Science

Now’s the time to get your van-life ride ready for winter

With winter looming, van-lifers have one of two choices: park the rig for a few months and end the road trip season, or continue cruising through the cold. No matter which category you fall into, you’re here because you’re looking for information on how to winterize your camper.

If you’re staying put, you’ll need to ready your rig for several months of sitting, potentially in wet or freezing temperatures. If not, you’ll need to figure out how to keep your vehicle cozy as temperatures drop.

We’ll start by looking at how you can stay warm on the road, then provide a few essential tips for readying your van to hibernate for the winter.

Seal everything up tight

To help ensure your van retains as much heat as possible during cold winter nights, make sure there aren’t any spots where heat can leak out and cold air can slip in. This is also essential if you plan to store your van, as it prevents water from leaking in and causing mold and other issues.

The job is largely a matter of checking that your windows and doors are sealed properly. You should be able to see if the rubber around them has any wear or gaps, and you can also check for water leaks after it rains. If you find any holes, you can close them up with the window sealant available at any hardware store. For more severe problems, like large sections of missing rubber or no seal at all, consider replacing the rubber seals entirely. Depending on your vehicle, you may be able to do this yourself, but some seal brackets require specific tools and you may need help from a shop.

Cover the windows

Uncovered glass allows a lot of heat to seep through, so cover it up. The van life community’s preferred solution tends to be Reflectix, which is easy to cut to size and doubles as a window cover to provide privacy. This flexible insulation not only keeps heat inside your vehicle during the winter, but it also blocks the heat of the sun in the summer, so you can use the stuff year-round.

[Related: The safest ways to stay warm in a power outage]

The shiny aluminum surface, however, can make the atmosphere inside your rig feel a bit sterile and claustrophobic when it’s in place, so most people paint it to add a dash of color and make things feel homier. I recommend painting the exterior face black so your van will look less conspicuous when parked in an urban setting, then painting the interior side whatever color you enjoy most.

Insulate all around

Paneling the interior walls is a common way to improve a van’s aesthetics (you’ll feel less like you’re living in a car), but you can add insulation at the same time. This is easiest to do the first time you panel the interior, rather than waiting until you’ve put some miles on your rig. As you put the panels up, fill the space behind them with spray foam, boards of polystyrene foam, or even just recycled fabric. If you already have panels in place, you may have to take them down to get the job done.

The more insulation, the better, but keep in mind that every inch of insulation you add takes away an inch of livable interior space. Try to strike the right balance based on your vehicle’s design.

Get a carpet

Whether your camper’s floor is uncovered or you’ve layered on wood paneling, that surface will get cold and uncomfortable. Covering the floor with some sort of carpet will not only help retain heat, but it will offer a cozier surface for your feet, hands, knees, and anything else that touches the ground. Thicker is better, but a small area rug will do well in a pinch.

Use a quality sleeping bag

While a lot of van-lifers prefer to feel more at home by sleeping in a bed that has normal sheets, you may find you prefer a well-insulated sleeping bag when winter hits.

For moderate temperatures, I really like the duck down sleeping bag that Marmot made with the renowned fabric designer Pendleton. It looks and feels great, which helps make your van life feel less like typical camping. If you’re looking for a more spacious double-wide sleeping bag, the Kelty Tru.Comfort 20 is outstanding. For extreme cold, you’ll want to look for something with a cold rating of zero degrees Fahrenheit or lower, like the Kelty Mistral 0.

Set up a space heater

For most van-lifers, keeping warm on a day-to-day—and night-to-night—basis involves merely bundling up. For some, however, long nights without a source of heat can make the lifestyle unbearable. That’s where a space heater can become essential.

Space heaters tend to be an imperfect solution, however, because they require a constant source of fuel. Propane heaters are the most effective, but they require you to lug around a bunch of fuel, operate inconsistently at high altitudes, and some models have safety issues. Electric heaters offer more safety and function more reliably, but they suck up a lot of energy from your power station, and high-efficiency models won’t heat larger vans. And while there are some out there who take on the potentially difficult task of installing wood-burning stoves, doing so requires lots of space and can have safety issues. So it’s really about weighing pros and cons and choosing the option with the flaws that least discourage you.

If you’re looking for options, Lasko makes a portable space heater that won’t suck your battery dry too fast. The Mr. Heater Buddy is a popular propane option. And if you have the space and budget for it, Cubic has some solid wood stove setups.

How to prepare your van for storage

If you decide to park your van for the winter, first make sure there are no air or water leaks. I discussed this in more detail above, so if you skipped that section, go back and take a look. Otherwise, run through this checklist before you let it sit:

  • Test the engine coolant mix to ensure proper antifreeze levels. A ratio of equal parts coolant and water will work in most climates, but if you plan on parking in colder temperatures you can adjust that to 60/40.
  • Drain your plumbing system, if you have one, including the water tank, heater, and lines, to keep it from freezing and bursting. This water should be pretty clean, so feel free to dispose of it by watering plants or pouring it down a sewer drain.
  • Remove the vehicle battery and power station and store them someplace warm, or keep the battery plugged into a Battery Tender. Batteries can lose their charge when sitting for long periods, or become corroded if sitting in wet weather.
  • Store your rig in a garage or outdoors covered with a heavy tarp, if possible.
  • Check your van monthly for condensation, mold, pests, and other issues. Maintain it as necessary.




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