Minnesota Vanlife, Year-Round?

I’ve been contemplating many places to land semi-nomadically, and I’m wondering if anyone has experience with van living in Minnesota. I’m mainly interested in the Duluth/Superior region down around the Twin Cities, though I don’t see myself as an urban-dwelling stealth camper in the slightest.

Having grown up in the part of Michigan that’s almost Canada, I know how brutal winters can be, and places to boondock in nature are going to be tough if I stay for winters (which I’m tempted to do, either here or Michigan). Any thoughts, experiences, or community connections appreciated!

As someone who lives year-round in Canada (Northern Alberta), it can definitely be done. Make sure the van is insulated well and a diesel heater is pretty much a necessity.

Solar output is pretty disappointing too. My new build I am skipping solar altogether and installing a second alternator to charge the battery bank with instead.

You also need to be mindful of any water tanks or plumbing that are exposed under the van.

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Greetings!

I’ve spent the last few winters in the Duluth & twin cities area, and heading back once I wrap up things here in Florida.

I suggest a good heater that doesn’t require any power. I use a 23k BTU kerosene wick type heater, totally reliable, and it will run on diesel too, and it’s totally silent. Between there, N. Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, & Alaska I’ve done winters down to -60°f with windows all around, and no added insulation. I don’t cover my windows either. The key is in having good heat, and enough of it.

Keep in mind that you still need ventilation, and you need enough heat to compensate for it. Because of the required ventilation, insulation doesn’t do much good anyway. A fan up towards the ceiling aimed downward can really circulate the heat, since it rises, and you can even have warm floors. I use a heat powered woodstove/fireplace fan placed directly on top of my heater, and it circulates the heat really well with no power required.

You need to be prepared though, heaters can break, batteries can die, and you better have backup plans and the money to execute them. I have USB heated clothing, and even a wearable sleeping bag. A ski mask & goggles, or a sleep mask can keep everything covered but your nostrils. It’s Hawaii inside my van, but if you need to be outside much, you better be prepared, and make sure your outdoor wear is both windproof & rainproof. Know how to build an emergency camping heater for if the need arises, the dollar stores have everything you’ll need. One old guy I know who does cold winters says “Be Prepared or Be Dead”. Good advice.

Solar doesn’t work well, and any plumbing must be winterized and not used. For this exact reason, I have neither. I charge my house battery with an isolator while driving, or via a generator when that isn’t enough.

I tend to park in middle class neighborhoods, and get to know the neighbors, and try to be a good neighbor. Since I’ll be there for ~6 months, I don’t want to continually be looking for new places to park. For the last 3 winters, I’ve been parking on the same street, in the same block. The neighbors all know me by name, and I am always welcomed. I’m somewhat of a handyman and worked on many of their houses & cars for free to be a good neighbor.

Last winter when the power was out for a week, I used my heaters & my generator to power a house, and we had a week long block party in that house. Actually a good time for everybody. Good food, good company, and they even taught me how to play pinochle.

Life is what we choose to make it. Being a nomad may make it slightly harder, but I’ve had my best luck by just being up front & honest with everyone. Even in places where what we’re doing is technically illegal, if you’re friends with the neighbors, nobody complains & you’re golden. I’ve had neighbors give their contact information, and tell me that if anybody complained, tell them I was visiting them. I’ve even had countless offers of driveways.

Living by a few simple rules has always done me well… Be a good neighbor, leave it better than you found it, and leave no trace except waves, smiles, kind words, & goodwill. We all have the ability to be someone’s guardian angel, and the rewards are absolutely amazing.

Cheers!


"There are those who learn, and those who wish they had learned." ~ Good2Know


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I spent 6 years in Bemidji and worked at a front end shop there. We had a guy come in to get his van worked on, he lived in a van while going to school. He had a wall mounted propane heater in the back of the van for heat, it was mounded to the bulkhead behind the drivers seat… it worked.

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Thank you very much for sharing that! I do have a Propex diesel heater in mine, and though I haven’t needed to use it yet (I just got into the van a couple days ago!), I’ve only heard good things about it. I’m going to park at my family’s place in Upper Michigan before going to New Mexico later this winter (I think), but have my eye on Minnesota for longer stays in the future.

Thank you so much for this incredible response! I’m probably going to spend part of the winter near family in Upper Michigan to try my wings with it and see (it doesn’t get quite as bitterly cold there as Minnesota, but the weather is still pretty comparable). I have a Propex heater, and like your suggestion about a fan to circulate the heat.

I’m an avid camper and understand the importance of very solid gear for every situation. I haven’t done winter camping, but I’m definitely going to invest in winter sleep gear, no question. As for clothes, skiing is my favorite and I’ve definitely done winter sports in -20 and then some, so (while not Minnesota cold), I think I’ve got that covered.

I don’t see myself being comfortable urban camping in a van, but really love and admire what you’re able to do with making connections and friends, etc., doing the repairs for people. It’s wonderful that we have the chance to plug into communities in whatever ways work best for us and them! I’m in this to be in nature as much as possible, but in the winter it’s a much different situation…hence needing (I think, for my needs at least) a house to fall back on with people that I know when things get rough weather-wise.

I still want to spend a lot of time in Minnesota and have my fingers crossed that the right connections come at the perfect times. Thank you so much again for this, and would be up for connecting sometime if you’re comfortable with that, too (but no pressure intended).

Thanks for the info and inspiration!

Thank you very much for this! I’d love to visit Canada, by the way - have never been, but it’s on my bucket list! I grew up in the UP of Michigan, so not too far from our northern neighbors :slight_smile:

My van has a Propex heater and is insulated too, and all the plumbing is inside. I’m probably going to park it near family to try it out for at least part of the winter. And my van does have solar, but I already know that’s a no-go in the winter (I’d like to find covers for the solar panels to protect them from the snow, needing to keep the roof cleared from snow, etc.), but this thing has SOLID batteries and if I run it at least a few times a week, my understanding is that it should be fine.

Good for you for vanlifing in Alberta! That’s incredible!

Greetings!

Make sure you drain all your plumbing, including the pump & faucet, or they will freeze & break. For that very reason, I don’t have any plumbing. I use a trigger spray bottle for water delivery, and a plastic dishpan for a sink. Plumbing and tanks can ffreeze, even when they’re inside the van.

Starting next spring, I’m hoping to start attending the rallies again, hope to meet you at one of them.

Cheers!


KISS (Keep It Stupidly Simple). The best solution to Murphy's Law." ~ Van_Dweller