While most vanlifers go to the warm south in winter, we decided several times to go to the arctic. We love Scandinavia, but had never been there before in the winter and were very curious what it would be like to travel through winter wonderland with the camper. That is why we left several times for about two months with our camper van to the cold north. But what was it like? Was it doable with a camper? And what tips would we give other vanlifers who also want to go to Sweden or Norway in the winter?
Because when we shared our travel plans at home, we didn’t just receive only positive reactions. We also received a lot of warnings, especially from people who live in Sweden and Norway or travel there more often – for example for work or because of a second house for the holidays. Reactions that we did take seriously. After all, they know what they are talking about. For example, we were warned about slippery roads that were sometimes completely snowy and it would actually only be safe to drive with studded tires. Other campers who have preceded us also warned us about closed campsites, freezing of water pipes and camping off-grid (especially when you cooking on induction in the camper) couldn’t be possible because the solar panels don’t do anything at this time of the year.
To be honest, all those warnings scared us a bit, but we also didn’t want to be stopped and we would go prepared for the trip. Moreover, we were really not the first to go to the far north of Scandinavia with a camper during the winter months. And so we decided to just go and we can only say that it was a very special and cool travel experience! We even enjoyed it so much that we have now spent several winters here. At the same time, we also have to admit that traveling through Sweden and Norway in winter with a RV or campervan is no joke. But with a good preparation and some common sense, it is also quite doable. So don’t let that stop you from going. Because as said: it really is a very beautiful and special experience!
That is why we share our tips and experiences below for a good preparation for your winter trip to Scandinavia with a RV or campervan:
Travel in February, March and/or April
You probably come for the snow, but for that you really don’t necessarily have to travel to Sweden and Norway during the coldest or darkest days. So leave the months of November, December and January for what they are. From mid-February to April (and even May) there is still enough snow with many beautiful snowy landscapes (especially in Sweden where it is usually a bit colder than in Norway) and you still have a good chance to spotting and photographing the northern lights. On the other hand, the chance is getting smaller that you will still have to deal with really extremely cold temperatures. We have had temperatures down to -25C° at night and during the day to -15C°, but that was really an exception. Most days the temperature was around or just below freezing, depending on how far north you are. As a result of these milder temperatures, you can do more outside and the chance that something will freeze or suffer frost damage in the RV or campervan is much less. Also you have more daylight this period, allowing you to do more outdoor activities and any solar panels on the roof of your RV or campervan generate quite a bit of energy on a sunny day. For example, in March the number of daylight hours is comparable to that in the Netherlands – and this quickly increases because in June it no longer gets dark because of the midnight sun.
Make sure you have good winter tires
In Sweden and Norway everyone drives on studded tires or winter tires and that is not without reason. It takes too much time and money to keep all roads clear of snow all the time and as a result you regularly drive on a snowy road or roads that are dangerously slippery due to melted snow that freezes again. By the way, studded tires perform better on icy roads and winter tires better on snow. Most people in Sweden and Norway therefore drive on winter tires with spikes, but a ‘regular’ winter tire is usually also fine (extra tip: lower the tire pressure slightly if you are going to drive on snow, the tire will then become wider, giving you more grip). It is good to know that a normal winter tyre is different from the Scandinavian winter tyre. These have softer rubber and are really made for driving on snow and ice, while our winter tire has harder rubber and is more made for driving on tarmac in some wintry conditions. Therefore, adjust your driving style if you choose to drive with our winter tires and don’t forget to bring snow chains. We haven’t needed them, but you never know!
*We have the BF Goodrich all terrain tires to travel through Sweden and Norway and that actually went very well! We had a lot of grip and with adjusting our driving style most roads were manageable.
Prepare your vehicle well
During the winter in Scandinavia, your vehicle will have to endure a lot anyway. In terms of cold, but also in terms of dirt and ice formation. Therefore, make sure that the starter battery of your vehicle is in good condition and that the coolant is suitable for temperatures of at least -30C°. There are also a number of things that are useful to take with you. Think of ice scraper, snow shovel, tow rope, a puller to remove snow from your vehicle and solar panels and something like a hatchet with which you can chip off ice formation in the wheel arches. When driving on snowy roads, snow quickly accumulates in the wheel arches to which it freezes. It is good to regularly remove this at a stop as this can cause damage to your vehicle. The ice is so hard that you can’t just kick it off with your shoe. For large chunks of ice you really need some coarse artillery. It can also be nice to have some good lights mounted for additional lighting when driving when it’s dark. Moose and reindeer can suddenly cross the road which can lead to dangerous situations. With good lights you can look further ahead and react in time. Also take out good insurance. Once we swerved a little too far to the right on a forest road and sank into the deep snow. We couldn’t get out and had to call a tow truck. He had us out within three minutes, but it is really great if you can call the insurance company at those times and that they can come and help you quickly.
Find a place to stay if it starts to snow (a lot).
Not everyone is used to so much snow and certainly not to drive in it. Traveling to Sweden and Norway in the winter is enough of a challenge in that respect. So be wise and don’t drive if (a lot of) snow is predicted. We thought with a few mm of snow per day that it would not be too bad, but in the Netherlands we are so used to snow not really lying down that we were a bit mistaken. A few flakes of snow are of course no problem, but more snow quickly limits your view of the road and even a few mm per day quickly creates a new layer of snow on a clean road, making it slippery again. If it continues to snow, snow blades cannot keep everything clean at the same time and driving is really not recommended. When we were in Jokkmokk, half a meter of snow fell in a few days. In Sweden and Norway it is also quite normal to warn people not to go on the road if you don’t have to. So keep an eye on the weather forecasts and find a permanent place to stay if it snows a lot.
Off-grid camping is possible, but not always in the most idyllic places
Sweden and Norway are normally a Valhalla for anyone who likes to camp off-grid in nature. However, this is not always the case in winter. Not because it is not possible because of solar panels (unless you go in December). As mentioned, it has been light for as long as in the Netherlands from March and solar panels already generate quite a bit of energy on a sunny day, but many wild camping spots (especially those that are more remote in nature) are not kept free of snow and are therefore not accessible. There are plenty of beautiful places left – because it is beautiful almost everywhere – but the most idyllic places in the middle of nature are inaccessible due to the snow in winter. By the way, we have been on a campsite three times in two months and for the rest we only camped off-grid. Our solar panels did quite well on beautiful sunny days (keep snow free and clean) and otherwise our household battery charged sufficiently while driving via the dynamo of the van. Do you also want to camp off-grid during your winter trip with the camper to Sweden and Norway? Then don’t just install solar panels, but also install a cutoff relay or dc/dc charger so you can also charge the battery while driving.
*There are also campsites open where you can stay, but keep in mind that it sometimes takes a good search and you may have to drive further. Most campsites are closed during the winter season and your options are therefore somewhat limited. In any case, we have been at the campsite in Trondheim, Östersund, Jokkmokk and at the Lofoten. These were open during winter.
How do you keep it warm in the motorhome?
And perhaps one of the most important questions we always get when we go out with the camper in the winter, how do you keep it warm and how do you prevent water pipes from freezing, for example? Our best tip is a diesel heater. We have a 2KW Autoterm diesel heater and it keeps it inside at the two lowest positions easily around 20 degrees and then we often have a number of windows open for some extra ventilation. In addition, the heater is super economical and hardly consumes diesel, while you always have it with you, so you will never be without a heater. Investing in a diesel heater is therefore definitely worth it!
Also worth an investment – we think – is underfloor heating. It requires a lot of power and that is why we only use it when we are at the campsite and not off-grid, but if you can use it then that is really great! Nothing better than a warm floor under your feet in winter! We are also very happy with our motorboiler which can not only heat water via 230V, but also via the coolant system of our vehicle’s engine. As a result, we have hot water after every ride and that makes off-grid camping – especially in winter – a lot more pleasant. Possibly this also helped a little to prevent freezing of pipes. Due to good insulation, the water in the boiler stays warm for a relatively long time and it is also warm in the kitchen cupboard where the boiler is located and most of the water pipes are located. After all, the coolant becomes 90C° and therefore you also notice some of the heat in the box itself.
To keep it warm you can also think of bringing an extra warm duvet, bringing extra blankets and an electric blanket, dressing warmly with merino wool socks and thermal clothing, hanging curtains in front of the windows (most cold comes from the windows) and thus also separate the cabin from the rear living space. There are relatively many windows in the cabin and the space is often less well insulated than the living space. As a result, it is usually a lot colder there than in the back. Therefore hang something like a curtain between the cabin and living space to keep most of the cold outside the living space. And of course don’t forget to insulate the van itself. Insulation does not ensure that the inside is warmer, for that you first have to add heat, but it does keep the heat inside better.
And what about the freezing of water in the tanks and pipes?
As we mentioned earlier, the chance of freezing inside the motorhome decreases sharply when you travel during months when the temperatures are no longer extremely cold. But the most important thing is a heater. This way you keep the temperature inside and for us this was enough to prevent frozen pipes and frost damage. Maybe we were lucky, but in combination with good insulation it worked for us. Otherwise, you can possibly guide the warm air flow from the heater through a pipe to areas where the heat from the heater can reach less easily. Think of spaces where the fresh water tank, water pump and water pipes are located, but also the space where the battery is located. Batteries also usually do not tolerate frost very well. If it’s not possible to heat this space, you can also place a heat pack next to the battery.
The waste water tank is worth mentioning separately. This is because many people attach it under the vehicle, causing the water to freeze quickly in winter. Many people therefore choose to place a jerry can indoors to temporarily collect the waste water. However, we only have a small camper van (Sprinter L1H1/128″ wheelbase) and we didn’t have that space. That’s why we have a 12V heating mat pasted under the waste water tank and then insulated with Armaflex or something similar. The heating mat switches on at a temperature of a few degrees above 0 degrees (Celsius) to prevent freezing and switches off again when the temperature has risen sufficiently. That requires a bit of power, but not so much that off-grid camping is no longer possible. We also always empty the waste water tank where possible, so that we never actually drove with a full tank. The tank heating then turns on less often (because less water to heat) and therefore sometimes did not have to be switched on at all. Because if the tank is empty or there is only a small amount in it, heating is not always necessary.
Traveling to Sweden and Norway by RV or campervan in the winter is definitely a challenge that you should not underestimate, but with good preparation and common sense it is also quite doable and you will certainly have a very special trip! Hopefully our tips and experiences will help you to get a better picture of such a winter trip and which preparations are useful before you travel.