Tips for Living in a Van in Winter

Living in a van year-round can be a great experience, but van life in the winter requires a few extra considerations. Learn about them here!

When most people visualize van life, they imagine summer road trips, camping near the beach, and spending ample time outdoors in nature. But what if you plan on doing van life full-time, even during the winter months? In this lesson, I’ll talk about living in the van during the winter and how to winterize it if your van is going to sit still in the colder months.

In Module 2, we discussed insulation, heaters, and how to winterize plumbing, but I’ll elaborate a little more on that here. I’ll also share some of the obstacles you might encounter in winter and solutions that make van life a bit easier in cold weather.

Challenges of Living in a Van During the Winter

Traveling in the van during winter has different challenges than warmer months. Here are some things to keep in mind.

1. Cold Temperatures & Less Daylight

It can get very cold in winter, and it could snow depending on where you go. If you’re into winter sports like skiing and snowboarding, this is your season! But you need to be prepared to stay warm in your van once the sun goes down with blankets, insulated window coverings, and probably also a heater. Once your windows are covered, cooking hot meals inside the van can also bring the temperature up real quick.

Since the sun goes down early in the winter, the early evening can be a good time to take care of some computer work, catch up on books, play games and music, or pick up a new hobby. You’ll be staying inside a lot more than you did in the summer so finding ways to entertain yourself will stave off cabin fever.

Living in a van year-round can be a great experience, but van life in the winter requires a few extra considerations. Learn about them here!

2. Many Roads and Campgrounds are Closed for the Winter

Another thing to know about van life in the winter is that a lot of parks, campgrounds, and roads are closed throughout the cold, snowy months. Some are closed all season long and others close periodically, so check with the local offices to make sure you’ll be able to get in and out when you need to.

3. Winter Driving Can Require Special Gear

If you do end up adventuring on snowy roads in your van, consider investing in chains and MaxTrax recovery boards. The recovery boards come with a hefty price tag but have raving reviews from off-roaders saying these boards will bail you out anytime you get stuck in snow or sand.

Living in a van year-round can be a great experience, but van life in the winter requires a few extra considerations. Learn about them here!

4. Van Plumbing Needs to be Winterized

Winterizing Plumbing for Year-Round Travel

Year-round traveling in a van is an awesome experience, but it requires some additional steps to make sure your build stays intact. Specifically the plumbing. Just like in a regular house, it’s imperative that you prevent frozen pipes in the van.

  • If you’ll be using the van daily and your plumbing is inside, then all you need to do to protect your pipes is make sure the temperature never drops below freezing in the van. This might mean keeping the heater on 24/7 even when you’re not inside the van.
  • If you have water pipes running outside of the van, then you’ll need to wrap them with pipe insulation and heat tape, at a minimum, to prevent freezing.

As I mentioned in the lesson on van water systems, if you know that you want to use your van throughout the winter, then you should plan accordingly during your conversion by keeping all of your pipes inside.

Living in a van year-round can be a great experience, but van life in the winter requires a few extra considerations. Learn about them here!

Winterizing Plumbing for Winter Storage

If you won’t be using your van much during the winter and it will be parked in sub-freezing temps, the best bet is to completely drain the plumbing system, including the tanks, pipes, and water heater. If necessary, you can add a non-toxic antifreeze to the pipes which is specifically made for RVs and boats. That should keep everything in good condition throughout the winter.

You’ll also want to completely empty out and clean your grey and black water tank if you have them. Otherwise, waste will harden onto the tank over the winter and make for a pretty gross chore once the spring thaw comes.

Winter Alternatives for Van Lifers

If you don’t dig the idea of being cold, especially if you’ll be without a heater, you can always head south for the winter. A lot of travelers move with the seasons and head south to Arizona, Mexico, Texas, and Florida.

It’s a good time of year to see other parts of the country that are often too hot to enjoy in the summer months.

Living in a van year-round can be a great experience, but van life in the winter requires a few extra considerations. Learn about them here!

Resources Section

If you want to jump around to other lessons in Module 4, here are other van life topics we cover (more coming soon!):

Go back to course homepage

Have you spent a winter in your van? What was your experience? Share your questions, tips, and experiences down in the comments, and make sure to sign up for course updates here.

Written by Kristen Bor

Hey there! My name is Kristen, and this is my outdoor blog. I discovered the power of the outdoors in my 20s, at the time I needed it most. Now 15 years later, prioritizing that critical connection with nature continues to improve my life. My goal at Bearfoot Theory is to empower you with the tools and advice you need to responsibly get outside.

4 comments on “Tips for Living in a Van in Winter

  1. Those considering four-season use of your van, and/or folks whose vans are located in regions that include below-freezing temperatures have important design decisions to make regarding their van design. First and foremost is the issue of what happens when the temperature drops below freezing even for a few hours. It only takes a single below freezing event to do serious damage to any systems with water in them. Once those systems are damaged, undoing the damage is typically a non-trivial operation. So, if for example, your solution is to ensure that the temperature of your water-bearing systems never freeze because you heat them, then you need to have 100% confidence that you never lose power or run out of fuel to power your heater. And you need to remember to turn the heater on and keep it going 24/7 in the period when cold is a possibility. The Internet and YouTube are rife with sad tails of folks whose van plumbing froze despite their best intentions. The alternative we chose, is to design a van that does not have freezable internal plumbing. (Or to be a little more accurate) who’s internal plumbing could freeze without catastrophic effect.) Thus, we have no fresh or gray water tanks, but use swappable Jerry-cans (five 6-gallon plastic fresh water Jerrycans, and one 6-gallon gray-water Jerrycan). Similarly, our shower system uses a fill-when-using bladder. We drain our showers into a bucket placed under the van and then disposed of appropriately. The net effect is that we never have to worry about freezing damage to our plumbing systems. [All that said, we left filtered water in our 30-cup Zero-Water dispenser, it froze one night, and bingo, trashed dispenser.]

    1. Was your heater in the cabin not on when your Zero water dispenser froze? I can’t imagine that happening if you kept the inside of the cabin at 50-60 degrees for overnight sleeping…just curious!

  2. Hi Kristen, first, thank you for all your helpful information to consider for those of us planning and building our DIY vans for van life. I do have a question for you – I have been reading that many propane cooktops won’t work above a certain altitude, and I was wondering about that, as we decided to use propane as we love cooking with gas, over electric/induction, but now we are concerned that even in summer if we go above 8000′, we may not have a working stove. Any thoughts on this? Thank you, and happy travels.

    1. Hi Brenda – we’ve used our propane stove above 8,000ft and haven’t had an issue. I know some people report challenges with propane at altitude, but it’s not across the board.

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