Our first winter campervan ski trip reads a lot like a what NOT to do guide. As relatively new skiers at the time we had never been campervan skiing or snowboarding before and spent the whole trip racing around like giddy schoolkids! In total we managed 5 weeks wild camping across the Alps, from Meribel in France to Saalbach in Austria. We had a brilliant time but also learnt a lot of (sometimes painful) lessons about how to campervan in winter! I’ve made a lot of changes our campervans since then but I wouldn’t change one day of that trip…
You’ll probably notice that Homer now looks completely different to this picture. It turns out we made a lot of mistakes in that first version of the conversion and it definitely wasn’t winterised as I now understand the term! We’ve since completely rebuilt everything inside the van to make it more suitable for campervan skiing and snowboard holidays. I’ve added more insulation, upgraded electrics, changed the heater and rebuilt the furniture for more storage. I’ve also upgraded suspension and tyres on the outside. For our first campervan ski trip however, Homer was as basic as he’s ever been. We were wild camping 90% of the time and this was the winter of the Beast from the East. Knowing that we can stay cosy despite all of that makes everything else seem easy!
The first stop was Meribel in the Three Valleys. We didn’t have any idea about campervan parking in winter so used the Park4Night app to find a small car park. We weren’t planning on staying long and it was right by the lift so was perfect for us!
Our first conversion mistake became obvious within 5 minutes. There was a freezing draft coming from the back doors and the windows felt like blocks of ice! The solution we came up with was to drape one of the 15 tog duvets across the back. It was only a temporary fix to last this trip but it worked really well. We now include a professional version of this idea with all of our rental campervans.
Before we set off Kate prepped a load of one pot meals and stuffed the fridge full of tupperware tubs. This was probably one of our best campervan ideas we’ve ever had. After a very long drive and some first night wild camping nerves, the last thing we wanted to do was start cooking a meal. Being able to chuck a pot of stew on the hob and be eating within 10 minutes was such a relief! We now do this for every campervan skiing trip we go on. We also offer prepped meals as an add-on service for rental customers.
The next day was probably the most nerve wracking part for me. Kate had only had two skiing lessons before committing to a 5 week campervan skiing trip. What if she hated it? Would we have to turn around and go home? It didn’t help that Kate face planted into a pile of snow on the first run either! Thankfully a rest and a couple of Jagermeisters later she was back and raring to go.
After a long and tiring day it was nice to spend a few hours in the apres ski bars. Like a lot of things on this trip, we probably overdid it a bit! So much so, we spent half an hour on the ski bus home before we realised we were going the wrong way! We had to jump off in the middle of nowhere with all our ski gear and hike back. It was late, we were lost on a random mountain road, there was no phone signal and the temperature was dropping fast. Walking downhill is ski boots is not easy at the best of times either!
Luckily we reached civilisation and we were able to call a taxi but it was a sobering lesson. Getting drunk on your first day in a new place is a stupid idea. It’s even worse when its minus 10 outside and you’ve only got a vague idea where you parked your house!
The next morning we moved from Meribel to Les Menuires and stayed in the Aire de Camping Car just 20m from the slopes. If you’re not familiar with the term, an Aire de Camping Car is a serviced car park built for motorhomes. Some are very basic while others have fresh water, toilets, electric hookup and a place to dump your waste. There are Aire de Camping Cars all over France (not to be confused with Aire de Services which are motorway services). Lots are closed in winter however so if you’re on a campervan ski or snowboard trip then you’ll need to check which ones are open. The Aire at Les Menuires is decent and it only costs €11 per night plus a bit more for the electric tokens.
There are a few ‘ski-in ski-out’ Aires dotted around (La Plagne and Montgenevre are other good ones). This was our first experience and at the time, it felt like we’d hit the jackpot. Until our water tank froze and we were stuck with no water in the middle of the night! There is a tap on site but it wasn’t working and there are no restaurants or shops open. With another hangover creeping in, we did what we felt Robert Falcon Scott would have done on a campervan skiing trip. Ate snow. There had been a fresh snowfall the night before and we avoided the yellow stuff but it’s not an experience I want to repeat!
I learnt a valuable lesson from this experience. Running out of water is an inconvenience in summer but a nightmare in winter! To avoid this happening again we now keep all water tanks inside the van, insulate the pipes and have a separate backup drinking water supply.
It’s pretty obvious that to stay warm on a campervan ski or snowboard trip you’ll need a good quality, reliable heater. During the campervan conversion process I scoured the market for something that fit the bill. After a lot of research I ended up installing a Propex HS2000 which runs on gas (LPG) taken from the underslung tank. The Propex is a great bit of kit but we had two big issues with this setup. The first was totally our fault and was fixable. We didn’t realise that in Europe they have different gas connectors and you cannot simply plug into the LPG pump if you’ve got a UK inlet valve and a European pump. The solution is these little brass adaptors but at the time, we didn’t have any with us and nowhere to buy one.
The second issue, and it is a much bigger one, is that refilling the tank with LPG in the Alps is extremely difficult. There are a handful of filling stations that sell LPG and you can use the mylpg.eu app to find them but they are usually miles away from the ski resort and at the bottom of the mountain. Austria is even worse than France for LPG stations.
We were forced to move on from Les Menuires when the gas started getting low. The Super U petrol station in Bourg St Maurice sold LPG so after a long day on the slopes we headed down to refill. This was when we realised we needed an adaptor! Only we didn’t have one and neither did the filling station. We tried one other place and it was the same story. After cursing our tiny gas tank and my own stupidity, we used the last of the gas to make tea and fill hot water bottles and settled in for a long night. It wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be. The hot water bottles helps and we were at relatively low altitude but it was still very cold!
Chamonix came to the rescue the the next day and we found a petrol station that sold coffee as well as an LPG adaptor. Some cold hard maths did help us realise the obvious however. If we can only get 3-4 nights of gas with a 12 litre tank, we would a 40-50 litres tank to make the refilling process bearable. It might work in a big motorhome but it’s not a realistic option in a small campervan where space and weight are limited.
We now have Eberspacher diesel heaters in our vans. They draw diesel from the fuel tank meaning you can run the heater 247 at a consistent temperature without hassle, stress or fuel anxiety.
We had a few days in Chamonix with mixed feelings. The skiing was great but tricky for Kate who was a beginner at the time. It’s also not an ideal spot for a campervan unless you’re happy stealth camping in town. We stayed at the campsite and got the ski bus in, a bit of a mission especially with the hike up the hill to the lift. (If anyone knows any good park ups in Chamonix valley please let me know!).
We moved on to Morzine (Portes du Soleil) and fell in love, what a brilliant town and ski resort! Parking for a campervan isn’t ideal as the main resort car parks are underground and they’ve started putting height restrictions in the outdoors car parks. There is a good (but expensive) Aire in Morzine and some good wild camping spots nearer Chatel however.
Moving onto Switzerland and we splashed out on a couple of nights stay at Camping Jungfrau near Lauterbrunnen. It’s a stunning place situated by a huge waterfall in the shadow of the Eiger. Possibly the prettiest campsite I’ve ever seen and a big step up in luxury after wild camping! It requires a 30 minute train to the slopes but the journey is part of the fun.
The old cog train feels like something out of Harry Potter, winding its way up the side of the mountain to the car free resorts of Wengen and Grindelwald. Almost as much fun going up as it is coming down again! Apparently the Lauterbrunnen valley is a hot spot for BASE jumpers and paragliders in summer. One for the summer list maybe!
In France and Switzerland, wild camping is legal everywhere subject to a few local restrictions and grey areas. In national parks for example, it’s up to the local authority to set the rules. You’ll also find some public car parks in ski resorts have height restrictions or no camping signs. It’s worth doing your homework beforehand but as long as you’re respectful then you shouldn’t have any problems.
Austria does NOT permit wild camping and if you’re caught you could end up with a fine (€40 per person inside the van). It varies by region and many places tolerate it however, so it’s a bit of a grey area! If you do decide to wild camp then at least try and be stealthy. Remember to always be respectful of your surroundings, look out for road signs, arrive late (after 7pm), leave early (before 9am), and don’t do anything stupid like start a fire!
St Anton was on the bucket list of places to visit. Apart from the Austrian techno music (not our cup of tea!) it didn’t disappoint. We’ve been back every year since and if we were staying in a hotel in the area, we’d definitely look for somewhere central. Campervan parking in St Anton isn’t easy however. There are a couple of awkward places if you’re only there for one night. Otherwise you’ll need to go to one of the campsites which are out of town and expensive.
The one in Pettneu was way out of our price range (€80 per night!). For that price you do get a private bathroom next to your pitch and access to the spa next door. I’m not sure that counts as camping personally! If you’re after a bit of luxury though, Camping Arlberg is your place. There is a cheaper option however. Alpen Camping is just up the road in Klosterle so if you’re only looking for somewhere to recharge and refill that might be better.
We ended up in a big car park in Lech which charges for overnight parking. It’s normally €10 for 24 hours but it’s free with a valid lift pass. Lech is a lot quieter than St Anton but the snow tends to be better (it’s one of the snowiest places in the Alps). There’s a few good bars and the park up is only 50m from the ski lift too. Winner!
I’ve got feet like a giant duck so finding ski boots that fit me is almost impossible. Before we started our campervan ski trip I got fitted for some custom Strolz boots at Glide and Slide in Otley. I didn’t realise buying a pair of boots could be so scientific! After wrapping my feet in plastic they pumped foam into the boot liners, effectively vacuum forming them to my feet. Between this process and the shop manager’s bravery in touching my feet, I ended up with a pair of the most comfortable boots I’ve ever worn! Ok they were expensive but I could wear these things to bed, they’re that good.
On my way down the last run into Lech I noticed one of my boot buckles had snapped off. I knew Strolz are a tiny brand compared to the likes of Atomic or Rossignol so my hopes of finding spare parts were pretty slim! It turns out Strolz boots are actually made in Lech and they have a massive shop right in the centre of town. They repaired and serviced my boots free of charge, they even came back smelling nice! I refuse to pay €80 a night for a campsite but sometimes it’s worth paying a little extra. You really do get what you pay for.
When we first set off, we felt like we had invented campervan skiing and knew it all. It didn’t take long before we had to eat a dose of humble snow pie however. We made a lot of mistakes in the van conversion process and a few more on the first few days of the trip. Towards the end however, we hadn’t done anything stupid for a while and the skiing was getting much better. We at least felt we had now descended from Mount Stupid! Then we met Lizzie and Laurie, a lovely couple of experienced winter vanlifers and realised how much we still didn’t know.
We arranged to meet in Mayrhofen after chatting on Instagram (@usavanandthedogs) and they put us onto a great camping spot. It’s a small private car park with electricity, a toilet and shower block for €7 per night. Result!
Lizzie and Laurie had Tyrol superski season passes which includes dozens of resorts in the Tyrol area on one lift pass. Definitely better idea than driving the length of the Alps buying day passes like we’d been doing! They also had a cool T4 van with loads of proper winterised features. They were both excellent snowboarders and were also pretty handy at the Nail Game, a drinking game we had just discovered and which they soundly beat us at. So when Laurie asked me if I wanted to do some off-piste skiing off the side of a black run, I of course said yes. I got stuck in deep snow within 30 seconds. After clawing my way out I realised was massively out of my depth. I took another tumble, gave up and slid on my bum back down the valley of despair.
We’ve now done another two ski seasons and can even win the odd Nails game. I’m amazed at much we learnt on our first campervan ski holiday however! If you have a winterised campervan and don’t make the same mistakes we did then spending a winter ski season in a campervan is a lot easier than it looks. Here’s my top ten tips if you’re thinking of taking your campervan on a ski trip this year:
If you want to learn what to look for in a winterised campervan you can read our follow up blog post How to take campervan on a ski trip. You can read more about Roamer (and us personally) on the main website About Us page. If you want to know more about renting a Roamer campervan, check out the How it works page. You can also book online now