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The Winter Vanlife Survival Guide

How to thrive in the cold.

By: Sara Sheehy + Save to a List

The first night I spent in a freezing van was a mistake. I had been diligently moving south as the season turned from fall to winter, never spending a night in temperatures below 40 degrees. But as I traveled through northern Arizona, I had a problem. I had never seen the Grand Canyon. And I really wanted to.

"I can handle the cold, it's only one night," I thought, as I pulled into a campground and started to make dinner. When the temperature dropped to the single digits outside — and hovered around 32 degrees inside — I regretted my decision. 

It wasn't the best night's sleep I've ever had. Still, I survived the experience and got to explore the Grand Canyon on a blissfully uncrowded, abjectly cold day. Was it worth it? Yes. Did I make some changes to my winter vanlife routine? Definitely. 

Here's how to survive winter nights in your van.

Insulate (Permanently or Temporarily)

The best way to make it through winter nights is to set up your van so that it will keep out the cold and hold in the heat. 

If you have the resources to do so, insulate your walls. Foam board and sheep wool are popular ways to do this, but both require you to strip your van down the studs, so to speak, and invest the time and money to insulate behind your walls. This is the best solution, and one that anyone prepping for long-term vanlife should consider.

If this isn't in your budget or timeline, there are still things you can do that will help out in the winter. Buy a roll of reflective foil insulation and cut pieces to fit your windows. As soon as you stop for the night, place the insulation in your windows and draw your curtains to help to keep heat inside.

Fill any holes you have in your van (this is a good idea to do regardless), and consider hanging a thick blanket over areas that leak heat (door entries, the pass-through to your cab, etc.). Pile up pillows or blankets against walls where you sleep or hang out to put another barrier between yourself and the outdoors.

Get a Portable Heater

If your van doesn't have a heater for the living area, get a portable heating unit that runs on propane, like a Mr. Heater Buddy. These little heaters pack a serious punch and can warm up the interior of a van in no time.

They come with a few caveats, though. Portable propane heaters should never be run overnight or while unattended. They are best for turning on while you're hanging in your van before bed or when you wake up and start making your coffee. They always need to be vented, so you'll have to crack a window for proper airflow. Also, keep them far (far) away from pets.

Get All the Down

I love down at all times of the year, but in the winter, in my van, it's essential. Not only do I sleep under a down blanket, but I put another one on top of my mattress for extra insulation. On a really cold night, I'll snuggle into a down sleeping bag between my layers of down comforter, too (that gets super toasty...beware if you're a warm sleeper!).

Down jackets are perfect for warming up in the morning or evening, and a down vest keeps my core warm while I cook meals.

I'm sure it goes without saying, but always keep a winter hat, a Buff, and gloves handy, too. 

Watch the Weather

Apart from keeping yourself warm while you're in your van, you'll want to make sure you can get your van where you want it to go. Keep an eye on the weather for incoming snowstorms, rainstorms, and any freeze/thaw cycles that may impede your ability to get to — or get out of — a campsite.

Have a realistic understanding of what your van is capable of. A four-wheel-drive rig may be able to get out of a backcountry camp spot with a couple inches of snow on the ground, but a two-wheel-drive minivan may not. Err on the safe side and head for a welcoming parking lot or in-town campsite when the weather looks rough. And always carry extra food or water, just in case.

Eat Warm Meals

Especially if you're active during the days (I see you, ski-bum vanlifers), make sure you're fueling your body and replenishing the calories you spent. Drink plenty of water, too. Staying adequately fed and hydrated can make all the difference on those cold nights.

Apart from staying healthy, warm meals feed the soul, too. It may be cold outside, but that pot of freshly cooked chili is comforting on the inside.

Winter vanlife has some unique struggles, but so does vanlife in general. If you're already committed to the lifestyle of traveling on your own path, slightly outside of the mainstream, then the challenges of winter in a van are well within your grasp. Get out there. Have fun.

All photos, including the cover photo, by Sara Sheehy

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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