It’s a mind-set, a movement, a community, an aesthetic and a journey. Van lifers are especially in touch with the outdoors — whether they are surfers, hikers, mountain bikers or winter sports fanatics. Living right on the mountain or the beach offers more opportunities to enjoy their favorite pursuits any day of the week.
Now, as new van lifers prepare to encounter cold weather for the first time, they are considering how to get through the winter — pricing snow tires and studying insulation techniques to keep their plumbing systems from freezing.
Van lifers Frankie McCullough and Alex Napoli are experts at living in the snow, and they first left the hustle and bustle of New York City behind to hit the road for the long haul in December 2019. Their goal: to break the record for snowboarding the most mountains in a single season. After they had conquered 70 mountains (which they say is an unofficial record), covid-19 hit, and the rest of the mountains they planned to visit shut down — but they don’t plan to return to the city anytime soon. “We love this lifestyle and are excited for another winter in the van,” says Napoli, who’s from Canada.
The couple drives a self-converted 2003 Dodge Sprinter 2500 named LoLo — short for Lotus Bungalow — while traveling full-time and running their own YouTube channel to create videos full of van life advice. This venture, combined with the money they saved before hitting the road, provides enough income to cover monthly expenses.
Napoli points out that staying warm in the winter is less costly than staying cool in the summer — extra blankets and a space heater will do the job, while air conditioning gobbles up gas.
One challenge of living the winter van life is shorter days with less daylight. Napoli recommends outfitting the van with powerful lights to ensure high visibility on unlit rural roads. Braking time in an RV takes significantly longer than in a normal car, and an animal on the road could mean disaster.
Proper tires are also an important detail of safely driving on snow and ice. “We have basically truck tires — they’re 80 psi [pounds per square inch], and we have to go to truck stops to fill them because regular gas stations’ air pumps don’t go high enough,” Napoli says. These stronger tires better handle icy conditions, and they distribute the van’s heavy load in a safe way.
Van living at a high altitude also means it is easier to get snowed in. “You definitely want to get out every once in a while and shovel around your van so that you don’t allow any carbon dioxide to rise inside if the snow gets too high,” says McCullough, who’s from Brooklyn. “You probably won’t have that kind of problem if you’re inside city limits, but in the rural mountains, you get feet of snow compared to just inches in the city.”
Finding a place to spend the night can become more complicated in the winter when traditional campgrounds close and conditions become more challenging to navigate, but National Forestry land and Bureau of Land Management land is open year-round. Napoli recommends using a mobile app called iOverlander, which offers van lifers many options for cost-free docking spaces across the country. In the snow season, the couple found that many ski resorts will allow them to park overnight if they check in with the resort’s security.
Another must when traveling in cold weather is to properly insulate indoor living spaces. Pipes and plumbing should be near sources of indoor heat to avoid freeze-ups. An insulating area rug and window coverings also keep heat inside. “Having an inside heater really works but it’s great to have an alternate heat source, just in case,” Napoli says. “For example, we have our stovetop for boiling water and heating the space at the same time.”
Van lifers should always try to have an alternate power source on hand as opposed to relying solely on solar power. Napoli and McCullough rigged the alternator of their vehicle to power its battery bank so it charges the batteries as they’re driving. This way they have power even on a cloudy day.
Veteran van lifer Sydney Ferbrache has lived on the road for almost three years. She’s experienced every type of weather across the United States, from extreme heat to extreme cold. She travels with her two dogs, Ella and Pearl, who offer her companionship and keep her warm in the colder months.
Ferbrache, who is from Indiana, earns her income through integrating advertisements into her podcast “My Solo Road,” in which she talks about van life and interviews other van lifers. She also makes money building businesses’ websites on a freelance basis and negotiating brand partnerships on Instagram.
Though Ferbrache recommends sleeping in a hat when the temperature drops at night, she says she doesn’t worry as much about freezing in the cold weather as she does about crashing her van in icy conditions or becoming stranded in the snow without proper tires.
“Invest in things that will keep you safe — like AAA. I think having roadside assistance will make you more prepared,” she says. This year, Ferbrache says, she plans to avoid the freezing weather altogether by migrating south — a popular choice among van lifers, including Halle Homel.
Homel has been traveling full-time since June 2019. She drove through all the Lower 48 states and decided she didn’t want to return to a rooted lifestyle. She works as a copywriter to earn a living and can create content wherever she has Internet access. She’s from the Greater Los Angeles area and lives and drives in an 18-by-8 1997 Dodge Ram 2500 van named Sequoia.
She spent last winter in the Southwest to avoid the cold, and she met her boyfriend, Jared Brantner, at a van meetup in Arizona in January. He is now living and traveling with her.
Going south is “way more tolerable than being in the mountains or in the Northern states in the winter,” Homel says. She described getting stuck in the snow in Sedona, Ariz., last winter while she was traveling alone; it was so cold she had to use her zero-degree backpacking sleeping bag inside the van to keep from freezing.
“Now, to keep warm just in case, I have a buddy heater which attaches to propane,” she says. “We can’t run it all night because the propane will run out, but it’s great in the morning when it’s freezing.”
Ultimately, Homel notes, people’s attitude on winter van life is determined by what they make of it — it’s up to them to create their own best experience. For example, van lifers can take advantage of the opportunity to see the most popular landmarks in the country, such as the Grand Canyon, in the offseason when it’s less crowded but just as spectacular.
“Van life is not what you see on Instagram. It’s a lot more than that. There’s a lot more layers to van life,” Homel says. “You have to kind of accept that there are going to be challenges and bumps in the road, but if you really want this freedom and you really want to travel, you’re going to figure it out as you go.”
O’Brien is a writer in Los Angeles. Find her on Twitter: @Molly_A_OBrien.