex Reply April 12, 2018 at 11:21 pm

    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?

    • Comment by Antoine

      Antoine Reply April 14, 2018 at 10:58 am

      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!

  6. Comment by Jameson (@jskierpx)

    Jameson (@jskierpx) Reply April 6, 2018 at 2:18 pm

    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.

    • Comment by Antoine

      Antoine Reply April 7, 2018 at 11:18 am

      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!

  7. Comment by Taco Otten

    Taco Otten Reply March 31, 2018 at 12:14 pm

    Great post. Can’t wait for next winter with ours.

    • Comment by Antoine

      Antoine Reply April 1, 2018 at 11:39 am

      🙂

  8. Comment by Simon

    Simon Reply March 31, 2018 at 4:22 am

    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!

    • Comment by Antoine

      Antoine Reply April 1, 2018 at 11:39 am

      The Webasto works fine for us, but thanks for the tip that might be useful!

      Have a good one!

  9. Comment by Chris

    Chris Reply March 30, 2018 at 1:24 pm

    Love it, thanks for all the tips and stoke!

    • Comment by Antoine

      Antoine Reply March 30, 2018 at 1:25 pm

      🙂

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