SubscribeAvailable Now
Photo courtesy of Wayfarer Vans

How to Car Camp Near Colorado Ski Areas

If you're roughing it in a van, it might be tough to find somewhere to spend the night. You also might be cold. And wet. And hungry. Here's a little advice on how to be a better winter nomad.

 •  

Hardcore skiers in Colorado know one of the best ways to find fresh powder is to wake up next to the mountain. But the problem is, slope-side lodging is often unattainable—at least on a regular basis. One of easiest alternatives, though, is to sleep in a mobile basecamp like a van, truck, or RV. In parking lots across the state, you’ll find stealth (and not so stealth) campers hiding out in their rigs, hunkering down for a somewhat restless nights of sleep before powder days.

For some, built-out vans have become the pinnacle of efficiency in winter camping. They’re much cheaper than a slope-side condo. They can chase powder wherever it’s piling up. And they can actually offer decent amenities these days.

One of the main companies outfitting Coloradans is Colorado Springs-based Wayfarer Vans, which installs modular build-out kits cheaper than what many custom builds will cost. Their customers are able to get out on the road faster and cheaper. Last year alone, they converted more than 168 vans. And their founder Ian Horgan has spent over 200 nights camped in these four-wheeled mobile units. So, we caught up with him to find out where to sleep, how to be comfortable in such a compact space, and what the heck to cook.

Where to Sleep

First off, full-time #vanlife in mountain towns is tough. These areas are known for exceptionally short supplies of housing, and many resort parking lots are not particularly welcoming of campers. Some seasonal and visiting folks have taken to nomadic living, but authorities know it. Therefore Horgan encourages all prospective campers to call ahead and be respectful of the space you’re taking up. There’s no need to sprawl out all your gear and make yourself known, as that’s the quickest way to getting a knock on your window.

Everyone wants to know where exactly you can camp, and that’s still pretty hush-hush for good reasons. Some mountains allow it. Most don’t. And even campers who have found mountains that look the other way aren’t particular eager to share their secrets. For instance, you may have seen campers at Winter Park and Copper Mountain, but it’s not technically allowed to camp at either resort. So our official advice is not to do it—lest you ruin it for the veterans.

A little further south in the San Juans, Silverton Mountain allows camping on an access road, but advises that you should be ready to move when the plows come by. Further west of the madness on I-70, Powderhorn welcomes weeknight campers if they aren’t too busy. And Wolf Creek outside of Pagosa Springs asks campers to check in at the ticket window to fill out a release that allows folks to park in their lower lot.

Horgan recommends looking at forest roads that are closed in winter near a resort. If you can pull your van off the side of a road with a closed gate ahead, that signifies low traffic, and if you stay out of the way, you’re likely to not be bothered. At the end of the day, authorities are looking out for your safety. So it’s important to adhere to signage, listen to the advice of the locals, and respect the land you’re camping on. If someone tells you to move, be respectful and do it. After all, you’re sleeping in a vehicle—it won’t be that hard to move along.

How to Keep Things Dry

“Condensation is always a battle,” Hogan says. The easiest way to combat this is to open a roof vent or a window to facilitate airflow. Boots will always be wet at the end of the day, so it’s important to stick boots near the heater or invest in a boot dryer. If you don’t crack a window, you may also end up having frost on the inside and all over your ceiling and walls. Plus air flow is necessary so you, uh, stay alive.

How To Stay Warm

Propane heaters are a great option for keeping the van warm, but tend to fog up the windows. Mr. Buddy heaters are cheap and affordable, but tend to use up a small Coleman propane tank in a few hours. It also sucks oxygen out of the cabin, so be wary of carbon monoxide levels and—again—crack a damn window.

Other options, which Horgan recommends, include the Olympian Wave Three, an ambient heat source that’s a little more expensive, but in the long haul may be worth the investment because it uses less propane. Horgan’s secret recipe for a warm morning is leaving the Wave Three on all night, which keeps the van roughly 25 degrees above the outside temp, turning on the vehicle 20 to 25 minutes prior to getting up, and then finally waking up to cook breakfast. The other thing van owners can do is insulate with wool, as it absorbs condensation and is a fire retardant.

What to Cook

The quickest way to blow through your budget is to go out to eat every night. The easiest way to rectify this is by meal prepping. Some of Horgan’s favorite recipes include things like Beyond Meat. For sanitation and ease of use, it stands apart from classic ground beef and is much safer to handle. A mix of beet salads and some grilled chicken pre-packaged in the fridge in Tupperware serves as a hearty lunch. To close out the evening, spaghetti in a ziplock bag dropped in a pot of hot water is a staple. Provisions, like prepackaged salmon, is easy to add protein without any additional dishes.“Mixed up with eggs in the morning,” Horgan says, “It’s a really delicious breakfast.” Leaning vegetarian when in the van is also an easy way to be nutritious, leaves more room for beer in the fridge, and is far more sanitary.

Sure, car camping in the winter might leave you feeling uncomfortable, cold, and stiff by morning, but once you hit that fresh powder (and avoid I-70 traffic), you’ll quickly forget those minor inconvenience. Instead, you’ll be planning your next adventure—no hotel required.

What We're Reading

Newsletters

Keep me up to date on the latest trends and happenings around Denver. 5280 has a newsletter for everyone.

Sign Up