This winter we made a major redesign on our ski van sleeping system which has been working great during Covid. Here are all the details on what we did, also released as an update to our Sienna Ski Van page.
As engineers, we are constantly thinking about how to improve our systems. We also got complaints from our growing children about the lack of space above the cots. So for the 2020/21 ski season we made a major upgrade to our system.
The biggest change is that instead of the home made cot system that sits on the dashboard of the car we bought two aluminum frame military-style cots and set up a system to use them in the van. This makes for a faster set up and gives the kids much more headroom.
To fit the cots into the car, we fully recline the front seats (like in our previous version) and slide the center legs of the cot around the front seats:
The cot legs in the front of the car sit on a wooden board that rests across the two front seats for stability.
In order to make the cot fit, we had to move the front legs backwards a bit, so we just drilled new holes in the cot to move the attachment points:
For the rear of the cots, we support them on a dowel that is hung from the handles:
To keep the cots from sliding around, we loop the webbing through the dowel inside the cot:
To store the cots while we are driving, we build two boxes that are placed behind the front seats and attached to the captain's chair anchors on the floor. The boxes have notches where the cot support dowel and another 2"x2" bar go across them. A bungee is attached to hold down the lid and cross-bars for safety while driving. It is attached to the box in the back and the bungee hooks around a knob on the front of the box.
We take the wooden board that is used in the front seats to support the cots and put it across these boxes to create a bench in the back seat. This bench is incredibly useful for eating meals inside the van or for sitting on while you put your ski boots on. This has been important during Covid for making our van into a basecamp during bad weather.
The boxes are used to store hats/gloves/balaclavas/etc and toiletries. The sleeping pads for the kids and the window covers are stored between the bench and the back of the front seats. We use a bungee cord to keep the wooden board attached to the bench and a mesh bungee when we're driving to put helmets etc on top of the bench.
The parent sleeping system is the same as before - using the folding cushions. These are still stored behind the back seats, with the sleeping bags, pillows, and clothes bags:
With the new system, the kids are a lot happier (at ages 11 and 7) so we can hopefully last for a few more years. And it works great during Covid where your car needs to be your home base.
This winter we are using our van as our home base for skiing day trips and also plan on only sleeping in our van when traveling to other ski resorts (when our stay at home orders end). Because of this, food planning is even more important than normal. Here are our tips for planning what food you can safely store in your van, based on our experiences over the last few years (including one -19°F night at a sno-park near Kirkwood, CA that broke one of the adults - the kids were fine). This is also an update to our page on Skiing in the Ski Van section.
If you are going to be using your van to live in while skiing, one of the trickiest parts we’ve found is figuring out what food to bring. We’ve learned (by freezing lots of different things accidentally) that you need to plan around whether or not your food is going to freeze and if there is the potential for multiple freeze-thaw cycles.
When you are ready to plan your trip, take a look at the daytime and nighttime expected temperatures and then decide where your food or cooler would be stored (inside or outside your vehicle). Using this information, determine if it’s likely your food will freeze at night and if your food will thaw during the day.
If the nighttime lows are only in the 20’s and your van stays warm enough to keep your cooler from freezing, consider storing your cooler in the van to prevent freezing. In cold weather, coolers do keep things warmer inside than outside but after enough time and with low enough temperatures you can freeze things inside a cooler. If you’re not sure, it’s better to assume things will freeze so you don’t have to throw away a bunch of food (as we have done more than once).
If your cooler will likely freeze but then possibly thaw during the day:
If it will be below freezing all the time and you are sure it won’t warm above freezing (even in the sun) bring food that you plan to be frozen:
In either case, if there is anything perishable (such as milk or fresh fruit) that you or your kids need every day you will need to plan to shop for it each day (either on the mountain if it’s available or by going to a local grocery store).
Some examples of food freezing points, for reference:
When you decide to be a ski bum sleeping in your car with your family instead of buying or renting out a house or staying in a hotel, it does have an impact on your ability to socialize as easily with friends. You can’t exactly invite people over for dinner at your place, to reciprocate when they invite you over, so it’s easy to feel guilty about that. Here is how we tried to handle it pre-Covid, although working full time and wrangling kids onto ski-teams every two weeks often made things too stressful to effectively follow through on these plans. As always, we’d love more ideas on how to make this work!
Pre-covid, we would arrive at the ski resort early, maybe 7:30 or 8 AM, and get a table inside and have breakfast. We had a group of other families that would also get there early that we could talk to (if we didn’t end up spending all our time getting the kids into ski gear and sunscreen and fed).
After skiing, we would also hang out at the resort but this time it would be a bit more relaxed. Any of us who were done skiing for the day early would wait in the lodge and chat with other families or play games. We would try to have some extra beers in the cooler in case an adult friend wanted one. The best night was when our friend brought an electric fondue pot and we all shared fondue together.
In the evenings we would go to dinner at one of the restaurants in the hotel near the resort, which also happened to be near where our friends lived. Many times we’d see friends there and hang out with them, especially since one of the restaurants had seating in the lounge area of the hotel. We did get to know another family that had a truck camper and we started seeing them more often in the restaurants, which was nice. As a bonus, the hotel had wifi so we could download books to read or movies to watch in the van.
Our friends would often invite us over to their places for dinner or après-ski. We would try to bring a bottle of wine or something over to share but we didn’t always remember to have something with us, especially when the invitations were last minute, or if we were worried about liquids freezing in the van.
In a perfect world, this is what we would recommend doing:
During covid, we are going to need to focus on making time to hang out with friends outside when the weather is good and before it gets too cold at night. No more invitations to friend’s houses, but we will consider bringing snacks and drinks to share if people are comfortable with it. Unfortunately, we are probably going to need to refocus on how to eat in our van more and socialize within our family, such as more van-movie nights and playing games. But as long as we get lots of good days out there skiing it will be worth it!
Our van, in our favorite parking spot close to good dinner options and friends.
After a 5 month break, we are back with more page updates and some exciting plans to expand the content of OKH in 2020.
For this week, check out our new page update on "Where to park your ski van". This was originally written in December, but a family emergency derailed posting plans for a while.
The best part of sleeping in a van or RV while skiing is the flexibility in where you can stay each night, depending on the weather or where the good snow is. Here are some tips on where to stay:
It feels weird at first if you have not done it before, especially with kids. I had visions of getting in trouble with the police, which I didn’t want to do with kids. But it gets easier to do over time, and after a hard day of skiing all anyone wants to do is sleep anyway.
One of the challenges of using a Toyota Sienna as a ski van is how to fit all of the gear in the car while sleeping in it. It’s also important to minimize the time needed to move gear around while switching from driving mode to sleeping mode.
We do this by using a trailer hitch storage box like the Stowaway2 and a ski rack on the top of the car.
We fit the bigger skis on the roof and the little kid skis in the trailer hitch box. Other items we put in the box are food, helmets, poles, backcountry gear (skins, probe, beacon), and ski backpacks.
For storage inside the car, the big thing we did to make it easier was remove the console between the front two seats. We covered the hole that was left with a custom piece of carpet that we bought online in a color to match the car. We added two D-anchors in case we wanted to anchor anything between the seats and these are bolted down to the anchors that held the console in place.
Inside the car we keep clothes bags, any personal items (books, flashlights, etc), and ski boots, to keep them a bit warmer at night. During driving mode, these items are right behind the driver and passenger seats and anchored down with an elastic cargo net that clips onto the attachment points for the cargo seats (that is left behind after we took the cargo seats out of the car).
When we switch to sleeping mode, this stuff can be put between the two front seats, on the seats, or in front of the seats. Usually we put the car seats on the front seats first, then put the items in the spaces around them, before setting up the cot.
With this plan, the amount of time spent moving stuff around for set up and take down of the beds is minimized, and we've been able to fit in everything we need for a full week-long trip in the van.
Our biggest concern about sleeping in a van during ski season was staying warm, specifically keeping the kids warm.
We considered propane heaters, both portable ones (like a Mr Buddy heater) and permanently installing one in the wall of the van. We also found one that runs on the car’s gasoline. However we were very concerned about carbon monoxide poisoning, especially if the car gets covered in snow.
We looked at electric blankets hooked up to a big battery, but it seemed that it might not last all night and we’d be constantly recharging the battery. And we couldn’t recharge it in one day from a small solar panel on the roof.
In the end we just decided to see how warm we could stay without extra heat during the night. We figured we could ease into the ski season by starting when it was still warmer weather and if we found the weather getting too cold we could drive 45 min down the mountain to where it’s warmer and sleep there overnight.
Our plan was to have everyone sleep in sleeping bags. We heated up the car as much as possible before bed (after inspecting the exhaust pipe to confirm it wasn’t blocked). We bought a carbon monoxide detector just in case and attached it to the inside of the van. In the morning if it was too cold we could make sure there was no new snow and then turn the car on to warm it up before getting the kids out of bed.
The sleeping bags we used were all 10 to 17F (-12 to -8C) bags in good condition, except one 20F (-7C) bag in poor condition which was for an adult who claims not to get cold easily. We also insulated all the windows. We bought a Weather Tech windshield cover. We made custom covers for all the other windows using Reflectix that was cut to fit the window. Then we covered one side of each piece with black Gorilla tape. This makes one side good for hot weather (reflecting the sun) and one good for cold weather (absorbing the heat) and also makes the pieces stiffer so they fit in the window easier and last longer. Also when the black side is facing out it makes it less obvious that someone is sleeping there. We usually parked the van between other cars in a sheltered location, to minimize the impact of windchill.
The result was that we were usually about 15F (9C) warmer inside the van in the morning than it was outside, so we ended up staying pretty warm. We believe that this is in large part due to good insulation in the van walls, along with the window insulation, and also because of the small space with 4 people in it. We have been comfortable down to 10F (-12C) in the van. The coldest night we have spent in the Van was -19F (-28C) outside -5F (-20C) inside, and we decided that was way too cold.
Interestingly, we did spend one night without the kids and found the temperature difference from outside to inside was only a few degrees F (1C) so the kids are important to keeping the van warm.
I started playing with temperature loggers to document the temperatures we are seeing. Here’s a graph of outside vs inside the van overnight:
The one other backup we bought but haven’t used much are some electric hand warmers. They are nice in the sleeping bag if you put them in a sock so you don’t get burned. Unfortunately the -19F (-28C) night we didn’t have them with us and they definitely would have been nice to have.
Next up, how we store all of our gear in the van, both for driving mode and sleeping mode.
Details on the sleeping bags we use:
The key to sleeping 4 people in a Toyota Sienna is to take advantage of the space over the front seats. We fold down the front seats, put the car seats on the front seats, and set up a custom made cot on top of the front seats. Here is what it looks like from the side view:
The front of the cot rests on the dashboard. Here is what the dashboard piece looks like, with three cutouts for the cot bars, and a shape that fits over the "hump" in the dashboard behind the steering wheel:
The main part of the cot is cotton canvas sewn over three bars, and one end of each of the bars have end caps that hook over the front of the dashboard piece:
The rear part of the cot is three legs with a cross-bar that it tensioned after installation with parts from a pipe clamp:
The climbing holds were to help the kids climb up into the bunk and the wheels help slide the rear post when setting it up.
The cot is definitely a tight fit for the kids and we will need to find a way to lower it when the kids get bigger, or raise up the roof of the van. Right now the kids sleep with their heads towards the back of the van where there is more space so they make it work. Here’s how the kids look when they’re in the top bunk:
The two adults sleep in the back of the van, after folding down the rear bench seats. (We remove the captains chairs from the middle of the van when we are using it as a camper van). Our feel go under the kids bunk, so it’s pretty roomy for us:
We bought custom cut pieces of 4” foam and sewed a cover for them to make two beds, each that folds up. When they are folded down they make a bed for the two of us that fits perfectly in the back of the van. (Note that the bottom third of the mattresses have a gap between them - this allows the middle post of the legs to fit.)
When folded up the bottom third of each bed fits together to make a neat stack that fits perfectly behind the rear seats, when the seats are set up.
More details to come on how to stay warm in winter while sleeping in a van!
We were looking for a vehicle we could sleep in with our whole family on weekend ski trips in order to cut down on lodging costs. In the winter we usually ski at least two weekends a month and the hotels have a minimum of two nights stays on the weekends. We considered renting a place for the winter or buying a place, but both options cost more and involve more maintenance time.
When we started researching ski vans for families we didn’t find a lot of information easily available so it took a while to figure out what would work for us. In order to make sleeping in the Toyota Sienna work we had to come up with a DIY solution, which I’ll explain separately. Here is a summary of what we were looking for, what options we found, and then why we picked the one we did.
What we were looking for in a family-friendly ski van:
Here are the vehicle types we looked at to decide on the Toyota Sienna:
So for us the one that fit all of the criteria we were looking for was the Toyota Sienna. We just had to design a sleeping system so we could fit in it, which I explain here.
Two Silicon Valley engineers who have had a love of the outdoors since childhood. Parents of two small kids, spending our free time exploring the outdoors with them.