August 18, 2017
So you want to spend a winter in a van? There is no doubt that the long, cold Canadian winters will be a handicap for people wanting to live the #vanlife. There are several reasons why spending a winter in the north, living out of your Westfalia (or any van) is a little less than ideal, but there is plenty of great about it too, especially if you are a skier, snowboarder, ice climber or other winter sport enthusiast. With the little bit of experience we have, I intend to give you some tips and information to help you decide and plan for this epic adventure.
HAVE A REASON:
Winter van life is hard. It is cold, moist and a lot of work. Everything about it is less fun and a bigger challenge then in the summer. If you don’t have a reason for spending the winter in the cold, head south and enjoy the warmth and sun.
If you do have a reason, like skiing or other outdoor pursuits that requires you to be in the snow for, you will be able to make it work. You will be motivated and stoked to spend the winter in your van, and you need to be or else you will likely find yourself running for the cover of a warm bed.
There are a lot of similarities between winter camping and winter van life. It simply takes more gear and more space than the equivalent summer adventure. If your van is already jammed with summer clothes, you won’t be able to fit what you need for winter clothes in. They take more space. You need long johns, sweaters, down jackets, thicker socks and so on. We ended up shipping our summer clothes back to our parents house. That is just how much more space it all takes up.
WINTER SLEEPING BAG:
Staying warm at night may be the most important thing. Running your engine at night is dangerous and very fuel intensive. Invest in the best winter sleeping bag you can. We use Big Agnes’ Roxy Ann 15 and Lost Ranger 15 mommy sleeping bags. We zip them together so that we share body heat. We also use fleece blankets inside as they feel warmer and more comfortable when you first get in at night. We also wear onesies at night and add a layer on the coldest ones.
MOISTURE AND MOLD BUILD UP:
This is probably the biggest problem. There is no way around it in a van. Your body gives off a lot of moisture while sleeping and it builds up inside your van. Everything becomes damp and eventually mold begins to build. You need to stay on top of it. First, we make sure to open a window when we cook and we crack one when we sleep too. Anytime we drive, we crank the heat up to try to dry the van out. Our 2.1L water-cooled engine can put out enough heat, even on cold days, that at full blast while driving, are down to our t-shirts. It is a different story for those air-cooled vans, so be warned!
We use a mold control product and scrub brush in the van. We keep on it and try to stop it before it starts. Select your mold control product carefully as many of them contain bleach, which is less than ideal.
If you fail to keep on top of the mold, it could cause a respiratory infection that could land you in the hospital. Not much fun.
This is what has hit us the hardest and one thing we didn’t quite expect. The summer is amazing. In many parts of Canada it is bright until 9 or 10pm. You can end a day of driving around 5pm, have dinner ready by 6pm and still have time to go for an evening adventure, watch the sunset, have a campfire as the stars come out then crawl into your van being a happy camper.
But in the winter, most parts of Canada will see the sun set around 4pm. It makes for a long cold evening if you don’t have a plan. In fact, Tracy and I found ourselves crawling into the sleeping bag shortly after dinner many nights, either out of boredom or because it was the only way to keep warm.
We downloaded some tablet games to play in the sleeping bag, but by 8pm we would be sleeping. It really cuts into productivity and relaxation time.
If you charge batteries via solar panels (most van lifers do), these shorter days will also impact your power supply. Not only do you have to keep your panels clear of snow and ice, but you need to make the most of the short charging times. You may even want to consider adding extra panels for the winter if you are very energy intensive.
The one good aspect, for anyone running a DC fridge off solar is that you can likely shut it off for the winter, as your entire van will be an icebox by morning.
We have looked. We have researched. There is no cheap and ideal option for heating. We have even tested a few of them. We did the candles in a clay pot thing, placed down in our sink, but we found it did not offer much heat.
We also spent some time idling the van. We would let it run for 20-30 minutes every few hours but found out it took a lot more gas than we thought it would and the heat created didn’t stick around long.
The beauty of the Westfalia is that you do have propane onboard for the 2 burner stove, but it is not safe to use for heating purposes. Since the propane burns inside the van, you need to vent it and if you leave your stove running for heat (which is not recommended) you are venting out the CO2 and warm air with it almost quicker than the stove will put it out.
There are also the little propane space heaters that you can purchase at most hardware stores. These also vent inside the van which is less than ideal. Many people we know use them, but it is not recommended for overnight use! They also are somewhat expensive to run, and very wasteful. They use nonrefillable propane/butane canisters and will go through a canister every 8 hours. For most van lifers that means every 2-3 days you are tossing one of those green canisters into the dumper bin. We have also heard of a few nightmare stories of the heaters failing and shooting flames across the van. That was enough for me to skip on them.
The best heating option is a propane burner that you can mount outside your van, such as the Propex heaters. They have a thermostat, are safe to use, and connect to your existing propane tank. The downside? They are expensive. Over $1000 CAD plus installation. We didn’t end up doing it for that very reason. It was simply outside of our budget. Do we regret it? Kind of, but if the money isn’t there, it isn’t there.
This is another tough one that people seem to jump on with all these easy and cheap options. The problem is that there are downsides.
You van is a heat sieve. There is no way around it. There are some window insulating kits, but many of them are more of a pain than anything. They stick to the windows with suction cups but when the rubber gets cold, it simply won’t stick and your insulation will fall off. You also have to have room to store them when you are not using them.
Many will use fibreglass insulation between the body panels as well. This may seem like a great idea, but (as many people know with the classic body panel rot behind the fridge area) that insulation holds the moisture. It gets soaked and stops insulating. Then it begins to grow mold and rot the body panel. We took much of our factory installed insulation out for this reason. You need some air flow between those body panels to dry it out.
We do keep our blinds closed at night, not so much for privacy, but it does help keep some heat in. We also have a curtain between the back of the van and cockpit so that the area we do heat with body heat and cooking is smaller. Event though it does not seem like much, it does make a difference.
HAVE A BACKUP PLAN:
This goes without saying. Even in BC, which typically has the warmest winter in Canada, it can get cold. Far too cold to sleep in your van. Keep a little slush fund to grab a hostel or hotel if you need to. We have found that -20C is where it gets just too cold to be in the van overnight. The chill starts to get to your bones, especially if it doesn’t get warm and sunny during the day.
There you have it. There is no magical answer for dealing with winter in your Westy (except head south) but it is doable. It is more work and debatably less fun than summer, but it is an experience worth trying. And hey, if you don’t like it, you can always take off to California in the middle of the winter for some sun and surf!