When it comes to van life, there are two types of people in the world: spring and summer enthusiasts who choose to settle down in a warm house for the darker, colder months of winter — and those who don’t.
Regardless of whichever type you are, it’s important to prepare your van for the challenges and plunging temperatures unique to the winter months. And if you’re a member of the summer-spring club only, you might even have to pay more attention — because Mother Nature does not care if you are at home or away.
Keep reading for our tips on how to winterise your van; protect it, and keep it safe this winter.
The tyranny of two words: “Burst Pipes”
“Burst pipes”; “frozen water” — these are words that strike fear into the hearts of any motorhome owner. When water freezes, it expands. And when it expands, it can rupture pipes and cause them to explode.
If your van is locked away for the winter and is suffering from burst pipes, the damage can be catastrophic. Similarly, if you are travelling, it can lead to massive disruption and expenses.
Fortunately, there are actions you can take to prevent this from happening, and depending on what “type” you are.
Fighting frozen water — for the summer & spring types
OK, so you’re thinking of parking the old girl up now that the nights are long and there’s a chill in the air by evening. What is the most important thing you should do?
You should drain down your van of any water. There are a few steps we would recommend to do this. [Pro Tip: If you are a visual learner, skip to the bottom of this article and check out our tips in Infographic style.]
- Try to park uphill, and near a drain, before you do anything. Utilise the power of gravity to help you drain down.
- Inspect the roof — and particularly the skylight if you have one — and any loose joints for potential leaks.
- Drain down the water heater unit. Even if you have a fancy automatic dump valve, get into the habit of manually draining it down. After all, do you really want to leave the fate of your van in the hands of a sensor on a machine?
- Open the drain down valve and then all of the taps in your van. Any stubborn drops of water should eventually make their way out of the pipes. (You can speed up this process if you have a drain down kit, which essentially blows air into the pipes and removes the water by force.)
- Flush the toilet and add some antifreeze to the water as it refills. Flush it once more, and there should be hardly any water coming up (and the remainder will contain antifreeze).
This is also the perfect time for the recommended annual dosing up of antifreeze in general. So check your levels and apply accordingly.
Fighting frozen water — for on the road types
If you are a true nomad, you’ll in some ways be in a more advantageous position than the summer and spring-types. For starters, just your habit of wanting to keep warm will help to beat away the frozen water monster. You also have the advantage of being the first response disaster force if anything goes wrong.
Assuming you will be burning propane and using space-heaters already, here are some other tips to keep warm:
- Use heat tape on any piping and hoses — especially if they are exposed to the elements.
- Keep your rig warm where the water connects to your van. This is a lot simpler than it sounds — a simple, properly-mounted bulb of about 40-watts should be more than enough.
- A “skirt” is an ideal way to keep the temperature elevated, and to protect your pipes and wiring on the underbelly of your van. Skirts can be made out of simple fabrics and very quickly if it’s a team effort.
Protecting your van in general — for the summer & spring types
So you’ve parked up and completely drained your van down. Congratulations! Your number one enemy has been neutralised.
But that’s just the beginning of what you should do to protect your motorhome; especially if you don’t plan on using it for several months (December — February being the coldest typically).
You should give your van a good inspection and clean, so it’s ready and waiting for the wanderlust that returns in spring. Starting from the inside, here’s what we would recommend doing:
[Pro Tip: This is all covered in the Infographic below. Visual learners — GO!]
- Clear up and remove all traces of food. Food can generate a stagnant, musty smell — especially in confined spaces. It’s also basically an invitation for mice, rats and insects, who will already be looking for a shelter from the cold. Don’t invite them with food.
- Remove all the batteries, including your van battery. Better to take them home with you, where they can be regularly topped up (which is recommended every 4-6 weeks) and kept warm and dry.
- Roll up any fabrics and move them away from the walls. Really, we would recommend taking them with you. But if for whatever reason you can’t, keep them away from the walls to prevent mould growth.
- Make sure you don’t leave anything valuable in your van. January — in the depths of winter — is one of the highest months for motorhome theft. Especially don’t leave anything in plain sight. Don’t invite burglars as well as rodents into your van.
As for the outside:
- Make sure the drains and gutters are clear of leaves and other detritus. Again your nemesis, frozen water, is waiting to cause damage.
- And while you’re at it, spray a little WD-40 on the electrics for extra protection against moisture.
- Check for punctures and the pressure of your tyres, and for general road-worthiness.
And lastly, a big clean of the outer body never hurt anyone. This isn’t essential, but it will keep your van looking bright and beautiful till next time. A wash and wax should do it, but some overwintering fluid will also help to keep away dirt and water, too.
Summer & spring types — Don’t forget about your van!
Some summer and spring types (not you, of course) forget about their vans entirely for the duration of winter. This is not a good idea. Generally, you should check up on your van at least every couple of weeks for a quick inspection.
If you haven’t already, it is worth picking up a moisture detector for your inspections. If there’s anything more than 15 per cent moisture — then you have a problem.
You should also think about taking your van for a short drive to make sure the wheels aren’t constantly fixed in the same place; with the air-con on to flush out any accumulated moisture inside.
Don’t forget about your van over the winter. Take good care of it then, and it’ll take good care of you in the springtime.
For the road types — Some key things to remember
Living in a van over the winter is buckets of fun — but it isn’t easy. You will feel the cold, and the extreme cold can bring some unique challenges. But most vans are relatively small; smaller even than Class B motorhomes. This makes them much easier to keep warm, due to their size.
Still, here are some tips and things to remember.
- Use a sleeping bag. Sleeping bags are great insulators. Your own body heat will give you much needed warmth on the coldest nights.
- A 15 AMP power lead should be more than enough to keep your heaters going, and your battery and laptop charged and running.
- About 75lbs of propane gas will last about a week in consistent sub-zero temperatures.
- If it gets really cold, like -5℉ or -20 ℃ cold, any diesel will start to gel (or ‘crystallise’). You can buy anti-gels to add to diesel tanks to prevent this chemical reaction from happening.
- Sometimes it’s worth covering the windows for extra insulation.
- Don’t forget to wrap up warm. A woolly hat will trap in that extra heat and keep you noticeable warmer.
But most importantly, don’t forget to have fun. During the winter most of the crowds are gone. You might find huge swathes of natural parks and land that’s entirely yours to explore. Make the most of it, but don’t underestimate the cold and the weather, and act and dress responsibly.
Neil Wright is the content writer for We Buy Any Motorcaravan. He has first-hand knowledge of life on the road from extensively touring the western United States and Canada (including, yes, one winter in Alberta) and the UK.