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High Altitude Van Camping: How To Stay Safe

Preparing for High Altitude Van Camping: Tips and Strategies

The mountains are calling…and for good reason. These titans of the planet can affect us like no other place and are some of the most popular locations to take a van life trip.

If you have done any van camping at higher altitudes, you may have noticed a few unusual things going on with both your vehicle and yourself.

Both vans and people tend to act a little more sluggish at elevations around 8,000 feet. While most of the time it’s a mild annoyance, high altitudes can also be dangerous. These dangers come in the form of vehicle reaction and responsiveness, road conditions, weather, wildlife, and personal health concerns.

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Personal Preparation

Starting with personal health concerns, if you are used to sea level elevations and head up into the mountains you will most likely start to feel the effects at around 5,000 feet. The percentage of effective oxygen at sea level is about 20%. At 10,000 feet the oxygen level drops to about 14%. At 12,000 feet (like some high mountain passes in Colorado) the oxygen level drops to 12%.

These effects include difficulty breathing, headaches, trouble sleeping, urinating more, low blood oxygen levels, and difficulty with hiking or even walking. While these effects do wear off over the course of a day or so, older adults can feel the effects for days. In addition, some people never get over this altitude sickness. If this happens, it is best to not push it and quickly head back down to lower altitudes until you feel better.

In addition to the lack of oxygen at locations over 5,000 feet, there are other concerns to prepare for. At higher altitudes, the sun is much stronger. Wide-brim hats, sunscreen, lip balm, and even sun gloves are good things to bring along.

However, as soon as that sun goes down, the cold is another thing to prepare for. At high altitudes, the temperatures have a much wider range from the high to the low. A summer day in August with temps in the 80s can drop into the 30s at night. Be prepared with warm jackets, socks, hats, gloves, and well-rated sleeping bags.

Van Preparation

Your body will not be the only thing that needs preparation. Your van may start grumbling about the high altitude as well. While diesel and turbocharged engines tend to do better at higher altitudes, vehicle engines do utilize oxygen to mix with fuel for combustion.

With less oxygen at higher altitudes, your vehicle’s engine can’t develop as much power and tends to be sluggish on uphill drives or while driving over passes. Lower air pressure can also affect your tire pressure and causes reduced handling and a drop in fuel mileage.

Before heading up into the mountains, make sure your van is in good running condition and get the brakes, air filter, tire pressure, fuel injectors, and brake pads checked. An overall oil change and checkup is a good idea too.

While going uphill can sometimes be a challenge, going back down can also be dangerous. Downhill sections that wind around a hillside require that the driver use a lower gear, slow down, and keep a close eye on blind and tight curves. These roads can be adversely affected if the weather turns into fog, rain, sleet, or snow.

The best way to prepare for driving over high mountains is to plan for several eventualities. Be sure to bring items such as a tow rope and other recovery gear, snow chains or cables, an NOAA weather radio, a portable battery charger, and an air compressor for your tires.

Propane Heaters and Altitude Adjustment

If you have a heater in your van, it may also be affected by higher elevations as well. Propane heaters need oxygen to work and can go out altogether if there is not enough oxygen detected. Gas or diesel-fired heaters do better at altitudes around 4,500 feet but will need a high altitude adjuster for time spent in much higher elevations.


While we love to visit the mountains for the scenic vistas, access to alpine lakes and creeks, and hidden campsites, the wildlife is what keeps us coming back. Being able to see animals in their natural habitat is thrilling, but be sure to take a few precautions.

Just like any camping location, be sure not to attract animals such as bears or rodents with food or greywater residue. Don’t leave any trash outside, and do your food prep in an area away from where you are sleeping. Keep a can of bear spray in your vehicle (and day pack) as well. In addition, don’t approach any animal, especially baby animals.

Animals in camp are one thing, but also keep an eye out for them on the road. Large animals such as moose can step right out into a road without any thought (ask me how I know this). Go slowly around corners and over hills and be cautious if you see wildlife crossing signs.

Unpredictable Yet Rewarding: The Magic of High Altitude Exploration

While this list may seem daunting, the mountains should be treated with respect. They can be unpredictable, even during the summer months. However, while higher altitudes take a little more work to explore, they are so worth it.

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1 thought on “High Altitude Van Camping: How To Stay Safe”

  1. One thing to keep in mind when going down a steep grade in the mountains is not to ride your brakes, don’t keep your foot constantly on the brake peddle. To compensate down shift your transmission to a lower gear. Occasionally you’ll still have to tap the brakes to keep thing slow and steady but the brakes will still be there when you really need them when a deer or elk run out into the middle of the road. Riding the brakes heats them up to the point the heat will boil the fluid and cause catastrophic failure! Slow down, enjoy the view and arrive alive. Happy Trails.

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