Living in a van in winter: The ultimate guide

27 January 2016

Living in a van in winter is one of the bigger challenges for van dwellers like us.

Van life seems so romantic. We all know the images of vans parked by the beach, with their doors wide open, camp fires and beautiful views.

And those moments are amazing..

…but unfortunately only possible when the weather allows for it. Living in a van in winter is a different story. For sure it’s possible, but it’s another kind of experience and it requires more planning and the right equipment.

We have survived one winter in Poland in our van, and now we are in Bulgaria, where it’s -20 at night! So we can say that we have gained some experience on van life in winter.

In this post we’ll explain you what you have to think about if you want to live in a van during the winter months: some tips are gained from our own experience, and other tips are from fellow van people across the web.

Prepare your van for the cold weather

If you are serious about making your van winter proof, you have some work to do. but luckily there are also some quick fixes that take less time and effort.

First of all: insulation!

Most vans that are suitable for living have some sort of insulation in the walls and/or the floor. Insulation will keep the cold out. Check if your van has insulation as well. If it doesn’t, you can consider to put insulation in your van yourself. On Instructables.com you can find a very comprehensive tutorial on how to insulate your camper van.

We don’t have any insulation in our van, which means that the floor and walls get really, really cold. But luckily we found an easy and quick solution:

A very good investment we did to keep some cold out, is buying window insulation panels. These are foil panels that you stick to the windows with suckers. We really noticed a significant increase in temperature in the van after we got those. Also, they improved our feeling of privacy a lot. No way to peek in between the curtains from the outside anymore!

You can get custom made panels that fit the windows of your van, like we did. Or you can also buy a roll of bubble wrap and cut it to the size of your windows yourself.

window insulation t3

Box with the insulating window panels. They really work!

And then there is the mechanical stuff

Another thing you have to make sure, is that your van can actually drive in cold temperatures. Make sure the water has enough anti-freeze. Also put winter grade oil in your car, which is suitable for below-zero temperatures. it’s best to check the owners manual of your van to find out what oil you need in cold weather.

Also, get winter tires on your van. If your going to areas where there’s snow, acquire tire chains. In Slovakia we have already experienced a sudden heavy snow shower, where we suddenly had to put on the tire chains in order to continue driving. We were really glad we had them!

For a full list of measures to take to prepare your (volkswagen) van for winter driving, check this ‘How to winterize your Westfalia’ list.

Get the right items to keep you warm at night

Even if you have insulated your van, you will need some other measures to stay warm during cold winter days (and especially nights). For us there are three things that do the trick:

  • living in a van in winter

    As long as your feet are warm…

    Very warm slippers: on a Romanian market we bought some very cozy, woolen slippers. They protect our feet from the cold floor. But also when sleeping, they keep us warm. Somehow, when your feet are warm the rest of your body is fine too :)

  • We are very fond of our hot water bottles. When filled with hot water, they stay warm for 6 to 8 hours. The best is to pre-heat the bed with them before you go in.
  • We have plenty of blankets. We sleep under two duvets and a woolen blanket. A lot of people however prefer a good sleeping bag, because it keeps the cold out even more.
living in a van in winter

Our heating system….the warm water bottle and some instant heating packs.

What about heating in the van?

If you own an ‘official’ campervan instead of a self buit one, there is probably a heating system built in already. When there is no heating present, you have to find another solution.

We don’t have any heating in our van. Until now we have been doing fine with just our window insulation and our hot water bags. Our coldest night so far had a temperature of about -8 degrees Celsius. Of course with these temperatures we had to stay under the covers, it was too cold to do anything else.

At the moment I’m writing this article it’s -20 Celsius outside. And I have to be honest: this is too cold to sleep in a van without heating. Every form of fluid inside our van is frozen and we evacuated into a hostel. Now we understand why most vans do have heating 😉

As for heating in vans there are a few different options. Because we don’t have experience with this ourselves, I’ll link out to useful posts about heating on other blogs.

Gas heaters

Many van people love to use gas heaters.  The big advantage of a gas heater is that you are not depending on the electrical grid to keep yourself warm. The downside is that this type of heating creates relatively much condensation, plus there can be some nasty fumes released. This means that you always have to ventilate sufficiently and install a CO-alarm.

A popular gas heater used by other van dwellers is the Mr. Buddy. These heaters either work with small gas cylinders, but you can also connect them to the propane gas bottle that you use for cooking.

Electrical heaters

Your second option is an electrical heater. There are different types of electrical heaters suitable for vans, like: ceramic heaters, fan heaters, infrared heaters and oil radiators. In general you can only use these heaters if you are connected to the grid. They use a lot of energy and to run these heaters on your battery would be just too risky. You still want to be able to start te engine the next morning.

Wood burner

Last winter we met a very courageous couple with an actual wood burner in their van. I never thought that this was possible, but it seems to be a serious option. So serious, that I’m even considering it for Box. You will need to make a little chimney so the smoke can go out. But then you have a very simple heating device: no gas or electricity needed and it will warm up your van within 10 minutes. In this video you see how a wood oven is installed into a camper van.


Fire bricks

During our first winter in Box, Crom came up with a smart idea. We did not have any heating, but outside it was below zero. Luckily we were staying near a house where we could use the kitchen, which had a fire stove with a fire that was burning the whole day. A few hours before we went to bed, we put 4 fire bricks in the fire. By bedtime those bricks were smoking hot. We put them in our van, of course on top of  a few cold bricks, so the floor would not melt.

A small tip: If you do this, make sure that the hot bricks and the cold bricks only touch each other on a really tiny surface. This way the heat won’t be transmitted to the floor, but to the air.

This is an improvised solution, but it works very well. No need for electricity, gas, and no nasty smoke or fumes.

Heater2

Van heating and safety

It’s important to remember that whatever type of heating you use (except for the hot bricks) you have to be very careful. This about the following:

  • Make sure you have enough ventilation in the van so the fumes or smoke can go out.
  • Don’t leave your heater on while you are sleeping
  • Install a CO-alarm, so whenever anything goes wrong you are warned on time. Not all CO-alarms on the market are of good quality, according to recent research. The one we have is tested and has all the needed certificates: it’s the Honeywell XC100D.

Living in a van in winter requires good planning

You can take all the previous tips much less serious if you just plan smart and be somewhere warm during the winter months! These are your options:

Spend the winter in a warmer climate

The big advantage of living in a van is being able to drive anywhere you want. So when it comes to surviving winter, you should make use of this. Plan accordingly, so during the cold months you are staying in a warmer region. Obviously when you are in Europe Greece, Spain, Portugal and South-Italy are the places to go. If you are a non-EU citizen and you have restricted time in the Schengen area, you can easily cross to Morocco or Turkey, or even spend the winter in the south of Albania.

Or, do like us: if you still find yourself in snowy weather, just park next to a hot water spring. The air is warmer and daily hot baths are guaranteed. (This wil immediately give you a solution to the shower issue)

rupite hot water spring

Box and us at the hot springs in Rupite, Bulgaria

Find a temporary house without wheels

If you don’t manage to be in a warm region on time, you can also consider to spend the coldest months inside a ‘stone house’. I know it’s hard to leave your van alone, but when the temperatures are below zero and you don’t have a proper heater, it just makes more sense to spend the nights somewhere warm. Of course you can just book an Airbnb or hostel for a few weeks, but if your budget is tight or if you’re looking for more adventurous options, you can consider the following:

  • Go volunteering somewhere. You can find places to volunteer long term on the platforms Workaway or WWOOF. You pay a yearly fee to get access, but it’s really worth it!
  • Offer your skills to the hostel or hotel you are staying, to get a discount or to even get a free stay. This is what we are doing right now. We’re staying in a hostel in Sofia, Bulgaria for one month. Crom is making some 3D artwork here and in exchange we get a discount on our stay.
  • Go housesitting. On websites like TrustedHousesitters you can find opportunities to take care of houses for a few days, weeks or months.
van in the winter

Box in the snow, us in the warm hostel…sorry Box!

Entertain yourself during long winter nights

One thing is for sure: in winter you’ll spend much more time inside your van than out. The days are shorter, so as soon as it’s dark and chilly outside, you really want to stay in. So it’s important to have enough in stock to entertain yourself during those long chilly winter evenings. You’ll be very happy with a pile of good books, enough movies on your laptop, some board games or just your boyfriend or girlfriend to curl up to.

Do you have other tips for living in a van in winter? We’d love to hear from you! Just leave a comment below so this page will be even more complete!

*This post contains affiliate links

34 comments

  1. Comment by MiKa

    MiKa Reply 6 February 2016 at 07:13

    I like the Bulgaria picture and your “off-mainstream” experience! Thanks for the article.

    • Comment by Valine

      Valine Reply 6 February 2016 at 15:12

      Glad you liked it!

  2. Comment by Isil Kirikyapan

    Isil Kirikyapan Reply 10 March 2016 at 08:14

    Hello fromTurkey ,Bursa
    I have an alkovan caravan .In winters I invented a solution for cold.I covered inside of van with thick tarp,it works very well?On july ,me and daughter will be on roads (dont know where),hope to meet you ,good luck…

    (Sorry for my insufficient english?)

    • Comment by Valine

      Valine Reply 11 March 2016 at 07:07

      Hey Isil,

      Thanks for the tip about the tarp. That sounds like a easy alternative to a permanent insulation. Maybe we can try it next winter. For now it seems like spring is starting! Yes! Maybe we’ll meet you in Turkey!

      • Comment by Mohamed

        Mohamed Reply 26 November 2017 at 12:49

        Are you living in your van yet?

        • Comment by Valine

          Valine Reply 26 November 2017 at 14:10

          Hey Mohamad, we are now in Brazil for a few months without our van. In February we’ll come back to Europe and continue living in Box!

  3. Comment by hmd

    hmd Reply 11 March 2016 at 08:00

    Hello, this is Hamdi from Turkey. The photographs you place is just awesome! BOX is a mascott for you in this life :) be safe, and keep giving courage to everyone who likes to be in your position. You are the lucky ones.

    Peace!

    • Comment by Valine

      Valine Reply 11 March 2016 at 08:27

      Hi Hamdi, happy to hear that you like our photos! Box is a mascot indeed! All the places he has been :) We realize we are lucky to have passports that allow us to travel and that is not as easy for everyone. But we hope to give courage to people who want to travel (or to do anything out of the ordinary) indeed! I hope we can keep inspiring you as well.

      • Comment by Stephen E. Price

        Stephen E. Price Reply 14 January 2017 at 18:19

        I am 68 and will be in a mini van starting today.
        It is not as cccold here but I am a thin guy (139) and get cold fast. No snow, lots of heavy rain. Good tips here thanks.
        I am in Northern California. My mini van does not drive, motor died last week!
        thankz

        fine artist… now unemployed

  4. Comment by Andrew

    Andrew Reply 27 September 2016 at 12:32

    A sunbeam, simple control, electric blanket has served me well the past 2 years. Gotta have a good inverter and deep cycle battery. But it’s the mattress cover and heats me from below. A negative degree sleeping bag obet that keeps all that warmth in. No worries.

    • Comment by Valine

      Valine Reply 1 October 2016 at 11:06

      Hey Andrew, that sounds really comfortable. I woud be worried though that it uses too much power. Doesn’t it drain your battery? How many amps does it use?

      • Comment by Andrew

        Andrew Reply 1 October 2016 at 14:17

        I have a type “29DC” deep cycle battery. As long as my battery is charged up when I go to bed, I can use the blanket all night. Sometimes I only crank it on when I wake up to cold…. I’m also planning on purchasing an accessory battery that’s much larger. Bc I play Xbox live in my van as well. The Xbox uses as much of not more wattage than the electric blanket.

      • Comment by Andrew

        Andrew Reply 1 October 2016 at 14:18

        It’s my birthday today! I’m 25. Much love and many blessings.

        • Comment by Valine

          Valine Reply 2 October 2016 at 14:55

          Congratulations!!

      • Comment by Andrew

        Andrew Reply 1 October 2016 at 14:23

        I’m an “on call” food delivery driver. The 29dc battery allows me to watch tv [netflix] in between deliveries and for a full 4-6 hour sitting without charging the battery. I can’t wait until I get my larger battery so i can do the same with Xbox live.

  5. Comment by Brian

    Brian Reply 1 October 2016 at 08:59

    Bristol really? I live in my van there I started living in my car 12 years ago and progresses to my VW L35 van am older still work and like tomove around .

    • Comment by Valine

      Valine Reply 1 October 2016 at 11:07

      Wow! We just spent 10 days in Bristol and loved it! In what area are you staying? We’d like to spend some more time there. Lots of van-homes there!

  6. Comment by Luton

    Luton Reply 5 November 2016 at 20:56

    Great write up. This will be my 3rd winter vandwelling. I have insulated my van, foiled and insulation and I covered my floor in fatigue matting which I brought from Cosco for £10 and now I am going to glue the matting to the inside of the roof. I even managed to fill the struts in the roof. Looking to get an espatcher heater fitted maybe next year.

    • Comment by Valine

      Valine Reply 9 November 2016 at 22:29

      This will be our 3rd winter too and we are now in the process of getting a wood stove. I’m very curious about that one. Great work on the insulation! That must already help a lot, even without a heater.

  7. Comment by Lesley Holland

    Lesley Holland Reply 8 November 2016 at 17:12

    We lived in our van for 12 months and spent most of the winter in the Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales where it was below freezing for days on end. We stayed on small sites with electric hook up and had the electric heater on a timer plug overnight. We had to put it up on the glass stove lid as we have a dog and didn’t want her to knock it over or get too close to it. We also used the slow cooker so we came home to a nice hot meal every nigh without the condensation caused by cooking on the hob.

    • Comment by Valine

      Valine Reply 9 November 2016 at 22:30

      Ahh with electrical hookups the possibilities are endless 😉 Sounds very comfortable. We will very likely spend this winter in Scotland. So I’m curious whether our own tips will help us this time 😉

  8. Comment by Lane

    Lane Reply 28 November 2016 at 19:07

    In cold weather i always take with myself the Portable Car heater. I think it is the best way to desicion problems with cold in your car. I buy it a special fo this one, but sometimes i use it to heating my garage. (i use Mr. Heater F232000 MH9BX). With regards Lane!

  9. Comment by Jake

    Jake Reply 1 December 2016 at 13:47

    Hello! Does somone try to use electric or propane heater to keep warm in your van?

    • Comment by Luton

      Luton Reply 31 December 2016 at 01:04

      Hi, make sure you have good ventilation if your using propane. I have a big vent in the floor and a fletner in the roof. Have tried a small gas heater but made me feel a bit sick. Have a carbon monoxide alarm but it never goes off. I’m going to save and get an espatcher heater. The one lorry drivers have in their cabs. Good luck and Happy New Year to all van dwellers out there.

  10. Comment by Petra Spahr

    Petra Spahr Reply 23 December 2016 at 04:27

    I am not a full time van person, but go skiing for several days at a time and sleep in my station wagon (“estate” car). For my main source of heat I built a system consisting of a propane water heater and a radiator with a fan. The water heater, a small pump, and propane tank sit outside in a 2’x2’x1′ metal box strapped to the rear bumper. The water/antifreeze mix is pumped to the 1’x1’x3″ radiator and fan inside the vehicle through 1/2″ hoses. The pump and fan are powered by a rechargeable battery and controlled by a regular thermostat. It is way more than adequate for my space and could heat a van with no problem. I avoided anything with combination inside the vehicle.

    • Comment by Valine

      Valine Reply 30 December 2016 at 21:04

      Wow, that sounds very interesting and convenient!

  11. Comment by Christy

    Christy Reply 13 January 2017 at 10:21

    Hi Valine, It’s good to read of people staying in vans in colder climates, most van life articles say head South for warmth. Me and my boyfriend plan to do Europe in a Van but he loves the snow so wants to be somewhere snowy for winter and potentially get work in a ski resort. Thanks for the tips :) The fire bricks are a really good idea….

    • Comment by Valine

      Valine Reply 13 January 2017 at 11:14

      Hey Christy. Well, we always plan to drive south in winter, but somehow we’re always too slow and we end up in the snow anyway 😉 I’m glad you find the tips useful!

  12. Comment by Chappy

    Chappy Reply 14 January 2017 at 04:16

    Great stuff, blessings to all…One thing I do is insulate the floor: first a military style camping mat ( Walmart $15.00) then I lay a 2 inch foam topper on that, then I lay a bed blanket on top of that and finally my sleeping bag and bed comforter on top of that.

    When I travel to northern states, the Dakotas etc, I use the engine heat by running the engine all night, it is the best form of built in heat. I have a CO detector in the back, I turn my vehicle into the wind so the exhaust is blowing away, and my vehicle is also equipped next to the bed a fire extinguisher and a window breaker bar. Truck drivers live this way 365 days a year too many of them.

    • Comment by Luton

      Luton Reply 15 January 2017 at 01:28

      Hi all, I found some 2 inch thick polystyrene and cut it with a hot wire to fit my side window. It makes a real good difference keeping my van warm at night. A hot water bottle is a must on these freezing nights. Does anyone have ideas on helping condensation?

  13. Comment by Joseph

    Joseph Reply 30 December 2017 at 22:06

    Excellent info guys! You must be extremely strong willed individuals. I’m struggling in Colorado myself and it’s no where near -20 celsius. Mad props to ya’ll!

  14. Comment by Lewis Bertrand-Shelton

    Lewis Bertrand-Shelton Reply 8 January 2018 at 17:14

    NIce article, thank you. We’ve found everything you say to match our experience, but it’s always good to hear it out loud. we’ve been doing europe in a Sprinter for 8 months and are working our way north through this 2017/18 winter, crossing from Slovakia into Poland a week after new year. I’ve not got any tips really to add, but with a wood burning stove that we fitted in the van I can answer any questions and recommend that drying the wood in the winter is also difficult, especially if you haven’t sorted out the condensation (evidently drying frozen/wet wood creates ever more moisture).

    Merry new year to all current and wannabe vandwellers :)

  15. Comment by Sprinter Manual

    Sprinter Manual Reply 25 March 2018 at 18:55

    Great article! Never considered living in a van in the winter…

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