If you've ever wanted to take your motorhome skiing or park up in the mountains over winter, this post is for you! Learn how to winterise your motorhome & prepare for snow and extreme cold. We also talk about how to find aires or campsites during winter, how to manage power during winter vanlife, things to organise before you leave and getting the most out of ski camping.
Motorhome skiing- what is it?
One of the things we love most about travelling in our motorhome is the freedom. The ability to go where we want, when we want to (global pandemics aside!)
We spend a lot of time touring Europe in a motorhome and we like to think we're fairly good at adapting to our environment. We're pretty self-sufficient, know how to stay off-grid for several days without issue and can manage power, water, waste and all that other stuff which comes with experience.
There is something about staying in a motorhome up high in the mountains, while temperatures drop well below freezing, snow falls (a lot!) and things get a lot more inaccessible which both appeals to us and makes us nervous! This is motorhome skiing (or ski camping, as the Europeans call it).
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So, what's the big deal with motorhome skiing?
We've been in the mountains as late as December, and again in March. Both times there was snow, but we didn't stay longer than a day and it wasn't right in the heart of the cold season.
Our biggest concern is whether our motorhome (a UK-built Swift 685) will be up to the rigours of staying in such a cold, hostile environment. Will we be warm enough? Will our systems cope? What preparation do we need to do in advance to make life easier? What happens if it all goes wrong?
To help educate ourselves, we spoke to someone who has spent months in mountains over winter. In fact, 95% of all her time in a motorhome EVER has been during winter.
Please note that winterising your motorhome for use in mountains like the Alps is NOT the same as preparing your van for use in the UK throughout winter- that's much easier and you don't need to do most of the steps mentioned below.
If you're not going to be using your van for a few weeks, we highly recommend shutting it down safely to avoid burst pipework or damage. Read our step by step guide to winter shutdown here.
Motorhome skiing and winterising your motorhome video
Watch our video chat with Hannah. If you prefer to read or want more information on points discussed in the video, you'll find them below. You can find out more about Hannah at winterised.com and snomadsites.com
Motorhome & Campervan skiing- essential tips
As discussed in the video above, here are some tips to prepare your motorhome or camper for winter spent in the mountains. Some of them really are life-saving- getting caught in temperatures and conditions like these without being prepared is no joke.
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Winterise & Prepare your vehicle
It is highly likely that your vehicle in its current state will not be sufficient (unless you bought one specifically for winter use!)
Jobs to do to prepare for winter in the mountains include:
Insulate your motorhome
Apparently, the normal ‘grey' lagging insulation is not enough. The black version (called Armaflex) is the one to get- available from most European hardware stores or Amazon. Places to concentrate on include:
- External water tanks and pipework (It's worth adding some to internal water tanks too if you can)
- Any pipework which runs along the floor (that's most of it!)
- Wheel arches
- The floor– try to create a ‘double floor' effect where you can, or use carpet pieces
Essential GEAR to take
There are some things you NEED to carry- and some things you SHOULD carry to make life easier for you!
This is not an exhaustive list, but a good starting point includes:
- Snow chains (essential)- make sure you get the right size for your tyres & know how to fit them!
- Winter/ all-season tyres
- Long-handled sturdy brush (for getting snow off the roof)
- Karcher window vac– to help get rid of condensation
- Shovel– yes, for digging your vehicle out of the snow!
- Thermal screen– ideally one with a ‘turn down' to let light in
- Anti-freeze coolant/ windscreen wash
- Motorhome Draft Skirting (or a tarp)
- Insulation for pipework, external tanks, floor, windows… and anything else you can think of!)
- Bucket for grey waste water- collapsible is good as it probably needs to be shallow
Using your motorhome during winter
It's important to remember that how you use your motorhome between spring-autumn will not be the same as using it in the middle of winter up a mountain in -17c!
Your systems will not function in the way you might be used to, and there will be other jobs you need to do to keep everything running. Even if you're used to wild camping with your motorhome, be sure to pay attention to these tips:
When you park up, place an external bucket or container under the grey waste drain, and leave it open. This helps prevent freezing. Be sure to empty the bucket regularly!
Most Aires will have places to dispose of waste, although not all facilities are available all the time (we'll get to that!)
Many aires and campsites will leave a fresh water tap running, so that it doesn't freeze. We also suggest using a water filter for ANY campsite water- just in case (or get one of these AMAZING lifesaver jerrycans)
TOP TIP: Don't drink yellow snow… 😉
Power & Heating
Many campsites in the mountains don't have 16 amp electricity supply and so your electric heating might not work as well as you are used to! It also means you need to be selective about how much electricity you are using at once (you don't want to be THAT van which is constantly tripping everyone's electric…)
Gas heating is a great alternative- but it uses a lot of gas. We get through a 6kg bottle in about 3 days. We highly recommend fitting refillable gas bottles in your motorhome if you're going to be travelling in Europe a lot- make sure you know where the nearest supply is (and if it stays open during winter!)
Diesel heating is also a great alternative, but many vans don't come with it as standard. If you do fit it, be aware of the weight and how it affects your motorhome payload.
Don't forget, you will need somewhere to dry wet gear. It helps if you have a bathroom with heating- string a line across the top and hang everything up to dry overnight.
You can't rely on solar power during winter in the same way you can at other times of the year. The sun isn't as strong, there are more hours of darkness and more areas of shade. Also, you'll be using more power than you might normally.
If you already have a solar panel fitted, then by all means use what you can, but don't rely on it as your only power source.
Batteries do not like cold. They don't run as effectively so you need to be more vigilant about looking after them, making sure they don't run too low, giving them a good charge regularly and generally babying them.
If you're going to take your motorhome skiing, you will probably want to carry a generator. Everyone does- just be sure to use it during the day, not late at night!
We always recommend LED lights to save power- especially if you're doing a lot of motorhome wild camping, but in winter it becomes essential.
Of course, don't forget your clothing. Here's an essential guide of what to wear when skiing
Motorhome skiing- aires or campsites?
One of our biggest questions was HOW do you find somewhere to stay in the mountains? Motorhome touring in France is easy enough in ‘normal' seasons, but we know many mountain roads close during winter- so how do we know where we can go or where is open?
It's true that many aires and sites shut during winter, but there are places which remain open all year. Sadly, it looks like some aires are being closed, but there are still campsites open and available.
There are pros and cons to whether you stay in an aire or on a campsite for your ski camping adventure!
TIP: If you're looking for ski camping sites, look for the terms ‘caravaneige' or ‘snowmobiling'- both terms used by the French
Pros of campsites
- Can often be booked in advance- easier if you're booking ski schools or gear hire
- More reliable electric hookup
- Bus or service to take you to the lifts if it's not nearby
- Drying rooms- this seems like a great solution to the wet clothing issue- there's nothing worse than damp ski jackets and pants the day after! (Remember to take your own padlock for security in the drying room)
- Help getting towed out if you get stuck
- Other facilities, such as a small shop or restaurant, which can be handy
Here's an example of a campsite we've heard good reviews about which caters to motorhomes, campervans and even caravans during winter! (I like the fact it has an indoor pool!)
Pros of Aires
- More flexibility to follow the snow
- Feels more like an adventure!
How to find places to stay with your motorhome during winter
It can be difficult to find Aires in Europe in the usual way for motorhome skiing. It's not just finding the places- it's knowing if they are open during winter, what facilities they have open during winter and how many spaces will be available (aires can go from 140+ spaces to less than 50!)
A better option is to use snomadsites.com, which caters for winter sites and has more information than you could even think to ask!
Phew! That was a lot of information to take in. Nothing beats ‘doing it yourself', but I feel much more informed before our very first motorhome ski trip. I have no clue when we'll be able to hit the slopes (literally… neither of us are proficient on snow!) but I'm hoping to use this new information soon. We'll keep you posted!
If you've been skiing and taken your motorhome or camper and have any other tips, please do leave a comment and share your wisdom.
How else can I help you today?
- Motorhome winter shutdown guide– help me protect my vehicle
- Planning a motorhome trip– give me something to look forward to!
- Best places to visit in Europe during winter
- 7 breathtaking places to see the Northern Lights in Europe