Winter Vanlife: Buildout & Heat

Tis the season for making winter preparations, for those of us choosing to live alternatively (ooh good euphemism). I woke up to snow on the mountains this morning!! One year ago, after two years in the camper, I sold it and bought a van, and I did my buildout (with an extreme amount of help from my dad) last September with the intention of spending the winter mobile in the mountains and after a year in Sisu the Skimobile at high altitude, here’s part one: insulation, heat, and other winter buildout considerations.

early winter ’19/’20

Insulation

I did the buildout with winter in the mountains CLEARLY in mind. There’s 2″ of foam board insulation on the floor and ceiling, foam board in the windows, there’s spray foam and fiberglass insulation stuffed into every nook and cranny and hole in the frame, there’s a layer of Kilmat (I got that for free, it’s sound deadener that’s already sticky on the back, awesome) and Reflectix (used a lot of spray adhesive for that) on every bit of metal, and some of the panels I used to cover the camper’s windows stuffed in there too (those were made of cardboard, Reflectix, and quilt insulation).

There’s paneling on the walls, the ceiling is made of paintable wallpaper spray adhesived to the foam board, so that doesn’t have really any extra insulative effect (and it was a pain to put up but turned out REALLY cute). There’s 1/2″ plywood on top of the foam insulation floor, then a friend gave me some leftover laminate flooring, then I put rugs on top of all of it because regular floor is TOO COLD in the winter. When I went to Ikea with a friend, he did not believe me that I expected to get a floor rug to cut up for $12 (but that’s just true!). I did not want permanent carpeting because I knew it would get trashed with snow and mud and boots, and I wanted to be able to pull it out and clean it, dry it, or replace it, easily.

Here you can see the closet full of jackets and Gore-tex pants, the rugs, the bins, and just barely my skis hanging above my bed.

Heat

I’ve mentioned before, and I’ll do it again, I was not trying to do an expensive buildout and made a lot of decisions with the mindset of, if I spend too much on the heater, I won’t actually be saving anything by not paying rent. You can pay A LOT for a heater. The forced air propane furnaces that are reviewed so well by vanlifers start around $745 (for a Propex, which are dope heaters, they don’t create moisture, but they do have to be externally vented which is a complicated job and a permanent change to the vehicle’s frame)

Alternative ways to spend $745:

  • Lou Harvey flew to 4 continents in two weeks and only spent $745 on airfare. Coincidence? I doubt it. That’s maybe not the best example of what you could buy for $745 but it’s an excellent point.
  • Almost 75 Pizza Hut dinner boxes, but only if you live near a Pizza Hut.
  • Rent in lots of places, two months rent if you have a roommate.
  • This donkey https://westslope.craigslist.org/grd/d/loma-paint-mini-donk/7188386466.html

I did a lot of research and read a lot of reviews, as usual, looking for a combination of most affordable and effective/safest. I settled on a catalytic heater, which are very efficient and very safe, as compared to the standard (and cheap) Mr. Buddy. The Camco Olympian was consistently well reviewed both on Amazon and by copious vanlife youtubers. I went with a Wave 3 because it was cheaper basically. It’s the smallest version, thus lowest output. It would be fine for the limited space, except that I was going to be up high all the time and altitude affects their functioning. I read a variety of complaints about altitude and decided to do it anyway, and the reality was, it doesn’t have as much output at altitude but it still works fine. It was a lot better in Ouray (7,900ft or so) than in Leadville (10,150) or the pass (11,018), but in all of those places it kept us warm, possibly (probably) thanks to all the insulation.

Not a great pic, you get the gist though. The heater is put away for the summer so I had to use this old one, it’s actually pre-laminated floor.

A lot of people worry about the carbon monoxide possibility, my understanding was that with a catalytic, it’s unlikely, but I can tell you all the time I ran it, the carbon monoxide detector never went off and I did test the detector once by putting it next to the Biolite so I know it worked. The moisture thing that people talk about also wasn’t a problem, there was more moisture buildup (frozen) on the windshield when I was running the heater than when I wasn’t, but it wasn’t significant and I never had any problems with dampness (I’m going to do another post with winter essentials that will cover the windshield probs). In fact, after a day’s work at the ice park or a day of backcountry skiing, Pip and I would both be soaked from the snow and running the heater dried everything up. I used approximately one propane tank/month in the coldest months, December and January.

The heater is mounted on wood that’s installed behind the passenger seat, I wanted it off the floor for better circulation. It’s connected to a propane tank that sits in the passenger seat foot well but is movable if I’ve got a passenger besides Pip (or what actually happened is, passengers sat side saddle with a Pip on their lap).

a surprise snowstorm caught me unaware and I didn’t get the cover on my bikes 😦

Other Winter Buildout Considerations

Roof Vent: I did not want to do this, after all the problems I had with the camper’s roof in the winter. Snow is EXTREMELY PERVASIVE, I was constantly re-waterproofing the roof of the camper and no matter what I did to the screw holes that held the solar panels on, I could never get them not to leak during snow melt. The van’s panel is held on by the roof racks, the ONLY structural change I made to the body of the van was the two holes that the panel’s wiring runs through to the controller inside. This was a calculated risk, and I take a lot of care removing snow around there and there’s piles of caulk and waterproofing around it.

Water: I also chose not to do a sink or pump and only have portable water storage. I don’t heat the van when Pippa and I are not in it, so there’s too many times water can freeze. I used gallons and Nalgenes and Hydroflasks, and got water at the coffee shop, the gym, the hot springs, the public bathroom, or the grocery store. If a gallon freezes, you can melt it out pretty quickly either in front of the heater or on the dashboard in the sun.

Organization: I have two pairs of skis (an AT setup for backcountry and skate skis, I actually sold my Nordic classics because three seemed to be TOO MANY in the van. Nordic skis are very light and good for hanging, so they hang over my bed. The AT skis, being so heavy, go under the bed behind my gear/clothes/boots bins. Unfortunately, I bought a ski box from some guy for cheap and it didn’t occur to me that it might not be long enough for either pair of skis (d’oh!). Ski and climbing boots (and crampons) go in a big Rubbermaid bin underneath the bed during winter, while they’re in use, and in the roof boxes in the summer.

I badly wanted a closet because my various jackets (down puffy, down midlayer, soft shell, hard shell, etc) and pants (insulated hard shell, work bibs) wouldn’t sit in a box very well and I thought they’d store better hanging (they do, and the other upside is when they’re wet, I can put them away and they’ll dry there). My axes hang on a hook, then are secured by a velcro strap that I screwed into the side of the closet. Gloves of all kinds pretty much always live on the dashboard. You can definitely pick out a winter vanlifer by all the many things drying on their dashboard.

Okay, that’s enough for now. I’ll do another post with Winter Vanlife Essentials for like, windshield stuff, bedding, miscellaneous comfort things, etc.

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