Travel Tips

How To Live In Your Car For A Winter Season

The ups and downs of cruising mountain towns

Lewis Sonvico, professional hobo/instructor with an ISTD-certified mattress. Photo: Sam McMahon

Chris Kyte is a man of many talents, an entrepreneur with the gift of the gab. Alongside running Brethren Apparel, he’s adept at making himself at home wherever he happens to be. Quite often, that means his van, so we asked him to give us a few tips on taking the show to the road and living life on the move.

Van life. Choosing the road instead of staying rooted. Last winter I spent my time living out of my trusty, rusty 2001 Mercedes Vito. It was cold, damp and badly prepared. It was also my best winter to date.

For those looking to go hobo pro – aka going Car Danchi for a whole winter – there are a few things you gotta know first:

Preparation Is Key

Make sure your van is for sure driveable before you set off. Get winter tyres, fix the rust and get it serviced. Breaking down half way up to resort is gonna suck harder than a hooker with a mouth like a jet engine. Don’t be that guy.

Bring Chains. Bring A Shovel.

And pay for good ones. Learn how to get ‘em on and off as quick as Flash Gordon on cocaine. Asking locals to help you get them off will make you feel like a proper prick, and if you’re good, you might even save a fair maiden. Didn’t happen to me, but anything is possible.

The Korua-Mobile, touring a Euro resort near you soon. Photo: Sam McMahon

The Mountain Roads Can Get Super Sketchy, Especially In Europe

When it starts dumping, driving without chains becomes impossible, but even when the roads are freshly ploughed it’s a good idea to throw them on. I managed to come off the road just outside La Tania last winter, dunked the front end of the wagon into a drift five minutes after I’d taken my chains off. School boy right? Digging sucks. 

Don’t Die

Insulate the walls, build a decent bed and make sure you sleep warm. I had a military issue sleeping bag that could drop down to -45C along with a down duvet. Sorted. I did forget to carpet the roof however, and many mornings were spent scraping stalagtites made from my frozen breath off the ceiling. Not the best start to a day up the hill.

Car Danchi. Dank. Photo: Matt Georges

Think About Your Storage

You gotta bring your clothes, full winter gear, cooking and camping equipment and whatever other amenities you want from home. Try hard to pack light – organising things in the rain and wind sucks, and the less you bring the less you gotta sort out. I used plastic boxes with lids that slotted under my bed. Worked a treat and doubled up as tables.

Having said that, do makes space for when shit happens. My exhaust fell off clean in half on the road down from Val Thorens – I managed to lash it back together with my belt, but I sure wished I had some road side kit and a few more tools for exactly that moment. Jubilee clips, that little road triangle thing [*ahem* a legal requirement – Ed], rope, jump leads, anything that could get you out of sticky situation I’d say make space for.

Stay Funded

If you’re on the move you’re gonna be paying for a lot of petrol, and you’re gonna need vignettes for Switzerland and Austria. The Austrians let you get ones for differing lengths of stay (from 10 days to 1 year) while the Swiss make you pony up for the full year even if you’re just passing through. And you need one for each country. I got busted in Austria and the fine was €160, no bueno pal. France and Italy run on a tolling system, but they ain’t cheap neither.

Think about your pass too. If you buy day tickets everywhere you go, it’s gonna get pricey. Plan, pick and budget for wherever you’d like to shred. You can blag ticket offices too, not easy but if you got the right chat you can sneak passes sometimes – it helps if you have camera gear with you. There are cheaper options too; in Austria there’s a season pass for the entire Tirol region that doesn’t require a mortgage, and there’s a similar deal for Salzburg. Find something that will give you options to go explore somewhere new all winter, else what’s the point?

Enough room to… Split your onesie? Photo: Matt Georges

Don’t Be A Dirtbag

It’s hard, because choosing to go van life kinda makes you a dirtbag in itself, but sort your shit out. Don’t let crap build up in the van and air out your gear as much as possible. Garbage and wet boots accompanied with your unshowered corpse will lead to one unholy odour that no amount of Febreeze will oust.

Never Skip A Deuce

There’s nothing worse than getting caught touching cloth with no hope of remorse. The embarrassment will be life long. Keep a spare roll of shit tickets as part of your essentials just in case you gotta go drop logs with the animals. Another occasion that shovel will come in handy…

Shower. Anywhere And Everywhere You Can.

When you roll up in a new town and hit up the local talent at the bar, it ain’t gonna go well if you smell like the Great Depression. Loads of motorway petrol stations (normally the bigger ones) have showers in them for truckers. Use them. Use mates houses, public swimming pools or just walk into hotels like you own the gaff. Get clean.

On Bringing Back Conquests From The Bar

If you let it known early on that you’ve gone full hippy and live life in your van, I found one of two things happen. They either laugh, question my seriousness and sanity before any hope of not spending the night alone was dashed, or I got offered a place to stay. Win win, sometimes.

View to a thrill. Photo: Sam McMahon

Stay Connected

If you’re on the move a lot, then rarely will you have WIFI/internet access and the chance to charge up your techno-bits. Maccy-Dees have free wifi and they’re everywhere – have a coffee, check your crackbook, charge your brainwashers and take as long as you want doing it cos they don’t even give half a fuck.

Kill Time

A lot of times, when you’re not staying with friends or family, you’re gonna find yourself on your own in unfamiliar territory, waiting for the sun to come up to go riding. But it’s early evening. Load your lappy up with enough movies and bring enough books to keep your brain satisfied. And puzzles, they’re good too.

Alternatively, always my preference, is to find a local watering hole and sedate yourself to sleep. It’s tried and tested, and if you drink local brews everywhere you go you can argue that you have become more cultured. However, one most also be wary of the potential risk to order and cleanliness of living quarters on return from said hole. Motor skills may be inebriated by this point. Don’t pee in the van.

On the road for life – Neil Hartman. Photo: Matt Georges

Stay Fed

Keeping food in the van isn’t so bad too, mostly ‘cos if you’re travelling through winter you’re effectively living in a giant fridge. Get a cool box. Fill it with snack food. I tried to keep my breakfast and lunch to small bits I could take up the hill in my pockets: no prep and no mess. Having a thermos is great too; there’s nothing like a hot coffee to drag you out of the van, into the cold and up the hill.

Where To Sit The Whip

Parking up for the night ain’t a problem most places but during the day you will get ticketed if you’re not careful. I got three in the same day in Innsbruck like a dummie. Check your tyres for chalk marks too – if you have a stripe on ‘em wipe it off and move shop down the road. Your van’s being watched.

In resort it’s easy to get towed, especially in the high up French resorts. Paying for the parking during the day is super expensive, but it’s cheaper than the €500 fine you’ll be forking out to get the wagon back. Alternatively, leave your van down the mountain and hitch up, works just as good and free.

Live The Road

The route you take is both important and irrelevant. If there’s a few spots you for sure wanna hit up, plan and budget for them. But everything else I’d say is better to leave unplanned. If you’re funded, set up, fed and watered then you got no reason to worry. Hitting the road, cruising through new towns and valleys with no destination comes with an unparalleled sense of freedom – your trip should reflect that.

Go with the flow. Don’t be disappointed by distractions, and if shit hits the fan relax, it was always gonna. For me, the best times and tales of the trip were when I just let things happen. You live in your van, let life do its thing. You won’t regret it.

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