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Saturday, 15 August 2009

ALPINE WINTER CAMPING - Preparing and Protecting your van

Alpine winter touring and camping is a real adventure - it can be hard going, but also beautiful, exciting and satisfying - meeting the elements and surviving in comfort, hopefully unscathed by any disasters.

Enjoying the view at La Rosiere

This year we travelled the length of the Deutche Alpentrasse – a scenic alpine route that traverses southern Germany from the Black Forest to Berchestgarden near the Austrian border.

Oberstdorf, the morning after a large dump

Over 8 winters we have visited the French, German and Swiss Alps, the Spanish and French Pyrenees, Spanish Sierras, Italian Dolomites and even Liechtenstein.
But, every year we seem to forget some of our “winter craft” and have to re-learn it the hard way. Hence our guide below.

As we have sadly discovered, as the big ski resorts get bigger the facilities for hardy winter-loving motorhomer’s get smaller – they put up height barriers to car parks and build apartments on land previously used for aires, in effect they don’t need the income from motorhomers any more.

Nesselwang. Great facilities just across the road from the lift

So we have to find smaller resorts that are still keen to receive our income, and there are plenty of them if you are prepared to look - along the Deutche Alpenstrasse we found literally dozens, some with dedicated aires where you can get access to water and waste in freezing conditions and hookups for a nominal sum (coin in the slot).

Ibergeregg. In small resorts it is possible to park and walk to the piste

Elsewhere we have found suitable carparks (often on the advice of tourist offices) where we can stay for a few days (sometimes with direct access or a passing ski bus) and visit the mountains before travelling a few miles back to habitation to stock up on food, gas, water and dispose of our waste.

Dont be suprised to be awoken by a snow plough!

Obviously lots of winter sports enthusiasts choose to stay on dedicated winter campsites (caravan neige) but they are getting hugely expensive, particularly as motorhomes increasingly have electric heating and numerous other gadgets. Many are also fully booked for the season so you may struggle to find a place in the resort of your choice.

But you can do as we and thousands of others do – follow the snow, go where you choose, discover new resorts (some with well organised aires), and stay as long as you like. You just have to be prepared and remember a few procedures.

Some smaller campsites can be a challenge

PREPARATIONS - your van and equipment

Most modern engines have a 50% solution of coolant additive that not only protects the engine from internal corrosion but also from freezing, down to -35 degrees C. If you have your vehicle serviced by a reputable dealer each year, this should be one of their checks, but if you’re not sure, “solution strength” indicators are available from Halfords and motor factors. If you do need to top up, make sure you use a product compatible to the one in your engine.

He knew he'd left it around here somewhere!

Screen wash
Refill your screen wash bottle with a strong solution to protect from freezing, if in doubt, make it stronger! Due to the effect of wind chill on the jets, the solution should be good for -20 C or you can loose your screen wash as the jets freeze up, even when the engine is hot. Driving in slushy, dirty conditions without screen washers is a real pain and obviously can be dangerous.

Conditions like these can happen very quickly and be treacherous

Snow chains
These are compulsory in alpine areas. We have never been stopped by the police to check if we have them, but you would be foolish to go without.

Update: Since this article was written, many more European countries have introduced regulations making the fitting of winter tyres mandatory in the winter months. Tyre technology has moved on as well, with very capable all-season tyres available that can be used all year round and meet the requirements of the authorities in winter. Check out my articles posted January 2013 –
Winter tyres Part 1 – Do you need them?
Winter tyres Part 2 – Selecting the tyres
Winter tyres Part 3 – Buying and using the tyres

Choose the quick fit type of chain with the heavy wire cable loop, they are more expensive but much easier to fit, bear in mind you may have to remove and refit them several times over a day’s travel if going over mountain passes!
Just as important, have a practice fit before you leave – trying to read the instructions and make sense of that pile of chain in a bitter blizzard in the dark is no fun at all!
Buy from a commercial chain retailer (e.g. Brindley Chains) – they are a lot cheaper than “recreational” suppliers.

The fun part - taking the chains off after leaving a campsite

A cheap pair of woven, plastic coated gardening gloves gives you enough “feel” but will save your fingers and help stop them getting numb and useless! Use “Marigolds” underneath them if it’s really cold and wet. A tough plastic bag to kneel on saves your clothes getting dirty and wet, and folds up to put away afterwards. I carry a cheap pair of nylon waterproofs as well for the job in really bad conditions.

In our experience, winter road clearance is so good on the continent that if you are careful to pick your travel times, chains are rarely needed except for getting in and out of aires and campsites.

Are both your batteries (engine and leisure) in good condition? If they are more than 5 years old replace them anyhow.
Cold conditions affect the performance of 12V batteries drastically (a 0.1 Volt drop for every 1° C drop in temp) and if your battery is fitted in an exposed metal case or locker this can be very significant.
A weak battery will soon be shown up, usually when you need it most. If one battery does not hold a charge well it can affect the ability of your charging systems to charge the other battery with the result that both give poor performance.

Our generator earning its keep high above Val Thorens - minus 15 C

Solar panels and Generators
Sub zero temperatures can give your battery a real caning when running your heater more or less continuously. Solar panels can boost your autonomy if you are not going to stay on campsites all the time, but think seriously about getting a generator - it’s the battery boost package that keeps you going when all else fails! Also if your gas heater packs up, your fan heater can be used as a backup.
Our generator has been converted to run on gas (via an external gas BBQ connection) and has been very reliable, even at the highest altitudes and lowest temperatures.

Check out my article on converting generators to run on gas – 
Turning gas into electricity

NB. Don’t consider using your vehicle engine as a generator if you value its reliability and long life – continued “cold” running can cause permanent and expensive damage.

We use the Gaslow refillable system, which enables us to top up with gas before we go to a resort without having to discard a half full bottle or worry about how much is left.
If you do over extend your stay on a campsite it’s handy to have spare “pigtails” or adaptors for different countries so that you can still hire a gas bottle. The Gaslow brochure has a comprehensive set of adaptors and hose connectors to allow local “pigtails” or bottles to be used. One of my bottle supply hoses is a 1.5 metre flexible stainless steel item (available from Gaslow) which normally remains curled up on the bottle, but is long enough to be extended outside the locker to connect up a local bottle.

Aires can be found in the most surprising places!

There is a small snag however with using LPG Autogas on the continent instead of the usual exchangeable propane bottles. It has some butane content (the proportion of which can vary with the season) and because this does not flow below freezing you may not to be able to use the entire contents of your refillable bottle - the butane component remaining behind despite the bottle appearing to be empty. This loss can be compounded after several refills if you have not burned the butane content, resulting in less and less usable capacity. The only solution is to go somewhere warm and use up an entire bottle!
In practice, though we have observed this phenomenon, over a six week skiing trip its not been a real problem.

When was your gas heater last serviced?
Get it checked out professionally for peace of mind. Fit a Carbon Monoxide (CO) detector if you think you are going to sleep with the heater running – you probably will, so fit one anyhow. When cooking, Carbon Monoxide can build up very quickly inside a small van – we were stunned how quickly the alarm was activated when we fitted one – another important reason to have a good CO detector!

Electric Heating
Consider getting a fan heater purpose made for boats and caravans – the 500 watt setting can be a life saver if the current supply is restricted (as it often is on continental campsites in the winter) or if you have other important items to connect. (TV, laptop, fridge, water heater, battery charger, etc).
These heaters are more expensive but worth it, and can safely be left on when the van is vacant to protect your systems from freezing. They are also a backup if your gas heater fails. (Truma now make a combi heater with electric blown air heating but unfortunately we don’t have that luxury).

Screen and door insulation
These can be a chore to fit and store but are very effective. In icy conditions the exterior “Silver Screen” type are the only ones to have – they keep snow and ice out of your door edges and seals, protect your wipers and save you having to scrape ice off the inside and outside of your windscreen.

Keep the ice outside with "Silver screen" type covers

Consider using your internal screens together with your external ones – it really does make a difference in extreme temperatures. An added bonnet cover will stop snow and ice getting down into the ventilation slots and engine compartment.

Pushing your dashboard vent switch to “recirc,” can help to keep the cold draughts to a minimum, but don’t forget to have sufficient ventilation elsewhere.

NB. Fiat gear lever links can get frozen up in extreme cold, and if you left it in gear – you have a problem – you will have difficulty getting your engine started until the weather warms up!

How exposed are your water pipes?
Some vans, such as our Rapido, have the blown air heating ducts follow the water pipes (and around the toilet cassette) to keep them from freezing, providing you leave your heating running of course, but if you have fridge vents near your water pipes or taps – beware!

We have found that when the temperature gets below minus 10° C strange things can happen, even when the heating is running.
Wherever possible lag the exposed hoses with domestic style pipe insulation, commercially available black rubber “Armaflex” or even bubble wrap, in difficult to reach places.

There are electrical “trace heating” tapes on the market that operate on 12V or 240V and can be fixed to pipes that are particularly exposed. They use little current, can be self regulating from a temperature standpoint and will keep a pipe from freezing. This obviously requires some additional electrical installation, switches and fuses, etc, but can be the answer if you want to keep all your services up and running on site. A qualified electrician should be consulted if you are interested in this.

Waste tank
Our exterior waste tank is unlagged but has now been fitted with an underneath gate valve and 12 volt heating element. On a campsite the heater can be left switched on continuously and is claimed to keep the contents of the tank liquid down to -25C.

This arrangement can give us a water collection facility lasting several days, depending on our consumption, and water can still be decanted off if necessary. It does not always keep the dump valve from freezing up however, but a blast with a warmish water hose or a couple of minutes with a hair dryer does the trick.

Insulated waste tanks (unless they have a foolproof means of avoiding freezing) can be a mistake – once frozen they can take a very long time to thaw out!
We have been caught out with our waste tank freezing up a couple of times, allowing a block of ice to form, which then took several days to thaw out and empty, even when we had come down the mountain to a temperature a few degrees above freezing!

Update: From 2013 a new product has come onto the market called TankBlanket, basically a self adhesive, thermostatically controlled, thermal pad that can be applied directly to the base of an exposed fresh water or waste tank to prevent freezing. A pipe-wrap thermal blanket is also available, together with tank and pipe insulation. An ambient temperature controller can also be inserted into the supply circuit(s) to give automatic switching (on/off) of the blankets.

This is a relatively simple retrofit that could be the answer to frozen tanks and/or outlet pipes. The snag of course is the amount of current consumption (the smallest blanket draws 4 amps, the  largest 5 amps), so unless you are really well endowed with power generating capacity, their use is probably confined to areas where a hook-up is available. That said, with really good insulation, the current draw will be intermittent as the thermostatic control switches on and off. The only real proof is in actual conditions – the amount of power consumed will depend on the degrees of  frost, and the quality of the insulation.

Letting your water drain into a bucket is a useful ploy - most of the time!

If your waste tank is under slung (as most are) then the alternative is to leave your drain tap open and place an empty bucket under it. Disposing of the ice in the bucket then becomes a daily ritual, but at least your tank is safe from damage and will not fill up!
However you may find that once the night time temperature gets below minus 5ºC and hovers around zero during the day, this strategy no longer works – as the frequent trickles of water freeze and gradually block up the drain pipe. 

Consider your Freshwater strategy
If you intend staying on site for a few days it may well be impractical to move the van just to top up the water. Most people just use the heated facilities for showering and washing up. If you have a small water capacity or want to use more, a couple of 10 litre jerricans for topping up are invaluable.

Additional “essential” items:

1) Tow rope for pull-outs and assisting others
2) Anti-skid mats (x2 pairs) for icy car parks
3) “Dirty” waterproof clothes for fitting and removing chains
4) Snow shovel (we have a light, two section plastic type)
5) Long handled or telescopic brush for clearing snow off roof and windscreens
6) Good stiff plastic spatula for removing icicles off locker doors and windows
7) De-icing spray for door locks
8) Powerful hairdryer for thawing-out duties

ON TOUR - How to deal with Snow, Ice and Sub zero temperatures

Winter Diesel Fuel
Keep an eye open for garages selling winter fuel, this can prevent wax forming deposits down to –20 degrees C and can make the difference between continuing your holiday and being marooned. Alternatively use an additive to prevent this happening.
Our fuel tank is well sheltered under the van and we always use a bonnet cover - so far we have not had a problem, but I do buy winter fuel when I see it available.

Put your snow chains on before you park up on site
This may seem like overkill if the conditions are good at the time, but after a few days the conditions may be drastically different. If the ice and snow builds up around you wheels you may have difficulty getting your chains on – let alone moving off the site. Every time you get new snow, clear the path for your wheels onto the track cleared by the campsite  snowploughs– it’s so much easier to move when it’s fresh!

You could see the tarmac yesterday!

Clear the snow regularly from the roof and windscreen/bonnet
When it snows hard and your van looks like a picture postcard, say: “ooh aah”, take your photographs - then get the brush out! Clear all the snow off the roof, doors etc.

This is known as getting a head start.

If it warms up during the day the snow will melt into the door seams and every other nook and cranny, then when it freezes again at night the doors, locks, bonnet, etc. can become immoveable and remain so indefinitely.
Our cab steps are a particular trap, the ice builds up on them very swiftly and prevents the doors from opening.

The cab steps collect their share of snow and ice

This “freeze-thaw-freeze” is a menace and can change state radically during the night.
A cautionary tale: If you are about go to bed and its dropping wet snow, but you see the locals out brushing the snow off their roofs, it’s a safe bet they’ve heard the forecast and there’s going to be a hard freeze during the night!

Pretty it may be, but it can cause serious problems

I was once too lazy to heed this warning, and in the morning the side door was covered with a frozen sheet of icicles and immovable, our only exit was through the passenger cab door with the silver screen over it – tricky!

Worse still, the ice had piled up behind the awning and forced the awning away from the van, breaking a securing bolt. (We now have some special rubber strip from Fiamma fitted to bridge the gap between van and awning to prevent this).

Park your van on a tilt!
This is to try to ensure that any melting snow and ice on the roof drains away from the side door and awning, if it doesn't it can block access and cause damage to the awning as above.
Think about your solar panels and/or satellite dish if you have them.

The icicles expand their grip day by day

On one campsite we had to park on a six inch thick bed of ice that had accumulated during the season. During the day some of this would become soft as the sunshine warmed the air, and each night when we returned from the slopes the van had altered its attitude as the wheels sank  unevenly into it!

Make a check of what’s happening morning and night. If you put ramps out to level up/induce a tilt, clear the snow away from them every day or they may be set into several inches of ice by the end of your stay - you may even loose sight of them after while! (I found the best way to shift ramps that had stuck down after a night was a long screwdriver from the toolbox, hammered down underneath the ramp and then used to prise it up). Likewise a portable step should be shifted/taken in every night or it may anchor itself down in the ice.

NB. When it’s only a few degrees below freezing a jug of hot water can help loosen up the ice, but when it’s seriously below the hot water only adds to the problem by freezing instantly – you are talking hammer and chisel, hair dryer (perhaps) – or a long wait!

Check your door and locker seals
Wipe them dry with some kitchen towel before closing – then you can get access next time you want to. A smear of Vaseline or silicon spray around the seal will also help to avoid sticking.

Lift your electric cable up every day
This will prevent it merging permanently into the frozen mush on the ground. It’s surprising how far a light cable will sink every day in the freeze-thaw. Once it has submerged into the ice you might have to leave it there!

We generally set our thermostat to around 10-15 degrees for its overnight running temp. Perversely though, the colder it is outside, the hotter we have to set it to stop our water pipes from freezing. We always turn the water pump off at night, just in case a hose should give way and flood the van in our sleep!
At the very least it’s a good idea to leave the hot water on so that there is no danger of the heater dumping its contents. Should you get caught out with a dumping water heater, remember that all you have to do is lift the drain plug up and switch on at the same time – no need for pegs or other clamps!

Condensation in cupboards can be major problem – we get round this by storing clothes in light bin liners and books/magazines in plastic Ziploc bags and wallets.

There is always more to learn and new tricks to discover, and of course every van is different – with its own strengths and weaknesses – but the sheer satisfaction of surviving a season, or even a week or two in alpine conditions is worth it for the beauty of the mountains, and the ability to enjoy them straight out of the door of your van.

For days like this, the hassles can all seem worthwhile


Rick Lomas said...

That's a great blog you have here, I especially like the stuff about motorhoming in the winter. I did a ski trip to Italy early this year.I wrote about it here: http://www.motorhomefreedom.com/places-to-go/motorhome-trip-to-italy. If you fancy writing some articles for my site, please get in touch. Keep up the good work.

Lee Cheetham said...

I have just finished reading your blog. Its truly very inspiring and full of really useful information. We are heading off this Winter into the Alps for the season. We don't really know where yet but thanks for all the tips.

Smokey Jack said...


I am researching vans for winter (and summer use) and was wondering about your LPG system. Is the bottle secured under the body or inside the living area? One of the options that I am looking at is a converted Ford transit with a bottle slung under the vehicle but I am worried about the issue that will arise through the butane content. I reckon for prolonged periods at resort level in Dec/Jan this might become a problem.

Kind regards and great blog - v useful.


Ian and Sue said...

Hi Jack.

Our Gaslow bottles are stored in the usual ventilated gas locker built into the Rapido. This gives them some protection from the cold but not much. The butane content problem is cumulative and very much dependent on temperature - we have swapped over bottles on a cold morning thinking the bottle was finished, but swapped back again after the sun had been on the side of the van and cooked lunch and dinner from from it!

Using up the residual butane in this way can help relieve the accumulation, but as I say, ultimately it is dependent on the ambient temperature and how many refills/how long you stay in sub zero temperatures.

Good luck!