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How to Make the Most of Winter Van Camping

Winter van camping is the antecedent to spring and summer camping. Done correctly, it will provide you with unparalleled sights and experiences. Couple that with the ability to go skiing, snowboarding, tubing, snowshoeing, or fat biking, and winter camping is an opportunity to enjoy van life all four seasons. 

Gray Sprinter van decked out for winter van camping
With M&S-rated tires and a 2” lift, this Sprinter can go winter camping. Photo by Jason Sakurai.

12 Tips for Winter Van Camping

To many, winter camping in a van is intimidating, so all the gear gets packed away until the first signs of spring, and the camper van sits idle. This doesn’t need to be though because there’s a lot to love about cold-weather camping! Fewer crowds, zero mosquitos, and a nice change of scenery are among the benefits.

However, you won’t enjoy any of it without careful preparation. The difference between enjoying your winter encampment and allowing the elements to get the better of you is in the way you prepare for it. Let’s go through problems others have encountered and solutions for each of them.

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Ensure Your Van is Watertight

Man installing insulation and weatherproofing to a camper van interior
Well insulated and waterproof, this camper van will be warm and comfortable in winter. Photo by Jason Sakurai.

Before you head out into the cold, make sure there’s no way for water to enter your domain. If you can feel air seeping in around your ventilation fan, you’ll want to caulk around it. Door and window seals should be checked and replaced if there’s any question about their ability to hold back the cold weather. 

Release Built Up Moisture

Keeping heat in retains moisture too and with it the possibility of mold. Cooking, bathing, and even breathing build moisture. Cracking a window or the ceiling vent will allow moisture to escape. A dehumidifier or moisture absorbing bags are other options to consider. 

Check Your Furnace

Before leaving, make sure your furnace is working properly. Some owners bring space heaters with temperature-activated switches along to augment their main heater. Just make sure you don’t leave a space heater plugged in and on if you’re going to be away from your camper van. 

Use a Sleeping Bag

Sleeping bags, like tents, are rated by season. A four-season sleeping bag is much more appropriate for cold weather camping than what you may be accustomed to at other times of the year. Make sure you keep your sleeping bag dry and don’t over-compress it, which leads to a loss of insulation value. Also, to prevent moisture, ventilate or air out your sleeping bag during the day after you’ve used it.  

Select a sleeping bag that is rated for the temperatures you’ll be experiencing during the coldest parts of the night. Pack an extra blanket or two in your van to throw over the sleeping bags for even more insulation. Getting into a cold sleeping bag in the wintertime is no fun, so consider using an electric blanket for the ultimate warmth.

Freezing Water Lines

One of the biggest problems occurs when your water lines freeze. Wrapping the lines in aluminum foil, heat tape, and insulation will prevent the lines from freezing. 

Know Where You’re Going

Start by researching your target destination. On your first trip out, stay close to home so you can test your vehicle and all its accouterments in cold weather before driving onto the frozen tundra.

In some areas, snow or ice will shut down the trails and make them impassable, or these conditions will make it difficult (if not hazardous) in a van. It’s a good idea to have contingency plans just in case you do run into snow and ice.

Be Realistic

Winter van camping isn’t without limitations, and you won’t be able to do everything in the cold and snow that you could during the summer. Make it comfortable and enjoyable for you, your family, and your pets so you’ll all want to embark on more winter adventures.

In addition to the outdoor activities you enjoy, plan games and activities that can be done when bundled up or inside your van. 

Go Prepared

Pack the essentials, plenty of extra food, and extra layers, and consider getting backup communications like a long-range radio or Garmin inReach, so you can update your family or friends on your location.

Let people know where you’re going and when you plan to be back. Even the most experienced campers have gotten themselves into a jam when encountering snow and ice. 

Preventative Maintenance is a Must

Go through your camper van thoroughly before leaving on any extended trips. Start by looking at your preventative maintenance schedule including:

  • Engine oil and filters
  • Transmission fluid
  • Power steering fluid
  • Tire wear, pressure, and rotations
  • A complete brake system inspection

New windshield wipers that clean as well as wipe are a great addition. 

Are there any maintenance items that will need to be done prior to or during your trip? If you’re near a service interval for your transmission fluid, change it ahead of time. Better to do it when and where there are service centers nearby, instead of attempting to find one on the road or neglecting to get it done on time.

Additionally, you may need a new fuel filter, air filter, lubricants, or belts.  The chassis and U-joints may need to be greased, and all the other fluid levels checked.

Recommended or Needed Field Repair Tools

When planning your winter van camping trip, be sure you have an assortment of tools for field repairs.  In addition to socket wrenches and screwdrivers, be sure to have any unique tools you might need for your specific vehicle. For example, if your Sprinter van requires a special tool to replace the oil or fuel filter, or you can’t remove the serpentine belt from the Transit’s turbocharged V-6 engine without a purpose-built tool, you should consider carrying them with you.  Even if you had the filters changed before your trip, you’ll want to have the wrench in your toolbox just in case. 

You may need to carry both SAE and metric size sockets for your camper van, which may be a mix of standard and metric sizes under the hood and inside the camper. Remember to add hose-repair kits and plumber’s tape, and duct tape. And never leave home without duct tape!

Camping Solo?

If you’re heading out alone, make sure you have recovery gear, in the form of traction boards, a tow strap, and a winch, and the knowledge needed to use them before departing. Appropriate mud and snow-rated tires, a well-maintained vehicle, and the recovery gear we mentioned will give you peace of mind when heading off to find the road less traveled. If you’ve followed the above tips, you’ll stay warm, have plenty of food to eat, and entertainment in case you do get stuck and require help. In general, slowing down and taking your time will save you trouble.

Wear the Right Gear

While preparing your van is important, you want to make sure you’ll be able to enjoy the outdoors and participate in any activity by having quality insulated clothing. This can make all the difference in your comfort level. You’ll need a warm jacket, pants, gloves, boots, and a hat or beanie. You may also want to consider a neck gator, balaclava, thermal underwear, and high-quality winter socks. Having the right gear is well worth it. 

Ready, Set, Go Winter Van Camping!

Properly prepared, your wintertime expeditions will be full of fun and adventure, not breakdowns and disappointments. Why learn these lessons the hard way, when you can benefit from the experiences of other campers? 

Following these tips should provide you with more confidence in your abilities to go out into the winter wonderland, stay safe, and have an incredible time.

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