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.
We're excited to share another interview this week! This one is really interesting because we have a husband and wife giving two perspectives on how they make outdoor parenting work.
Transitioning to parenthood:
This week we have an interview with an outdoor parent whose children are grown up, so he has the perspective of taking them outdoors through all the stages of childhood. He is also a very experienced at orienteering, which I think is a great way to get kids outside that I haven't tried yet with my kids. He also happens to be my uncle, and when I was a kid I got to go orienteering with them. Enjoy!
Transitioning to parenthood:
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.
Before we had kids, my husband and I enjoyed backcountry skiing. I wasn’t as good of a skier, but I loved the peace and quiet of skinning up a slope and spending the night in one of the Sierra Club huts with friends and exploring the runs near the hut. We are working to find ways to start doing that again with our kids - we will hopefully have some updates on it this winter as we try it out more. This post is part of our Skiing/Snowboarding page.
A note on this section: it is based more on research and less on experience than our average pages. My husband and I enjoyed backcountry skiing before we had kids but as of when this was written, we haven't done much with our kids yet. We have done plenty of tree skiing with our kids and have taken our oldest child on some side-country exploration with the Contour Startup Ski Touring Adapter, along with a friend whose daughter was on telemark. The rest of the information on gear is based on research.
First, safety: your kids cannot rescue you from an avalanche, except maybe if you have older teenagers, so you must be very careful about where you take them. The minimum age I’ve seen online for AIARE Level 1 classes ranges from 10-13, however I don’t feel my 10 year old would be strong enough to dig fast enough to rescue me and I would never want to put that responsibility on her. You know your kids best though, so make the decisions that are best for your family.
For younger kids, see if you can attend an avalanche awareness presentation for kids such as the ones given by the Nikolay Dodov Foundation. These sorts of presentations get the kids to start thinking about where avalanches can occur and what causes them, and the risks of getting caught in one.
Always bring a first aid kit and enough food and warm clothing to be prepared to handle the weather, especially when you’re hiking in tougher terrain such as in snow.
Backcountry touring setup options: (I have very small feet - 22.5 boots - so finding gear that fits small feet has been a battle for me since I started backcountry skiing)
How to start:
As I mentioned, we currently don’t have much personal experience backcountry skiing with kids. Here are some of the other helpful links I have found on backcountry skiing with kids:
This week I'm excited to introduce our friend Shannon. She and her wife are masters of organizing group camping trips, which we have been lucky to be part of for many years now. (They created the camping spreadsheet I shared last week). They have also started taking their kids backpacking and skiing, while impressively managing sports and activity schedules. She is right about how friends help kids hike more - when my kids hike with them they go much farther!
Transitioning to parenthood:
For our second interview we are excited to share Karl's experience as an outdoor dad. We have known him and his family for a few years. They are part of a group of families we go on group camping trips with a few times a year, until they moved back to Colorado. I have always been impressed with how they find the time to get into the mountains so often while they both worked full time jobs and also with the impressive hiking stamina of their daughter.
Transitioning to parenthood:
See all of our interviews here, where you can browse through them by keywords and locations.
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:
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.