HERE ARE A FEW HANDY TIPS WE LEARNED AFTER VANLIFING DURING A CHILLY COLORADO WINTER.
Have you ever noticed that when you look at photos of “vanlife” you only see sparkly images of cool vans in sunny, vibrant places: a beach, a lush green forest, a sunny, flower-filled meadow. One thing you often don’t see? Vans in dreary, cold, snowy places. That is because more often than not, vanlifing in the winter kind of sucks.
The cold, the weather, the darkness. It is all a bit suffocating.
Luckily, after spending some time living out of our van during the chilly winter months - in Colorado no less - we have realized that with a bit of prep you can actually live quite comfortably. Below are a few hot tips we learned.
First, a few things to know about our wonderful van, Terra:
It is a 1995 Dodge Ram Van
It is too short/low for us to stand up in
There is no bathroom, running water or kitchen in the van
6 TIPS FOR VANLIFING IN THE WINTER
Find a place to work outside of the van (if possible).
This might be a bit controversial, but we were so, so glad that we found a coworking space to work at for the month while vanlifing in Western Colorado. While we have friends who have totally been able to work in their van/RV during the winter, for us, we really needed the space to spread out and get work done. Plus, and this might be the most important thing, we also really wanted a place to work that was a) warm and b) had a kitchen (since our van's kitchen was really just a table and camping stove outside).
Don't get us wrong, during the summer months we 100% would have be working out of our van. But during the winter it just didn't make much sense. Plus, having those extra amenities (a kitchen mostly) allowed us to focus completely on work and not on whether we would have good internet to work off of, whether we would be able to cook outside and whether we would actually be comfortable and warm.
Heater or no heater.
For us - two people who don’t really love the cold - the idea of living out of our van in the winter wasn’t ever really on our radar. It took some truly unique circumstances (i.e. buying a house) to keep us in our van in Colorado during the colder months.
So as you can imagine, we were not totally prepared for the wintry temperatures. Including not having a heater. Instead, we opted to just pile a lot of blankets up and if it got reeeeally cold we would do the old boiling water in a bottle trick (which works surprisingly well).
While some might scoff at this idea, one thing to keep in mind - at least when vanlifing in Colorado - is that more often than not, only the late evenings and early mornings are truly bitterly cold. Once the sun comes out, you can usually warm up pretty quickly (thank you higher elevation).
If you are willing to be a bit uncomfortable at night and in the morning, you can easily get away with not having a heater in your van. We even found that once we eventually slunk out of the warm blankets in the morning we almost immediately started to warm up (it was like a dry ice bath).
So what we are really saying is that you don’t necessarily need a heater in your van even during the winter. Instead grab some good blankets (wool ones are great) and in a pinch a couple of hot water bottles. Done.
Find some good camp spots before dark.
This tip doesn’t just pertain to vanlifing in the winter. No matter the time of year, it is always a good idea to know where you are camping for the night before it starts to get dark. The only real issue here is that in the winter the darkness comes on a lot earlier.
For us, the first couple of days in a new place is always the hardest time to find good camping spots. Luckily, we ended up discovering a couple of awesome places - including two spots on BLM land (which are always totally open to camp and vanlife on).
We tend to look at iOverlander for most of our camping spots when vanlifing around. But unfortunately there weren’t a ton of spots super close to Grand Junction (besides Walmart of course). Which led us to find another option: Harvest Hosts. This is a subscription service that lets you camp at vineyards, breweries, museums, etc. all across the USA, Canada and parts of Mexico. If looking to vanlife near Grand Junction this is a great option since there are a lot of wineries in the nearby town of Fruita.
GOOD TO KNOW: Harvest Hosts costs around $100, but it is good for a year. They offer lodging at vineyards, breweries, distilleries, farms, etc. You can check them out here.
Have warm gear for cooking - especially if doing it outside.
Because our van is not set up with an indoor kitchen we ended up having to cook all of our meals outside. We actually love this setup when the weather is nice, but it can be a real drag when the temperatures are quite cold and it is already dark out (aka dinnertime in the winter).
We ended up cooking a lot of our dinners in full winter gear: beanies, thick gloves, multiple layers of socks, etc. Then once everything was done cooking we would quickly hideaway in the van to eat our meals. While it was a bit comical to try to cook in thick gloves, we definitely appreciated their warmth on those really cold nights.
If facing a similar prospect of having to cook outside, definitely look into getting some nice gloves that are warm but still easy to use (like holding a spatula). Also a toasty beanie, thick wool socks and a down jacket are never a bad idea during cold Colorado days.
INSIDER TIP: we also suggest having a couple of easy and quick meals up your sleeve so you don’t have to spend a lot of time cooking outside. Or, better yet, consider prepping meals ahead of time so you just have to warm them up real quick.
Know your elevation profile.
While we were primarily based out of the town of Grand Junction, which sits at 4,583 feet (1,398 meters), we also decided to do a couple of weekend adventures away from the valley. While we absolutely loved exploring different areas nearby - namely southwest Colorado and the Moab area, we quickly noticed that the higher in elevation we went the lower the temperatures.
If you are looking to vanlife during the winter, make sure to know what elevation you will be staying at. Even the slightest change in height makes a big difference in overall temperature - especially at night.
In Colorado, your best bet for the most optimal weather during the winter will be in the Grand Junction area (the Grand Valley) which sits at quite a low elevation (4,500ish feet) or along the Front Range (Fort Collins, Loveland, Denver, Colorado Springs). Otherwise, expect very cold temperatures and even snow.
GOOD TO KNOW: a couple of places you don’t want to camp at in a van? The towns of Craig, Gunnison and Fairplay, three places that are often labeled the coldest in the state.
Think about heading south.
If you find yourself just not enjoying vanlifing in the winter - either because of the cold temperatures, the high levels of precipitation, or just the overall lack of sunlight - then maybe you just need to say screw it and head south.
We have heard Mexico is very nice during the winter :)
We never really expected to have to vanlife during the winter. In truth, in our perfect world we would either be spending the winter season down in the southern hemisphere (therefore skipping winter altogether) or at a ski resort (like we did in Crested Butte).
Honestly, vanlifing can be tough no matter the season. But once you add in colder temperatures, questionable weather and darkness, you find that living out a van can sometimes be very little fun at all. Hopefully, these 6 tips help you enjoy it a little bit more. And if you really just aren't feeling it, you can take our advice and simply head to warmer climates (seriously, Baja is great during the winter).
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