This summer has seen Campervan holidays explode in popularity with thousands of savvy travellers heading off to the wilderness, escaping the crowds and stresses of lockdown life. As restrictions drag on to the winter and ski resorts across Europe scrabble to prepare for socially distanced lift queues and a season without apres-ski parties, many people are now looking at taking their campervans to the mountains. A weekend by the beach in August is one thing however, is it really possible to camp comfortably in the Alps in January?
Campervan (or motorhome) skiing isn’t a new thing but it was previously the privilege of wealthy empty nesters and seasonnaires earning a crust in resort. The vanlife community has grown massively in recent years however, and it is now more accessible than ever. For those looking to take their first tentative steps into the world of campervan ski holidays, Roamer just made it a whole lot easier by offering fully winterised 4WD campervans for hire in the French Alps.
It isn’t as mad as it sounds and comes with some huge advantages over booking a hotel or a chalet. If you’re anything like us, in the un up to a ski trip you’ll be glued to the snow forecast apps, praying for the best snow conditions in your chosen resort. But what if you could simply go wherever the snow is freshest not be tied down to one area? How about staying just metres from the lifts, and getting the first lift up for that powder run without carting your gear across town or squeezing onto the ski bus? Fancy touring around 4 or 5 smaller resorts in one trip, maybe squeeze in an off-piste tour or try out something new like snowkiting or speedriding? All of these things are possible in a campervan.
First off, what is a winterised campervan?
A properly winterised campervan will be fully kitted out with everything you need to stay safe, warm and comfortable at altitude, in the depths of winter. Many motorhome rental agencies advertise as ‘winter-ready’ or offer a ‘winter-pack’ but both of these are just arbitrary marketing terms. At best they are simply underequipped to cope with temperatures that can drop to minus 20, at worst they are downright dangerous. The truth is, kitting out a properly winterised campervan requires a substantial investment which just doesn’t make sense for either motorhome or luxury campervan manufacturers.
What specific features should you look for?
Proper winter tyres and snow chains
I cannot stress enough just how important it is to get genuine winter tyres for your campervan, and I don’t mean the ‘all season’ tyres that you typically see on a rental car from Geneva airport. Those marked M+S (Mud and Snow) will be generally better suited to snowy conditions than summer tyres, but there is no certified testing process, and it’s up to the manufacturer to decide what counts as M+S and what doesn’t. So when I say proper winter tyres, I mean those with the ‘3 Peak Mountain SnowFlake symbol’ (3PMSF), a universal standard that verifies tyre performance in the cold, snow and ice. If you’d like more detail on how winter tyres work and what to look for, check out this brilliantly in depth article by Winterised.
We fit BF Goodrich AT winter tyres on our campervans, they include the 3PMSF symbol and have appropriate load rating. Most ski resorts insist you carry snow chains so we include a set of premium (easy to fit) chains with every campervan. For 99% of winter driving, good quality winter tyres give you all the grip and power you need. Roamer campervans also include 4WD so its unlikely you’ll ever need chains but it’s good to know they’re there!
Four Wheel Drive
Four wheel drive isn’t as essential for safety as you might think. The additional power in snow, ice and slush can also help get you out of trouble but it only affects straight line traction, it has no impact on steering or braking distances. Where 4WD comes into play is getting you moving in the first place – try driving up a steep icy track to your campsite or pulling out of a snowy car park and you’ll really notice the difference. There are various flavours of four wheel drive, ranging from the proper off roaders with low gear ratios and multiple diff locks to the simple All Wheel Drive systems found on many modern cars. Volkswagen’s 4Motion system is a good middle ground, it gives you the power and control that you need without needing any special driving skills as everything is controlled automatically.
A quality diesel heater
It goes without saying that to live comfortably in a campervan over winter, you will need a decent heater. Most motorhomes and campervans fit gas (LPG) heaters with refillable bottles in a gas locker. We used to have an LPG heater in our first winter campervan but quickly learned our lesson! Not only do LPG heating systems take up a lot of space and weight allowance, they are impractical in the Alps where the nearest filling station could be over an hours drive away from the snow resort. We now fit Eberspacher D2L diesel heaters in every campervan, they cost more but they are quiet, efficient, safe to run unattended 24/7 and most importantly, draw fuel from the main vehicle diesel tank.
Internal water tanks
Water freezes in winter. Duh. Most campervans use external tanks which saves valuable internal space but makes them completely inappropriate for winter camping. We learnt this lesson with our first campervan when we were camped at an Aire in Meribel and were forced to melt snow to drink. Not fun with a hangover! A properly winterised campervan will have internal fresh water tanks and have lagging on all pipes, we go even further and include a backup drinking water supply with separate pipes. Just in case there is no snow nearby.
Another no brainer, but something which is usually under-installed in most motorhomes and campervan conversions. Stick a heater and some blinds on the windows, what you can’t see won’t hurt you… except, when it’s minus 20 outside and blowing a gale. Winterised campervans have thick insulation under the floor and on the ceiling, not just behind the wall panels. Condensation is also a problem in winter so a decent vapour barrier is essential. Roamer does all of this and more. Our preferred layout separates the cold cab area from the living space, and we either fit double glazed windows or supply thick insulated window covers.
Back up plan to the back up plan
If you’re going to camp in extreme conditions then its important to know you’ll be safe even when things break or go wrong. That’s why we include an emergency box in every campervan, including snow chains, a tow rope, various breakdown tools, a shovel, a backup electric backup heater and a portable gas stove. Comprehensive breakdown assistance comes with the rental fee, and if you ever need it, we will also provide an alternative campervan or hotel accommodation for any days your rental campervan is out of action.
What is it like to drive in the snow?
Driving a 3.5 Tonne vehicle on icy mountain roads is a daunting prospect, but in reality most alpine roads are exceptionally well managed and driving around ski resorts is no different to driving at home. If you do experience any issues with the snow, it will usually be in a car park or in a campsite. 4WD and snow chains will get you out of 99% of situations, and the breakdown cover is there if you need it. To make you feel at ease straight away, we also provide a free coaching session at every handover that includes basic winter driving techniques and tips on putting on snow chains.
Where can we park?
There are different levels of winter camping, it all really depends on how adventurous you want to be! There are plenty of winter camp sites around, usually within walking distance or at least a short bus ride from a ski resort and if you’ve not done it before we usually advise your first night stay to be in a campsite, just so you can get used to things. The next level is an Aire de Camping car, basically a car park with additional facilities (usually one or all of electric hookup, water point and a toilet). You’ll still pay a small fee to park up overnight (usually 10-15 Euros) but they’re usually safe, well maintained and close to ski resorts. There are even some like Les Menuires, Montgenevre and La Plagne that offer ski in-ski out locations!
For the brave, wild camping offers a unique experience and opens up possibilities in any location or ski resort in the Alps. Technically, the rules in Europe state that campervans weighing up to 3,500kg are classified as cars and for safety reasons, car drivers are allowed to park and rest in their vehicles any
where that there are no explicit restrictions (for example you can’t just park up on double lines in the middle of town). However, rules can vary from country to country and sometimes, state to state so it’s worth doing your homework before deciding on where you want to park up. It’s not necessary to go completely off grid, most ski lift car park operators are happy for you to stay for a couple of nights at a time, allowing you to get the first lift in the morning and enjoy a few beers afterwards. Just make sure you park where you aren’t blocking other customers or the snow plough, and don’t leave any mess.
There are a few good resources for finding parking spots, many people use the Park4Night app (although this doesn’t specify which spots are open in winter) but snomadsites.com is probably the best guide for ski specific Aires. Anyone booking a trip with Roamer will have access to our list of winter campsites, aires and wild camping spots that we’ve curated over the years, in a handy Google Maps list.
How do we stay warm and dry?
Staying warm is surprisingly easy, the diesel heater can provide up to a 40 degree C swing between inside and outside and the van will usually heat up from freezing to room temperature in under an hour. We recommend leaving the heating on a low setting while you’re out anyway, it’s safe to do so and means you can warm up quicker.
In the colder months (January to March) staying dry isn’t a concern, it’s cold enough for snow to just brush off. At the start and end of the season however, when you’ve got rain and slush to deal with, staying in a campervan would be a pretty miserable experience if you were unable to dry off. All our campervans come with heating of course but we also provide boot dryers and ensure you have a warm place to hang clothes. Chewie even has a heated garage space for you to warm your boots up before pulling them on in the morning. Between this and the occasional campsite with heated boot room, we’ve got you well covered.