You’ve seen the highlight reels of van life on Instagram, YouTube, and TikTok. Summer van life makes sense…but what about winter van life?
So, you’ve moved into a van in the summer and are figuring out winter now or you’re just plain curious. Either way, my partner and I have survived two entire winters in our van without a heater.
Winter van life can actually prove super fun if you have a few systems in place first. Yes, you can go out and get an expensive Webasto or Espar heater or even the knockoff ones.
However, with a little fortitude and smart planning, you can live in a van in winter just fine. I have a few key suggestions to help make your life easier when it comes to winter van life.
Here is everything we’ve learned.
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Sleeping in a Van in Winter Challenges
Winter van camping comes with a fresh set of challenges. Cold weather van life makes everything just a little more difficult.
🚰 First, you need to worry about your pipes freezing! Do you have any indoor plumbing in your van? Any pipes running from your water tank to your sink or shower have the potential to freeze and burst.
❄️ Second, many vans are front or rear-wheel drive. If it snows, RWD is AWFUL. Do you have AWD or FWD and max tracks to get you out?
🥶 Third, even if you insulate your van, it can still become frustratingly cold inside. Your hands won’t want to type on your laptop and your feet will become icy.
But! Never fear…with a few key items and a little planning, you too can survive winter van life.
Winter Van Life Essentials
Here’s where purchasing a few items can come in handy. Alternatively, you can mine thrift stores or that corner of your parent’s garage where you store extra things that don’t normally fit in the van.
These are all items that we kept in our van during our past two winters without a heater.
Our Winter Van Life Essentials:
Drive to Areas with Nights Above 30 Degrees Fahrenheit
The #1 recommendation for surviving winter van life without a heater is to drive to locations where the nighttime temperatures stay above 30 degrees Fahrenheit.
I have a list of 6 of the best locations for winter van life here to start you off!
You can use any weather app to monitor the overnight low temperatures for up to 10 days in advance. I prefer to use Open Snow and am willing to pay the yearly fee for better forecasts.
If you don’t love the desert, give it a chance. The better weather alone might change your mind!
You could also go to a van life event like Skooliepalooza in the winter to find community in the desert.
Stock Up on Fleece Clothing
Even if you drive to the desert for the winter, the mornings and nights get cold. 🥶
🏜️ It’s a common misconception that the desert remains warm all the time, especially in the winter. Really, it’s just warmer than the rest of the country.
Make sure you have a few solid fleece sweatshirts, at least one pair of fleece pants, and a fleece throw blanket. Fleece is super important for winter van life.
Cotton hoodies are fun and have great graphics, but they don’t do shit for warmth.
If cost becomes an issue, start visiting thrift stores. Not all thrift stores are the same. Go to ones in more affluent neighborhoods and get all your fleece here instead.
🏪 Likewise, the trucker gas stations usually have a wide array of inexpensive fleece throw blankets. Some even have some pretty sweet graphics on them!
Use Van Slippers
Despite insulating our floor, it remains one of the colder areas of our van. Unless you’ve installed subfloor heating, yours likely is, too.
Investing in a solid pair of van slippers helps keep your feet toasty warm, even on those cold mornings. It really makes winter van life more bearable.
We gave in and got the Teva ReEmber Slippers. After destroying a few cheap pairs very quickly, we spent a little more for the Tevas and they’ve now lasted us two years!
Make Hot Water Bottles
On those nights that actually do dip to 30 degrees, make a hot water bottle or two about 30 minutes before bed. 🥱
Nalgenes or other metal water bottles work well for this.
🧦 However, you may need to put them in a sock to not burn yourself!
Make 1-2 up ahead of bedtime and place them underneath the covers in the middle or by your feet. Having this as a heat source under the covers will help keep you warm all night. 🛌
Cook Soups and Stews
🍜 There’s nothing like a warm bowl of soup on a cold day!
For winter van life, cooking your own soups and stews helps twofold. First, you heat up the van while you cook (even with proper ventilation). Second, you put warm food into your body warming you from the inside.
🥔 I like to make a simple potato, lentil, and onion soup in the van. It’s relatively quick and you can modify it with whatever vegetables need to get eaten from your fridge.
Any soup or stew will work for this, but the ones that need to simmer for 20-40 minutes heat the van nicely.
Make Hot Beverages: Hot Cocoa, Tea, Coffee…
Like cooking stews, make extra hot beverages!
☕️ Each time you use your stove in the van, you’ll add heat. If you systematically make yourself a new hot beverage every 1-2 hours, you’ll warm up the van slightly. You’ll also warm yourself because you can drink them!
🫖 I like to have a variety of teas on hand for winter van life. Caffeinated ones for the morning and herbal blends for the afternoon and evening.
Hot cocoa and hot apple cider make for great treats or desserts!
Sleeping Bags, Throw Blankets, and Insulated Window Covers
If you just don’t have warm enough blankets, try a sleeping bag.
⛺️ Keeping your body heat closer to you will help you stay warmer in winter van life. Sleeping in a van in winter can be tough. On those extra cold nights, a sleeping bag can make all the difference.
We use sleeping quilts for thru-hiking. On those extra cold nights, we pull out our sleeping quilts to add to our blankets. Sometimes, we use them when chilling on our bench or our swivel seat.
The next best thing is a fleece throw blanket! Find them in most stores or make your own.
Finally, insulated window covers are a GAME CHANGER. You will lose heat or cold through windows. We made our own custom magnetic, insulated window covers from Ripstop Fabric and extra Havelock Wool from our van build.
Keep an Extension Cord and Desk Heater for Emergencies
Despite our best efforts to find temperatures above 30 degrees, we get caught in a spot that will dip toward 20 degrees or lower.
🔌 For this, we keep a 100 ft outdoor extension cord in the van and a small 400W desk space heater. We also have a 200W one, but it doesn’t have tip-over protection, so we don’t love it.
We used this strategy during the Sugar Beet Harvest as our heat source to help us get up in the cold mornings. They provided us with a campsite that had an electrical hookup there.
🏡 Otherwise, we find the nearest friend or friend of a friend with a driveway that we can park at and run our extension cord for the desk space heater.
🥶 Once, I had to re-cert my WFR in Moab at the beginning of February. The overnight lows were 8 degrees Fahrenheit all three nights. We found a cheap motel room for $33 and ran the extension cord from the motel out to our van.
Final Thoughts About Winter Van Life Without a Heater
Sleeping in a van in winter can get rough, but it doesn’t have to.
By doing these simple adjustments, you can totally rock winter van life in style. You certainly won’t be the only van lifers in moving around the desert all winter. A community exists there if you choose to seek it out. 🚐 🚐 🚐
Winter van life is also warmer with two people in one van. Alternatively, it would be warmer with one human and one dog as well.
Those solo van lifers might need a few extra hot water bottles, some extra fleece clothing, and a few more hot beverages.
We’ve done two winters just fine in our van without a heater, and you can, too!
🏜️ See you in the desert! 😉