How to Live in a Car/Van/RV during a Winter Season?


The difference between thrill and misery, for those who have had the opportunity to live inside a car during winter, is the preparation. It could have been by chance when your car broke down unexpectedly or you may have planned to car camp all through your vacation. Whatever the case, it is important to plan and plan well. And when you do, you will be in for some amazing unforgettable moments.

car camping checklist

Your essential winter car camping checklist

  • Heating and insulation
  • Antifreeze
  • Winter-grade car oil and fuel
  • Winter tires
  • Warm slippers
  • Hot water bottles
  • Blankets and sleeping bags
  • Fire extinguisher and carbon monoxide detector (if you will be using a wood burner for heating)
  • Ice scraper
  • Air freshener
  • Cooking stove and utensils
  • Clothing
  • Supplies like soap, lotion, hand sanitizer, tissue, and baby wipes
  • Pastime items like your laptop, books, and board games
  • Water cooler and flask
  • Flashlight


Emergency preparedness kit

When you decide to have your winter on the road, it is advisable to prepare for the worst. Make sure you have an emergency kit with the following items in case of an emergency.

  • A shovel to dig snow
  • Tow straps
  • Tire chains
  • A soft broom to clear snow off your panels
  • A bag of sand and/or traction boards to provide traction on slippery ice
  • First aid kit with treatment for burns, cuts, painkillers, and other common conditions


1. Location matters

Location matters

While it is obvious that you will be spending some days outdoor during winter, some places are better off than others.

  • Look for a warmer region in the area you will be staying. Staying inside a car already means that you are flexible enough to locate a good spot.
  • If you are near hot water springs, this is the place to be.
  • Try and park your van where you are not directly exposed to the wind, perhaps next to a building. This way, when you keep your window open for some ventilation, you will not have to live with the harsh effects of the gusty wind.
  • Be flexible enough to find accommodation when your car can no longer keep you as you had planned.


2. Prepping your car for a winter ride

Prepping your car for a winter ride

You should be able to drive your car from point to point during winter without a hassle. This takes adequate advance preparation.

  • Have enough of the right oil for your vehicle to take you through your vacation and ensure that the oil is winter-grade oil which is best suited for extremely cold temperature.
  • Your vehicle fluid should have antifreeze to prevent freezing.
  • Change your normal tires to winter tires. Winter tires have been designed with enough traction to move through thick powder.
  • Alongside winter tires, you will also need tire chains to help your car move through snow and ice packs. For comprehensive guidelines of prepping your car for winter, check out our ‘How to prepare your car for a winter trip to the slopes’ article.


3. Rule of thumb – insulate the car!

insulate the car!

The first thing that comes to mind when you think of winter is the cold. If you are going to spend some days in your car, there is no skimping on insulation given that temperatures sometimes drop below zero. Insulation is at two levels. Producing warmth inside the vehicle and preventing it from escaping.


Before you even consider heating your van, you need to have figured out how you will keep warm and prevent the biting cold from penetrating into your pro tem quarters.

  • The floor. Since very little heat escapes through the floor of the car, it is understandable if some will opt not to insulate it. However, consider blocking the holes on the floor with plywood.
  • The walls and windows. Reflective foam panels are a great option if you intend to insulate the entire wall of your car or only the car windows. Painting the outside black is a great way to remain private and still absorb heat. The reflective side should face the inside. Its function is to retain the absorbed heat. Alternatively, consider fiberglass or Thinsulate materials.
  • The ceiling. Insulate your ceiling the same way you have insulated the walls, only have thicker insulation since heat is lost easily through the ceiling. Secondly, if you have to do the lighting and ventilation system on your car’s roof, be sure to do this before insulating the ceiling.


Heating your car

When it comes to heating your car, there are several options at your disposal with each of them having its pros and cons.

  • Electric heating. Electric heaters are the cleanest, easy to use, and safest option. The only con with them is that they require a source of power. Without a power source, they will consume your car battery which will hardly last till morning when you will need to use it to start your car. As a precautionary measure, monitor the heater closely while it is on just to make sure it does not overheat.
  • Propane heating. This type of heating is one of the most popular heating solutions for van campers. An advantage with propane is that it is not limited to heating. It is the same fuel used for cooking meals as well as in other camping products. On the downside, however, be ready to move around with a canister and without a filling station nearby, it will be hard using this option. Secondly, have an effective ventilation system because propane heaters tend to cause an accumulation of moisture in the atmosphere.
  • Butane. Butane heaters operate more or less the same as their propane counterparts, only that butane is a more expensive fuel.
  • Heating with wood. Wood burners are a good option but you need to be extremely cautious with this option. Firstly, have an efficient ventilation system. Secondly, you will need a chimney through which smoke will escape out. The best advantage by far with wood burners is in their simplicity and naturalness. They give you the actual feel of adventure and are quite cost effective if you will carry your own wood. A downside is that it is not clean energy and you will have to do with the dust settling on surfaces. In addition, because they use uncontrolled fire, there is a likelihood of getting burnt. Finally, they produce carbon monoxide which is poisonous. With this in mind, arm yourself with a fire extinguisher and a carbon monoxide detector to be on the safe side.
  • Electric blankets. A very good option if you want something less involving but highly efficient. You will, however, need a power source. The car battery may power it but you need to take care that you do not have it on an entire night as this will be both unnecessary and costly.

Handy tip: Investing in a good insulation system will keep your heating energy cost to the minimum.

Van heating safety tips

  • Install a proper ventilation system not only for letting fumes and poisonous gases out but also for letting in the fresh air.
  • Have the heater on only when you are awake. When it is time to retire to bed, switch it off and make use of your warm clothes and blankets.


Your body needs insulation too

It is not enough to insulate your car. You also need to keep yourself warm throughout. To keep yourself warm, you need some warm layering to cover both your uppers and lowers when retiring to bed. Shed some layers if you feel overheated and add some when the freezing temperature becomes too much. Pack the following before you set out for your winter vacation.

  • A warm hat because you are likely to lose a lot of heat through your head.
  • Warm gloves and woolen socks because your extremities are usually the most affected by cold weather
  • Warm winter boots for the outdoor and warm slippers for staying indoors
  • Woolen, cotton, or synthetic base layers
  • More than one layers of insulation
  • Fleece blankets, sleeping bags, and a towel


3. Bedtime

sleeping bag

As you fix a decent bed to lie on, consider having a headboard to protect your head from the cold. You may have a merino wool hat on and hem into a sleeping bag, but the extra protection that this board offers cannot be underestimated.

Secondly, consider fixing your bed close to the roof of your car since technically warm air rises up. Leave the lower space for other activities.


4. Dining


While you are bound to rely heavily on convenience foods like granola bars, sandwiches, and canned fruit, you still have a good chance of cooking and enjoying freshly prepared meals. Eating well and staying hydrated is part of keeping your body warm. This is due to the metabolic activity that takes place inside your body after eating.

Be sure to include hot soup and hot beverages in your menu. And if you thought fats are a no-no, the good fats will give your skin excellent insulation against the cold.

If you can, carry flasks to keep leftover food so that you do not have to warm it when eating it. While at it, also carry wooden utensils instead of metal ones since they are poor conductors of heat and cold and will therefore not cool your food as fast.


5. Cleaning up

Cleaning up

Taking a bath is literally impossible outdoor during winter. How about the hot springs we had mentioned earlier. If you had succeeded parking your van next to one, showering will be as refreshing and as fun as your bubble bath back at home. Otherwise, you can do with a sponge bath or shower at any given opportunity.

Secondly, carry a disposal bag for the trash that will accumulate in your car. Finally, always find a way to air your clothes and boots to reduce moisture build-up in the van.


6. Storage


Car camping is like having a home away from home. Without a good storage plan, it will be frustrating trying to locate items when things are all over. Of course, you will have tried your best to travel light but the truth is you have a whole lot of gear that needs to be organized to fit into your van’s limited space.

Consider getting labeled cubes that you can arrange under your bed and access easily when you need to.

Apart from keeping your electronics safe from damage, their storage bag needs to keep them from freezing. This is because they also get affected by cold temperatures.


7. Pastime

Clearly, there is not much you can do outdoors in sub-zero temps. Don’t forget to pack up some entertainment items like your laptop, iPod, tablet, books and magazines to read, or games like chess, Sudoku, and scrabble. These should give you something meaningful to do with your time.


Extra tips and tricks

  • Your wallet should be adequately loaded. You never know what will come up during your stay. You may need to pay for accommodation if your car won’t keep you due to freezing temps, your car may need a certain service out of the blues, or you may need a ticket which is not included in your itinerary not forgetting the charges you’ll incur when crossing borders, anything is possible. Just be prepared.
  • Invest in a fan so that when ventilation is not sufficient, it will come in handy.
  • Don’t forget to carry a solar charger. It is a good alternative to draining your car battery.
  • Always carry extra supplies for one or two more days. You never know if you will have to stay longer than you had planned.
  • For car camps, a boot dryer is a handy tool not only for your boots but also for your clothes.
  • Carry containers for easing yourself. Going out to answer the call of nature is the last thing you want after you have worked so hard to warm yourself and your environment.
  • Your wipers should remain raised through the night so that they are not frozen to the windscreen come morning.



Living in a van is not everybody’s cup of tea, and that is why even fanatic van campers will not shy away from mentioning the challenges they face when living inside a car during winter. Advance preparation cannot be overemphasized. Always remember that part of the adventure of living inside a car is just letting things be and enjoying yourself. This is after you will have prepared adequately and carried everything in your checklist.

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