How to Get the Most out of Winter Vanlife Travel

By: Travis Wild
/ February 26, 2020
From the classic “ski bum” to the corporate remote-working-millennial, there are loads of people living in vans and cars.

Aside from making sure your van build is winter-ready, there is a lot of fun to be had when living a winter vanlife.

While it might seem most Van Lifers are looking for sun in California and further south to Baja, Mexico for the winter, there is a certain breed of adventurer that was born to chase winter.

They are willing to put in the miles and deal with harsh temps to max out on potential powder days. The pursuit may make life a little more complicated and a little less comfortable, but you’ll find the people choosing this lifestyle with smiles as intense as their goggle tan.

Once you’ve got the survival part down, you’ll want to be sure you’re getting the most out of chasing winter.

Whether it’s beating ski traffic or finding a place to stay, there are certain practices every winter enthusiast who lives on the road has.

These basic principles can save you a few headaches and give you even more time on the slopes.

Don’t get stuck

Whether it’s getting stuck in traffic, or getting caught in a nasty storm; do your homework to avoid getting stuck!

This should go without saying, but tracking storms and planning your trips go hand in hand. Timing is everything because you don’t want to get stuck in a storm or in some cases, miss out on one.

A lot of the time, people get too focused on chasing powder rather than being in the right place at the right time when it hits.

You’ll also want to make sure your van build is up for the winter challenge and will get you safely from A to B. More on that here.

Download some helpful apps

Ah, yes. What would a winter road trip in the van be without some trusty apps to keep a pulse on snow reports?

There are tons of apps that are helpful with this and s limit the amount of time you’ll have to spend Googling weather radars and snow reports.

I like OnTheSnow Ski & Snow Report, and Snow Report Ski App. You can also download the apps from your favorite resorts to see webcams and what they anticipate.

Keep in mind, resorts tend to fluff their numbers a bit by taking measurements from the peaks. I swear they must be looking at snowdrifts sometimes for their measurements…

Just remember, webcams don’t lie.

Once you get on the slopes, an app called Ski Tracks is pretty fun. Think of it as a GPS map and tracker for a distance run, but measuring ski time, and altitude instead.

Now… Where to go?

I like spending some winter time in Utah. Why? Well, geographically, you’re smack dab in the middle of all your potential options. You’re a day or two drive from every Colorado, California, Utah, and most Wyoming resorts.

You can hang int he deserts and National Parks or cusps of Salt Lake City while waiting for the forecast to come in.

Whether it’s Tahoe or Jackson that is about to get slammed, you can get on your way.

If you’re down to taking the air to chase pow,  you’ve got Salt Lake City and Denver to fly out of, with pretty good prices on flights to anywhere.

You also aren’t going to battle major traffic too often. If you head to Colorado, all the cars are coming from Denver and the East. Salt Lake is right there, but never too bad, and California resorts feel their load coming from San Francisco, LA, and San Diego in the West.

Avoid major resorts on weekends

If you have the freedom to do so, it’s best to avoid weekends at major resorts like you would a gondola full of screaming toddlers. That is, unless, you’re looking at a storm that is:

A) So big it keeps the masses from getting to the resort via shutdown highways; or

B) Too epic, making it flat out worth waiting in long lines for a couple runs.

If there is no major storm then you’ll want to time your arrival when people are leaving. Even putting in your highway miles midday when people are on the slopes can save you hours of bumper to bumper traffic on I-70. If buckets of fresh powder are on their way, you’ll want to time your arrival the day before the flakes start to accumulate anyways.

Epic, Ikon, and Mountain Collective, Oh My!

Another big factor is what pass you’re going to get. With the price of lift tickets ballooning in recent years ($209 at Vail last year), you’re not going to want to chase winter by buying single tickets at the resort. Thankfully, there are plenty of multi-resort passes to pick from.

I’ve managed to snowboard the past 3 years for about the cost of one crisp $20 bill per day of shred time.

In yesteryears of ski bumming, you might snag a season pass from one resort and post up all winter. Now, in the age of the Vail Dynasty, you can get passes that cover tons of resorts.

In 2012, a bunch of competitor resorts joined to launch the Mountain Collective Pass to challenge the monopoly. Now, the big three multi-resort season passes include the Epic, Ikon, and Mountain collective.

We can’t say any one of the three is better overall, but they each have their perks which probably fit better person to person, depending on the winter you want to have.

The Mountain Collective, for instance, is perfect for the touring Vanlifer who wants to experience a wide range of resorts all over the US for an epic road trip. On the other end of the spectrum, if you’re looking to stick around the Rockies or Sierra Nevadas, the Epic or Ikon might carry better long term value.

Here’s a quick rundown of the three:

Ikon Pass (37 Resorts): $1,099 USD
Epic Pass (27 Resorts): $989 USD
Mountain Collective (16 Resorts): $529 USD

Each pass has some extra perks like buddy half-off tickets, or in the case of Mountain Collective which offers 2 per resorts, half-off lift tickets for days 3+.

You might also look into the different tiers each pass has as ones with blackout dates are significantly cheaper. The blackout days tend to be some of the busiest holidays of the year, so unless you have a tradition or family coming to ski, it might be best to avoid them anyway.

Support the little guys

Another fun way to enjoy winter is to hit up all the smaller, privately owned, resorts all over the U.S.

Legendary Skier, Glen Plake, does a rad “Down Home” tour where he just goes from town to town from east coast to west, riding lifts with locals. If you haven’t heard of Glen, you may want to do a quick Google search to learn about the man who is as Legend to winter as the abominable snowman.

You also may want to do some light homework and watch the 90’s lineup of Warren Miller Films.

This might truly be the dream ski trip for some, supporting local businesses and getting to know a community through a love of the sport. With places like Red River, New Mexico and small resorts throughout New England, Michigan, all the way to Colorado and Oregon, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more legendary line up or a more memorable experience while getting the most out of a winter living in your van.

Travis Wild
Wanderful Contributor
Writer, athlete, photo maker, friend. Equal parts empathy and adventure. Ayla is my boss.
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