Why UK winters suck a LOT – a van life story

The challenges of van life during UK winters is probably quite different to those in countries like the United States/North America, Africa, South America etc. In these countries or continents, it would be possible to ‘chase the sun’ during the seasons.

Here in the UK, not so much.

What you’re typically doing is ‘running from storms’ rather than trying to find any sun in any of the countries that make up the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) The UK is simply not large enough to have a warmer Southern part to head to.

UK residents that prefer not to suffer a full UK winter will regularly take themselves further South. Popular destinations are Southern France, Portugal, Spain and Morocco.

However, post Brexit, a Brit can only enter into the Schengen Zone for 90 consecutive days. They then need to leave the zone for another 90 days before they can return for a further 90 etc. Which is fine for most who just want to get away for the worst of the UK Winter months, December, January and February. But a little more problematic for those who wish to travel through Europe long-term at a more leisurely pace. However, I digress.

The point is, if heading South for a few months isn’t an option for you when you’re living in a van full time, then the UK Winters can really start getting to you.

Whilst I can dress appropriately to be out in the cold, what I still struggle to deal with 25 years after my arrival in the UK is being wet AND cold. It’s not a combination I really ever had to endure during my life in South Africa. When we had rain it was typically after a 30 odd degree Celsius day, so the rain was welcomed. It was cooling and refreshing.

When the wind chill temperature outside is below 0 AND its raining horizontally into your face, that’s when I’m afraid I turn my back on Mother Nature and stick to the comfort of my van.

Then you have the storms and winds that seem to be everlasting. What I’ve learned during my 2.5 years on the road in the van now is that winds of 30mph+ will rock my van sufficiently enough to be of interest. 50mph+ becomes difficult to sleep. 70mph+ and I’m considering renting an Airbnb.

My old girl, is a 1995 Hymer B564. So 29 years of age as I write this post (Feb 2024). I have owned her for the past 2.5 years and in that time we have survived several record breaking storms in the UK. Fortunately I was never in the ‘eye of the storm’ when these storms hit, besides for Storm Eunice which hit in Feb 2022. I ran like a scared child!

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The storms (and winds) are getting more regular

When you live in your van for at least a full year, and have experienced all the seasons you start realising how much more connected to nature you are living in a can on wheels in whatever Mother Nature throws at us. You realise its raining where often when I was working from my brick and mortar home, or in an office during my career, I’d often have no idea of a passing shower until I exited the premises or looked out a window. I certainly wouldn’t have heard it unless it was properly cats and dogging it.

I sleep with my head about 3ft from my roof when I’m lying down. A metal roof. A roof that lets you know when its drizzling!

Then you have the winds. And not just official storm winds. Oddly, I have experienced stronger winds that weren’t classified as storms as I experienced in officially named storms. But that’s an aside.

Many parts of Wales, South and South West England, Scotland and Northern Ireland suffer many storms and very windy days during the UK winter. As I write this, in the past 2 weeks I have endured 2 storms and many days with wind speeds in excess of 30mph (enough to rock the van). 30mph winds, when you’re indoors in a brick and mortar building, wouldn’t even register with you until you walked out and a flying newspaper smacked you in the face.

When you’re in a van, you know its windy.

My Hymer is 2.8m tall. So a fairly high sided vehicle. Being 29 years old, she isn’t aerodynamic form the sides whatsoever. Its literally like a wall. No curvature where the wall meets the roof. Just a 90 degree join. So when the wind is directly hitting the van on, then winds as low as 20mph can have her moving around.

What I have personally come to realise, and it has subsequently been confirmed as fact, is that storms are becoming more frequent and more impactful over the last 3 winters that I have spent on the road in the van.

This winter (23/24) we have already had 10 named storms by the 5th Feb 2024. That is a new record for the number of storms before the end of January.

My first winter (’21/’22) there were 7 named storms to hit the UK. In my second winter (’22/’23) just 4. And as I say, as it stands there have already been 10 storms for the ’23/’24 Winter.

So it wasn’t just my imagination, this year has been an absolute savage of a winter and by far the worst of the 3 winters I have endured. Weirdly (or perhaps not depending on your stance on global warming), we hat a record for the warmest day in January! And its been rather mild temperature wise with several days in the double figures (yes, that is quite high for UK Winters. But even the warmer temperatures are lost when you’re being battered by a 30mph+ wind and rain.

As you may have picked up, I’m not a fan of UK winters. I could deal with just cold. What I struggle with is cold, wet AND windy. That’s just stuff of depression for me. It doesn’t make being outdoors enjoyable for me even if I have the option of putting of 17 layers and a waterproof outer which I then have to try and find somewhere in my van to hang up to dry!

Shaka, my 14yo Staffordshire Terrier

So why don’t I bugger off to warmer climates I hear you think to yourself. Well, simply, Shaka. My dog. He turned 14 in January ’24 and whilst still really in good overrall health for his age, he does suffer mobility issues. He has had both his cruciate ligaments operated on around 6 years ago after being diagnosed with severe skeletal arthritis. The vet decided at the time that although his front legs were also severely affected, they couldn’t guarantee much improvement for him through surgery.

As a result of his mobility issues, he can’t walk very far. A kilometre (0.62 miles) is sort of pushing his boundaries in a single walk. And its a slow effort but he does still enjoy his walks and when I take him out I always let him dictate how long we wants to walk for and keep an eye out for any limb power failures.

Sometimes he will seem to lose power in a leg and collapse on that side. I hold the lead tight on the top connector on his harness to support this weight to ensure he doesn’t collapse and hit his head on the ground. He will typically start making his way back to the van when he has had enough and before any limb failures occur.

Because of his mobility issues, I can’t take him out exploring with me as he wouldn’t be able to walk the distances I do when out exploring. As a result I leave him in the van and whilst he’s quite capable and experienced with being left for up to 8 hours when I worked in my career, I don’t like to leave him for more than 3-4 hours now. Meaning that I tend to keep my exploring fairly close to ‘base’.

So I don’t feel that going abroad at this point would be beneficial for him. He would have to get all his jabs updated, which at his age I really don’t think I want to happen. He’d also be in warmer temperatures where I would need to lock him in the van if I wanted to go explore. And if it was very hot I wouldn’t feel comfortable leaving him at all so wouldn’t go exploring.

Therefore, until his time comes to cross the rainbow, we will continue to endure the UK Winters. If Shaka can give me another year, then we will look to stay around the East Anglia region next Winter. It is the mildest region of the UK as most storms and winds come from the West. So by the time they reach East Anglia they have cross a lot of land mass and have basically died off. I lived in East Anglia for 20 years in a bricks and mortar for that exact reason, I wanted to live in the mildest region of the UK.

Since I’ve hit the road, I’ve spent the majority of the 3 winters in the South and West which is just silly really. I will not be making that mistake again!

You will get used to it

At first, I was very uneasy in the van even at 20mph winds. I literally bought myself a wind sock thingy that shows you the direction the wind is coming from. I’d then turn my van nose into the wind as the front of the van is the only part of the vehicle that looks remotely aerodynamic. I wasn’t able to sleep as every time there was a gust and the van shook I soiled myself a little bit.

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But I had to keep reminding myself that the van moves and sways that much (and more) whilst driving the vehicle. It moves that much if I jump around in the van (yes, I’m a bit of a fat bastard). It sways that much when Shaka does his donuts on the bed trying to find his comfort zone which can take several minutes of moving the duvet cover around just so.

I also did a bit of research, cos I’m wired that way, and discovered that a 75mph side wind can blow a high sided motorhome/van/RV over. Thankfully, to date I’ve not been in the direct path of those speeds. The most the van has experienced since my ownership was 65mph and to be fair, I wasn’t in her at the time.

So personally, if I’m aware I’m in a zone where there are going to be winds in excess of 60mph, and if I had the option to move, I would definitely move to a zone that is less in the path. Or at least try to find some solid structure to take the brunt of the wind.

But the more windy days you experience, and you will experience many if you spend Winters in the UK, the more you learn to tolerate. I’m typically okay with winds up to 40mph if hitting from the side of the vehicle (its not always possible to turn nose into the wind). Anything over that and the sudden movement of the van and the noise of the wind gust does disturb my sleep. I guess having your bed move with you in it isn’t something you typically experience living in a brick and mortar property unless you live along a fault line.

I’m not sure if that is ever something you truly are able to get used to. Being quite violently shook in your sleep. If you’re a van dweller and have lived several years on the road and initially had issues sleeping but have gotten used to it with experience please do let me know. Would be good to know its possible!

There may well be people out there that are quite content and undisturbed by their vehicle being battered. I can safely say I’m not currently one of those people. And I have had some nights with very little sleep due to severe van shifting.

Photography frustrations during UK winters

As some of you may know, I am undertaking this van life experience to undertake a long-term, personal photography project (self funded) to document as much of the UK in images and video as I can and when/if the time comes for me to be able to explore further abroad.

So when I go out, I tend to go out with my camera gear. My camera gear isn’t waterproof. Yes, my iPhone is but I’m afraid as good as smartphone cameras are these days, I’m never going to be happy shooting on a phone only when I’m visiting somewhere new.

So when its raining outdoors I typically crack on with client work and photo and video editing for my various social media channels. But cabin fever can and in my case, does, set in. Being confined to the van for a day or two is barely bearable. When you endure 5+ days of consistent rainy days you start talking to the spiders in your van you’ve become friends with.

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Final thoughts on UK winters

So if you’re considering full time van life in the UK, don’t be fooled by what you see on social media, especially from US based van lifers who have the option of being in warmer areas of their own country/continent. Winters are hard. If you’re not a fan of winter while you live in a house/flat you’re going to struggle. Its certainly multiplied when you live in a van.

But once you have experienced your share of what the UK winter has to offer, and providing you can ensure you get away from any serious wind threats (more about winds here) then you will grow to take these events in your stride and it will become easier. It is just one of the challenges of van life that keeps it interesting 😊

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