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Van Life in Winter: Essential Safety Tips

Winter van living is a big adventure. Parts of it can be really neat, while other parts can be a giant hassle. And still, other aspects of living in a van during the winter months can be downright dangerous. This is why learning about van life and winter safety is so important. From knowing how to keep warm to gaining knowledge on how to drive your van in snow and ice, there is a lot to learn. 

Fortunately, plenty of travelers have gone before you. This means there are lots of essential tips for van life in cold weather floating around out there on the internet.

In this article, we aim to gather all of those tips together in one van life winter safety guide that you can reference throughout the cold months in order to stay safe, healthy, and comfortable even when the temperatures drop to ridiculous lows. 

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Understanding Winter Risks in Van Life

Before you dive into winter van living, it’s good to make sure you fully understand the risks associated with that choice.

While it is totally possible to stay safe and relatively comfortable in a van during the winter months, you will have to contend with freezing temperatures dropping the interior temperature of your van, meaning you’ll need to take steps to keep warm. On top of that, unless you have a place to park permanently, you’ll likely also have to drive your van in less-than-ideal conditions.

Because colder weather, snow, and ice can all make van life so much harder, it is important that you watch the weather forecast and know when super cold temperatures and winter storms are blowing in. 

Essential Safety Tips

Let’s start by discussing some van life winter safety tips that you can use whether or not you plan on driving your van during the winter months. These will help keep you safe and healthy as the temperatures drop outside. 

Insulation and Heating

First, be sure to insulate your van well during the build process. Once the van is built, cover the windows using either custom covers or Reflectix to add another layer of insulation. Window insulation kits can also help in this arena, and you’ll want to add weatherstripping to all doors to keep out drafts. 

As far as heating goes, some people really love the Mr. Buddy portable propane heaters (just be sure to keep a window cracked for proper ventilation). There is also the option of installing a venter unit, such as a Propex Furnace. A rechargeable electric blanket can also work wonders for keeping you warm in a van. 

Van Maintenance

You’ll want to make sure you take care of some van maintenance before the coldest weather hits. Take care of all the usual vehicle maintenance tasks and check your tires to ensure they have good tread. In some areas, installing tire chains might also be necessary. 

It’s also a good idea to winterize any water lines wastewater holding tanks that your van might have with RV antifreeze if you don’t have a good way to keep them warm throughout the winter. Lastly, we highly recommend going over your van and seeking out any and all leaks and draft entry points and sealing those up before winter. 

Health and Wellness

Your health is always important. That said, it becomes a special concern during the winter months when 1) dehydration is more common, 2) viruses are running rampant, and 3) hypothermia is an actual possibility. 

To stay healthy, make sure you are drinking plenty of water throughout the day, and try to consume warm beverages in the evenings when the temperature drops. Eat a varied diet that’s as full of fresh fruits and veggies as possible, with plenty of protein thrown into the mix as well. You might also want to consider taking a daily multivitamin.

Stay active (getting a gym membership is a good idea) and always change out of wet clothes as soon as possible. 

Emergency Preparedness

Of course, you’ll also want to keep an emergency kit on hand just in case something goes wrong. This should include the following:

  • Flashlight
  • Extra Batteries
  • Reflective Triangle
  • Road Flares
  • Jumper Cables
  • Portable Power Bank Jump Starter
  • Emergency Whistle
  • Duct Tape
  • Tire Pressure Gauge
  • Air Compressor
  • Fix-a-Flat
  • Bungee Cords
  • Flathead and Phillips Head Screwdrivers
  • Multi-Tool
  • Work Gloves
  • Ponchos
  • Zip Ties
  • First Aid Kit
  • Emergency Survival Blanket
  • Non-Perishable Food
  • Jugs of Water
  • Shovel
  • Hand Warmers
  • Hand Crank Weather Radio
  • Cat Litter (for providing traction in snow)
  • Window Scraper
  • Fire Starter

If you do find yourself in an emergency situation, call 911 if possible. If it is not possible to make a phone call, find a way to draw attention (build a campfire, use road flares, etc). Retain heat in the vehicle by opening the door as little as possible. Wear layers to stay warm and remove wet clothes as soon as possible. Move around in the van to warm up.

Navigating Winter Roads

Most people who experience winter van life will have to move their van fairly regularly. In most cases, this means driving on snowy and icy roads, something that is scary enough in a regular vehicle but even more so when you’re driving your home. 

Here are some tips for staying safe while driving your van in the winter weather. 

Stay on Top of Maintenance

Vehicle maintenance is super important when you live and travel in your vehicle. This is even more true during the winter months. As mentioned above, you’ll want to make sure your tires are ready for winter, and that all of the usual maintenance tasks have been taken care of, so you aren’t left stranded in the cold. 

Avoid Driving on Ice when Possible

When possible, avoid driving in icy or snowy conditions entirely. This alone will remove a large amount of risk from winter van living. Unfortunately, we know it isn’t always possible. 

Go Slow

The best thing you can do while driving on slippery roads? Slow down. There is no reason to be in a hurry when the roads are icy. 

Leave Space

In addition to driving slowly, you’ll also want to leave plenty of space between yourself and the person in front of you. 

Brake Early

Stopping can be a lot more difficult when driving on ice. Make sure you brake early so you have plenty of time to slow down to a complete stop. 

Drive in Daylight

Drive only during the daytime. You’ll be able to see better and there’s a better chance that some of the ice on the roads will be melted when the sun is shining. 

Be Extra Cautious on Bridges

Water freezes on bridges before it freezes on surface roads. Keep this in mind and be extra cautious when crossing bridges. 

Skip Cruise Control

You should never employ cruise control when the roads are slippery. Instead, maintain manual control of the vehicle and avoid spinning your wheels. 

Work with Your ABS

Sometimes, stopping on ice will cause your anti-lock braking system to kick in, creating a pulsing feeling in your brake pedal. When this happens, keep pressing on the pedal while your ABS helps you come to a stop. 

Steer into a Skid

If you find yourself skidding, remove your foot from the gas and steer the car in the direction that the back of your car is sliding. This will help you regain control. 

Staying Connected

You will definitely want to stay well connected while winter van living. Use a mobile hotspot, your phone’s cell signal, or Starlink to ensure you have internet access wherever you roam.

Use the internet to keep in touch with family and friends, keeping them updated on your whereabouts and letting them know when you’ll contact them next. You can also use it to stay in the know about upcoming winter storms so you can properly prepare. 

Learning from Experienced Van Lifers

One of the most important tips for surviving winter in a van? Get plugged into the Van Life community, look for support from those who are going through the same things, find individuals who have already made it through a couple of Van Life winters, and ask for advice. 

This video by Wild by the Mile is a great place to start! Here, a solo female van lifer shares her top tips for staying safe and cozy in your van in winter. 

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