Vanlife in a Top 20 Coldest City





Introduction: Vanlife in a Top 20 Coldest City

About: I love exploring how to do new things and perfecting old things. I like reading old books, creating interesting gadgets, and living my life freely.

We live in a van!!!!

Most people move down South if they live in a van through the winter.

If a job, circumstances, or curiosity make you want to winter in a van in the North, here are some tips and instructions to help you successfully enjoy your chilly stay.
I can’t say that it will be particularly easy, but it is truly an adventure that not many will be able to say they have tried.

(For those of my friends that did not know (don't worry, you are in the majority) HI!!!! My sister and I have been living in a van since January, and are happier for it.)

Step 1: Insulation

1) Purchase the insulation you plan to use. Before we brought it home, we had the salesman at Home Depot cut them so that they were close to the correct size already. (Just measure the height of each window and have him cut it that wide for each cut.) Depends on the store, but the first 2-4 cuts are completely free. We bought two sheets at a time and it worked. I recommend going with the 1-inch insulation.

2) The Rmax insulation is very easy to cut with a simple box cutter. Measure twice, cut once! For the type of window in our van, we had to cut each large panel into two, so that it would fold into the window

3) Try it out. Each van is different, so just figure out how you want it to fit in. Make sure it is snug enough to friction-fit in.

4) If you end up having joints, like we did, use tape to join the panels on one side to create a "hinge". We used

5) Use a spray adhesive on the side that you want the black fleece to show. This is mostly so that people only see dark when they look into the van, instead of weird lettering on the back of the Rmax insulation. Follow the instructions on the can.

6) Attach the fleece in one, smooth sweep, starting on one edge and moving to the other. if you need to redo, you may need to spray on more adhesive. Trim off any extreme excess, but a little left over will not be bad, since it will help block light.

Step 2: Find Shelter

On the coldest nights, you will want to find shelter away from the wind. This cannot be over emphasized. It makes a HUGE difference in your comfort.

We didn’t realize this until we had to get off of the street (due to a huge snowstorm that needed plowing up) and parked under a shelter. We woke up the next day actually overly warm. We couldn’t believe that the temperature was in the single digits, and that wasn't counting the wind chill!

Options include a parking garage, or parking close, or a tall retaining wall. Pretty much anything that will block the wind will work.

Step 3: Double Up the Sleeping Bags

As a cost saving measure, I purchased a larger -25 F rectangular sleeping bag (pro tip: it doesn’t feel warm if you are not man-size, even at +10 F)

I realized that I needed a warmer option. The sleeping bag was too large and was not insulated well since there was too much airspace in the bag with me. So I bought a light +10 F mummy sleeping bag and slipped it inside. This was an excellent choice and only cost me $20 to upgrade, and provided substantial warmth.

Step 4: Heat Sources

--Hand warmers are an excellent source of heat at night. They stay warm throughout the night and don’t waste energy, heating the air outside of the sleeping bag, like a full-vehicle heater would. Please do follow the instructions and not allow them to be held against your skin as you sleep. It can get hot enough to blister you. On the coldest days, I would typically throw one in the foot of the sleeping bag and one close to my waist.

--Don’t forget to feed your own internal heater. You will be dealing with colder temperatures and be burning more calories to keep warm. The higher calorie meals will be helpful. This is what winter hikers and mountain climbers do to help themselves and I found it did make a difference.

--An option that is commonly used in vanlife communities that I do not recommend as a primary heat source in areas that get substantially below freezing is the “Mr. Heater” propane heater. I did get one and had a great set up for it, but ended up only using it a handful of times because the heater would put off so much condensation that would end up freezing on the windshield. This was frustrating and more annoying than just hurrying to get dressed for work in the cold. (I do recommend that you have some decent heat source available, but don’t bank on the propane heater being used regularly.) If you choose to have a heater like the Mr. Heater in your van, you MUST purchase a carbon monoxide detector that also alerts to leaked gasses. Also, use soapy water to test for any leaks regularly. Crack a window near the heater, allowing fresh air to come in, and enjoy the heat. The heater worked ok when it was on, and every now and then it was really nice to sit down in a warm space to do whatever.

Hand Warmers


Step 5: Water

If you are interested in having water to drink in the morning, keep a water bottle in the sleeping bag with you as you sleep. This will ensure that you always have some water to drink.

Make sure that the bottle has a good lid that will not leak. Wet insulation is no insulation. Don't let the sleeping bag or your clothing get wet!

I like Dasani water because they have a good seal on their bottles.

Also, use a water bottle when you leave your job and fill it with hot water to put in your sleeping bag at night; it makes a huge difference in temperatures.

Step 6: Get Out!!

During the winter, treat your van as a mobile bedroom. It isn't really all that spectacularly comfortable to sit outside of the sleeping bag in the early morning and late evening unless you use a heater. Get out and explore. The world is your living room. Go shopping, read at the library or a book store, get coffee at your favorite coffee shop, visit friends, meet at the mall and explore, take a class or join a group that interests you.

If you have any questions about how we did it that I haven't answered, feel free to comment below.



    • Water Contest

      Water Contest
    • Game Life Contest

      Game Life Contest
    • Creative Misuse Contest

      Creative Misuse Contest

    45 Discussions

    You made me think of a good tip, when you mentioned putting a bottle of water in your sleeping bag... In stead of risking getting your bed wet, why not make a reverse ice chest? Use an ice chest to make a heat chest. You could put the bottled water and a hand warmer in the ice chest at night to keep it from freezing and maybe even having warm water for whatever.
    Thank for the neat instructable.

    Great tips, but keep at least 2 windows cracked when using your little heater. Here's a solid recommendation from me. Go to "" read up on their products, especially their sleeping bags. i have no stake in the company, i'm just one extremely satisfied customer (think zero-degree and actually staying WARM!). They are neither the cheapest, nor the most expensive products. but if you buy their bags you will not only never want to or need to buy another, but you will hand them down to your children and grandchildren. I'll let the company owner, Jerry Wigtow, do his own sales pitch, but I could not be happier with his bags and the "sweater" I bought that I use when shoveling the driveway in single-digit weather.

    8 replies

    I'll check it out. Thanks! For the record, I think over half of our problem was that we didn't want to pay so much more for female specific high quality sleeping bags. -25 F wowed us until we were using them.

    Just last week my Daughter's friend borrowed her bag. She camped somewhere on the Eastern side of the Rockies (i didn't ask where). I asked her how she likes it and she said she was very warm and cozy. I'll also add that Wiggy's bags are completely machine washable and dry-able. And I'm a 'cheap-skate"myself who always tries to find the lowest cost alternatives. Their bags are mid-range as far as price goes, but if i hadn't had one in 2009 during an Elk Hunting trip I would have probably had to have been air lifted to a hospital with severe hypothermia. The daytime high reached a whopping +16 degrees F, and without that bag I do believe I could have froze to death. I'm a native Angeleno and anything below 40 is "freezing" to all but the hardiest of us!

    On a side note, you mentioned "thermal mass". The lack of thermal mass in gasses like oxygen, carbon dioxide, etc. is exactly why the whole idea of reducing carbon emissions to combat global warming is bunk. i'm not saying it's not happening, but a few million more tons of Carbon Dioxide in the air is akin to a few million tons of extra sand on a beach. It's irrelevant. Things like solar intensity, the distance from the Earth to the Sun, even the percent of salt in the ocean (like in the movie, "The Day After tomorrow") have a much bigger impact by leaps and bounds. And trading "carbon credits" like some former unnamed government employees espouse just moves the pollution from one location on our planet to another. And the atmosphere doesn't need a passport to redistribute the aforementioned pollution. But the folks buying and selling the credits sure do make money!

    It's not the heat capacity of carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) that's the problem. It's that it traps outgoing infrared radiation. That's why they're called greenhouse gases, because they act like the glass of a greenhouse.

    Hey Molly! Yeah, why did my sister and I decide to live in a van?? We were sick and tired of being sick constantly when we went home for more than an hour at an apartment that we used to love. People were smoking some stuff that made us sick with only about an hour or two of exposure. And we liked the adventure of it. We had contingency plans for if we wanted to give up that were ready, but we wanted to see if it could be done. Also. . .a big payoff that I am living now is that with not having to pay rent, my sister and I were able to afford a month long trip to Europe! I wouldn't have been able to afford this trip on my average income if I had rented. I feel fully compensated by this trip for the inconveniences of living in a van. We feel healthier, have had a unique experience, get to travel, and were both employed for the the entire time. We did not "need" to do this. We wanted to do this. I totally get that it isn't for everyone though.

    Hi HannahP24. I hope you realize my comment was focused on Molly35! I was trying do defend you because I enjoyed the read and thought how efficient, brave and creative you both were.

    Oh I wasn't offended at all by what you said! You didn't know why we chose to live there and made a best guess in our defense. I was more so pointing out to molly that she was basing her harsh judgement on someone else's best guess that happened to not be our reason at all. Thanks for checking it out. I'm glad you liked it. :)


    Reply 11 months ago

    Thanks for the constructive criticism. LOL I did ditch the beard and just love how old I looked back then so keep the old pic. I'm retired because I have served my country for 35 years. Become so proud of my efforts because those who know me have given so many accolades. Helped me to realize I just don't need to post negative comments for people who are just giving great ideas. Glad things are going so well for you now.

    Hey Molly,
    We aren't posting to show how desperate we are or whatever. In fact we are rather proud of having done this instead of accepting conditions that were making us sick. My sister reminded me that she actually had two jobs for most of the winter, and I had/have a good enough job to pay for way better on my own without her help. But the apartment we had was new construction and already was making us sick with tenants that wouldn't obey the rules. I didn't want to deal with property managers that wouldn't enforce the rules and building mates who flaunt their disobedience. My life in the van is a choice and preference not a plea for pity.
    As for not serving in the military, that was a personal choice. I really doubt that would have gotten me away from smoking people though tbh (could be wrong about that, but I assume)
    Kinda stinks to insult another person. He made an inaccurate assumption is all. (So did you btw)

    Huh! Well, I just went through replying to almost everyone, but I can't see a single response now. Can anyone tell me if they for a response back/can they see my responses? As an overly simplistic overview in case they didn't post for people to respond, we both were employed and living in an apartment we loved and could afford, but then people started smoking something that made us really sick with only an hour or so of exposure. The cops would only file reports and the property by managers weren't doing a thing even though a lot of people were complaining. We got to do something unique, be healthy again, and now we can afford the trip to Europe that we are currently enjoying because we didn't have to pay rent. We both maintained our jobs this why we didn't move South for the cold season. As for the tips, there were some great ones. Thank you! And as for the heater safety, it is important, I will try to explain more things we did to ensure our safety and also give a better caution when I am able to get onto a computer. It seems like the cell phone won't let me.

    2 replies

    Thank you, it looks like they had popped up and then disappeared for the night and then all came back. Weird. Thanks for getting back to me.

    We live up north too and it's definitely a challenge in the winter. Those are all good ideas to stay warm. :)

    1 reply

    Cool! When I got started I couldn't find a single person who was doing it online. I was reading ultimate winter camping books figuring that of camping was possible living was theoretically possible. Lol. Would have been awesome to have found someone that was living the life before I got started.

    Store a brick in the engine compartment near the engine. When you stop fetch it and wrap it with a towel. Stick in the bottom of you sleep bag and you a cozy.

    1 reply

    That would have been a great idea- and one I would recommend, but for us, our van heater didn't work, and we didn't travel with the van more than a few blocks at a time normally, so that wouldn't have worked for us. But still, good for others . . .thank you!

    Wool! Wool will keep you warm, even when wet. Plus it's fun to work with. An affordable source is Goodwill, as unravelling sweaters to re-knit is also fun. Here's a tutorial on how

    Also, dave.vaness.79 is correct- A warm brick is a perfect bedwarmer, & warming it in the engibe compartment is clever