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    I Rented A Van To Test Out Winter #VanLife And Here Are 24 Things I Learned

    Winter road trips are an entirely different beast. Here's what you should know.

    The coronavirus pandemic is still impacting travel, and destinations around the world have different COVID-19 restrictions in place. It’s important to check and adhere to local government policies as you're planning any future trips.

    In case you missed it, #VanLife is officially a thing. Chances are you or someone you know (or at least someone you follow) has gotten hooked on living out of a van.

    While I've been known to rip on the trend, I decided to give it a try. And as it turns out, I really, really like living in a van — even in the winter.

    Woman driving a gray van
    Evie Carrick

    Some people spend thousands (or hundreds of thousands) on a sweet rig; but if you're not quite ready to make that level of investment, you can also just rent one. I rented a van on Outdoorsy — which is basically like Airbnb for RVs — to live out a dream of visiting Powder Mountain in Utah, a relatively undiscovered mountain known for its heaps of snow and nonexistent lift lines. And since I was traveling from my home in snowy Colorado to the mountains of Utah, I faced a whole different set of challenges than your typical summer RV road tripper.

    I learned a lot — as you can see below — but my biggest takeaway is that I'm totally, 100% sold on van life. Sometimes a trend is a trend because it's amazing.

    Here's what I learned about renting, driving, and living out of a van in the winter:

    1. You don’t need a special license to drive an RV, but it can be easy to get in over your head with a big rig.

    Woman looking over her shoulder while driving a van
    Evie Carrick

    I'm used to driving a Subaru; so when I started looking at RVs, I was intimidated. I ended up going with a small-ish Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van (called a Class B rig in the RV world). And even that felt giant. It took me a bit to get used to taking tight corners and driving down the interstate in the wind, but I'd rent a Class B vehicle again (although no bigger).

    You can search by drivability on Outdoorsy, so you can find a vehicle that fits your comfort level.

    2. Before you choose a vehicle, think about the weather. If it’s gonna be cold, make sure you pick something that's insulated and has a heater.

    Screenshot of a van listing
    Outdoorsy / Via outdoorsy.com

    Living in a van is not like living in a house. When it's cold outside, it's cold inside. I can't imagine doing my trip in a van without insulation or a heater (which ran off fuel from the van's fuel tank). You can search for these features under "amenities" on Outdoorsy, but the van I rented stated that it was a "4-Season" rig right in the listing title.

    3. If you’re gonna be working during your trip, make sure the van has electricity — and bring along a portable charger and hotspot.

    4. Getting a verbal rundown of the vehicle from the owner is huge — at least for me.

    A screenshot of the van guide
    Outdoorsy

    If you're the type of person who reads the directions before attempting to set up IKEA furniture, then good for you. But if you're anything like me, a verbal, in-person rundown is essential. The guy I rented from gave me a full tour of the van and showed me how things work before handing over the keys. It was a game changer.

    If dealing with a (masked) stranger worries you or you're one of those awesome instruction-reading people, feel free to skip the walkthrough. Our van also had a laminated guide inside.

    5. Keep in mind you might have limited miles — and you’ll pay extra if you go over.

    Woman in driver's seat of van
    Evie Carrick

    From what I can tell, every van owner on Outdoorsy can set a daily mileage allowance and a per-mile rate after that. The van we rented came with 100 free miles a day; but since we drove a total of 885 miles over the course of our five-day trip, we were charged $0.40 for each additional mile over the 500-mile allotment (so an extra $154).

    Every van rental is different but it's something to keep in mind if you're planning on doing lots of driving on your trip.

    6. These days, most vehicle rentals go through an extra level of cleaning between renters. But to be safe, you can always bring along a packet of antibacterial wipes.

    Screenshot of Outdoorsy's enhanced clean promise
    Outdoorsy / Via outdoorsy.com

    Outdoorsy rentals go through an "enhanced clean" before you pick them up and our van even came with a pack of antibacterial wipes, which I thought was a nice touch. If you're worried about germs, it's easy enough to pick up some cleaning supplies and do your own wipe-down before (and after) your trip.

    Young notes you should feel free to "Ask the RV owner about their cleaning process. One of the beauties of being a peer-to-peer platform is you get to talk with real people, and we highly encourage renters ask RV owners as many questions as they want in order to feel safer and more comfortable about their trip."

    7. The communities you're passing through (and your wallet) will love you if you can find a rig with a fridge and stove, and shop at your local grocery store before you leave.

    8. But the reality is: living like a hobbit isn't realistic. At some point you'll have to get gas or pick up an item you forgot. That's where masks and hand sani come in.

    Van console with hand sanitizer
    Evie Carrick

    I put a bottle of hand sanitizer in the console and brought what I call "my serious mask" — a KN95 — on the trip.

    "When you’re outside the RV, make sure you take the same precautions you would when you’re venturing out of your house: Wash your hands after touching things like a gas nozzle and RV hookups, maintain your distance from park rangers and campground attendants to protect both you and them, don’t crowd others when you’re visiting a trailhead or waiting in line to get to an entrance of an attraction," said Young.

    9. No matter how off-grid your rig is, at some point you might need to fill up your water tank and dump gray water.

    Screenshot of a dump and water station in Utah
    Campendium / Via campendium.com

    We lucked out on our five-day trip and never had to hook-up, but we ended the trip without any water left.

    With that in mind, chances are that at some point you might need to search out a spot with fresh water and a dump station for any gray water you've accumulated (that's the waste water from your sink and shower). You can find both by searching on iOverlander or Campendium, two apps that make the RV world a million times easier.

    10. If you don't want to fill up your water tank or you're traveling to an area that's cold, bring along extra water bottles and a giant jug of water.

    Bright green jug of water
    Evie Carrick

    Since we were traveling in the winter, it took some time for our waterline and water pump to start working. Luckily, we packed extra water bottles and a three-gallon jug of water from home just in case.

    It turns out we were lucky. Young notes that, "If you live in (or are traveling to) a cold-weather state, chances are the vehicle you’re renting will be winterized and/or need to be winterized before you take it out on the road. In a nutshell, this means that the water tanks have been emptied and plumbing has been disabled in order to prevent the pipes (which run along the undercarriage of the RV) from bursting or being destroyed."

    11. Keep your van’s capabilities in mind (especially in the winter).

    Gray van in a snowy parking lot
    Evie Carrick

    Most vans and RVs don't have four-wheel drive, which can be a problem if you're going to a snowy destination. While you can find that rare van with four-wheel drive, we settled on a rig with super-beefy tires that would give us a leg up on snow and ice. In the end, we did very few miles on icy roads (thank you, weather gods!), but those tires came in handy in snowy ski area parking lots and steep mountain roads.

    12. Have a plan but be ready to change it. Pushing through in crappy weather isn't worth it.

    13. Know your vehicle's dimensions.

    Van parked in a sunny parking lot
    Evie Carrick

    This is a weird one but when you're driving a taller vehicle (our van was 10 feet tall!), you have to take all sorts of things into consideration. Fast-food drive-thrus can be tricky and some highway overpasses may be too low. If you're going off-road, you'll have to watch out for low hanging branches, which — according to the guy we rented from — is the most common reason money gets withheld from renters' security deposits.

    Young suggests that renters "map out the roads you will be taking ahead of time. Make sure the route [you're] taking doesn’t have any low clearance bridges (this is a big issue when driving through places like downtown Boston) or tunnels that may require extra guidance (for instance, RVs of a certain width and height will need to pay $15 for a tunnel permit at Zion National Park)." A vehicle's dimensions can be found at the top of every Outdoorsy listing.

    14. When it comes to parking overnight, there's a lot to consider and a lot of options. But if you ask me, nothing beats free.

    15. To make sure you don't get the dreaded 2 a.m. wake-up knock on your window for parking illegally, stick to official overnight parking areas.

    Screenshot of Walmart stores that allow overnight parking
    AllStays / Via allstays.com

    Vehicles that don't require a hookup offer flexibility when it comes to overnight parking, but that doesn't mean you can park anywhere you want. You'll need to do some research first.

    Campendium and iOverlander will list your overnight options by location — from established campgrounds to dispersed camping on public land. If you're passing through a city, AllStays has a list of big-box stores that allow overnight parking (think Walmart, Costco, Home Depot). And if you're on a state park tour, Outdoorsy has a running (and continually updated) list of park reopenings by state.

    16. No matter where you end up overnighting, make sure you have a bathroom plan.

    How to poop in the woods: 1) be prepared, 2) find the spot, 3) drop a squat, 4) wipe, 5) cover it, 6) wash your hands
    REI / Via rei.com

    If you have a toilet in your RV or are parked in front of a Walmart, this one's a no-brainer. But some rigs and camping spots might be more limited. Spend five minutes researching how to pee and poop in the great outdoors and then follow those rules to a T. The Earth and your fellow campers will thank you.

    17. Keep in mind that rest areas are noisy and Walmart parking lots are bright. Bring earplugs and a sleep mask.

    Earplugs and a blue sleep mask
    Evie Carrick

    I was pretty proud of myself for remembering to pack these items on my trip but I could see it being an easy thing to miss. Sleeping in a vehicle can be loud (especially when you're parked next to an interstate) and bright — both from early-morning sun and glaring parking lot lights.

    18. Slip-on shoes and a long jacket are essential.

    19. Luxe extras go a long way when you’re living on the road.

    20. Gas can be expensive and it goes quickly.

    21. A shower can make all the difference in the world.

    22. Cooking in a van is fun! But you'll want to keep your meals simple.

    Man stirs a pot of spaghetti
    Evie Carrick

    We tried to stick to one-pot/pan dinners on this trip — think spaghetti, bean and cheese burritos, and tamales. (Although as you can see, we ended up heading up our spaghetti sauce, too.)

    Breakfast was cereal and fruit, and lunch was PB&Js. Easy.

    23. If you like a morning cup of Joe (and plan to camp in the future), it might be worth it to buy a Jetboil.

    24. And until you get into the rhythm of life on the road, you might want to create a checklist of what needs to be packed down and turned off.

    Outlets in a van
    Evie Carrick

    At home, you might check that the stove, curling iron, and lights are off before you leave the house. The same rules applies for RV living. For us, the tricky things were remembering to turn off the inverter after charging our laptops so the battery didn't drain and manually turning off the headlights (which didn't turn off when you turned off the van).

    Young says in her experience, "Not retracting the awning before driving away is a big one we see happen more than we’d like with first-time renters."

    Have you ever tried living out of an RV? Share your tips in the comments below!