How to Live in a Van in Winter (to Chase Pow)
What I learned on my powder-filled dream trips to Whistler and Aspen
A large part of the appeal of #vanlife is the easy access to all things outdoors. You bring the comforts of home to your epic hikes, rides, and climbs. But what about ski and snowboard trips? Living out of a vehicle in the mountains during colder months is, of course, a bit more complicated. This is my fourth winter in a van, and I’ve learned a few things about making the dream work in mountain resort towns. Here are my top tips, as well as stories from a couple successful missions to snowy paradises where I put them into practice. Best of all, as I describe below, you can try this yourself with minimal investment by renting a sweet camper van.
Things to Know
While spontaneity is one of the hallmarks of vanlife, for winter adventures you need to do some homework. For starters, check the weather so you don’t get into a situation that you (or your van) can’t handle. If the roads are going to be icy, you may want to think twice, as vans tend to be top-heavy. Obviously, four-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive rigs will fare better in those types of conditions, while a rear-wheel-drive van would be extra dodgy. But having chains is mandatory regardless. And don’t be afraid to pull the rip cord if the forecast is especially foreboding.
Do some reading about the rules and regulations of the area you’re visiting, and try to find trip reports from vanlifers to see where they stayed (usually ten minutes of Googling around will get you the basics). Unfortunately, it’s increasingly common for towns to have laws that specifically prohibit overnighting in vehicles. Finding that out up front could save you a big headache upon arrival.
Always check your tires and fluids before heading into winter weather. In addition to carrying chains, I recommend having a folding shovel in case it snows on you at night and you need to dig the van out. Also make sure you have plenty of food to eat and gear to keep you warm if you get stuck. Additionally, I would argue that full blackout shades or curtains are mandatory. If you’re forced to park incognito in an unfamiliar town, being as invisible as possible is going to be highly advantageous.
Let’s get into how I applied these best practices on a couple of trips, as well as some information specific to two locations: Whistler and Aspen.
Whistler, British Columbia
The first time I went all in on vanlife at a ski resort, it went way better than I could have imagined. It was spring at Whistler Blackcomb. I’d checked the weather beforehand and saw that temperatures weren’t expected to drop below freezing, which was mandatory for me, as my van has a water system (sink, shower, toilet) and scant insulation. If the water lines freeze and break, I’m looking at thousands of dollars in damages. With the temperatures looking good, and still plenty of snow on the slopes, I decided to go for it.
Whistler has several large outdoor parking lots, a couple of which feature big spaces designated for RVs. Though the signs at the lot tell you that you’re not allowed to overnight in your vehicle there, I’d done some online research that suggested otherwise. When I pulled in, I talked to other people in RVs and busses who backed up the idea that I didn’t have to worry. One guy told me that he’d been there for two weeks and hadn’t had any problems. “As long as you keep it low-key and don’t make a mess or anything, you should be fine,” he said.
He was right. I spent five days and nights there, and the only things I really had to pay for were lift tickets and the occasional après beer or meal when I didn’t feel like cooking. My van has a small fridge, propane stove, and microwave, so by loading up on groceries before driving north from Seattle, I was able to keep my expenses extremely low. That made the occasional splurge on meals even more satisfying. I would get up early and grab the stuffed French toast at Elements before heading up the mountain and seeking out powder stashes in Symphony Glades. Because my van has a little shower, I’d go back there after last chair to rinse off while I was still warm from the exertion, then I’d head back out and hit Garibaldi Lift Company for après, dinner at Sushi Village, or just pass out while watching movies on my laptop. I’d hang up my wet gear near my little propane furnace, and it’d be dry by morning.
I repeated that basic pattern for five days, and it was glorious. Not only does Whistler offer some of my favorite terrain on the planet, but it was also the cheapest resort experience I’ve ever had. Even if my luck had been bad and I’d gotten kicked out of the parking lot, there are some nearby campgrounds that I could have retreated to for not much additional cost. My propane heater kept me toasty at night, but if you don’t have one of those, it’s probably worth heading to a campground where you can plug in and run an electric space heater. I enjoyed similar luck at Squaw Valley near Lake Tahoe (park in the big lot on the Squaw Creek side), but as I learned the hard way, other ski towns can be more difficult.
Aspen Snowmass in Colorado has long been one of my favorite places to ride. Not only does it get wonderfully dry, fluffy powder, but the four mountains operating under a single pass give you incredible variety to choose from. However, for my early-December attempt, it was going to be way too cold for my van (named Ashley the Beast, if you were wondering). The forecast called for temperatures down to two degrees, which would have killed my water system (and I didn’t want to drain it and fill it with RV antifreeze). Also, my van is only equipped with rear-wheel drive, and I didn’t trust it in the snow and ice. Ashley was staying home.
Luckily, I had another option: Aspen Custom Vans. This tiny, local company does custom builds for people who want their own adventure-mobile, but it also has some that it rents out via Outdoorsy.com. And there it was: a tall, 4×4 Mercedes Sprinter named Blue. It didn’t have all the bells and whistles of my van, but it had gorgeous wood paneling, plenty of space, and, most importantly, a robust diesel heater that would prevent me from freezing to death.
If you know anything about Aspen, you will not be shocked to hear that it has a few more rules than Whistler. Not only can it be difficult to find a simple parking spot, but overnighting in your vehicle is illegal within the city. It is, however, a victimless crime, so if you don’t have too many scruples about such things, then you just need to apply a little creativity.
The best, most relaxing place I found to park was in the lot by the gate on Independence Pass (a.k.a. Colorado State Highway 82), which a few local friends had recommended. The pass is closed during the winter months, but the gate is only about 15 minutes from downtown. I spent the night there with a couple of other parked cars and vans, and it was absolutely gorgeous. The only sound I heard all night was the wind through the trees, and I woke up to the sight of the sun shining off the freshly fallen powder.
If you know anything about Aspen, you will not be shocked to hear that it has a few more rules than Whistler.
Another tip I got from some locals: there are a lot of popular huts around Aspen that people ski or snowshoe to, and they generally have parking lots on the road where people leave their cars or vans for days on end and nobody bats an eye. If you’re incognito there, you shouldn’t have a problem. You’re also less likely to have issues in more working-class towns like Carbondale, some 45 minutes away. One night I just went ahead and rolled the dice and parked in a residential area within Aspen, and nobody seemed to notice. Honestly, I got a bit lucky, as the sound of the heater definitely could have attracted some attention. Again, being incognito is key. You’re going to want full blackout curtains. Do any cooking and washing up before you park in your spot, so once you get there you can be as silent as possible. You want people walking by to think it’s just an empty passenger van.
But what about showers, you ask? You can’t get all sweaty on the slopes and just repeat day after day. Fortunately, there are some great options in town. Entrance to the Aspen Recreation Center (ARC) is $10, and that gives you access not only to its showers, but also to its pools (complete with a massive waterslide), gym, hot tubs, and steam rooms. If you don’t mind shelling out a bit more, the $25 hot tub at the Aspen Meadows Resort overlooks a river and is gorgeous. Worse-case scenario: baby wipes. You can also boil some water and use a washcloth and a plastic basin. Not exactly luxurious, but functional!
For food, there’s large supermarket in town, which is the best way to keep your costs low. Blue had a two-burner stove and a small fridge, but I ended up eating out a lot. There’s something about having breakfast at Element 47 at the Little Nell, then burning all of it off hiking the Highland Bowl or ripping groomers all day at Aspen Mountain, then grabbing après at the Ajax Tavern, hitting the hot tub at the ARC, enjoying pizza for dinner at the Limelight Hotel’s lounge, and then curling up in your toasty van to do it all again the next day.
Truth be told, though, the real advantage of owning a four-season van isn’t holing up in one mountain town (though I certainly had a great time doing that), it’s storm chasing. Say you’ve got an Epic or Ikon Pass. When you see that storm coming, you could grab your van, head to the westernmost resort on your pass, and then follow the powder as it moves east, scoring fresh tracks as you go. That’s the kind of mission that will have you boring your grandkids someday with stories of snorkel-skiing glory.
But vanlife definitely isn’t for everybody, which is why I recommend doing a test run first in a rented vehicle. This gives you the chance to try it out—then retreat to your teeny-tiny, infinitely more parkable city car if it’s not your cup of tea.