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Whether living in a van full-time or just out on a winter getaway, you’ve found yourself needing to stay in your van overnight in chilly weather. But how cold is too cold to sleep in a van?
It is too cold to sleep in a van when the temps get around 0°F (-17.78°C) if you’re camping solo. When in a group, you can huddle up safely down to about -10°F (-23.33°C), but you’ll be at risk for hypothermia if you encounter temperatures below this temperature or are unprepared for the weather.
This article will outline which conditions are typically acceptable for camping in the cold and how you can prepare both your van and yourself for freezing weather.
Risks of Cold Weather to Sleep in your Van
It’s hard to imagine sometimes that the cold can make you more than just uncomfortable. However, prolonged time in excessively low temperatures can inflict harm on even the healthiest of campers.
Let’s take a look at the risks you’ll encounter when camping in cold weather.
Hypothermia: Body Temperature Gets Too Low
One of the most common causes of death related to weather, particularly cold weather, is hypothermia. This occurs when your body loses too much heat, causing your vital organs to shut down.
Symptoms of hypothermia include:
- Slurred speech
Those most at risk are the very young and the elderly, but anybody can become a victim of hypothermia if exposed to cold temperatures for too long. It doesn’t even have to be freezing outside.
Wind chill, rain, and other elements can sap heat from your body quicker and put you at risk of hypothermia even above freezing temperatures.
Frostbite: Losing Fingers, Toes, and More
Icy temperatures can slow down circulation so much that it deprives areas of your body of oxygen, inducing frostbite. This is most common in peripheral limbs like fingers and toes and exposed regions like the face, which can lead to irreversible tissue damage, tissue death, and amputation.
Symptoms of frostbite include:
- Grayish to yellowish skin
- Unusually firm skin
You’re at a higher risk if you already suffer from poor circulation due to a pre-existing condition.
Carbon Monoxide Poisoning: Heating Units and Blocked Engines
When we’re desperately cold, we turn to propane heaters for warmth. However, in confined spaces such as vans, these heaters can pose a deadly, invisible risk.
Hundreds of people die, and thousands more are hospitalized, for carbon monoxide poisoning in the United States each year. This is especially prevalent when heavy winter storms take out electric heating units and force people to turn to gas sources in enclosed spaces, including vehicles.
You can’t smell, see, or taste carbon monoxide. And although detectors exist specifically for campers, not everyone has a carbon monoxide detector in their ride.
Even with ventilation, you likely won’t notice a buildup.
Additionally, the symptoms of poisoning include headache, confusion, and passing out. So by the time you know something is wrong, you may not be in the right state of mind to save yourself.
Even though the exhaust of your van doesn’t typically find its way inside the cab, it may be forced to flow back in if debris clogs the exhaust vent. Therefore, as tempting as it may be to use a space heater or your van engine to warm up, seriously consider the following advice before igniting any gas-powered heating options.
Related Articles: Can you sleep in an RV with the generator running? Is It Safe to Sleep in Your Car in the Winter? Should You Turn Your Car Off While Sleeping?
Staying Warm in Your Van When It’s Cold
You’ll probably want to stay both warm enough to survive and warm enough to be comfortable. The following advice should help you do both.
Insulate Your Van With Warm Materials
You can use whichever insulation material you feel most comfortable installing. Sheep’s wool may be a fantastic option for those who need not only warmth but moisture regulation and a sound barrier.
Its ease of installation makes it a superb choice for newbies as well.
And don’t forget to insulate the floor, too. In a tent, we lose a lot of heat to the ground, and a cold tile floor can suck up all the heat from the cabin and make it harder to warm up. Try out hardwood, vinyl, or cork.
Also, consider placing soft, warm mats down in high foot traffic areas if your feet freeze easily.
Cover the Windows and Other Cold Surfaces to Retain Heat
Have you ever sat next to a window and felt chilly even though it was closed? Glass seems to be a heat vacuum. Covering your van’s windows with something warm like cloth or blankets should help the van cabin retain heat.
Similarly, cover any metal, tile, or other cool surfaces that seem to drain heat from the area, as it will make it easier to stay warm and cozy.
Warm-Up From the Inside With Food and Drink
When you eat or drink something warm, like coffee, soup, or tea, will help your body retain heat and comfort and soothe you psychologically, making it easier to sleep. Your body will also have available the calories it needs to stay warm through the night.
Exercise To Get Blood Flowing
When you exercise, your heart rate and other processes accelerate, creating heat. That’s why we feel hot and sweaty when we go for a run, even when it’s early in the morning and fairly chilly.
Therefore, a brisk walk or some light body strengthening exercises may be the perfect way to make you feel just the right amount of comfort.
Bundle Up in Multiple Layers
Specifically, try bundling up in three distinct layers:
- Inner layer: Use wool or other materials to keep you from getting sweaty, but avoid cotton.
- Middle layer: This layer is best for things like fleece or wool that will specifically help you stay warmer.
- Outer layer: This is the layer for windbreakers, rain jackets, and any other material that will hold in all the heat that your other layers have helped you generate.
You can also add socks, hats, gloves, and extra shirts, pants, or other warm clothing to your selection. And when you snuggle into bed at night, try placing your sleeping bag beneath any blankets you’ll be sleeping with.
Camping in your van can be exciting, relaxing, or whatever it is that you’re looking for. It’s possible to safely camp in weather as frigid as 0°F to -10°F (-17.78°C to -23.33°C), but only if you’re thoroughly prepared to do so.
Ensure that you bring plenty of clothes, blankets, and insulation, and avoid running the engine or any gas heaters for an extended time. Happy camping!
Here are some of my favorite van life essentials:
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you found it helpful as you’re experiencing your life on the road. Here are some tools and gadgets I use on a daily basis that made my van life a lot easier. I hope you’ll also find them as useful as me. These are affiliate links, so if you do decide to purchase any of them, I’ll earn a commission.
But in all honesty, these are the exact tools that I use and recommend to everyone, even my closest friends and family.
Kitchen: I’m cooking a lot and I’ve finally found my perfect cookware set: The Magma Cookware 10 Pcs that you can nests and store in less than 1/2 cubic foot of cabinet space is really handy. Since I’m also spending a lot of time working at my desk, I use my favorite coffee mug from Yeti. For more, check my list of kitchen accessories I can’t live without.
Outdoor: Even though I’m spending a lot of time in my van working, I do enjoy getting out and explore my ever-changing neighborhood. This sometimes requires me to take my portable solar battery with me. And when I just want to chill outside and take a nap, I use the Winner Outfitters Hammock.
Clean/Tidy: Space is precious and therefore I used these heavy-duty storage bins from Homs to store my material. They’re robust and you can stack them together. Regarding showering, I like to use this portable solar shower from Advanced Elements when it’s hot outside.
To see all of my most up-to-date recommendations about van life, check out this resource that I made for you!