'Van life': While most seek out sun, these people chase the cold
Jesse Boldt and his dog Layla have been living out of a converted cargo van since May. (Boldt)
Published Thursday, December 20, 2018 5:48AM EST
On a recent fall night in Saskatoon that dipped well below 0 degrees, Jesse Boldt slept without a heater in the converted Dodge cargo van he chooses to call home.
Wearing two hoodies and tucked under six blankets next to his dog Layla, Boldt felt alive.
“I felt like I was doing the right thing for myself,” he told CTVNews.ca in an email interview. “Sounds odd but I remember smiling underneath all my blankets and just feeling good. Like I was on the right path.”
The 30-year-old kickboxing instructor sold his home of nine years in April and moved into a van, which he spent $2,000 purchasing and renovating, with his 6-year-old kuvasz-German shepherd mix. But Boldt chose not to install either air conditioner or heater, and until recently he spent most cold nights in his van. It was part personal challenge and part competition.
“I thought I'd be in a heated garage all winter, but instead I decided to see how long I could last,” he said. Boldt has practiced cold endurance before and enjoys testing himself. “Plus, a fellow van-lifer told me she survived -15 without a heater... So my dumb a** had to beat her.”
Boldt is among a cohort of nomads who’ve adopted the increasingly popular “#vanlife” (an Instagram hashtag with more than 4.2 million posts). Some live in renovated Volkswagen Westfalias, others in souped up Mercedes-Benz Sprinters. No matter the hardware, the typical van life aesthetic is as follows: legs outstretched across a narrow bed dangling out open trunk doors to a beachside oasis, waves lapping a shoreline just steps from the rear tires.
But while most chase the sun, Boldt and a small fraction of van-lifers are practicing the lifestyle in different temperatures: the bitter cold.
“I enjoy doing things that are uncomfortable,” he said. “I've tried my best to be comfortable with the uncomfortable.”
Boldt is the rare van-lifer who is public about his choice to go without heat in winter, because most spend hundreds if not thousands prepping their vans for cold conditions.
Recently married Collingwood, Ont., couple Madison McNair, 28, and Raynor Vickers, 33, who operate a mobile mechanic and outfitting business, spent about $1,200 on a diesel heater that Vickers installed himself under the passenger seat. It taps the fuel tank of their Mercedes Sprinter, but has only ever used as much as 1.5 litres of the 95 L tank to keep the van toasty. One night in -20 C was the biggest test.
“It was the first time our heater didn’t keep up,” said McNair. Though the heater didn’t technically pass the “test,” the temperature in the van only dropped from 22 C to 19 C. “The reality is 19 C is still very comfortable and very far from being a problem,” she said. On a recent night of -1 C temperatures in B.C., the heater conked out all together, but the temperature only dipped as low as 15 C inside the van before they got it working again.
“Far from being dangerous for us or our water system,” the couple wrote on Instagram. “We knew and prepared for the reality that things can and will break. Travelling with the replacement parts these heaters sometimes need is important for keeping repair times to a minimum.”
While Saskatoon’s Boldt has yet to install a heater of his own, he has been using a small space heater (with electricity offered by his gym or a friend) and calls it a “game changer.” Though it still might not be enough for the worst of winter. He’s well aware that temperatures can drop to -40 C in Saskatchewan, so he found someone who offered his heated garage for a monthly fee.
Boldt has been overwhelmed by the positive responses he received from people on Instagram and in person, and the outpouring of offers of spare bedrooms, laundry services and warm meals. For the most part though, he’s never accepted any of it.
“I figured I signed up for this life,” he said, “so I must fully embrace it.”
It was pretty cold last night. -26°C with wind chill. Layla's water dish was completely frozen. No need to worry though, I always put my water supplies on a shelf so it stays a little warmer. Anything on the floor basically freezes. But since heat rises, everything else seems to be fine. Layla slept great but I'm still struggling because I'm sick. I was going to head to my heated garage tonight but now I'm hearing it's supposed to hit 0°C this weekend? Anyway, thought I'd share a little winter vanlife experience with y'all! Cheers #wintervanlife #vanlifecanada #babyitscoldoutside #stoic #ordumb #youdecide #vanlife
Van life meets garage life! ---- These ceilings are 20ft high! I feel like I'm living in a fancy loft. This will be my first night in the garage and I'm pretty pumped. I was talking with a friend today and she said it's cool when a garage becomes a luxury. And it made me think about this van life journey and what's it's been helping me with. One of the huge things I've noticed is how excited I get for the little things. Before this, I would take for granted so many things that I had in my life. Never really appreciating the things that the rest of the world will probably never get to experience. I could go on and on.... But I'm just going to walk Layla, throw a movie on and relax in my T-SHIRT because it's that warm in here . #vanlife #garagelife #loft #millionairestatus #bouss #wintervanlife #thelittlethings #perspective #sickbuthappy
The wind whooshed through the trees. They danced, with creaks from the ice and snow that restrict their movement. The occasional crack was followed by the soft thud of snow/ice falling from it's perch. . . We were in a dark sky preserve. We bundled up in our winter gear and pulled out our camping chairs. It was -17c (1f) and we were the only "winter campers". . . A couple hours before sunrise started to lighten the sky, I was outside while Raynor slept. I saw shooting stars and realized I was already starting to recognize the sounds of the forest around us. I love lingering in this way - getting the feel for a place. . . It was incredible. It was humbling. I turned off our diesel heater to enjoy the wind and trees in their dance. My mind went to the indigenous people that thrived, in sync, with nature. Here I am, in a German vehicle, upfitted with parts from around the world. My passport means nothing here. I am a foreigner. . . Thank you for letting us visit this natural wonder.
Tidying up the van never takes long. It always feels so good to put everything back in its place. That's not the full story, though. . . ↔️ Swipe ↔️ . . We actually live in this tiny space. In all four seasons we get in Canada. . . I wanted salad and rice as dinner sides last night. Making three items consumes the countertop space. . . We're boondocking in the deep woods (in snow) for three more days while we hike and explore. We've got the towels drying on the indoor clothes line. After cooking the roof vent insulation went back in.. Since we have a bit of data left at the end of our billing cycle we were on YouTube. Since we won't charge our batteries for 2+ days, opted to turn the desktop off when we the actual work was finished. . . It's amazing to be here. To hikes trails and experience the natural beauty of Canadian winter. To be this comfortable. To have everything we need. . . To experience nature you need to be still and enjoy the silence. Nature comes to life in our quiet. We are thrilled to be lingering in the beauty of Alberta's wintertime right now. Our tiny home empowers and enables us. . . Messy, Tidy and every stage in-between I love this home on wheels. . . First photo: Taken by the talented @max.m.schneider Rest of photos: Taken by Madison's phone