In this series, I explore some of the practicalities of living in a van in the United States. For context, I am relatively privileged: white, perceived as male, raised middle class, able-bodied, in good physical shape. My advice may or may not be useful for others in my or similar situations.
I’m one of those stupid travelers who rarely takes seasons into consideration when I travel, so I find myself up north in the winter and in the southeast in the summer with an alarming regularity. Yes, it can get really hot or really cold in my van. It’s rarely unbearable, however.
The single most important thing I’ve done for my van is put in thick, multi-layered, light-proof curtains. All the back windows are covered with curtains made out of blackout fabric sewn between two layers of thick, black felt. These are screwed into the wood and/or plastic sills above the windows, and part in the middle so I can tie them back. I’ve got another curtain that goes from ceiling to floor right outside my bed, blocking light and visibility as well as keeping the bed area well-insulated. I bought all the fabric new, and probably spent a bit more than $100 on all of it. One of the best investments I’ve made.
I rarely sleep with my windows open, because I don’t want anyone able to break into my car as easily as that, and because it seems (to me) to make it more obvious that someone is sleeping inside. I do have three small vent windows that open a crack, which help, but honestly not much. What I’ve learned is to master parking in the will-be-shady-in-the-morning, put the sun shield on the windshield, then pull my curtains tight. The sun and heat will rarely force me out of bed before, I don’t know, 10am. By midday, however, the van is essentially unbearable. I keep a clip-on fan, with a separate battery pack, hanging above the bed, and this gets me through the worst nights or the worst naps. In the future, I think I’ll just get another fan. Some people put second AC units in their vehicle that run off of a battery, but unless I move to the desert or something I doubt this is really necessary.
I do wish I had windows that slid open, and if I did, I’d get screens—keeping out bugs is obviously pretty important in the summer.
If you’re somewhere where it might be socially acceptable to do so, it’s also possible to idle the engine and run the car’s AC to sleep. I would never recommend making this a habit, and I’ve only done it once, myself, when it was 100+ degrees out and I need to sleep during the day, but it appears that it only burns about 1/4 a gallon per hour to do so. Anyone who would give you shit for it might want to realize that if they ever drive 5 miles just because they want to go pick something up, they’ve burned more gas than your hour-long nap.
If the curse of summer van life is that it’s hard to sleep in, the curse of winter van life is that it’s hard to get up. The answer to winter sleeping is honestly pretty simple: close your curtains, put an extra blanket down on the bed (an amazing amount of cold comes in through the bed platform and futon mattress), then get inside a sleeping bag or two, pull a blanket up over your head, and wait uncomfortably during the few minutes it takes to warm up.
Then, in the morning, you’re all cozy and warm and look over and see your frozen water jug and think to yourself, “damn, maybe I’ll just stay in this sleeping bag and read a book.”
When All Else Fails
Or, you can do what most travelers secretly do in extreme weather: take their friends up on offers of floor space and/or couches.
Other Van Life posts