Spring has finally arrived and hopefully that means the end of freezing temperatures and the beginning of a lush, green, romantic season. I am proud to say that I have successfully survived the harsh New England winter as a full-time vandweller! Doing so was surprisingly easy… after I took certain precautions and made needed adjustments. However, it was not without its unexpected challenges.
What does one do when the worst thing feared happens? While camping for the evening during my trip to Rhode Island, I noticed the air from my furnace took much longer than usual to heat up. I chalked it up to it being an unusually cold night and not running my engine or battery all day since I’ve been out, visiting my Godfather. A few nights later, my furnace went out completely, blowing cold. It was the dead of winter, I live in my van, and I had no heat!
It was the middle of the night and naturally, I panicked. “It is going to happen… I am going die!”, ripped through my mind. The terror was so great, that I snapped into survival mode. I emotionally removed myself from my situation and started looking for a solution to get me though the night until I can get Eunice to my RV shop for repairs. The answer quickly came to me: 1. Use the heat from my running engine. 2. Wear thermal underwear under my pj’s and wear a winter hat on my head. 3. Layer my linens for optimal warmth. After doing the first two steps, I covered myself with a bed sheet, fleece blanket, down comforter, and a quilted coverlet; in that order. Layering in this manner worked very well for me when my apartment in the country hills lost power for three days after a blizzard two Halloween’s ago. I was happy to realize that past challenges make harder ones much easier.
Wake up time is around 5am, so I only had to endure the chill for five hours. Luckily, I had an engine starter installed with my alarm system. It enabled me to turn my heat on and off throughout the night without leaving the warm comfort of my bed. If it started to get too cold under the covers, I’d just reach over to my nightstand (i.e. kitchen counter) and press the starter. The forced heat from the front vents was enough to warm up the entire van within three minutes. The starter would automatically shut off after ten minutes, allowing me to sleep without fear of running out of gas. When it was time to get up, I’d put the starter on and wait until I was free to move about the cabin!
I took a half a day off from work to have my RV’s furnace looked at. I was hoping that the problem would be quickly fixed. Three hundred dollars and three hours of waiting in the customer lounge later, I still had a broken furnace! The time (and my money) was all spent on just diagnosing the problem. Oh well, at least I got to take a nap someplace warm. The tech who worked on my van told me that I had fluid in my pipes and blah, blah, blah… he needed to order a part that would take a few days to arrive! I didn’t have a few days. I needed my heat working that night and I was simply out of luck. That feeling of dread flooded up again from the bottom of my gut.
I left the shop in a daze, unsure of my next step. Before hitting the highway exit, I decided to go to a discount store a few towns over to browse electric blankets, anything that could hold me over until this was all straightened out. I bought a small ceramic space heater for $20 and headed to my relative, Shirley’s* yard to plug in. The heater worked amazingly well! Just as with using the engine heater, it easily filed up my small living space with warmth.
Using a space heater was a good solution, but to continue using it, I would have to continue to use Shirley’s electricity. Our current arrangement allowed me to plug into her outdoor outlet overnight, once a week to charge my house battery and then I’d reimburse her for the difference in her electric bill (around $10 a pop). I was very grateful for this accommodation. Now, my situation has changed drastically, calling for more use of resources. I reached out to Shirley the next morning, proposing to change the terms of our arrangement. I asked to plug in on nights when the temperatures drop below 20 degrees (when the cold in the cabin gets most brutal), anticipating that would be two or three times a week. Of course, I would gladly pay the increase. Shirley declined because she wasn’t comfortable with fronting a bigger electric bill. I felt somewhat slighted, but decided to chalk it up to the economy as to why finances would come first in these situations. Since Shirley’s home was a half an hour away from my work and usual camping site, I figured it was best to use that gas (and time) for running my engine heat, instead. Plan C it is!
The week went on and I simply toughened up and adapted to my situation. Self-insulating and running my engine a few times a night wasn’t bad at all. Having a hot, steaming sauna at the gym to look forward to in the morning also helped. The needed part for my furnace arrived and I decided to put the repair work on hold indefinitely. The service advisor guestimated that fixing my furnace would be an all day job, which would set me back around $1,000. Since I already shelled out $300 (roughly half a week’s pay) with nothing to show for it, I grew resentful and stubborn. I saw sticking it out for the last half of the winter as a possibility.
A few weeks passed. I was still alive and did not die. However, some nights were colder and more uncomfortable than others, like when it dropped below 20 degrees. Sometimes, I would come home to find my tiny bottles of oil-based perfumes frozen solid. Needless to say, I spent as little time in my cold camper as possible. Never in my life have I been so happy to wake up at 5am in the morning!
It was around this time that I met my boyfriend, Beau*. He knew that I was living full-time in my camper and thankfully; he was very supportive of my lifestyle. He was also aware of my busted furnace and gave me one of his low temperature sleeping bags that he uses for his winter camping trips in the snow… the man has three of them! Having one of these improved the quality of my life immensely. My new sleeping bag is designed to keep me warm down to -10 degrees. It is a mummy styled bag that tapers at the feet and covers tightly over my entire head, leaving only my face bare. Some nights, it would get down to 5 degrees and I would still be quite comfortable. Since I still had the habit of layering my clothes, there would be some mornings they would be lightly moistened with sweat!
All was well for a few weeks until I fell ill with a terrible fever. Ironically, the cause was not from rugged winter living, but from my comparatively posh working environment. At the time, I worked in a small, lower-level cubicle with seven other people. Ventilation was very poor and the windows could not be opened for fresh air. It was the type of place that if one person got sick, the virus would make its rotation to everyone else within days. Before working there, I haven’t had a cold or flu for six years. After working there, I’ve been sick six times in one year! My office was jokingly referred to as “The Petri Dish”.
This time around, what I had was more than sniffles and coughs. I came down with some sort of super bug. I was fatigued, aching, weak, dizzy, and found it hard to breathe due to congestion. Beau (who I was only dating at the time) kindly took me in for a week and nursed me back to health. All I wanted to do was sleep, but he made sure I ate, drank plenty of fluids, and stayed comfortable. On some evenings, he chopped down wood and fired up the fireplace to keep me extra toasty!
The moment I realized that I was getting very sick, I felt vulnerable and scared. If Beau wasn’t there for me, I honestly don’t know how I could’ve managed being so ill by myself in a van with no heat. All I can say is that I have seen the invisible hand of God bringing the right person into my life at the right time. Amen.
Shortly after I got better, I folded and got my furnace fixed. I hired a mechanic from the RV store who was willing to repair it as a side job at a deep discount. We agreed on $250. It took him only two hours to fix what the shop estimated would be an all day job (and $750 dollars more). I was grateful to have something as simple as heat back in my van. It was nice not to have to always think about staying warm and I was able to fully enjoy my camper once again.
My state of mundane bliss only lasted a month because my furnace’s motor gave out and I would need to get a new and expensive one to have it run again. This was a big disappointment because money I could’ve used towards getting a generator (that would allow me to run my space heater) was wasted. Since spring was only a month or so away, I decided to just stick it out the rest of the winter… because I knew I could. And yes, my next big purchase will definitely be a generator!
Looking back, my friend (who convinced me not to back out of winter camping) was right. I did have a better appreciation for the spring. I have come out at the other end of this not only with a respect for the elements, but also a new respect for myself for working through my fear of it. This winter was an exercise in self-reliance and having reliance in others when needed. I survived winter in my camper van… Believe, it can be done!
So, what does one do when the thing feared most happens? The answer is nothing but get through it.
Side Note: I was forced into the realization that the body and mind will always adjust to discomfort… or simply die. Never be emotionally or physically lazy and get in your own way by saying, “I can’t do that”. Kill the Bear!
*Name changed to protect the innocent and infamous.