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How to Survive a Freezing Night in a Van

Because it's hard to escape the cold.

By: Sara Sheehy + Save to a List

If you want to meet more vanlifers than you knew existed, spend some time in the desert in the winter. Unlike the summer, where everyone spreads out across the United States, in the winter everyone congregates in the southwest.

The southwest has warm weather and sunny days...usually. It also has violent windstorms and nights that can dip well below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. After dozens of below freezing nights I’ve learned a thing or two about surviving in a chilly van.

Run the Heater (Safely) If You Have One

The first line of defense against the cold is a heater. Portable propane heaters, such as the Little Buddy, pump out serious heat that can warm a van in no time. It is crucial that you crack a window to allow for ventilation when using a propane heater (and follow any other manufacturer instructions). Keep it far away from pets and gear. 

Put Reflectix In Your Windows

Reflectix is essentially a reflective form of bubble wrap. Many campers attach it to their windows to keep sun out during the day but it is also an excellent insulator to keep heat in at night. You can buy rolls of Reflectix at most hardware and RV supply stores and cut it to size. I attach it to my windows with suction cups.

Most vehicles will heat up like a greenhouse with a little bit of sun. Remove any window coverings as soon as the sun is up to start to collect natural warmth inside the van.

Break Out All Your Down

If you don’t have a heater (or if you have a heater and a leaky van, like me) rely on your down. Vests and jackets are particularly useful, but don’t shy away from crawling into your sleeping bag to play a game of cards. 

Even if you don’t wear them to bed, keep your hat and mittens inside your sleeping bag so they are nice and warm in the morning. Pro tip: heat water to just below boiling, pour it in a tightly sealed Nalgene bottle, and bring it into your sleeping bag for a boost of extra warmth. 

Keep Pets Warm, Too

My twelve year old dog needs help keeping warm when the nights get cold. I strap him into his down jacket and move his bed closer to mine so I can hear if he’s restless in the night. On the super cold nights he hops into bed with me, snuggling in for warmth. 

Watch Your Pipes

If you have running water in your van, and it drops below freezing, your pipes and water pump are in danger of freezing. Open your low water drain to clear out as much water as possible from the pipes and open your cabinets to encourage warm air to circulate. I’ve found that if the temperature hovers at freezing my pipes are fine, but anything below they need special attention (such as draining all water from the system). The temperature tolerance will vary from van to van. If you’re going to be in freezing weather for an extended period of time, get your van winterized.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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