How will we survive winter?
Last October we got our first taste of winter and holy pants did we get a shock. We’d left sunny and warm Colorado a few days earlier and were on our way from South Dakota to Yellowstone National Park. It was getting late in the day so we looked on ioverlander for a place to camp, and it didn’t take before we’d found what sounded like a lovely spot only a few minutes up the road. The sun was just setting when we arrived into a green valley of pine trees, surrounded by mountains.
We lit a fire, cracked a couple of beers and had some classy cheese on toast before the long day got the best of us and we climbed up into our roof top tent for an early night. It was a bit cold when we went to bed, so we turned the inverter on to run our electric blanket. We slept pretty well, insulated by the tent and heated well by the blanket, so we had absolutely no idea how cold it was outside. We got the surprise of our lives when we opened up the tent in the morning to find 6 inches of snow covering everything. That surprise moved to towards shock when we tried to put our boots on. They were filled with snow and frozen stiff, even the shoelaces stood up straight.
When we finally got up the courage to climb out of our nice warm bed, we found ice hanging from all over the tent and car, and the locks had frozen shut. I found this out the hard way when I dislocated my thumb (again) trying to open the latch. Fortunately there was no shortage of ice around to ice the thumb. Once the pain and swearing had subsided we checked the thermometer and saw it was -6C. Officially the coldest night of the trip.
Apart from the cold being cold, everything worked fine. The water tanks and taps didn’t freeze and most importantly the coffee machine still worked. From there however, it just got colder and colder. Within a few days the overnight temperature had dropped to -14C, the water tanks froze and the batteries had dropped below a working temperature causing the inverter to turn off. This meant no electric blanket to keep is warm, and no morning coffee!! By about 1pm each day it had “warmed up” enough for everything to thaw out and begin working again. Although we were still warm enough in bed, it really took the fun out of traveling and every little task started to feel like work.
We only had a few weeks of the cold before we headed south. The further south we went the more it warmed up and the happier we were. Our water stopped freezing, the batteries worked and life returned to normal. But that experience made us begin to think about how we will manage to complete our goal of driving across Siberia in winter. Although the temperatures will be cold enough to kill us, after the few weeks in Wyoming we think we’d probably kill each other before the cold had a chance.
The 5 weeks of lovely sunshine and good weather down in Baja California lifted our spirits and at times we managed to forgot about the cold all together. But then we flew to Canada to meet our families for Christmas. It was -16 when we landed in Montreal and all the stress of winter came flooding back.
Our plan for the year is to slowly make our way north to Alaska, before returning to Vancouver around September to ship our car to Japan. In late November we’ll catch the last ferry from Japan to Vladivostok in eastern Russia and begin to long and cold drive across Siberia and central Asia. Although that’s still a while off, we started to put a lot of thought into the logistics of our plan. If we struggled for 2 weeks in Wyoming in -14C how are we going to manage Siberia for months of temperatures between -25C to -45C?
We left the car at a friends place in Phoenix for a few weeks over Christmas and when we returned we had a list of jobs to do and a 2 week window whilst we waited for some parts to arrive. So we set about winterproofing the car (as best we could)
The priorities were as follows
· Keep the water tanks from freezing
· Keep the batteries warm
· Keep the food from freezing
· Warm the Backtrax Roof top tent
To stop the water freezing and keep the batteries warm were basically the same job as they are all in the same compartment so we decided to tackle that first. Keeping the tent and food warm is a tougher job which we will look at a bit further down the road.
Solene took the job of insulating the area and I took on the plumbing….. again
I decided the best way to heat the battery and water compartment was to heat the water tanks themselves. This was a relatively easy option, or so I thought. In July last year I built a new hot water system. I installed a heat exchanger which uses the heat from the engine to heat our hot water tank. By simply adding a valve and diverting that hot water flow through our main water tank it would heat that water to 40c before the pump shuts off. This will in theory then heat the whole compartment including the batteries. When I built that system, I installed the pump and all plumbing on the outside (underneath) of the camper, so to stop it from freezing it would need to be relocated inside the camper to the same compartment as the rest of the plumbing.
[a map of our increasingly complicated plumbing system]
What started out as a “small plumbing improvement job” soon became a full rebuild. Over the duration of the trip, little bits have been added, removed and modified. Quite often these plumbing “improvements” happened on a back road or camp site and nowhere near a hardware store. I had to use whatever parts I could find to make work at the time so lets just say It wasn’t exactly the most elegant plumbing system.
It all came unstuck when I tried to pull one of the cheap garden hoses off the water tank and it snapped the fitting. This then required every hose, pump and fitting to be pulled out just so I could get the water tanks out to replace that fitting. Then when I finally got the tanks out, I found a leak in one of them. With it all dismantled I quickly realized it was going to be much easier and better in the long run to start from scratch and rebuild the plumbing system with new quick connect fittings.
Finally after quite a few runs to the hardware store, a few days of swearing and putting the tanks in and out 3 more times it was all in and working. Now I can finally say that the plumbing system is quite elegant. All the valves are controlled by the flick of a few switches. But what It means is we can now flick 3 switches and as we drive the engine heats all of our water to a maximum of 40c. If the temperature of the interior water tank is around 40C it should go a long way to keeping the batteries warm.
As it’s only a small compartment, with Solène's insulation and the tanks heated it should stay warm enough to not freeze. The idea is that during the cold nights whilst we are in America, if we warm all the tanks before we go to bed then we should be ok. In Siberia we will need to keep heating the tanks overnight to keep them warm. But this is phase 2 of winter-proofing.
To insulate the area, Solène bought a large panel of 1 inch thick, rigid insulating foam. She cut and screwed it up under the entire bottom of the camper. This should stop most of the warmth from escaping in winter, but it also has the added benefit of keeping our water cooler in summer. To protect the foam and to work as another layer of insulation she installed a layer of fibre glass reinforced plastic under the foam.
Finally she cut smaller pieces of the insulation to completely insulate the walls and the top of the water tank so as to keep the whole area warm.
This was phase one of winter-proofing the water and batteries. from our limited experience we suspect that it will work fine in temperatures down to around -15C. This however won't work in Siberia where -15 will be considered a hot day. When things get that cold we will need to keep the water warm, even when the car isn’t running. This will be phase two of the winter-proofing which we will completed before we ship the car to Russia. The plan is to install a diesel engine heater, which is a small device that works by burning a small amount of diesel from the car’s fuel tank to heat the engines coolant system. So it essentially replaces the engine’s heat when the engine is turned off. This is great for a few reasons. Firstly, it will keep the engine warm so we can easily start it in temperatures down to -40. This is pretty important for safety reasons as well as being good for the car. Secondly, it will heat the cab so we can stay warm inside the car without needing the engine running. Finally, it will keep our water system from freezing and at the same time keep our battery system warm.
The best feature of this however, is that it’s something we will use even in summer. We can have hot water ready to go, so hot showers and hot water for dishes will be as easy as a flick of a switch. It’s a pretty elegant solution to a lot of problems.
With this all being said, we are from Perth where todays temperature is 40c. So there is always the chance that we have completely underestimate the cold and none of this will work. Worst case we’ll have to book in to a few hotels along the way. Hopefully not, but hey that’s all part of the adventure.
From Phoenix we are heading back up to Colorado where we will be in weather of around -15. So we will know pretty soon if it works or not. So check back here in a few weeks for an update.