Living in a van in cold weather brings its own set of challenges. We learned this first-hand as we ventured into Utah this year just as the temperatures hit freezing. Here are ten ways we’ve learned to stay warm in our camper van during the winter:
1. Insulate against the cold
If you’re still building out your van, don’t skimp on your insulation! The more you insulate the better. Good insulation helps you stay cooler in the blazing heat and warmer when temps drop below freezing. In our build, we used a combination of polystyrene foam (those big boards), recycled denim and spray foam. Get the highest R-value materials you can, and choose the maximum amount of insulation available in your build: ie if you can fit 1.5 inches of insulation don’t go with just an inch!
2. Cover your windows
Our RV, Tezarae has large wrap-around windows, which we love for the (nearly) 360-degree views. However, with all this glass, when it’s cold outside it’s also cold inside! So if you’re planning to winter in your camper van, make sure you cover up all of your windows.
We have curtains on our side windows and use Reflectix (it’s the silver bubble-wrap looking stuff) underneath them when we know it’ll be cold at night to keep us even warmer. We used the long roll, but you can also buy a shorter one if you have smaller windows. We both rebelled a bit before we got this stuff (we don’t love the aesthetic), but after we did we instantly noticed a 10-degree (at least) difference at night. Trust me, 30 degrees is still cold but it’s way nicer than 20. If you don’t have extra funds to spend on reflectix, consider covering the windows with a sleeping bag, extra fleece blanket or a towel. It makes a difference. I’ve also heard that you can buy those “sunshades” from the dollar store, which are similar to the reflectix.
3. Get carpets (or honestly, consider warmer materials)
If you have wood or laminate flooring, it’ll be f*#&%g frosty in the morning, so it’s worth picking up a carpet to keep your toes comfortable. We have a small, white fur (super plush) one from Ikea, but really anything will do.
If you’re still in the building stage, and plan to spend a lot of time in cold-weather in your van, you might want to think twice before you decide on a wood or laminate floor (and run far, far away from tiles and ceramic!). Consider materials like carpeting, cork, which is naturally insulated (although expensive and not as durable), and vinyl with a thicker underlayment, which warms up faster and has the added bonus of being softer underfoot.
4. Wear layers and a hat
You’ve heard it before: you lose a lot of heat through your head, so it’s not a bad idea to wear a cozy hat when you hit colder temps. On cold nights, I wear my beanie to bed.
You may also notice your extremities will get extra-cold (that’s because your body opts to keep your vital organs warmer first and then the fingers and toes.. thanks science!). So when you head into the cold, make sure you have thick wool socks, boots, or slippers. We like down booties because they pack down small if you want to store them and can also be used for winter-camping.
Finally, you need to make sure you’re wearing the *right* layers. Materials matter! Wool is an ideal base layer (which doesn’t get stinky as quickly as polyester), and it wicks away moisture if you end up getting too toasty. Synthetic layers are also good. Save your cotton!
5. Bring your sleeping bag to bed
At first, we just threw our down sleeping quilt on top of our other blanket. But, here’s a trick if you want to stay extra toasty: sleep with the down against your body. That means, move your sleeping bags *under* your other blankets, and you’ll be instantly warmer. (We don’t have a down comforter so if you do this won’t apply.)
If you don’t mind sacrificing a little electricity, a heated blanket is a game changer. This blanket from Trillium is great as it has a safety timer with auto shut off and reset button.
Wool blankets are another great option for winter. Weighing in at 4.4 lbs, this blanket will keep you toasty. It’s also quite comfortable, soft, and non-scratchy.
A 0-degree sleeping bag will do wonders. If you don’t mind being slightly restricted when you sleep, this will keep you warm in incredibly low temperatures.
6. Keep yourself well-hydrated and fed
Matt taught me this one when we were cold-weather camping: if you’re cold, eating can help! We don’t always eat warm meals on the road, but when it gets cold we sure appreciate a hot dinner. Again, you can keep it simple with things like soup and chili. Whatever you decide to eat, mix in a tablespoon or two of butter or coconut oil – your body will slow-burn the fat and help you stay warmer longer. We also keep a double-wall insulated thermos of hot water on hand for coffee or tea. We usually fill up our kettle in the morning and pour the leftover water into our thermos for the day. At night, it’s still warm (not always hot), and it takes less time to heat up to boiling. Added bonus: this saves fuel too!
7. Oh the difference a space heater can make
We arrived in Moab just in time for a cold front to hit (meaning it dropped into the teens at night). We’ve heard about the “Buddy” heaters from other RVers and vanlifers but this was the push we needed. Luckily the local hardware store had a Mr. Heater Little Buddy in stock.
The Little Buddy doesn’t keep us toasty, but it’s just enough to cut the chill in the air in the morning as we jump out of bed or at night as we’re cooking dinner or brushing our teeth. We don’t recommend (and neither does Mr. Buddy) running this over-night, and technically you should also vent your van when you have this running! Be safe kids!
If we were to purchase another one we’d probably opt for something a bit more powerful like the regular Portable Mr. Buddy for only about $50 more. (Bonus: you can hook the larger one up to your refillable propane tank versus the small 1L “coleman” style ones.)
Or, if you’re planning to be in cold-weather for extended periods of time, consider installing a permanent heater into your van. A few folks we’ve met along the way had diesel-powered ones that were super efficient and made it very toasty inside. We’ve also heard good things about heaters outside of the Buddy series, and some people have had issues with the Buddy ones, so you’ll get mixed reviews, but if you’re going from zero heat to some heat like us, the power of a small heater will feel like a huge win!
8. Don’t forget about your plumbing!
This might not apply to all of you, but if you have plumbing and are headed into cold weather, don’t forget about your pipes, especially your external and non-insulated pipes. If you can, it’s a good plan to drain these pipes fully before the weather hits freezing. We live in luxury with our running water, 30-gallon fresh-water tank and on-demand hot water heater. But we had no idea that these might be damaged if it got below freezing at night, especially our on-demand hot water heater, which is stored on the outside of our van. It sure isn’t fun to wake up and realize your perfectly installed hot water heater has probably exploded due to the freezing overnight temperatures, and will need to be replaced. Learn from our mistakes!
9. Plan to spend more time indoors
Usually colder weather also means shorter days. When we chase winter, we tend to spend more time indoors. Check out your local library, cozy bookshop, cute cafe, gym, co-op or even Whole Foods (we’ve spent a few hours at McDonald’s in a pinch since it was the only spot open late!). Your mileage may vary but you usually don’t have to spend a lot to hang out (as long as you’re not obnoxious). Either way, a few dollars and you’ll have free heat (and probably wifi). Consider it an investment in your warmth. Sometimes, we’ll stay here until it’s almost time to sleep. Then, we head outside and get under the blankets (or IRL: drive to the spot we’ll be staying that night, put all of our window covers on, and then scramble under the blankets as fast as we can for a cuddle!).
10. Move somewhere warmer
Okay this one is a bit of a throw-away. But, isn’t part of the reason we’re doing this whole #vanlife thing so that we can move where we want when we want? If the cold weather is getting you down, head somewhere warmer. That’s a big reason why you’ll find so many US-based vanlifers and RVers in Arizona, Texas, Florida and even all the way into Baja, Mexico in the winter (same applies in Europe, where you’ll likewise see vanlifers head to warmer climes in droves during the winter). Vandwelling is nicer when you can use the outdoors as your living room, and that’s definitely a bit easier in moderate weather.
Living in a van in cold weather isn’t for everyone. Honestly, I don’t know how you full-time cold-weather vandwellers do it! I’m always looking for more advice. What tips did I miss? Let me know in the comments below.