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!
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:
Remember that turning off the TCS is a temporary measure; don’t turn it off for highway driving even in winter conditions.
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.)
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…
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):
Knowing that MORE WEIGHT = MORE TRACTION, we’re glad our van is RWD!
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:
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 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):
- Choose your favorite tune and crank the volume to 11.
- Deactivate the TCS.
- Use the manual mode to prevent shifting during the climb.
- Keep the RPM steady throughout the climb.
- If loosing traction, don’t release the gas. Keep going so the LSD can work its magic! You want to keep your momentum here!
- Some fishtailing might occurs; it’s fine as long as you can stay in control.
- No luck? Time to put the snow chains on…
2- Staying Warm
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, no carbon monoxide is released inside the vehicle (safe).
- Because the combustion is external, no moisture is added to the ambiant air (dry heat). The relative humidity stays at around 30-40% inside the van and outdoor gear dries fast!
- 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 the Propex. We found that the Webasto produces a little more heat too. You might be interested in:
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).
Prevent the van from freezing at all time
WE NEVER LET THE INTERIOR OF THE VAN FREEZE. Indeed the plumbing would crack, the walls would be painted with booze, our food supplies and household products (liquid dishwashing soap) would become unusable, and so on.
To prevent the van from freezing, no need to run the heater 24/7 (it is not recommended for gasoline/diesel heater as this could lead to carbon buildup issues. It wouldn’t hurt a Propex heater though.). At night or when we go out skiing, we turn off the heater for a few hours (the shutoff can be delayed using the timer feature of the Webasto Multicontrol HD) as it take a while before the temperature to drop near freezing level. We program the heater to start a few hours later, thanks to the programmable controller (Webasto Multicontrol HD). How long can we leave the heater off before it freezes? There is no specific answer; it depends on your insulation and layout, the outside temperature, if the sun is out or not, etc. Don’t worry, you’ll learn and adapt!
2.3- Insulated Window Covers
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:
4- Electrical & Solar
4.1- Daily Consumption
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):
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)
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
- Wave Pool
- And of course the SHOWERS!
Not all the Aquatic Centers have all the amenities; check out online to find out.
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.