How to Survive Winter in a Van

Dinosaurs were pretty terrible at managing the cold, so anytime you find yourself driving into a snowbank just remember, the carnosaurus would have handled it much worse. Then you can feel superior about your mistake specie’s brainpower.


Full disclosure about our winter situation: We do not spend 100% of our time in the van every single day of the winter. During parts of November to January we don’t have to do big long stints in the van for work and can instead operate from a temporary “home base” with family or friends while we satellite back and forth for shorter stints.

Although we’ve experienced temperatures of down to -50 (looking at YOU, Yellowknife), when we’ve slept in the van overnight the coldest we’ve had to deal with is about -16 which is practically nothing by Canadian standards. But it’s still cold enough to freeze stuff solid and make you acutely aware that vans are made of metal so I’m going to outline the steps we’ve taken to avoid becoming human-sicles. This is sort of a big topic so sit back and enjoy the read.

Because reading is preferable to shoveling.

The first step we took during construction was to have the interior professionally spray foam insulated. Walls, ceiling, floor, every nook and cranny. Too many nooks and crannies! It’s almost impossible to replace tail lights now.

Controlling Heat Loss
No one likes leakage. My amazing mother-in-law created custom window coverings for the driver, passenger, and side doors. She located materials used specifically for RVs that acts as an insulator and is waterproof. The coverings attach to the metal window frames with rare earth magnets. We use a Reflectix sunscreen for the front window and seal off the living space from the cab with a curtain. Overall it’s pretty effective for what we need. The first winter we were losing heat through the back doors like crazy but now we’ve had an insulated wall built so that we can open the doors from the outside and get what we need without exposing the living space. It helps for bugs too!

Propane Heat

Propane and propane accessories.

Propane is cheap and allows us to park independently from a building. The downside is sometimes it’s hard to find a supplier because we travel to such remote areas.

Electric Heat
We have an electric heater with a 750 watt and 1500 watt setting. The wattage we use depends on where we are plugged in because the 1500w setting has been known to blow fuses. The 750w setting is safe for all buildings but there’s not as much output so blankets need to be worn and even then it gets chilly. On the plus side we’ve never had to pay for electricity, the unit itself cost $30, and we can use it at the same time as the propane heater. We’ve relied on propane so much that I can’t comment on the limitations of the electrical heater’s 1500w setting because it’s never been tested.

We bought a Honda 2000w generator thinking that we’d need to trickle charge the van’s engine battery. We’ve never had to use it for that purpose and hopefully never will because we’ve learned that it doesn’t like to function on cold mornings. Instead we’ve been using it to charge the van’s house batteries to give our solar panel a break, especially when it’s been overcast for a while. Stupidly, when it’s been cold outside we’ve had to bring the generator into a house to warm it up before being able to use it to charge the van’s house batteries. Still a worthwhile purchase though.

Original Dodge Sprinter Heater

The van’s original heater is something we only use when driving. It’s too far away from the living area to be practical and it would be environmentally irresponsible to idle overnight.

Quilts and Blankets
Knowing that we would be on the road shortly after getting married, my mom made us an amazing queen sized quilt with wool and flannel layers. When it’s folded onto itself it fits the van bed and is amazingly warm. We top it off with another quilt from E’s mom and sometimes add a sleeping bag. If you wrap yourself up you can pretend you’re an enchilada. Whilst hanging around on top of the bed we have one of those old school wool Kenworth blankets that I got from a thrift store for $2. I originally bought it for my cat but don’t worry, I’m not some sort of blanket-stealing monster, he has plenty of other options for warmth at his foster parents’ home.

Look how happy he is!

Winter Gear Essentials

  • Snow shovel
  • Extra long heavy duty jumper cables
  • Block heater
  • -40 heavy duty outdoor electrical cord
  • -40 window washing fluid
  • Ice scraper (handheld and one-piece extendo)
  • Snow brush
  • Winter tires
  • CAA gold membership (for that snowbank you hit.)
  • Sheepskin seat covers (thanks Mom and D!)
  • Headlamps
  • Floor mat
  • Slippers

Winter Clothing
This is what I consider my cold weather essentials:

  • Army surplus wool socks
  • Canadian army surplus jacket
  • Acton brand boots (lightweight and good to -50)
  • Wool toque with earflaps
  • Goose down mitts and wool glove liners
  • Alpaca wool scarf
  • Alpaca wool sweater
  • Merino wool tank top

And when it’s really, really cold I put on a base layer of Merino wool (leggings + long sleeve top), plus a fleece and two layers of socks. I call it being in “elf mode.” My layering record so far has been seven tops and three pants.

And this is what E considers his cold weather essentials:
A jacket, sweatshirt, and fleece. A hat. Gloves. Shoes.

Rest stops and provincial parks are closed and gated off this time of year *mutters grumpily.* Luckily we can usually park and plug in at a client’s place and failing that we find an isolated area and rely on the propane heater.

Block Heater
If we can’t plug in at a client’s we make an arrangement with someone nearby so that we can get a boost in the morning. Vandwelling convention seems to support stealth parking (showing up late and leaving early), but for this and other reasons we’ve hardly ever had to do it.

As stated above, many rest stops in remote areas are closed in the winter which I find completely counter intuitive and annoying as hell. But if we’re in a bind the van is equipped with an RV toilet. In terms of showering, provincial parks are gated off and lakes are frozen solid so we have to employ the birdbath method of cleaning and I carefully wash my hair in the sink. It’s crude but it works.

The Fridge
RV fridges were never meant to be put through these sort of temperature changes! In a previous post I mentioned that the freezer will “fridge”, and the fridge will end up freezing things. It can be frustrating and it means that we have to shop, cook, and meal plan differently for part of the year.

Winters are by far the suckiest time for living in a van. It’s cold, it’s messy, you need to baby the vehicle, and you can’t go frolicking about outside whenever you want. It can also feel a bit more claustrophobic and cabin-fever-y because a lot more time is spent in the van itself. But at the same time the discomfort doesn’t last forever and it’s all a learning process.

As our experiment of vandwelling continues we’re considering whether it’s viable to spend part of the winter somewhere warm and cheap instead. In January of 2016 we spent three weeks at a friend’s in the Caribbean and that was a decision I do not regret at all. It was awesome.

Would you prefer this…
…or this?

Admittedly the snowman’s pretty cute though.