Snowy landscape, open fire, stars in the sky, good company, tasty food and drinks, a warm blanket and all the peace in this world. Sounds like a dream, right? Well, it´s exactly how winter camping can look like. It can of course look completely different on some days and it surely is not always easy. And because road trips and camping might still be easier to pull off this winter in oppose to flying around the world, here´s a fresh post about winter camping with your van or rebuilt car. Of course, you can also go with a tent or a larger motor home with more commodity but we have no experience with those two options (at least not in the winter), so we´re sticking to what we know. Read more about what to think about while preparing / rebuilding your vehicle, about sleeping, hygiene, food and cooking, equipment and gadgets, best destinations for winter cmaping in Europe and other useful things related to this topic.
Table of Contents
- Vehicle preparation
- Where can you sleep in the winter
- Tips for sleeping in your car in the winter
- Food and cooking in winter conditions
- Winter cmaping hygiene
- Other equipment and gadgets
- The best destinations for winter road trips and camping in Europe
In this long post you can read more about the things you can consider while REBUILDING YOUR VEHICLE into a camper, especially if you already know you will use it in the winter as well. We`ll take a quick look at insulation, heating, water and other equipment. In the next chapter you can read about WHERE YOU CAN CAMP or spend the night in the winter (from wild camping to parking lots, farm stays and camp sites). There´s also a section about SLEEPING INSIDE A CAR (our equipment and tips for staying warm), FOOD & COOKING in wintertime (including a couple of ideas on which dishes to cook), HYGIENE, other EQUIPMENT and a few recommendations for BEST WINTER DESTINATIONS IN EUROPE. As usual, I´ve written this based on our own experiences, which might of course be different than someone else’s, but I think this post can be a good starting point and orientation for those who are considering taking their first winter trip.
VEHICLE PREPARATION | insulation, heating, electricity, water, equipment and other things
Insulation is not only important in the winter but also in the summer as it protects from the cold as well as from the heat. Therefore I suggest you invest into a good solution. It is something you should do first, when your vehicle is empty. We used the Reckhorn ABX Alubutyl SOUND INSULATION first and over this we put the foamy ARMAFLEX ACE INSULATION (ordered both on Amazon). Just this might not be enough, but it´s a good start. You also need to think about INSULATING THE WINDOWS, as they are the weakest link regarding heat / cold coming in from the outside, but luckily there are several products you can buy or have them custom made.
Despite having insulation, we still have some CONDENSATION in the winter mornings and yes, sometimes the drops of condensed water also freeze and we need to scratch it off the windows from the inside. I guess that´s the joy of having an older car, but it´s all part of the fun.
There are quite a few options regarding heating. Some of there are either portable or built in, but in general you can choose between ELECTRIC, PROPANE, or GASOLINE / DIESEL HEATERS (one of the most known brands here is Webasto, there are also slightly cheaper alternatives, as well as much cheaper Chinese and Russian brands to choose from). Those who have larger vans with much space sometimes decide to built in a real WOOD STOVE, but personally I wouldn´t go for that, even though it looks pretty romantic on the pictures.
Despite the higher price, I´d go with the GASOLINE / DIESEL HEATER, firstly because it is probably the safest option (because it significantly reduces the chance of carbon dioxide poisoning) and secondly because it conveniently runs on the fuel you anyway need to have for driving. So other than taking care you have a little bit of fuel left in your tank, there is nothing to monitor or worry about. Some of these heaters can also be programmed to turn off and on with a timer and keep you warm during the night.
Now, what we have is a type of heater from Webasto, which is just meant to warm up the engine much faster. Better than nothing and as a result, the normal car heating works much faster too. So what we do in the winter is we leave the car running for about 10min before going to sleep to heat the interior and we do the same in the morning. During the night we keep warm with help of other equipment – you can read more about it below.
Setting up electricity in your van / car is also an important step, especially if you already know you will use your vehicle also in the winter. Why? Well for starters it gets very dark very early in the winter and once the sun goes down it also gets very cold. This means you will be spending most of the late afternoons and evenings inside your vehicle (as oppose to summer time) and a battery flash light might not cut it. Another thing is, due to the cold all your electrical appliances will run out of batteries much quicker and you´ll need to charge them more often. Now, you don´t need to turn your van into a shiny Christmas tree, but you might want to take time and think this step through.
We have a SECOND BATTERY which is powered by a SOLAR PANEL, located on the roof (don´t forget to clear the snow off in the winter). To this second battery we have connected the following: our FRIDGE, 2 standard ELECTRICAL SOCKETS, many USB CHARGERS, 3 LED LIGHTS, external REFLECTOR LIGHTS and other things. Besides charging the fridge and using the lights we use the plugs to charge our phones, laptops, camera & drone batteries, for the portable electric kettle, to plug the electric blankets and also for the water pump (which we only use in the summer since the water in the pipes could freeze in the winter).
In our Defender we have a LARGER WATER TANK inside (connected to the sink in our tiny “kitchen” area) and a WATER JERRYCAN outside (we use this one for washing our hands and when we cook outside). Of course using water in the winter is very tricky because well, it freezes. Therefore we empty all our tanks once the summer is over. If you have a good heating system inside your vehicle it might of course work for you, alternatively you can buy special electric heaters for water tanks. In any case, always make sure you have enough water supplies and dont forget to use the fresh snow when you can.
WINTER TYRES, SNOW CHAINS, RECOVERY TRACKS & ROPE
Depending on the destination, weather and roads conditions, but you might want to consider bringing SNOW CHAINS besides the obvious WINTER TYRES. For even more extreme conditions RECOVERY TRACKS might be useful and it´s always good to have a RECOVERY ROPE in case you get suck as well.
TEST WEEKEND TRIP
Before you depart on your first longer winter road trip I suggest you do a test weekend trip somewhere close to home, just to see how everything is working out. Because the truth is, you can only figure this out while you´re actually on the road. This will give you the chance to possibly change, rebuild or add some things in order to make it even better for the main trip you planned in the first place. I´m sure you´ll keep finding ideas for improvement as you go, but this test drive / weekend getaway is a good start.
WHERE CAN YOU SLEEP IN THE WINTER | wild camping, motorhome parking, parking lots and winter camp sites
WILD CAMPING – make sure you only camp out in the wild where it is actually legal or at least tolerated. Also take care to always collect your trash and leave no trace behind. In Europe, Scandinavian countries (Norway, Sweden, Finland) are perfect for this, wild amping is also possible in Estonia and we found Latvia, Lithuania to be suitable as well.
MOTORHOME PARKING – even if you have a van or a camper car you can use these special parking lots which usually cost 10-15€ and sometimes include a toilet and even showers.
FARM STAYS – via the apps I mentioned above we sometimes stay at farms which we really like because it gives us the chance to chat with the locals and often also buy their home produced veggies and other products. Usually they charge around 10€ per night (at least in Germany), sometimes they are also free.
PARKING LOTS – if there´s no other choice you can of course spend a night at one of the larger gas stations on the highway, you can also find a large restaurant where you kindly ask (after having dinner at them) if you could spend the night at their parking. It´s worth a try.
WINTER CAMP SITES – in the areas of larger and known winter sports places in Europe you will also find beautiful winter camping places. These are really a great option because they offer loads of other things besides toilets and bathrooms, but they are still much cheaper than hotels or apartments. The usually have a shop, restaurant and bar, some also have pools and saunas.
SLEEPING IN THE CAR IN WINTER | our equipment and tips for staying warm in the night
Depending on your interior heating solution, but the nights can get really cold. Still, you can survive even without a heater, if you come prepared and have proper equipment.
OUR EQUIPMENT FOR SLEEPING IN THE CAR IN WINTER
GOOSE DOWN SLEEPING BAG, which can be used at very low temperatures. Now, these are certainly not cheap but are worth every penny once it gets cold. While winter cmaping in the Dolomites last year, we had -12C in the morning and didn´t feel cold while sleeping without the heating system.
DOUBLLE BED LINEN, which we normally use at home and it´s big enough for the both of us. We threw this over our sleeping bags for additional protection.
HEATED ELECTRIC MATRESS which we put on top of our sleeping matress. This one is very practically since it is very thin and can be easily folded. It also has 3 levels of heating, we usualy turn it on before sleeping and then turn it off during the night not to use too much electricity.
HOT WATER BOTTLE, which I put directly into my sleeping bag and this was really a winning combination I must say. In addition you cna wear WOOLEN SOCKS and THERMO UNDERWEAR, I also have a FLEECE PYJAMA.
A FEW OTHER TIPS FOR SLEEPING IN THE CAR IN THE WINTER
Another tip would be to do your best and arrange a cosy place inside your vehicle, as this is where you will be spending quite some hours in the day in winter time. Also, try not to open the doors for too long once you are inside to prevent the cold from coming in. We always slipped inside the sleeping bags before we started to feel cold and often we used the afternoons for visiting a bar, restaurant or a swimming pool and saunas (especially these two options were great for heating up our bodies after a day of winter sports).
Now, you migt all be asking yourselves, what about GOING TO THE TOILET IN THE NIGHT? To be honest, this was my greatest fear, because getting out of this cosy warm sleeping bag in the middle of the cold night would really be a nightmare. So what I did was, I made sure to drink enough during the day but I didn´t drink much in the evenings before going to sleep (especially not beer) and this worked just fine until the morning. For other soultions check out the „hygiene“ section later on in this post.
FOOD AND COOKING IN WINTER | oprema, sestavine in ideje za jedi
Cooking while winter camping is another story in comparison to cooking in the warmer months. Cold, dark, wet fire wood, frozen ingredients and other inconveniences can make cooking in the snow a less pleasant experience to what you are normally used to. Surely, it is not impossible. And you need to eat, especially in the winter, we should consume even more calories, especially if you are physically active during the day. So make sure you get enough proteins, fat and carbohydrates.
OTHER THINGS TO THINK ABOUT WHILE WINTER CAMPING COOKING:
CAMP FIRE – you can make one where ever it is allowed and possible. It will not only warm you up, but you can also use it to cook over it in the mean time. The only thing you need to consider is to have a stock of dry wood, because in the winter it´s really hard to find anything that it´s not wet outside. You can already bring some from home or buy it on the way, the gas stations should have it. We use a smaller BBQ pot for making a fire in the camp sites.
CAMPING STOVES – especially in the winter it is good to have a strong and powerful camping stove. Trust me, if you need to cook outside in the cold you will want the meal to be done as quick as possible. We´ve recently bought a gasoline stove (we´re very happy with it but haven´t test it in the winter yet), which is supposed to be working very good at cold temperatures.
ELECTRIC KETLE – sometimes a bit of hot water is all you need, either for a tea or a quick soup and it´s just so practical to plug it in one of the sockets to get hot water.
INSULATED BOTTLES & FOOD CONTAINERS – you can´t have too much of these. We use insulated bottles for tea, coffee and soups which we drink during the day on the way. Food containers are great for when you cook too much of something like rice and you can keep it for the next day.
COOKING INSIDE – now, there comes a time when you might have to cook inside, because it´s either too cold, or there is too much wind or it´s snowing heavily. Therefore it is good to have a little space inside where you can at least prepare something warm and simple.
INGREDIENTS AND MEAL IDEAS:
We love to take our time for preparing the meals and cooking, at home and on camping trips – but it is really a bit different in the winter. I confess, we don´t eat as healthy and good as otherwise, but we still survive. Not only is it very cold to stand outside for a long time (it helps to have a fire though), but it´s also more difficult to get fresh vegetables and fruits and the food containing a higher & of water freezes as well. This includes olive oil for example. Therefore it makes sense to bring mostly dry foods and keep the rest (eggs, butter, cheese spreads and such) in the fridge if you have one and not somewhere where it will freeze. If you have a good heating system you might not have a problem with frozen ingreditents though. So, here are just a couple of ideas on what to cook in the winter:
QUICK BITES – I mostly mean powdered food, despite the fact it might not be the most healthy choice but it´s just so practical and easy to do in the winter. It´s good to have it just in case. This can be powder soups, mashed potato, pancake mix and such.
SNACKS – nuts, dried fruits, biscuits and cookies, granola, energy bars, cheese, crackers, salami and similar.
BREAKFASTS – we´re not really big eaters in the mornings so it´s more a cup of coffee and a snack later on but our breakfast options would be bread with peanut butter, Nutella, marmalade, ham & cheese sandwich, pancakes, eggs, beans and such.
LUNCH AND DINNER – I´m a fan of those pre-cooked tortellini which are then cooked in about 2min, otherwise rice (can also be risotto out of the bag), pasta, polenta, potatoes quick steak or salmon, stews and soups over the open fire outside. You can add taste to the most boring meals with cheese, herbs, cream, butter, also onions and bacon.
FLUIDS – don´t forget to drink enough, the air in the winter can be very dry so it´s really important. During the day it´s water and hot tea for us, coffee in the morning and a sip of something strong in the evening to keep us warm before sleep. As I mentioned before, I make sure to drink enough in the day and then have smaller sips in the evening to avoid toilets in the night.
WINTER CAMPING HYGIENE | WC, showering, bathing and more
In the summer, it´s really easy to just install a portable shower anywhere outside and take a quick shower, jump in the sea or lake on the way or even wash ourselves quickly at roadside restrooms. But what about in the winter? Obviously you can´t shower outside and as most of the vans and camper cars don´t have bathrooms you will need another solution. Here are a few ideas:
WILD CAMPING – now this will be the most tricky one, since you will be in the middle of nowhere with no facilities around. You might have to simply skip showering this day and therefore use wet wipes. You can always use fresh snow to scrub your face and tooth brushing might also be possible anywhere.
GAS STATIONS – you can use showers and other bathroom facilities at larger gas stations at the highways. You will mostly have to pay for this but hey, it´s stil a good option.
STAYING IN CAMP SITES – in Austria, Germany, France, Switzerland and possibly somewhere else as well, there are camp sites which are opened all year around, regardless of the weather. Some of them only close for a very short time in April and/or November for maintenance. They are awesome because you can use their toilet / bathroom facilities, some of them even offer access to swimming pools and saunas. Also, there are restaurants, playgrounds, shops and other facilities you might need.
SWIMMING POOLS AND SAUNAS – as said, sometimes you get access to swimming pools and saunas by staying in a camp site but if not, I suggest driving to the nearest village or town in a more touristy areas (close to the skiing places for example) and find public spas and swimming pools. Usually there is an option to pay for about 2hrs which is more than enough to have a bit of water fun, a proper shower and warm your body up before going to sleep.
THOSE DAYS IN THE MONTH – if you´re having your period while on the road you might want to consider using the menstrual cups which are perfect for camping holidays with limited access to toilets and bathrooms.
PORTABLE OR BUILT IN TOILETS – now, if you have enough space in your van / car you can also place a toilet. There´s quite a few options, from CHEMICAL to CASSETTE to COLLAPSIBLE TOILETS. Depending on the model you will need to get suitable bags and / or fluids for cleaning and please make sure to dispose the trash into a suitable place and not in he nature.
OTHER EQUIPMENT | clothes, cosmetics, personal belongings and useful gadgets
I probably don´t need to mention you will need the WARMEST CLOTHES you have, but besides this I suggest investing into good THERMO UNDERWEAR and WOOLEN SOCKS, also bring a TOWEL that dries quicker and SWIMSUITS if you find any swimming pools on the way. If you want to do some winter sports you will need quite some SKI EQUIPMENT which might take up a lot of space so this is another thing to think about. You can consider renting it but this usually sums up to be a lot more expensive if you do it regularly.
As I already mentioned I find staying in winter camp sites a great idea especially if you are skiing during the day – make sure to rent a LOCKER or use the free SKI ROOM SERVICE which most of such campings have. I suggest yu hand everything wet in there, including your towel and swimsuits as the might otherwise freeze in your car. Seriously we could play Frisbee with my bikinis the morning after our swim. If you keep your things in the lockers they will be nice and warm in the morning.
Besides clothes, cosmetics, cooking equipment and other personal things there are also quite a few smaller gadgets which might be very useful. The stuff we usually take include: medicine and first aid kit, smaller shovel and an axe, wood and paper to make a fire, lighter and matches, head lamp and flash lights, walkie talkie, insulated bottles, hot water bottle, s Swiss knife, power bank and extra batteries, toilet paper, towels, trash bags, duct tape, ice scraper, spray for defrosting, small broom for removing fresh snow.
BEST DESTINATIONS FOR WINTER ROAD TRIPS AND CAMPING IN EUROPE
Finishing this post with naming some of the best destinations for winter camping and road trips in Europe, since most of my readers are from around here. Most of the destinations are in close connection to winter sports possibilities, but there is something for everyone even if you are not into sports. Snowy landscapes, mountains, lakes and villages are worth the trip on their own.
THE DOLOMITES, Italy: there are some really nice and high level winter camping options around here. Easy to combine with skiing and other winter sports and there are also wonderful villages, lakes and mountains. Look into places around Tre Cime, Kronplatz, Cortina d`Ampezzo, Civetta, Arabba, Val di Fassa, Val Gardena.
TYROL, Austria: also across the border from the Dolomites in Austria there are great ski places with many winter camp grounds possibilities. Look around Sölden, Iscgl, Obergurgl, Zillertal, Pitztal, Hintertux, Kitzbühl and St Anton am Arlberg for example.
BAVARIA, Germany: Germany also has quite a few winter cmaping possibilities in the south of the country around its famous ski places like Garmisch- Partenkirchnu – there is lots of other things to do around as well, you can also check out Germany´s highest mountain Zugspitze. You can also head to the eastern part and visit the gorgeous Bavarian forest national park which as well offers lots of winter fun.
THE FRENCH ALPS, France: for me personally, one of the best European destinations for skiing. Although I+m not sure there are winter cmaping places on such high altitudes but you can check out the surroundings of the following places: Chamonix, Tignes, Val Thorens, Meribel, La Plagne, Megeve and Les Arcs.
PYRENEES, France: although the ski places are smaller and the mountains are not as high as in the Alps, but still, this can be an interesting winter destination. You cna combine it with visiting Andora, Spain and the south coast of France. Check out ski areas of Grand Tourmalet, Peyragudes, La Molina, Font Romeu, Ax-les-Thermes, Cauterets, Baqueira – Beret, Piau Engaly, Saint – Lary and Formigal.
SWISS ALPS, Switzerland: not only in France, but also in Switzerland you can find some of the most amazing ski places in Europe. Check out the areas around Zermatt, Davos, St. Moritz, Verbier, Saas Fe, Arossa, Lenzerheide, Crans-Montana, Verbier, Wengen and Jungfrau.
SCANDINAVIA, Norway, Sweden and Finland: a road trip all the way up to Nordkap in the winter must be a real adventure. Otherwise I´d choose Lofoten islands, Finnish Lapland or Swedish archipelago islands along the coast. Northern lights and legal wild camping? Yes please! Scandinavia is a dream destination in any time of the year.
BALTIC STATES, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania: also here, you can wild camp, especially in Estonia, but we have good experiences also with the other two. Interesting destinations which have not yet been discovered by the masses.
For further reading you can check out some of my other blog posts (a link will open in a new tab if you click on the destinations) about skiing holidays in the French TIGNES and VAL THORENS, from a winter road trip in FINNISH LAPLAND, winter camping trip in THE DOLOMITES, winter visit to the BAVARIAN FOREST and summer wild camping road trip to SCANDINAVIA & BALTIC COUNTRIES, for which I hope we can repeat someday in the winter time.
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