Surviving Canadian Winters In a Van

 
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Surviving Canadian Winters In a Van

One of the most often questions we get is: why are you traveling across Canada in a van in the dead of winter?

Short answer: the timing just worked out that way. While not necessarily ideal, it certainly gives us a greater appreciation of why the country is dubbed "the great white north." Plus, problem-solving our way through some of the most brutal conditions we've ever experienced is in a weird way, fun.

While our initial plan was to explore most of Canada's National Parks, we quickly discovered that many were shut down for the winter season. A quick drive through Jasper and Banff National Parks showed why: despite their best efforts, snow plows were no match against the blankets of snow tumbling down. That said, we did discover a few (unserviced) provincial parks that were still open in Alberta in November, and it was a treat - most of the nights we were the only people in an entire campsite, and waking up to inches of snowfall and animal tracks is itself a fantastic experience.

On the flip side, we've also taken refugee at AirBnBs and motels when the temperatures got too cold. On Christmas Eve, we ended up "stranded" in an AirBnB cabin in Thunder Bay, Ontario, when most of the country was hit by freezing arctic winds resulting in a severe cold warning and below -40C wind chills. Pebs refused to start the next morning, and it took three days, two space heaters, several blankets, a battery charger and a temperature rise for her to fire up again.

In short: we've tried a dozen tricks to stay alive and well in the Canadian cold, and here are some we like best.

1. Bunk heater

I can't stress this enough. When the temp tanks to below zero, insulation itself won't keep you cozy. We researched options for our Sprinter and settled on the Espar D2 bunk heater. It draws fuel directly from the Sprinter's diesel tank (via an auxiliary fuel tap that comes standard with many Sprinters) and uses that fuel to heat up the cabin. So we don't need to idle the engine at night for heat or maintain a separate fuel supply. It's small enough to fit under the passenger seat pedestal and warms up our tiny home fast. The install is also easy enough that we did it ourselves, even though Shelly had barely used a screwdriver before becoming a Vanlifer.

YouTube (especially helpful here and here) is your friend. Heatso is a popular vendor, though we got ours off of eBay.

The Espar draws a small amount of electricity, mostly for its fan, and we had no trouble running it from our starter battery on "mildly cold" Canadian nights, with outside temps between 0C to -10C. The product manual says the unit has a low voltage cutout to prevent vehicle battery drain... but if you crank the heater full blast all night long when it's -20C outside, don't expect your now ice-cold starter battery to turn the engine the next morning. (Yes, we learned this the hard way.)

A better plan is to connect your heater to a separate battery system. Ours arrived today!

Some stats for reference.

Some stats for reference.

We love our Espar heater and don't regret choosing it, but it's not perfect. 

Downsides: 

  1. The fuel pump makes a clicking noise, making stealth camping tricky on cold nights. We're going to make a simple enclosure for the pump (using plastic tubing, pipe insulation and rubber mounts) to keep the noise down and protect the pump from flying debris.
  2. The exhaust pipe is relatively short and not intended to be lengthened, which limits placement options.

2. Hot water bottles

An "oh duh" tip that works surprisingly well. We first tried this on the hike up to Everest Base Camp, when we struggled to maintain body temperature in the freezing tea houses at night. Boil water (we use a Jetboil camp stove), pour into 1-2 Nalgene or other heat-tolerant container, wrap in a fuzzy sock and stick under the blankets before bed. You'll crawl into a warm, welcoming bed which will stay comfortable all night long.

3. Thermal Curtains

The front cabin, sliding doors and back doors are major sources of heat leakage, so we bought thermal curtains to block them off. Even relatively thin ones made a big difference in retaining the Espar's heat. On the coldest nights (-20C and below), we hang heavy duty, furniture moving-type blankets on the sliding doors for extra insulation. Not the prettiest solution, but they're functional, reversible, inexpensive and neat in their own way.

4. Grill guard

Pebs began cutting out at low speed in Winnipeg, Manitoba. It was alarming, but it had happened before (and ceased when we changed out bad glow plugs) so we didn't think much of it. Then on the way out of Winnipeg she went into "limp home mode" and the check engine light (CEL) came on.

We took her to the dealer next day, and apparently she had ice crystals in her intake hose blocking sufficient air flow. This happens because of the drastic change in temperature between the engine and the ambient air temp – water vapor condenses in the hose and freezes. The dealer scraped out the ice (and swapped out the fuel filter, which was long due for a change). The CEL immediately went off and problem solved! Big props to Matt and the team at Mercedes-Benz Winnipeg for a great experience.

We learned that installing a grill guard (a custom cut piece of durable foam or other material that covers the grill) will prevent ice forming in the air intake. Truck drivers up here use them on their diesel big rigs. We got a simple one that clips on the grill, and so far so good!

5. Diesel Kleen + Cetane Boost (White Bottle)

At low temps diesel fuel tends to gel. Not good. In colder months, Canadian gas stations often serve diesel mixed with chemicals to help prevent gelling, aka "winterized diesel." When temps get too low, Sprinter-source.com  recommends adding Diesel Kleen + Cetane Boost (in the white bottle) at the time of fuel up to help prevent gelling and improve performance.

We've tried it a few times now, and it seems promising enough that we'll keep doing it. Just looking at how low temps affect things inside the van ("WTF happened to these bananas?!?"), it's easy to imagine that our fuel might need help too.

6. Winter tires + chains

Another "no shit Sherlock" item. That said, the tire+chains combo has allowed us to go on plenty of winter off-road adventures without a hitch. Practice putting chains on before you actually need them. If you're new to the concept they're hard to sort out in a jiffy, especially in bad weather. Concrete, flat ground is your friend when putting them on the first time.

7. Block heater

Engine block heaters seem to be common on vehicles sold in Canada, but Pebbles is from America. No factory block heater to keep the engine warm at night. Most Canadian places outside Vancouver (where it doesn't get all that cold) have outlets that let you plug in your block heater when parking. Since we don't have one yet, we've been going the DIY route, putting a space heater under the hood on cold nights. But it's not ideal. When the wind chill recently hit -40, our van's engine completely froze. It took three days, four failed AAA service calls, two space heaters, a magnetic oil pan heater, an overnight battery charge and slightly warmer weather for her to thaw. A block heater may have prevented that.

 

We'll keep adding to this list as we try out more methods (and weed out the ineffective ones). Stay warm, stay safe, stay adventurous!

 
 
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