Winter in a Van

As an Australian, I was very concerned about going north through Norway and Sweden. How cold would it get? How would I drive in snow? What survival tips did I need? Would my car start? And so on. We spent two weeks up north, and even now as we have been making our way south again, the cold has been following us.

As a note, I’m talking about temperatures that are averaging 0C during the day, and down to -10C or -15C at night. Basically, as far as Swedes and Norwegians are concerned, pretty warm.

So, what have I learnt about living in the van during the long (LONG) cold pre-winter nights in Scandinavia? I’ve seen a few lists of tips and advice (bring medical supplies, wear wooly hats, and so on) but I think there’s been a few things missing that I’ve discovered along the way. A routine, if you will.

Our first glimpse of the winter to come as we crossed a pass in Norway

Things You Need

  • Yes, make sure you have the right clothes. Specifically warm hats, neck warmers (YES), many pairs of socks, and mittens. Gloves are fine, but I found that Norwegians and Swedes love mittens for good reason – all your fingers generate heat and the heat gets trapped in a cosy little finger pouch. Mmmhm, finger pouch. Ok, ok, you can’t pick anything up, tie your laces or reply to that text message but you’ll be warm at least, and in my opinion there’s nothing like having cold, aching hands to make you miserable.
  • Speaking of tying your laces, a pair of good water-proof/snow-proof shoes has been invaluable. Tall ones (no, not thigh-high) so if the snow is 10-15cm deep you won’t get snow (thus, water) in your socks. Genius.
  • Basically just rug up. You can wear your hat and whatever you want to bed too if you’re so inclined. Make sure your clothes are dry, that means changing your socks before bed (you grossbag, you were gonna keep your sweaty, stinky socks on all night, weren’t you?) cos if they’re damp or sweaty, your feet will be cold.

Typical day’s clothes. Warm hat, warm neck warmer, skii jacket, 2 layers of merino underneath, black sport tights, wool socks x2 probably, hiking boots (or my longer snow/water boots which honestly were $50 from some “cheap” shop in Bergen but seemed to do the job), and mittens or gloves. And I’m pretty cosy.

  • Merino is your friend. As are warm cups of tea.
  • If you’re living in your van, insulation is a must. I’ve worked out that most morning where it’s -3 outside, it’s about 4 inside. Which is still cold, but… well… better than -3. Also curtains. You lose so much heat through the windows. People also have heaters – I ended up with an electric one. I had a butane heater but then you need good ventilation which means opening a window which means why am I bothering to waste all this gas? You can also get diesel heaters but they cost $$$$.
  • Winter tires. Yes. Sweden and Norway have these bad-ass studded tyres for especially icy/snowy conditions, however these aren’t legal in Germany (and probably other countries). Just incase you were thinking of buying your tires in Norway (????) (PS. Is it tires or tyres? I always thought tyres).
  • An ice-scraper thing, and/or a windshield cover for outside your windshield (depending on how you feel about the safety factor of doing this since you can’t just drive off if you’re in danger). Also some de-moisturising things for inside. Trust me, everything is going to be either wet, snowy, or muddy, and you’re breathing during the night (… I hope…??) so the inside of your van will get very damp very quickly.
  • A good bed cover/duvet and/or sleeping bag (mine goes down to -10)
  • A little boot-scraper brush or similar. I found the snow up north was so beautifully powdery that every time I came inside I would track snow in with me, making my floor really wet. I had a little welcome mat so I could get some of the snow off, first. Problem was that the snow got caught in it, then the mat froze, then I had to put it in the back of my van, essentially making everything else very wet.
  • A headlamp. It’s dark out there, all the damn time. Also you might want a light for your dog. See my review on the Noxgear Lighthound harness.
  • Yes, safety gear, medical supplies, food… all the usual stuff you should have ANYWAY.

I NEVER put the roof up from the beginning of autumn onwards, it just lost too much heat. But here I was connected to power (therefore HEAT!) and trying to dry the inside of the van out a bit. This was probably taken at like, 1.30pm. Note the setting sun. 

 

My Daily Routine.

Once the days started getting shorter, I had to change how we travelled to maximize our hiking time, minimize time spent driving at night (because mooses and also I hate driving at night. What is the plural of moose? Meese?).

Our typical day therefore would look something like this:

Wake up early. Either change in bed under the covers (it’s too cold out there) or run the engine for 15 minutes to bring the temperature up to a bearable 10C, then change. Often I would also boil the kettle for a cup of tea but unfortunately the butane canister for the stove stops working at about 4-6 degrees so I would wrap it in a blanket and carry it around between my legs or under my arm for 10-15 minutes to warm it up. Yep, I did look like a fool.

Drive an hour or two using the morning half-light to where we want to hike. Spend the day hiking, make lunch, etc.

Drive another hour or whatever as it’s getting to dusk.

About 10-15 minutes before I reach my final destination, I blast the heaters of the van. The engine is at its warmest, and if I put it on to cycle the air from inside the car, it gets up to about 30C inside pretty quickly.

Pull up at my campsite. Leave the engine running while I essentially ‘batten down the hatches’. Curtains up, reflective stuff stuck on the windscreen and front windows, Loki’s crate moved to the front seat, and then we pile in. Yes ok, I know running the engine all the time isn’t great for the environment or my fuel consumption but really, it’s cold otherwise.

It’s really nice to cosy up under the blankets and cuddle Loki on those cold nights. Mostly he would sleep ON my legs, causing me to wake up with cramped legs from being squashed up all night (also you can’t stretch your legs straight because if your legs have been curled up for a while, the end of the bed is SO COLD OMG even with socks on). Also I would wake up with aching wrists because of the death-grip I would have on the blankets around my neck. 

From this point, it’s a matter of not leaving the van any more than necessary. Understand that every time you open a door, your temperature will drop. It’s also a matter of spacing out when to use your stove. I usually make a cup of tea about an hour after I get in (bumping the temperature back up), and leave dinner as late as I can (assuming I’m having a cooked dinner) so that’ll add heat one last time before bed. I also get changed into my pajamas during one of these periods OR straight after I arrive and it’s still 25C inside from the car heaters.

At about 10C it just starts feeling cold and not that much fun, so that’s a good time to wrap yourself up in blankets, put on a hat, and/or just get into bed.

Once in bed, I’ve been pretty warm and comfortable, even without my sleeping bag on. Loki usually sleeps curled up near my legs, though I can convince him to come under the covers in the morning and before I fall asleep, so I get some extra warmth there.

And yes, we saw the lights, and I was happy to leave the door open for photos because I had power and the heater running! Loki still thought it was too cold. (about -10C out)

Living the Cold

I think as a van-dweller you have to find your own rhythm. Maybe you want to use that morning light productively. Maybe you want to sleep in. Maybe you don’t mind driving at night (good for you. The later you can arrive, the warmer your evening will be). My other strategy was to wake up, pull on a coat and drive until the car warmed up then change into my clothes for the day. Depends on what plans I had. As a person walking around living life, I was generally quite warm unless I forgot my mittens or tried to go for a hike in the snow with only one pair of socks on and damp boots (rookie error, Em, rookie error).

At the end of the day, though, being very cold was just not that much fun for me. Once it started getting below -5 and I woke up to the van at 0 with my water and Loki’s water frozen over, I began going to campgrounds where I could plug into power and run a heater as much as I wanted. That made northern Sweden much more bearable. It took me a long while to realise that this wasn’t a failure. I hadn’t “failed” at vanlife, that it was being sensible and actually helping me not hate being there. Whatever your limit is, whether it’s 3C or -10C, you need to make up your own mind about how you want to live through it. I complain a lot about the cold, but I learnt a lot about my resilience up there. I discovered I’m way more capable than I thought I was, and I had some really amazing experiences – watching reindeer lick salt off the road, jumping around on the top of snowy mountains, running through fresh, powdery snow with Loki and laughing at him and his snow antics, standing still and silent as fat snowflakes drift down in the mid-afternoon sunset. I am confident too now that wherever I go, even if it gets a bit cold, that I’ll be alright.

 

This was by the time we started staying in campgrounds/camping places/caravan parks. I saw that Europeans often put their windscreen wipers up overnight but I couldn’t work out why so I went with the halfway approach and just lifted one. This day I was really worried about driving in the snow (you can see all my tracks, I did a whole lot of circles of this parking area to try and squash the snow as much as possible) but really I had to just not be scared and accelerate and it was all ok.

Loki in the Cold

Loki had an assortment of coats and jackets as he doesn’t have that much fur and I felt bad for him when it dropped below 0, but on hikes when he was running around he usually didn’t wear anything. He still wanted to swim and once or twice he did (my bad throwing skills meant the stick went further than intended) and ended up with little ice crystals on his fur. I have a feeling that he had his own coping mechanisms for the cold – once when exploring the mountains at Björkliden he went totally crazy, running, jumping in the snow, biting my jacket, jumping on me. It was insanely cute, but I also wonder if it was his way to keep warm. If so, I think I’ll make him cold more often, it was the cutest thing ever.

At night, he never seemed cold and usually I wouldn’t put a coat or anything on him over night, unless he was damp. I only saw him shivering twice. Once when I kicked him out of the van (it was our first night on snow, and I reckon it was about -6 out there) and closed the door on him so I could make up the bed. He had a coat on but when I opened the door he was sitting on the welcome mat shivering. Whoops. And the other time was when I let him swim in a lake. I put his towelling coat on him afterwards to dry him off, and then a warming coat on him, but I think because he hadn’t really been able to run around and warm his body up afterwards, he felt the cold that time. He never wore boots in the snow and only got snow-balls between his toes once, and we were never in places that had de-icing salt on the ground so I wasn’t worried about that.

Any more tips or tricks for living in a van in the cold? Let me know!

A thirty-something dog trainer, outdoor lover, agility enthusiast and would-be writer from Australia – taking her dog and travelling around Europe.

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