If you're already committed to the lifestyle of traveling on your own path, slightly outside of the mainstream, then the challenges of winter in a van (or RV) are well within your grasp. Get out there. Have fun.” -Sara Sheehy, Fellow VanLife Nomad

youtubeSnow flurries whirl around our vintage “canned-ham” camper that we call Hamlet, as we back it into our free national forest site for the next few days. Within minutes we’ve got it leveled, stabilized, and ready for the night. We jump inside and fire up the kettle on our 2-burner propane stove and our tiny portable heater. Before the water comes to a boil, our bones thaw and we strip off extra layers. Changing from damp snowshoeing gear into dry, fuzzy fleece and down slippers before cuddling a piping hot mug of Earl Grey is one of the simplest and most satisfying pleasures of camping in a trailer. It’s cold, wet, and windy outside, but inside our little camper feels like a cozy log cabin.

Cozy Cabin Inside Hamlet

These are the days when we can really celebrate the versatility of our camper. We love tent camping and where that takes us but sleeping on the ground in near freezing temperatures just doesn’t sound as appealing as it once did.  Perhaps, we are getting soft in our middle age, perhaps we have less to prove, but being in a beautiful, remote spot while also sleeping in a warm and cozy bed has really given us an appreciation for camping this way. Hamlet extends our travels into the shoulder season of autumn and even winter by acting as our basecamp.

While we’ve never spent a full winter set up full-time in sub-zero temperatures, we love camping in the snow. During winter months we sometimes migrate to warmer climates, or travel abroad, but we always spend some part of the season traveling through wintery weather. Our coldest experience on record was a frigid January night in Grand Junction, Colorado when we awoke to 6 Fahrenheit -- INSIDE the camper. This was certainly a first, and hopefully last, but here are a few ways we prepare to enjoy the winter season in our RV.

Cold Morning in Colorado

Our Pre-Season Winter Checklist

Locate your Tire Cables, Scrapers, & De-Icer
Digging through all your gear while the wind is blowing 30mph and you are being pelted by ice is not the time to begin searching for your tire cables, scrapers, or de-icer that you stored somewhere last year. As cold weather begins to set in, find these lifesavers and put them in a relatively easy spot to grab them when needed.  

Do a Heater Test & Propane Check
Pull out your heater before you really need it and give it a test drive – always inspect the gas hose for wear and tear before turning it on for the first time.  And, make sure your propane tanks are topped off before you pull away from civilization. We always carry two propane tanks on the front of Hamlet – one for our heater and one for our stove.  Propane exchange and/or filling stations are ubiquitous in the front country, but they are very hard to find at the end of a forest road. We’ve only gone through 3 propane pressure regulators in 7 years, but they inevitably freeze up when the temperature plummets below freezing right after a lot of rain. You can thaw these out of course, but it’s a bummer to have to do so at 7:00 am when it’s below freezing. Carry a spare in your toolbox.    

Keep your Shovel & Snow Shoes Handy
One dark and snowy night in Utah, we got our rig stuck smack dab in the middle of a campground – simply because we were trying to better position ourselves for an early morning exit. Little did we know, there was about 2 feet of snow on the main road near that site. Without a shovel, we would have had to walk in the dark toward phone service and a tow truck. With some patience and ingenuity, we got ourselves out of woods without additional assistance. 

Stock Up on Hot Drinks, Soups, & Chocolate
Firing up the stove to make a hot drink and/or hot soup and changing into dry clothes in a warm camper can turn a cold, wet hike into the best day of your life. And, if you need another excuse to eat chocolate, a bitterly cold winter day is the perfect one. Even a small piece of chocolate is just enough fat calories to get the internal fires burning in your body.  Have some before going to bed and you’ll be burning up in your sleeping bag before you know it!   

French Press and Coffee Coozies

Seasonal Clothing Exchange
We keep our off-season clothes in vacuum seal bags inside waterproof tubs stored in the bed of our truck. When it’s time to bring them out, we do this close to a donation station like Goodwill. Inevitably, we will need to get rid of some items and it’s handy to be able to donate them immediately; and, possibly pick up some additional gear for next to nothing.

Seasonal Clothing Stored in Compression Bags

Enjoy Winter!

People will continue to complain about winter, even though they’ve chosen to live in cold wintery areas. There are ways to enjoy winter weather, stay/get warm, and be dry and happy.

Stay Active with Winter Gear
We love getting out and playing in the snow, so we are strategic about the gear we carry to do this. Snowshoeing is a great way to stay active in winter, and you don’t need to be near mountains or buy a lift ticket. We also carry snow boots, spoon snow sleds, and a snowboard for some outdoor fun in mountainous areas. We use the AllTrails app to find trails all over the country (you can even filter for snowshoeing or cross-country skiing).

Snowshoeing Through Vineyards

Hot Trail Lunch & Hydration!
There’s nothing like eating a hot meal during a fall or winter hike. We fill our insulated mugs with piping hot soup or chili just before we head out and enjoy a soul warming meal in a sunny spot with a view. Also, hydration is key to staying warm. People who get hypothermic are frequently dehydrated. But, the water you drink doesn’t have to be cold. Put hot water and lemon/lime juice in an insulated water bottle, or even bring along herbal tea. 

Hot Soup Trail Lunch

Too Cold for Everything?  Head Inside for Fun
Don’t be silly and suffer! On days that are just too cold or snowy to enjoy being outside (or even in our camper), we head inside to a library or coffee house. Or we go to the movies, pay for a day pass at a recreation center and use the sauna or hot tub, or just visit friends with a fireplace. Be sure to make your friends a delicious breakfast or dinner in exchange for the heat! 

Spend the Day Visiting Friends with a Fireplace!

Weather Apps & Safety Reminder
There are quite a few great weather apps available, and we’ve probably used them all. But, our absolute favorite for getting  the “big picture” of national weather systems is My Radar. With a few clicks, you can quickly find out what’s coming your way, which way the wind is blowing, what the temperatures are like that you are driving toward, etc. Also, just a reminder on safety. If you have not yet reached your destination, and cannot safely do so … please don’t push it.  Get off the road and stay safe for the night. If you are not in a legal overnight parking spot and a police officer knocks on your door (though highly unlikely), simply explain your situation and assure them you will move along as soon as you can. They would prefer to know you are safe and off the road, then have to respond to an emergency later.  

Winter Necessities for Comfy Camper Life

Warm Feet are a Must
Insulate yourself first, then add extra heat. It probably goes without saying to make sure you have plenty of warm clothes, but warm feet are often the most important in a camper. We carry fuzzy, slide-on, durable shoes such as  fur-lined CROCS that we can leave at the camper door when we come in from the snow/mud; they are an absolute must to keep the floor clean and dry. To keep our feet warm inside the camper, we often wear backcountry down booties (50x better than your average slipper) and use small bathroom rugs on the floor in key places.

A VERY Cozy Comforter
We didn’t want to just rely on sleeping bags for our full-time life in Hamlet, so we made ourselves a very warm comforter for the bed. We put two fuzzy, fleece blankets together to make a duvet and stuffed it with our own down comforter.  It’s so cozy, we can sleep in very cold temperatures (hence the 6 degrees we woke up to inside the camper!). To pre-warm the bed on frigid nights, we make use of our Amish waffle iron as an old-fashioned bed warmer or put boiling water in a Nalgene and stuff it under the covers at the foot of the bed. Where do we store the down comforter it in the summer?  Under the mattress of course!

Warm-up with a Portable Heater
For those days when we do hang out in Hamlet, we rely on our Mr. Heater Portable Buddy to keep us toasty while we read, write, or watch a movie. We never sleep with it on, as it would simply bake us out of the camper at night, but we always warm up the camper before going to bed. Note: Although it has a low oxygen sensor, we also have a carbon monoxide detector in the camper.

Dealing with Condensation
Both burning propane and respiration give off moisture. Each morning before we get back on the road, we open the windows to air out the camper and/or use a small squeegee to remove the moisture from the inside of windows.  Doing this regularly is key to keeping your RV mold and mildew free.

Insulate Windows, Walls, & Pipes
If you plan to live full-time in your RV, insulate the walls and the pipes. When we did our renovation of Hamlet, we added foam insulation to the walls and used spray foam to fill holes/cracks wherever we could reach. This can be both time consuming and expensive, but could be worth it in the long run. If this isn’t possible or applicable to your situation, do a temporary fix. Cut pieces from a roll of reflective foil insulation to fit your windows. When you arrive at your destination for the night, place the insulation in your windows and close your curtains to trap any residual heat. Hang a fleece blanket over areas that leak heat, such as doors, the pass-through to your cab, etc. Put pillows or blankets up against walls where you sleep or hang out to add another barrier between yourself and the cold walls. And, if you plan to stay put for the season, consider adding a skirt to your rig to reduce air flow underneath, and thus heat loss.

An Icy Morning Ritual
A few winters ago, we developed a ritual that has helped us get out of bed on icy mornings. We pre-fill the kettle the night before and leave it on the stove. In the morning, Shari pops out of bed to turn on the kettle and the heater and then jumps back under the covers. By the time the kettle whistles, the camper is warm enough to get up make breakfast and get on with our day.  

Using Solar Power in the Winter
We use solar to power our camper, but with the sun at a lower angle and less daylight in the winter, we make sure our portable Phoenix Generator by Renogy is charged up (via the 12-volt accessory socket in the truck), as well as keep candles on hand, if/when our solar powered system runs low. We also have battery operated LED puck lights installed in strategic places in the camper, giving us plenty of light when solar isn’t readily available. Here are some important things to keep in mind when using solar in the winter. 

Go South & Go West

At the risk of sounding obvious, there are amazing places in our country where winter is frankly the best time to visit.  We’ve spent a large part of one winter in Florida and another in Arizona. We did not find these regions to be overly crowded, allowing us to travel completely reservationless. Certainly, there were RV parks filled to capacity, but the places where we prefer to camp had plenty of room. The Dyrt has a great app/website that you can use to find the perfect campsite for you.

At the end of the day, wintertime RV travel  is what you make of it!  By taking advantage of what we like best about the colder months makes our days fun. We prefer to travel through winter, sampling a wide variety of places and conditions rather than simply hunkering down in one place. A little preparation and some cold weather strategies can turn your winter RV experience into an adventure worth remembering.

From Our Home to Yours This Holiday Season

Join us in living large by living small!  Learn more about our solar powered adventures on our website and follow us on the road via social media at Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube!

Editor's Note:  Shari & Hutch will be presenting three interesting and informative seminars at the Seattle RV Show, February 6-9 at CenturyLink Field Event Center.

Shari and Hutch
Author: Shari and HutchEmail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.
In 2012, David Hutchison “Hutch” and Shari Galiardi left behind careers and a comfortable home in North Carolina to travel with the vintage camper trailer they lovingly restored, outfitted with solar, and named “Hamlet.” What they thought would be a year or two adventure around the continent transformed into a new lifestyle. 7.5 years later, with no end in sight, they share stories and insights from their mid-life adventure to large industry travel shows, intimate college campuses, open tiny houses in REI parking lots and a growing online audience. Traveling over 100,000 miles to 49 states, countless National Parks and other public lands, the couple pursues what it means to live the good life on their own terms and sustain it. The writing and photography duo currently pen the popular “Full-Time Campers” column in The Dyrt’s online magazine and contribute to Renogy’s solar blog as well as other publications.

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