We took more than 2.5 years to prepare our van for our drive around the world. We read dozens of books, got countless tips from others and spent hours on the internet researching how to live full time and comfortably in a van. We learnt so much before leaving home, yet one thing neither of us had ever experienced was true cold.
Although we had completely insulated the van and had cold weather gear, when we arrived in North America in winter we were shocked at how cold it actually gets! As we drove through Northern USA and Canada we gradually learnt how to best keep warm and make sure none of our equipment stopped working as we travelled.
Here are the most important things we learnt to survive comfortably and safely in the cold.
Don’t forget that your car feels the cold too
Its not just us that suffers from the cold. Cars, especially those that run on diesel, are seriously impacted by temperatures below -8 degrees celsius. They can have a lot of trouble starting – you’ll usually get a serious of gruff splutters and a whole lot of black smoke before the engine properly starts (especially if your car is elderly like Vanda).
If your car is diesel, its crucial you check the glow plugs are working before getting into negative temperature. If not, you may find yourself unable to start the car on a chilly morning.
Let the car warm up before driving
When its cold engine oil becomes thick and gooey, meaning that your motor won’t be getting lubricated as much as it would in warmer weather. That being said, if you start your car quickly on a cold morning and begin driving without allowing the engine to warm up properly, the life of your car can be significantly reduced.
We always leave the van to warm up for at least five minutes when the temperature is below zero, but even leaving your car for one minute will help considerably in allowing the engine oil to warm up and do its job properly. A perk to this is that you’ll end up saving a bit of fuel (as cold cars consume more than normal).
If you don’t have the time to leave your car warming up, another option is to buy a block heater that will warm the engine up with electricity from your home or any power point. We ended up buying one on Amazon for $28 as an emergency back up for super cold nights. Some parking lots and petrol stations will allow you to plug into their electricity so that, on a night of -30c for example, we can leave the heater on to be sure that the engine won’t freeze through.
Make sure you’re using winter or alpine fuel
Just like water, fuel freezes when it gets cold. Diesel starts to get jelly-like at around -5C, and just a little colder it’ll turn almost solid. For this reason it’s almost impossible to drive on diesel during a North American winter. Thankfully there’s winter/alpine fuel, and petrol stations in most cold countries will start selling this instead of regular fuel once it gets cold.
In Australia, where such low temperatures are rare, only specific petrol stations will sell this type of fuel. When we slept in the snow for the very first time in Mt Hotham, Australia we were only using normal fuel. During the night the temperature fell to -5C and we had a lot of trouble starting the car without alpine diesel. Believe us, it wasn’t fun to think we might be stuck at an isolated campsite in the freezing cold with a car that wouldn’t start.
Always ask for winter or alpine fuel if you know you’re heading into high altitude and cold areas!
Are your tyres compatible with snow and ice?
When we drove in the snow for the very first time we realised that something wasn’t quite right. We were driving relatively slowly on the highway at 80 km/h and we could definitely feel a loss of control from the build up of snow on the road. Even so, every single other car on the road zoomed past us at more than 100km/h with no troubles at all.
Only after mentioning this to some locals did we realise that most people have two sets of tyres – one to use in summer, and the other, softer set to use in winter.
Winter tyres are produced specifically for driving on ice and for temperatures below 7C degrees. They’re made from a type of rubber that doesn’t get brittle or frozen with the cold and therefore offers more grip. It’s even mandatory to use winter tyres income states across the globe during colder months.
If you’re going to be spending lots of time in the snow, its worth considering buying a set. Although they are pricey its well worth the security they’ll give you. If winter tyres aren’t what you’re after, the second best option is to get a set of M+S tyres (mud and snow) that’ll give you a little more grip than usual tyres.
Leave the windscreen wipers raised during the night
When it snows you car will undoubtably be covered in a layer of soft, white powder. However, if you leave the snow there for too long it may become icy and stick to your windows. Your windscreen wipers have no chance of getting rid of it, so avoid trying this out as you’ll most likely brake them.
Instead, leave them sticking up and attack the ice with a tool more appropriate for the job – an ice scraper.
Always carry an ice scraper with you
The first time you clean away snow from the windscreen is a pretty cool experience.. but after a while you’ll get sick of it, especially if you don’t have the right tools.
Using your hands will leave you with damp gloves and freezing cold fingers – trust us, we tried it. So the best tool you can have with you is an ice scraper. You’ll find them at any petrol station, garage or construction shop in colder climates and in North America they should cost you no more than $5.
Remove snow and ice from car before driving
Although snow falls soft and fluffy, after a while sitting around on the ground or on top of your car it gets icy and super hard. This can be a problem once you start driving – pieces of falling ice can cause serious damage to other vehicles. This video shows exactly how much havoc a single piece of ice can cause:
So if you’d like to avoid angry driver’s demanding payment for their damaged vehicle, take a couple of minutes to clear your car of snow and ice before driving. Our van is pretty high and it can be tricky to reach in between the roof top tent and solar panel to remove built up snow, but after watching this video we make it a habit to always make the effort!
Have spare headlight bulbs at hand
Light bulbs can burnt out a lot quicker in the cold than during warmer weather. If your car uses LED or xenon lights its always a good idea to carry a spare set of bulbs with you. When it snows, your visibility will most likely be considerably reduced, so driving without lights can be dangerous and hard work – you’ll be super relieved you have a spare bulb with you if one on the car blows!
Our water tank sits inside our van, however we purposefully made taps to access the water outside the van (in order to avoid accidental flooding). This worked perfectly for us.. until we started travelling in negative temperatures.
Usually around -2 degrees celsius the water pipes outside the car freeze completely. Sometimes the sun and heat form the car’s engine can melt the water but once it gets super cold – forget it!
Leave your warm bed to go to the toilet or wait until morning?
This is the worst possible aspect to sleeping in a van.. especially when its super cold. Just the thought of leaving your comfy sleeping bag to go out into the blistering cold to do a wee makes me want to shed a tear. The best way to avoid this kind of scenario is to avoid drinking water in the evenings and always go to the toilet right before going to bed.
Another idea for the extremely desperate is to take an emergency bottle/portable urination device to bed. For the ladies out there they’ve even invented an ‘extreme urination device’ aptly named the SheWee. Thankfully we haven’t had to go down that road just yet!
Avoid humidity at all costs
Humidity is your worst enemy in extreme cold. We’re not talking about rain or fog – we mean the the humidity we produce breathing, sweating and even using gas heating. The two best ways to avoid these are:
Change your clothes before sleeping
Even when its super cold, our body can transpire if we’re wearing warm clothes or doing too much activity – it might be so little that we don’t even realise it! Your clothes however, will absorb this humidity and if you’re using the same clothes to sleep in, you’ll end up feeling super cold and not understand why.
Leave a window slightly ajar
If you’re sleeping in the car or cooking/heating with gas its super important to leave a window or two slightly open. It might seem stupid to do this when its -10C outside, but the open window will let all the humidity generated by your breathe or the gas appliance escape outdoors.
If you don’t do this, your windows will fog up and start to freeze, allowing the temperature to drop inside the van quicker than if you leave a window slightly open. Trust us!
Driving in the snow and sleeping in the van in negative temperatures are unique and exciting experiences, but they should also be taken seriously. In extreme conditions an enjoyable night camping in the cold can turn into trouble very quickly.
Make sure you study the weather forecast closely, take care while driving and equip yourselves correctly!