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What is a winterised campervan?

Whether you choose to buy a campervan, convert your own or rent, it’s vital your campervan is up to the job. You don’t want to make the same mistakes we made on our first campervan ski trip

So what is a winterised campervan anyway? Well, there are different definitions out there but to us a winterised campervan has been designed and built to keep you safe, warm and comfortable in extreme winter conditions. That might sound obvious but many motorhome rental agencies will tell you their campervans are ‘winter-ready’ or offer a ‘winter-pack’ with very little to back this up. There is a big difference between a winter in Cornwall and a ski or snowboard holiday in the Alps!

Some campervans are simply underequipped to cope with temperatures that can drop to minus 20. Others are downright dangerous. The truth is, kitting out a properly winterised campervan requires a substantial investment. This just doesn’t make sense for traditional campervan rental companies or motorhome manufacturers. Roamer specialises in 4WD winterised campervans so when we say we’re ready for winter, we mean it. Here’s some of features we think are essential in a winterised campervan…

A winterised campervan in the Alps

Winter Tyres and Snow Chains

I cannot stress enough just how important it is to have genuine winter tyres on your winterised campervan. Or any vehicle for that matter! And I don’t mean the ‘all season’ tyres that you typically see on a rental car from Geneva airport. When I say winter tyres, I mean those with the ‘3 Peak Mountain SnowFlake symbol’ (3PMSF). 

3PMSF is a universal standard that verifies tyre performance in the cold, snow and ice. This badge of honour is only applied if the tyre has been proven to provide dramatically improved performance in wintry conditions through rigorous testing. Tyres marked M+S (Mud and Snow) will be better suited to snowy conditions than summer tyres. The problem is there isn’t a certified testing process like there is with the 3PMSF. It’s up to the manufacturer to decide what counts as M+S and what doesn’t.

Roamer also includes a set of premium (easy to fit) snow chains with every campervan. For 99% of winter driving, good quality winter tyres give you all the grip and power you need. Its unlikely you’ll ever need chains but it’s good to know they’re there just in case!

Winter tyres on a campervan
We fit BF Goodrich AT winter tyres on our campervans. They include both M+S and 3PMSF symbols and have appropriate load rating.

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 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 real 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 of 4WD when you need it without requiring any special driving skills.

A 4WD campervan in winter
All of our VW vans have 4Motion as standard

A quality diesel heater

It goes without saying that a winterised campervan will need a decent heater. But what type of heater is best? Electric heating is not an option as they consume huge amounts of power. It would only work at a campsite with electric hookup and even then it would be expensive. So that leaves gas (LPG) or diesel. Most motorhomes and campervans fit LPG heaters with refillable bottles in a gas locker. We used to have an LPG heater with a separate underslung tank in our first winter campervan. We came to the conclusion that diesel heater is much better option than LPG if you are taking a campervan to the Alps. You can read about our experience with an LPG heater on our first campervan ski trip blog post here.

We now fit Eberspacher S2 diesel heaters in every Roamer campervan. They cost more but they are quiet, efficient and safe to run unattended 24/7. Most importantly, they draw fuel from the main vehicle diesel tank so you never need to worry about running out of fuel! Operating the Eberspacher heater is really easy. The controller allows you to set a target temperature and duration on screen with a couple of clicks. The built in altimeter also adjusts the burner cycle automatically depending on the altitude, making it safe up to 3000m.

Eberspacher diesel heater in a campervan
The Eberspacher EasyStart Pro controls both heating and hot water in our campervans

Internal water tanks

Water freezes in winter. Duh. Most campervans use external tanks which saves space but makes them completely inappropriate for winter camping. It’s possible to lag external water tanks and some even come with heating elements for ‘frost protection’. This will help of course, but it’s still not enough to cope with the temperatures you’ll get at altitude in winter. Beside, the pipes are usually the first part of a the water system to freeze. In a system like this, you’d still need to drain the pipes every time you run the tap or it’ll block up the first time the temperature drops.

We had a steep learning curve on this one. On our first campervan ski trip, our tanks and pipes froze up. We ended up melting snow to drink. Not much fun with a hangover!

A properly winterised campervan will have internal fresh water tanks and lagging on all pipes. Even then its possible for pipes to freeze occasionally. Roamer campervans now go one step further and include a backup drinking water supply with separate pipes.

A winterised campervan in a ski resort
A snow storm in Lech. No problem for Chewie

Insulation

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.

An insulated campervan
Tucked up and toasty in an insulated campervan

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 Roamer provides an emergency box in every campervan. As standard we include snow chains, a tow rope, various breakdown tools, a shovel, a backup electric heater and a portable gas stove.

Comprehensive breakdown assistance also comes with the rental fee. If you ever need it, we will also provide an alternative campervan or hotel accommodation. There is no need to take risks with a campervan ski holiday. It might take a little extra planning but it’s worth it every time.

Backup plan
And plan C, plan D and plan E...

What is it like to drive a campervan in winter?

Driving a 3.5 Tonne vehicle on icy mountain roads may sound like a daunting prospect. In reality most alpine roads are exceptionally well managed. If you do experience issues in snow, it will usually be in a car park or in a campsite and 4WD and snow chains will get you out of these 99% of situations. If you get really stuck then the breakdown cover is there if you need it.

To make you feel at ease straight away, Roamer provide a free coaching session at every handover. We will talk you through the features of the campervan, basic winter driving techniques and tips on putting on snow chains. You’ll be snow ploughing your way out of the car park in no time!

Where are the best campervan parking spots?

There are plenty of winter campsites, usually within a short bus ride from the lifts. Even if you wild camp the rest of the time, I’d still advise spending your first night on campsite. It helps you get used to the campervan in a safe environment and plan out your next move.

The next level is an Aire de Camping car, basically a car park with additional facilities. They’re a mixed bag but usually provide access to electric hookup, a water point and a toilet. You’ll still pay a small fee to park up overnight (usually 10-15 Euros) but it’s a good option for a couple of nights. There are even some like Les Menuires, Montgenevre and La Plagne that offer ski in-ski out locations!

Wild camping offers a unique experience and opens up parking in pretty much any ski resort in the Alps. It’s important to understand the local restrictions however. Rules can vary from country to country and often, state to state. How the rules are applied also varies massively depending on where you are. We talk about parking options in more detail as well as wild camping rules in France, Switzerland and Austria in a separate blog post, campervan parking in ski resorts.

Winterised campervan in ski resort
Ready to get the first lift in the morning!

How do we stay warm and dry in a winterised campervan?

Staying warm is surprisingly easy. A good diesel heater can provide a 30 degree C swing between inside and outside. A well insulated van will also 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 really a concern, it’s cold enough for snow to just brush off. At the start and end of the season however, 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. 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 overnight! Between this and the occasional campsite with heated boot room, we’ve got you well covered.

Ski storage in a motorhome
Chewie has a heated garage big enough for six sets of skis and boots, plus hooks for all your ski clothes
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