(See the rest of our tip index here)
Our panel van conversion is professionally made and pretty much to a high standard and well insulated, though it was never sold nor suggested it was winterised. I’d guess most campervans aren’t designed with heavy winter use in mind, so I thought I’d share our experiences and tips.
Using these tips, the van is pretty much perfect till about -5’C, perfectly fine till about -10’C, but beyond -15’C we hit its limit and have to give up with onboard water. For safety and to prevent frost/ice damage, where we expect -15’C we will drain down the van and simply use a water container for fresh, and a washing up bowl for waste.
A few points worth noting though is how others cope. We’ve seen DIY panel van conversions with no insulation and just rugs hanging from the wall…. We’ve also seen £60k+ vans with £2 bubblewrap around the cab (!!). We’ve also seen people sitting inside vans with hats and coats. Each to their own, but for us, if we can’t sit around in boxers ‘n’ t-shirt then its not worth it! Hence our wishes for winterisation may be more extreme than others.
Our base van is pretty well insulated anyway, rock-wool insulation is already installed in most places. The floor is raised and insulated and the roof and walls are material/carpet lined again with insulation in.
We have gas heating and hot water and refillable gaslow.
All of our habitation and roof windows are double glazed.
Read your van manual so you know what goodies you have to play with. Ours for instance has heated mirrors, heated windscreen and heated washer-jets. Posh maybe, but I forgot about the heated washer jets when they were frozen solid so didn’t turn them on. Doh…….
Water Tanks & pipes
Both our fresh and waste water tanks are under-slung, and all of the fresh pipework is on-board. Waste water from the bathroom is under-slung to the tank.
By design, campervans are designed to have holes in in order to allow Oxygen to get in, and CO2 and other gas byproducts as well as raw gas to escape safely. If you block all the holes you will die! However, you should be able to stop cold air in some places.
Our Modifications / Usage tips
We have insulated our fresh water tank, mainly double-layer and triple layer on the leading edge. We also have a 12v (25W) heater installed with a defrost thermostat that automatically switches on/off to ensure water stays above 5’C. The waste tank is simply insulated with the idea to drain the waste water continuously into a bucket. The fresh tank is rated at remaining liquid till about -26’C.
All exterior pipework is insulated.
We have also lagged any pipes we can find, for instance under the kitchen sink.
When we expect freezing temperatures we leave the hot water tank on in order to prevent freezing, and the insulation in the area is such that it isn’t “close” around the tank, but enough to allow the heat to escape and keep the pump and main pipework area warm and the pipes fluid.
The toilet is on its own enclosed water system, so we just ensure the heating is left operating in the bathroom to allow the flush water to stay liquid.
When on hookup we have a small (500W ish) oil radiator in the bathroom. This ensures the toilet doesn’t freeze, but it also makes a great room for drying our snowboarding gear!!
We have added insulation around the fridge and the kitchen sink for winter use, and though this may make the fridge less efficient in the summer we’ve also added a thermostatic fan which will aid the fridge keeping cool. We’ve also crammed insulation in between the van body and any furniture we can. We have, of course, left gas-drop holes free and clear.
We found there were major draughts around the rear wheel arches where the cupboards are made over, so we’ve added insulation here, and we’ve also “sealed” the bottom cupboards so cold air within cannot come in to the habitation area. Great, but this means the cupboards are colder and may well aid the pipe freezing problem above.
In a Panel Van Campervan, or I guess any motorhome, the main area for heat loss is the cab area where glass tends to be single glazed and insulation tends to be lacking. For instance, the air vents let in air; the safety belts may have a huge hole straight to the chassis, and the seats act like fridges as the bases are metal welded direct to the un-insulated chassis.
We have made 2 pairs of curtains. Both pairs are dual layer, with one layer being fleece and the other being blackout material which you can’t “blow” through. One pair is full length and goes round a rail in the cab area, which goes all the way around the seats. These Velcro against the van walls next to the door and together in the middle. When closed, they are black-out type and it means the van seats can be used as part of the habitation. No draughts can be felt from anywhere in the cab and the insulation properties must be 15-20’C+. For instance, we put our snowboards away in the “cab side” of these curtains. In the morning there may well be snow on them and in the door footwells, whereas the habitation area and main seats have been 20’C or above.
The second set of curtains go between the cab seats and the habitation area and are fully velcroed. These give a pretty much air-tight seal of the cab meaning that the habitation area (albeit smaller without the cab seats) is a LOT warmer as there is no heat loss from cab. The benefit is that it is discreet as from outside the van seats look normal and behind is just “black”, so very stealthy and safe for wild camping.
Only one set of curtains is used at a time (unless wild camping in -10’C or colder!). We also use external silver screens in safe places.
The curtains are by far the best insulation modification we’ve made.
Beware of stopping too much air flow as you may end up with condensation issues if the rest of the insulation isn’t up to the job. I can happily report we do not suffer from any condensation (except van windscreen at times) so we are fine.
Our gas heating is fine even at -10’C or less, as long as the cab curtains are insulated. Also the thermostat is good to allow it to run all night. This makes it expensive ish as depending on the temperature the gas may only last 3-4 days. Hence gaslow is important!
When on hookup, we have 2 oil-filled radiators. One sits between the cab seats (900W) and one in the bathroom (500W?). These are enough to keep the van at 20’C when it is -10’C outside. A booster 1/2kw heater will get the van to a sleepy 25’C when its -15’C outside!
If you are on a Propane gas system you will be fine, but if you are on Butane you may want to consider swapping as Butane only gasses and is usable at well above 0’C.
Gaslow or other refillable systems use a mix of Propane/Butane depending on where/when you bought it. UK LPG is Propane, but Europe varies and tends to include more Butane… Again, buy as close to the winter resorts as possible as we’ve found they use a winter mix.
The problem is, if you have a 80/20 mix of Propane/Butane and your gas locker is cold, then you will only use the 80% of Propane and the 20% Butane will remain as a liquid and stop your capacity. Next time you fill up (80/20 mix) you will still have the 20% of Butane in the tank so effectively you will have a 64/36 mix. If you repeat this a few times you will find you have very little usable Propane….
The only option is to go to wamer climes and burn off the Butane, or heat up your gas bottle locker to allow the Butane to gas. Our gaslow bottle is in an internal cupboard as warm as we want so its not a problem for us.
Vehicle Engine etc
Before leaving, get antifreeze checked and rated, ours was validated at -35’C before we left which should be sufficient.
Fill up with Diesel near the winter areas as, though MAYBE more expensive, the fuel has winter additives in to prevent diesel waxing in the cold.
I would suggest if temperature is (or has just been) below -15’C and you can wait, then have a cuppa and wait a few hours, maybe till the sun shines on the van. Ours, after a night of -18 really struggled to start when the temperature was -12. It really wasn’t happy and you can imagine the oil being solid, the fuel being thick…. The starter motor has a huge about of work and the cold battery may not be able to cope and may well fail. Best to wait… I’d also suggest after a really cold night you check your antifreeze is still fluid.
Our van, maybe because it is gray, can be covered in snow and ice, and then after an hour in the sun we can clear it easily.
We have bought a 12v to 12v charger, which is like small and clever jump leads. It plugs in a 12v socket on a working vehicle and also to a 12v socket on a “flat” vehicle, and it cleverly charger via the 12v sockets whilst maintaining a steady current. We will use this to charge from habitation to engine battery if we ever need to – just our self insurance plan!
Make sure your windscreen washer fluid is up for the job. You can get full “extreme winter” fluid which you use neat and it does not freeze. If you use this, I suggest you empty the washer fluid reservoir first so you don’t mix it and reduce its efficacy.
Tyres / Chains / Snow
If you plan winter use we would strongly recommend snow tyres. In our case, and our real life experiences, on summer tyres we’d “spin” and get stuck on the slightest of inclines, and even on the straight when it is snowy, we’d have little confidence of grip.
We changed to snow tyres which we plan to keep on all year, and the difference is astounding. We were able to go up hills and overtake other stuck people – notwithstanding the extra cornering and braking grip. The slight extra noise, maybe slightly worse life and fuel economy are well worth the price for the safety of these tyres.
We also carry snow chains (as required by law), and indeed have used them in conjunction with snow tyres. Only because the road was sheet ice covered in snow! We didn’t actually get stuck and need them as we were still moving, but the extra grip of the chains was considered wise considering the sheer drop next to the road….
We also carry, though so far never used, a big spade.
We have seen people with snow socks and other goodies, but as far as I know, these may work but don’t comply with the legal requirement of chains.
We would strongly recommend you keep the chains inside the van where it is warm, and practice NUMEROUS times at home. Cold and wet chains aren’t easy to fit at -10’C for the first time…. Also, when you fit chains, wear a fluorescent jacket!!! We’d also suggest you know if your van is front or rear wheel drive and fit the chains on the correct wheels!!! Yes, we’ve seen pictures of RWD BMW’s with the chains on the front wheels (which is wrong!). Finally, make sure you are aware of your handbook requirements for chains. Ours says you MUST turn off the traction control system when chains are fitted.
When parked up for a long time, take every opportunity to remove as much snow and ice as possible. If you don’t then you could get a continuous stream of water/ice that will make SOLID lumps of ice in places you can’t see and will take an age to thaw.
Remaining Problems / Points to Note
Our fresh water is fine to about -10’C. Beyond this, to about -13’C the pipes behind the cooker that lead from the pump to the kitchen will freeze. The pipes are certainly embedded in some rock-wool insulation, but as the kitchen cupboard under the cooker is closed (as it has a gas drop hole) then there isn’t enough internal heat to keep the pipes fluid. If the cupboard door remains open then this is unlikely to freeze.
Beyond -15’C – the pipe that connects the fresh tank to the pump freezes. This is rather annoying as it stops all water flow in the van. The fresh tank heater with natural conduction will keep this fluid till about -15 but after this it isn’t sufficient. As such, if anything close to -15’C is expected we drain and shut down the water system.
Melting snow off the roof will run down the normal drainage channels and then freeze, then more water freezes onto this and eventually we get a lot of icicles. Most aren’t an issue, but Ford in their wisdom have drainage running down the (large) gap between the front wing and the cab doors. We have had this ENTIRE area as a solid lump of ice which prevents the doors opening! Eek.
The sliding side door doesn’t feel superbly insulated but we can’t get into it to check and add more insulation. Also, where our “step” is inbuilt into the floor, the cold can be felt here more than we’d like. We have a draught-excluder but not sure it’s that great as it seems to be the whole door. Though to be honest only a consideration at -10’C or less.
At -10’C or slightly less if windy, the floor becomes quite cold as we do not have carpet in (our choice). Thick socks and slippers help, but ideally we’d have added more underfloor insulation. The alternative is to have thick carpet rather than vinyl but that wouldn’t be usable for us! Considering we have maybe 4” of underfloor insulation and a gap from metal chassis – vans built directly on the metal van floor must struggle more.
Quick tip list for full winter use
- Don’t run fuel (Gas/Diesel) low – you never know when you might be stuck and need it.
- Fill up at/near winter resorts as fuel is geared for winter use
- Snow tyres are a safety device and really quite good
- Carry snow chains in the warm and practice before you need them!
- Take a spade
- Take and wear fluorescent jackets when outside the van
- Check engine antifreeze specification
- Change windscreen wash to winter use
- Read van manual on chain usage and all electric gizmos
- Read habitation manual on how to drain down/isolate various parts of habitation
- Consider getting insulated cab curtains made
- Oil radiators are good – small ones available – and we feel safe leaving on 24×7 (unlike a fan heater)
- Insulate all visible pipes and water tanks.
- Insulate any bare-metal you can see inside the van – but do NOT block gas drop holes.
- Take soft brush/broom to remove ice/snow from van exterior as frequently as possible