We wrote the first part of our winterization tips series while we were prepping for the cold temperatures to come. Now that winter is over, here’s a list of the things that worked best and some new winter van life tips we picked up along the way.
So rewind back to the fall when we set out for the mildest possible Canadian winter we could manage and headed for Vancouver Island. November, December and January had us laughing at how impossibly tame the coastal winter was until February came along and knocked us off of our high horses straight into a big ol’ pile of snow.
Needless to say, we thoroughly tested all of our van life winterization tips and discovered a bunch more good ones along the way. Let’s get cozy!
1. INSULATING EVERYTHING ISN’T ENOUGH
Although the Reflectix window inserts help tremendously (and are also going to be lifesavers in the scorching summer sun), cold air will still manage to creep its way in unless you’re totally airtight. Any older rig like ours is bound to have lots of little nooks and crannies where a draft can enter. We replaced a lot of the rubber seals around the doors and windows with new rubber weather stripping to try and block out the cold air as much as possible. We even added a Reflectix “wall” in front of the back doors to retain as much heat as possible around the bed. Of course we covered it in fabric so it doesn’t feel like we’re sleeping inside of a pizza delivery bag but at -20°C (-4°F), that doesn’t actually sound too bad.
You might also want to get a little area rug to make getting out of bed in the morning less painful and definitely up your wool socks game. Justin’s Nan in Newfoundland has hooked us up with some of the warmest slipper-like socks around and they’re awesome. If you don’t have a local grandma to knit you things, those funny looking down slippers are actually pretty great. They’re super warm and roll down into a tiny little pouch that you can take with you for overnight hikes or for just randomly whipping out at parties when your friend hasn’t paid their heating bill. Basically, even a cave of insulation isn’t going to keep you warm if it’s freezing outside so sometimes you might have to suck it up and go to bed with a toque on or wear a couple pairs of socks and long johns to be comfortable. And remember, snow is a great insulator so if you’re stationary for a few days, letting the snow pack onto your windows is actually better than trying to brush it all off.
2. MOLD IS REAL
Like we said in Part I, moisture prevention is just as important as trying to stay warm. Unless you’ve got an electrical hookup, a space heater is out of the question and the dry heat of a wood stove is not feasible in a lot of rigs – especially if you do any city/stealth camping. Propane heat creates moisture and when you’re in places with a damp winter (hello PNW), condensation is pretty much inevitable.
We got more of those dehumidifying beads at the dollar store and put one in every corner and every cupboard. They might not look like they’re doing much but we noticed a huge improvement in the more confined spaces like the storage boxes under the bed. Just make sure to not let them tip over and spill their juice out because it makes for a greasy mess (yea, that happened). But most importantly, a bit of airflow is key in preventing condensation from building all while saving you from carbon monoxide poisoning – a win-win!
Unfortunately despite all of our dehumidifying efforts, we still had to deal with a bit of mold. Mainly in tight spaces that don’t get a lot of ventilation and on the panels of our back doors that we hardly opened, we found small circles of black mildew like you often get in your shower. It was gross and as much as we’d love to say we found some natural solution that magically made it disappear, we used a bleach-based bathroom cleaner and eradicated it as best as we could and as quickly as possible. Yea, it smelled like a swimming pool and wasn’t good for our skin but it did the job and also worked as a preventive for regrowth in the areas that we sprayed it.
3. POCKET WARMERS ARE KING
Sure, hot water bottles can be great. They’re reusable, cheap and work well…for 3-4 hours. By morning all you have is a super cold bottle of water dressed up in an ugly sweater laying in your bed that you definitely don’t want to be cuddling anymore. When we discovered the HotHands Super Warmers, our winter sleeping situation became a lot more comfortable. Technically you’re not supposed to sleep with them on but we put them under our fitted sheet (flannel sheets = huge upgrade) at foot-level and didn’t look back. So yes, they’re evil one time use chemical packets but we got a 10-pack for $10 at Walmart and I don’t think we would have been able to get through some of our coldest nights without them. Zippo sells refillable butane warmers that work in a similar way and would be better for longer-term use but these worked great in a pinch. Did I mention they stay warm for 18 hours?!?! Ok, it’s probably actually closer to 12 but that’s still pretty fantastic for $1.
4. BE PREPARED FOR WORSE
Nobody wants to be in a situation where you’re stuck in the snow or slipping down a hill but it does happen. If you think you’ve got the gear for the current conditions, get the gear for if it gets worse. With all of the forest road driving that we do, we were not nearly prepared for what the road conditions had in store. Winter tires are a given but do you have chains or a shovel to dig yourself out if you get stuck? We learned this the hard way after not bringing chains from Calgary and getting into a couple of really sticky situations. Take, for example, when we were at the final hill getting into Twin Lake and got REALLY stuck in some unbelievably wet snow that took us 2 hours to dig ourselves out of. All we had was our collapsible poop shovel and an ice scraper that saved us from sliding into the ditch. Long story short, even if you don’t think you’ll need a shovel, bring one because you won’t regret it when you do. Tire recovery boards or traction mats are also not a bad thing to throw in the back since you can use them in the snow and sand.
5. LOOK INTO A CHINESE DIESEL HEATER
These things have become really popular lately and seem to be an all-around more efficient alternative to a propane furnace. If you have a diesel engine, you can route the fuel to come straight from there or use the auxiliary tank for your designated heat supply. The fan doesn’t draw a ton of power from your battery bank and diesel creates a much drier heat than propane. They’re also quiet and easy to install. We don’t have one currently but if we stay in Canada next winter, we’re definitely going to get one.
**2019 UPDATE: We got a diesel heater! Total game changer. Nice, dry heat that heats the space up super quickly and doesn’t take too big of a toll on our battery. Yes, now we have to get three different types of fuel (gasoline engine, propane stove + fridge, diesel heater) but it’s totally worth it. 1000% recommend.
6. DON’T RELY ON SOLAR
Installing a solar system has been the best decision we’ve made along our entire van life journey. When it’s summer and you can charge your laptop and camera while enjoying the breeze of a fan, life is good. In the winter however, the limits of your battery bank will really be tested. We’d go days without sun and barely manage to absorb any rays even on the clearer days because the sun sits so low in the sky and is only up for a few hours. We have our alternator tied in to our batteries so they charge while we drive and we’d highly recommend this to anyone looking into a solar setup, whether you’re in a cool climate or not. Our old propane furnace draws a lot of power and even with our new batteries, it hogs all of our electricity in the winter so we rely on portable battery packs to keep our phones topped up. We’re extremely mindful of how much power we’re consuming and usually don’t stay in one spot for more than 3 days so we have managed fine with our current setup but a generator definitely wouldn’t be a bad thing to add into the mix. These Honda ones are efficient and relatively quiet and would make for a great back-up power supply.
7. BE PREPARED FOR THE WINTER BLUES
As we said in Part I, winter is only fun if you’re into winter activities like skiing and snowboarding. For the rest of us, the short days with little sunlight can really get to your head. Just like in a regular house, you’ll have to deal with spending a lot more time inside. That can be really tricky when you’re in a van because it’s such a small space and it takes a lot more effort to keep cozy than a regular home where you can take a hot bath or just veg out and watch TV in a Snuggie.
That being said, try to seek out other indoor spaces you can hangout at. We often seek refuge at bars and restaurants but that can get expensive so look into local museums, libraries, or book stores where you can hangout for a while and not have to worry about your propane levels or keeping your battery topped up. If you’ve got friends in the area you’re in, maybe you can hangout at their place and even spend the night if the weather is really bad, or hey, why not splash out on an Airbnb if you’re feeling fancy. You should also put effort into the little things you can do to warm yourself up from the inside like drinking hot drinks and making soup for dinner. Your beach bod can wait when it’s super cold and you just want some comfort food.
All in all, winter is a challenging season whether you live in a van, an RV, or even a house. Cost of living inevitably increases with heating costs and supplementary entertainment to keep yourself sane. While a tank of propane (35L) usually lasts us at least a month, we have to refill every two weeks in the winter and factor that into our budget. Some nights you might even need to plug in your block heater to make sure that your van will start the next morning. There’s no denying that going south is the easier option but we aim to show that surviving the winter in a van or RV is possible with the right preparation – even in Canada. Who knows where we’ll end up next year but with two van dwelling winters under our belt, I think we’ll be A-OK wherever we choose.