How to Survive Winter in an Adventure Rig

No matter what type of adventure mobile you live in, these tips will help you get through freezing temps and winter storms.

One of the biggest challenges for mobile dwellers is surviving freezing temperatures, especially overnight. With thin walls and little (if any!) insulation, most rigs, whether a camper trailer, cargo van, or Subaru, are not designed cold-weather habitation in mind. A little preparation goes a long way to help avoid frozen toes and shivering through the night. After living in a camper trailer with my partner and our two dogs through Colorado polar-vortex conditions, I know that with the right materials, it’s possible to stay warm and dry—even in the middle of winter. My biggest takeaway? While every square foot of your space is valuable, the way you use it is even more consequential. Here are my top tips on how to make the most of a small space and stay warm.

Over Insulate

The best thing you can do to stay warm in the wintertime is to insulate your vehicle. And because you aren’t living in a big space, it’s actually a fairly easy process. Before going too crazy with the insulation spray foam, examine your walls, floor, doors, and windows. Put your hand up to an area. How much cold air can you feel passing through? For interior holes, use small pieces of Tuck Tape Sheathing Tape to seal small areas. On the roof, apply Self-Leveling Lap Sealant to help prevent leaks and mold. No matter the structure, making sure there’s a barrier between you and the outdoors will prove beneficial.

How you insulate and how much you insulate might depend on your comfort level. Keep in mind that insulation will not only trap heat in the winter, but it will also help keep you cool in the summer. Start with a layer of radiant barrier and add a layer of styrofoam insulation. If you don’t want to be staring at styrofoam walls, place a wood paneling over them to make it feel more like home.

Greg installing insulation | Photo: Elle Wildhagen

Kathleen’s partner Greg installing insulation | Photo: Elle Wildhagen

[How to Insulate Your Windows] Measure the height and width of the window you are planning on insulating. Take off ¼ of an inch on each side, and measure and cut a piece of styrofoam insulation to the new dimensions. Then, take a piece of radiant barrier and wrap the piece of insulation like a present. Make sure to evenly distribute the radiant barrier on all corners and sides. Press your radiant-covered insulated block into each window like a puzzle piece, leaving you a shield from cold temperatures. Repeat with every window. If you have large windows, consider measuring out two or four pieces that you can piece together to fit your window frame.

Dress in Layers

It’s easier to stay warm than it is to get warm, so apply your hard-won layering knowledge to van hangouts, too. Start with a wool or synthetic baselayer. Wool is an insulator (think of it like radiant barrier, but for your body). If you’re still not warm, add another layer—wool, fleece, or down are all great options. Wearing a wool beanie will also keep your head nice and toasty. Keep these items close to the area where you sleep so it’s easy to access in the morning. If you’re still cold, consider bundling up in a 0-degree or lower temperature sleeping bag and adding a down comforter for extra warmth.

Photo courtesy of Kathleen Morton

Photo courtesy of Kathleen Morton

[Favorite Winter Garment] Down Booties. These slippers/boots are perfect for walking around indoors. Wearing a pair of wool socks on the inside and these booties on the outside will warm up your feet quickly. My favorite ones are also water repellent so you can run outside and grab something without changing into a pair of boots.

Know Your Heat Source

One of the biggest questions I get beyond insulation and layering is about heating tiny spaces. There are several people who survive winter without a heat source, bundling up in layers and toughing it out through the colder temperatures. But if you’re looking for an extra heat boost, fortunately, you don’t need too much of it to warm up your tiny space.

  • Wood burning stoves are great devices if you have the room, but obviously, they’re only usable when parked. They dry out moisture, whereas a gas stove might create condensation. But with both gas and wood stoves, it’s a good idea to have proper ventilation and a carbon monoxide detector on hand will keep you safe.
  • If you have electricity available, you might want to consider an electric heater, as you won’t have to worry about safety as much, but they can take up more energy and space.
  • A top-choice for many van dwellers is the Mr. Heater. It’s smaller than your daypack and runs on green propane canisters.
  • My personal favorite? A portable oil-filled radiant space heater. You can get one small enough to fit your space while also not using large amounts of electricity. The DeLonghi EW7707CB model has three settings that allow you to use 700 watts, 800 watts, or a combined 1,500 watts. Store it away in the summer months or transfer it into another adventure rig as needed.

Cook Indoors

In a house, when the oven and burners are running, the kitchen is the warmest place to be. The same rule holds true for your tiny space, where a little heat goes a long way. Depending on the electricity you have available, you may not be able to use a full-kitchen setup, but you most likely will have a device for cooking your meals. Whether you’re using a two-burner camp stove with propane or a wood-burning stove, cooking over a flame will warm your body and surrounding space.

A photo posted by Alton Richardson (@agrphoto) on

Recipe for a Winter Day: Potato Pancakes

Ingredients

  • 4-5 potatoes, chopped/grated into small pieces
  • 2-3 cups of chopped green onions
  • ¼-1 cup flour, depending on how much moisture you have remaining
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Directions

  1. Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl.
  2. Heat one tablespoon of olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Use a ladle to scoop potato mixture onto the skillet and spread into a 1/8-inch thick patty. Fry patties for three to four minutes on each side, or until golden brown.
  3. Cook remaining latkes in batches of two, adding one tablespoon of oil to skillet each time.
  4. Serve with sour cream (vegan if preferred) and/or applesauce.

Passive Solar Is Your Friend

Daylight is shorter in the wintertime, which makes it even more crucial to take advantage of the sunlight while you have it available. Make sure your windows are facing south to collect as much passive solar heat as possible. If you have insulation in your windows, take them out when you feel them warming up so you can maximize the sunlight heating your space. If you’re spending time indoors during the day, spend it near your windows. Relying on nature helps conserve energy. Your adventure rig can quickly become a tiny sunroom.

Greg and Blaize collecting passive solar heat | Photo courtesy of Kathleen Morton

Greg and Blaize collecting passive solar heat | Photo courtesy of Kathleen Morton

Get Out

One of the biggest mistakes you can make in the winter is staying bundled up in your sleeping bag all day. It’s tough to leave your cozy sleeping bag, but trust me, you’ll benefit much more from moving around. It doesn’t take a lot to get your blood flowing. Start with some stretches or light core work to get warmed up, then head outside for a hike or a run. It may feel like the last thing you want to do when temperatures drop, but it gets your blood flowing and creates heat.

Kathleen practicing yoga on the roof | Photo courtesy of Kathleen Morton

Kathleen practicing yoga on the roof | Photo courtesy of Kathleen Morton

[Favorite Winter Exercise] Yoga. You can adapt your yoga practice to fit the size of your space and ability. If it’s a warm winter day, consider practicing yoga outside as way to breathe in some fresh air. If you’re indoors, you can do some simple yoga poses that don’t take up too much space, such as child’s pose, happy baby, or seated forward bend.

Head South

Living mobile allows you the freedom to go somewhere else whenever you want. Take advantage of that. Tired of the tundra? Drive to a warmer climate. Ten degrees warmer can mean the difference between a human popsicle and sleeping comfortably at night. Let your hobbies dictate your direction. For prime hiking, hit the road for Black Canyon Trail in central Arizona, where February highs tend to range between 50 and 65 degrees, or explore Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, where the sun always shines.

If you’re looking to caravan with other nomads during the winter, check out a van gathering. Vanlife Diaries hosts several during the year and welcomes all travelers, whether you live in a van or another type of mobile space. Making new on-the-road friends means learning about new places to travel and how other mobile dwellers survive the cold.