Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Everything You Need to Know To Stay Warm.

West Virginia, cold as ever.

As I sit here, the temperature is a balmy -2 degrees in Wild and ahem Wonderful West Virginia.   So, I decided to talk a little bit about how I keep warm while living in my van for years without becoming a popsicle.

More often than not, people always worry about me in the winter freezing in a van.   It's kind of amusing to me, as the hot weather is much more dangerous for me than cold.   You can always warm up, but you can only cool down so much.  It got to the point that one cold day around 0 degrees, I had to send out a picture next to my thermometer reading around 80 degrees, I was in my shorts :)

Obviously the best way to stay warm on the inside of your dwelling, is to simply make sure it is warm on the outside of it.  You probably heard the term snow birds, usually associated with seniors and retirees in RVs moving from a summer home in the north down to a summer home or rv park in the south (usually florida, at least in the East). 

Panama Beach Florida
Our elders are wise, so why not learn from them.   As a vehicular nomad, one of your greatest strengths is to be able to move your home at will.   Why not just drive to where temperatures are moderate and where you like them.   If the weather turns extreme again, move on!

Colorado River, Ehrenberg Arizona
Most often, people consider snow birding as moving from one end of the country to the other with the seasons, but remember that distance is not necessarily a requirement, just a change in temperature.  Another, often cheaper, way to get that is altitude.   For instance, you can live in warm Ehrenberg or Quartzite Arizona and stay in the desert through the cold winter, then move in the harsh summer by driving UP to Flagstaff or Prescott, Az where it is much cooler.

Near Winslow Az, Higher Altitude

But if you are like me, sometimes it isn't possible to move, for work or family reasons.   Or you may have missed your window of opportunity, and might become stuck in a cold weather situation.  It's nothing to worry about, as long as you are prepared.

Cheap Garbage

There are many good ways to combat the cold, and I combine a couple of them.  The first is a good sleeping bag or blankets (make sure you put one under you too), and layering on clothing.    This works, and I certainly do it.   I find a knitted cap is a surprisingly helpful thing to wear while sleeping to keep warm.  If you need a sleeping bag, you need to make sure it is not some thin cheap junk.   I went down that road, and even though it was supposed to keep you warm down to 20 degrees, you can forget that, it wouldn't keep me warm at 50.

Best Sleeping Bag!

Good bags range from $60-200, usually with increasing quality with price.   But I have a good secret for you here.   Spend a little more, say around $140, and get the best sleeping bad you can, a surplus military modular sleeping system.    It is actually 3 sleeping bags in one, with a waterproof GorTex bivvy as the outside bag.  The first 'patrol bag' is a lighter weather bag, the second intermediate bag can be used when it starts getting down low.   But when you put the patrol bag inside the intermediate, and then the bivvy over it, you can be very very warm in any condition (-30 is the rating, and unlike Coleman and Ozark Trail, I believe it).   You can literally sleep on the ground in the snow if you have to.   In van and tiny living situations, versatility is king, and this is a crown jewel, 3 high quality things in one.

Now, if you are like me, you may be thinking "Well, I don't want to live like a caterpillar all winter, what if I have to cook or pee?".   Die hard survivalist and camping types would disagree, but a sleeping bag alone isn't enough to live this life style comfortably.   So what I did, was insulate my van as well as I could using polyiso styrofoam taped to the walls between the steel ribs before putting up wall paneling.  I have a mix of half inch and three quarter, fitting in what i could without sacrificing space. 

Let me just say, that a LOT of people in the vandwelling community advocate Reflectix for insulation  As someone who has experimented with both, please don't waste your money and time on Reflectix unless you are using it to cover your windows.   Yes I know about the air gap.  Even with an air gap it is next to useless in winter and even more useless in the summer.  I put a section of each right next to them on the same wall for a year to see.    I could feel heat radiating from the reflectix section when the sun hits the van.  Just trust me, use the foam panels, huge huge difference.

I then installed a propane heating system.   Woah, sounds hard and expensive right, but it is easy peezy, and not too expensive.  You don't need a pro installer, everything just screws together by hand (if you get the right hose below).   You can check the connections with soapy water in a spray bottle just like checking a tire flat, it will blow bubbles if leaking.   That said:



Though you can get nicer heaters out there, for the value I recommend a Mr. Heater Buddy heater.   Its round 90 bucks.   An olympian heater with less output can cost you around 200-250.  Many people on the road use the buddy heaters, and for a good reason.   The medium one can be hooked to a bulk propane tank (much cheaper) so you aren't throwing away money on disposables (helps environ too) using an adaper hose ($12) and a filter (also $12).   The prices usually drop on these heaters in the summer, so if you can plan ahead, keep an eye out for sales.

A word of advice if you are leaving your van to work or long enough that it gets freezing while you are not there, buy a second filter.   When it got below 10 degrees, sometimes the moisture in the filter will cause it to freeze, making your heater not work, or work erratically.  I would keep the second one in my bag with me or a coat pocket, and if this seemed to be the case, swap it out when I got back to my rig. 

I will say that if you plan to stay in freezing conditions most of the time, like say in Alaska, I would recommend upgrading to the Big Buddy for more BTUs.  It also has forced air option, but it will require some batteries. (you can still run it normally without fan).

Propane tanks are pretty easy to get, tho the cheapest way is to buy an empty from a hardware store and fill it up a propane filling station (usually a hardware store that sells them also can fill them, but out west you can get them filled damn near everywhere...even a burger king :P).

It is just propane.  Note it says 15lbs, but it can really hold 20.

But the easiest way is to buy the little exchange tanks, usually about double the exchange rate.   Be aware that these tanks are 20lb tanks, like most bbq tanks etc, but they only fill them with 15lbs and the label they put on says its a 15lb net weight (how much they are supposed put in).

I have also had my doubts that they even fill a full 15lbs in some shadier places (I typically can guess how long a bottle should last), so there is a bit of risk there.  Fill up places are inspected by Weights an Measures, the people who make sure gas stations aren't ripping you off, but not these exchanges.  Usually you are still paying a premium price, well above what a propane place will charge to fill even 20lbs of propane.  Why would anyone do this?  For convenience.

I try to manually fill my tank whenever possible (you can take the exchange tanks to a filler, and they will fill them, even all the way to 20).   But there has been several times, especially in the east, where you can not find any place that fills propane tanks.  Or I was snowed in and had to hitch a ride to go fill my tank.   You can exchange your tanks all over the place, grocery stores, gas stations, and a very reliable one is Dollar General.   They are plentiful, but especially you can find them in rural areas and towns fairly reliably. 

My CO Detector with Readout.
All that is left is safety precautions.   I highly, highly recommend anyone out there on the road to get a carbon monoxide detector.   I mentioned this in the past, but it has probably saved my life before (someone parked next to me with his engine running exhaust under my van for hours.)   The buddy heater is safe to use indoors, but it does make CO if it can't get enough oxygen.   You just have to follow the directions for the heater, and provide ventilation.   I open my roof vent in the van by 2 inches, but you can crack your two front windows an inch and it will work just as well.  But in case something blocks that vent, or you have a dumb friend who after riding with you rolls up your window without telling you...., the CO detector will alarm well before it becomes dangerous.

Obviously, give the heater the right clearances, especially in front and above.   Keep it near the floor, never set it up on a counter near the ceiling.  As an extra precaution, I bought a little fire extinguisher too and a high wool content blanket, which serves multiple functions (like keeping you warm, even if wet), one of which is a fire blanket (more versatility, yay!).  Make sure it had at least 80% wool though, other fibers will melt not extinguish.

Scratchy but Effective

You may wonder where you can put the propane tank.   You need a special compartment build with ventilation fans, iron crash proof reinforcement, and crap right?   Well, I can't tell you how to live your life but I just stick that mofo wherever it will fit and reach.   I currently have it sitting between my two front seats.    In a crash, maybe not the best thing but you also have a giant tank of gasoline in a thin metal barrel under you as well.   Most propane tanks don't explode under most conditions anyway, but when they rarely do the failure is typically at the valve.   They are extremely, extremely tough.  I turn off my valve when driving.  I also make sure the tank can't roll or move.

If you are still unsure and imagine a movie level explosion, I will link to you this episode of mythbusters where they actively TRY to make one explode using much more severe methods than you will encounter.

Whew, this post turned out being way longer than I thought, but I wanted to be thorough.   I hope you found the information useful. 

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