How to keep warm & cool in a van or motorhome
We’ve all seen the #vanlife photos of beautiful rainbow coloured sunsets, sunny days spent on white sandy beaches and relaxing by crystal clear water but what you don’t usually see are the rainy days spent inside your van, driving through crazy storms with zero visibility or trying not to overheat.
Although we moved into our motorhome last year, during the summer months, we were still working in Jersey at the time, so were in and out of the van. We left Jersey in September 2019 to start out travels around Europe, so this is our first proper taste of real heat whilst living in the motorhome full time. Our first few months travelling were quite mild and even a bit cold, at least first thing in the morning and at night, which meant that keeping us (& our travel cat Theodore) warm was the priority.
Follow the seasons
We try to travel north for the summer months (in the northern hemisphere) and south for the winter months, towards the equator. We spent our last summer in sunny Jersey (the sunniest place in the British Isles) before heading to Europe and exploring 16 countries in 6 months. For the end of summer and early Autumn we were in France, Belgium, Holland, southern Germany & Croatia then winter in Greece, Malta & Spain. Apart from a few rainy days, we were really lucky with the weather even swimming in the sea in mid-December!
Follow the weather
One of the great things about living in a home on wheels is that you can move! If you don’t like where you are, or the weather isn’t great then you can go somewhere else. We look at weather forecasts to give us an idea of which direction to head in. For example, we entered Austria from north eastern Germany but there were thunderstorms forecast for western Austria so we headed to Vienna first then made our way back to the Salzburg lakes a couple of days later, completely avoiding the storms. Another time, in Croatia, we got up early (6am) to drive from Zagreb to Risnjak national park, but we had storms, heavy rain and fog all the way there so we checked the weather forecast and saw that there was sun about an hour away on Krk Island. Which is where we ended up spending the next week, swimming in the sea and laying in the sun.
As every scout knows, it’s good to ‘be prepared’, so do a bit of research about the climate of the places you’re going to. See what their average temperatures are, what their rainfall is like and how it differs between regions- up in the mountains can have a completely different climate to a couple of miles away on the coast. Have clothing & equipment to keep you warm, dry & cool, and store it INSIDE the van (putting that coat in an external storage box might seem like a great idea now, but when it’s raining sideways you’ll regret it)! We keep a set of thermals for each of us, extra blankets, boots, hats, gloves, scarves & thick socks for cold weather. Waterproof jackets, trousers & boots are so handy for wet weather (even to just walk across damp grass first thing in the morning to get to the toilet on a campsite). For warm weather think about how you can cool yourselves- lightweight clothing, flip flops & swimwear are our most worn items along with sun hats & sunglasses (I can’t see without mine). Remember the suncream too! If all else fails find some water to swim in to cool down.
The right equipment
Along with preparing yourself, make sure you have the right equipment for your vehicle. Do you need a particular kind of tyres? Will you be driving through snowy mountains or along dirt tracks? Are your windscreen fluid and anti-freeze topped up (depending on the make & model of your vehicle)? Do you have shade, an awning, blinds or covers? Do you need tyre covers if you’re going to be parked in hot weather for a long time? Do you need levelling chocks or grip mats if you’ll be parking on muddy or uneven ground? Do you know the requirements for the country you are travelling in should you break down? We keep 2 x hi-vis waistcoats on our driving seats & a torch in the driving area so they are easily accessible. Also a warning triangle, tyre jack, spare bulbs and fuses in the nearest compartment with tyre covers for icy/snowy weather. We primarily drive on the right hand side of the road, so all of our emergency repair gear is stored on the right (so we don’t have to stand in the road whilst getting a tyre jack out). It’s a small thing, but it’s one less thing to worry about when the worst happens.
Keep your van at the right temperature
When it’s cold get as much sun on that van as you can- great for your solar power too! We have a built in heater than can run on electricty (when we’re hooked up to an outlet) or gas. You might need a different kind of heater- pay attention to carbon monoxide levels & what your insurance allows, if you are bruning fuel. Our van came with a great kitchen, including a full oven, so when it’s cold we cook dinner in the oven, which warms the van nicely. Body heat works well too, so wrap up, get under a cover or two and get close to your co-pilot (or a friendly cat/dog, if your co-pilot is annoying you after a long day of driving!)
When it’s hot, try to let the air in and keep the sun out. Our windows have blinds with reflective backing and fly screens (to let the air in but keep the bugs out). We usually have all the windows open, even the habitation door. Obviously that will depend on where you are parked & if it’s safe to do so- close & lock them at night! We also have an external reflective cover for the windscreen. Park under shade, if you can. We have an awning on one side of our van which is great for added shade and really makes a difference to the temperature but flaps around easily in the wind so we put it away at night.
On warm days we stay up later, on cooler days we all get into bed earlier and snuggle up together. We try to get our driving done early if it’s going to be hot so we can be parked up in the shade, preferably by water, by the hottest part of the day. Remember to keep hydrated!
Travelling with pets
Keeping ourselves the right temperature is often easier than for Theodore. He mostly lives on the cab bed above the driving area. He also has a ‘bunker’ with a cat-flap that we built him in the front of one of the side seats, where he likes to hide if he gets scared by loud noises (thunderstorms, aeroplanes, rubbish trucks) or if it gets hot, as it’s generally a bit cooler in there too. On cold days he will snuggle down into the spare blankets that we also keep on the cab bed, or come and find us for extra cuddles. When it gets really hot we have a cooling mat for him to lie on, that was a gift from our friends. It goes in the fridge & the gel filled pouches keep him at a comfortable temperature. We also put a cool, wet flannel on him or wet him all over, which he absolutely hates, but it does cool him down. Remember to keep your pets hydrated & if you’re taking your pet out for a walk: place your hand on the floor and hold it there for 30 seconds – if you can’t keep your hand there, it’s too hot for animals, so keep them inside.
As prepared as you try to be you can’t control everything, which means you have to be flexible & just do what you can. We spent coronavirus lockdown in southern Spain (March-May) and then northern France (May-June) just as temperatures were warming up. I like the sun but some days it was even too hot for me. We know that summer in southern Spain would be too hot for us, especially for Callum & Theodore, who prefer the cooler shade so we go north. A thunderstorm followed us as we drove through Montenegro & Albania last November, which meant a few days at a campsite with no electricity (& narrowly avoiding driving into the fallen power lines!). Another storm hit Italy as we were on our way to get the ferry to Malta which led to 24hrs of being thrown around on a boat in gale force 10 winds! We narrowly missed the storms and eathquakes in Albania and Greece last December; we were in the area between the two. We’ve just had a heatwave of 30-35° C over the past few days in France and that has meant using ALL of our hot weather tips but now we’ve had a thunderstorm and can relax again. It’s all part of the fun of living a nomadic travel life.