Having spent our first season on the road, we thought we’d try to answer the question, which is best for motorhome and campervan skiing, aires or campsites?
The truth is, they both offer very different experiences and many people choose a combination of aires and campsites on their motorhomes ski adventures. So there is no ‘best’. They’re just different. We don’t mind admitting, we didn’t fully understand what those differences were until we hit the road so we thought we’d try to answer the questions we see cropping up on forums and groups as best we can following 5 months on the road.
First off – let’s look at what these places are.
What is an aire and what facilities can you expect?
An aire is something that you might not be familiar with if you haven’t ventured across to mainland Europe before. Put bluntly, they are glorified car parks with a few facilities that make them suitable for motorhomes. It is generally accepted that aires are only open to use by motorhomes (or camping cars as they’re known on the continent). Depending on where you are, you’ll also see them called stellplatz (German speaking countries) and sostas (Italy).
That means no caravans and very specifically, no camping behaviour! Campers, converted vans and trucks are common but towed vehicles are rarely seen. There is a loophole that allows caravans to use aires but if we’re honest, there are a lot of reasons why towing a caravan to an aire in winter might be a pain in the bum.
Often situated on the periphery of the ski resorts, they offer easy access to the town’s facilities and are sometimes cordoned off areas of the larger public car parks. If you’ve been skiing before you’ll know that mountain resorts aren’t huge sprawling metropolises so a short trundle should have you at the local supermarket or après ski bar in a few minutes.
If you’re used to summer motorhoming, you’ll find that the ski aires aren’t as plentiful as their lowland sisters but even where there are none, you may find a municipal or private car park acting as an aire for the ski season.
The facilities vary considerably and much more so than on private campsites, but ordinarily, at aires that are open during the winter months, you will find running water and a WC disposal point. When it comes to power, you will likely find one of three hook up solutions.
1) none at all
2) recharge hook up at a service point
3) allocated hook up (between 6 and 10 amps)
If you’re entirely new to motorhoming, that might all sound like gibberish but in short, each aire, whether it’s privately run or maintained by the municipality or commune (local council/ parish), will have entirely different facilities. Helpful right?!
In some aires you might also find pristine toilet facilities, separate drive-over grey waste disposal drains and if you’re lucky, ski to the door, wifi and resident doggos.
Click here to view a few of the aires we have visited and reviewed with details of all their facilities and attributes, how to get there, and if applicable, how you can book them in advance.
WHAT IS A WINTER CAMPSITE AND WHAT FACILITIES CAN YOU EXPECT FROM A WINTER CAMPSITE?
Now here’s an entirely different kettle of fish. The campsites that are open in winter – and don’t assume your usual summer stop-off will be open because they’re rare as rocking horse poop (relatively speaking) – are pretty well equipped for your motorhome ski adventure. We didn’t visit many, preferring the aires for a number of reasons but those that we did stay in were usually run by snow sports enthusiasts and well thought out.
There aren’t a huge number of campsites that are located ‘in-resort’. Usually, they’re at least a romp outside of the main resort areas – they are of course campsites and they need land! That said, most offer a shuttle or have a nearby ski-bus service and aren’t too much of a hike if you’re ski-fit!
You’ll usually find that the space allocated to motorhomes in these winter campsites is reduced from their summer offering and often on hard standing so the ground doesn’t turn to sludge.
It is also unusual to find a winter campsite in somewhere that’s not considered a popular commercial resort. Even if that popularity is with a niche group of Belgians! The little known ski areas and ‘stations’, as they are more commonly known, will likely only have aires or parking areas where camping is permitted.
Campsites are marked as turquoise tents on our location maps that you’ll find here.
Most winter campsites have the usual utilities, with a few ski-focused extras! Toilets, showers, laundry room, pot-wash area and a few with hot tubs and swimming pools. They also maintain the services so you’re not playing roulette with the fresh water fill – running, flushing and hot!
Kit drying rooms are common place if you’re brave enough to leave your precious planks in a communal space. For us it’s not concern about getting them nicked – it’s more that they might get knocked, fall, bases scratched – you know… unintentional mishaps happen.
By the time you’ve hauled ass down the last run of the day, got back to the site and pealed your kit off, the chances are you are extremely reluctant to get togged up again for a night time jaunt into town. The occasional meal out, yes, every night – not in our experience. What this does mean is that as well as all of the above, many campsites have a restaurant – however basic the offering might be. Also they usually have a a place to pick up a few beers and essentials, and a desk to put in a baguette order for the following day is common place!
There are a few unique spots on the motorhome ski circuit that should definitely go on your bucket list. Let us know in the comments below if you have a few of your own to recommend!
Venosc – France
Despite its location at the bottom of a valley, more than a short hike to the slopes, there’s something really magical about Venosc. It’s sort of spooky and weird and about as different as it’s possible to get from the resort above – Les Deux Alpes. It is fully equipped and super lovely people that run the show at Le Champ du Moulin.
Chamonix – France
We’ve stayed in both an aire and a campsite in Chamonix and both have their pros but the campsite at Les 2 Glaciers is fab. It’s a bus ride (or 4 mile walk) out of town and faces the head of the Bossons and Taconnaz glaciers. It wasn’t busy but the people camping there were chatty and for the most part, a little bit crazy – as is the general demographic of Chamonix!
Alagna – Italy
Freeride capital of Europe is how Alagna sells itself as part of the Monterosa ski area. Campeggio Alagna is at the bottom of town just as you enter and is one of the easiest roads into a resort we experienced in our 2017/18 season. It’s different from other resorts for a number of other reasons – it’s a UNESCO World Heritage Site with extraordinary village architecture and the cheapest coffee in the whole Alps*.
A lovely campsite with good basic facilities – hot water runs a bit cool after 30 seconds – we think it’s supplied by solar which would make sense of that. There’s a bus stop right outside, but on account of all the Italian food we were gorging on, we made the walk up into town to reach the lift that takes you up out of the valley and into a gorgeous ski area.
*Probably not true but it was €1.50 for a cappuccino and that’s giving it away in our books!
ARE CAMPSITES AND AIRES ALWAYS OPEN IN WINTER?
Here’s the catch – you can find out in advance if a campsite is open by just calling them or sending an email.
As for aires – no is the answer, they’re not always open and there’s no real way of telling but…here’s what you can assume. If there is an enormous dump in the ski area you’re travelling to, have a plan B. Often the municipal police shut areas or restrict them to protect campers against avalanche or getting thoroughly stuck. In Abondance, a small town on the road between Geneva and Châtel, the aire had been turned into an ice driving rink for the winter – something not mentioned in any guide book or on any app!
That shouldn’t put you off – these are extreme and unusual circumstances and for the most part, aires will be open.
CAN I WILD CAMP IN THE WINTER?
Yes. But make darned sure you’re equipped for the exercise. Motorhome skiing is fabulous and does not require arctic expedition experience. However, if you are not equipped it’s just about as miserable as it gets and that’s not supposed to be how things are when you’re on your holidays!
Our general advice on that is wild camping in the very depths of an alpine winter is something that the uninitiated in motorhome skiing should probably avoid. Perhaps a bit of wild camping at the end of a longer trip once you know the capabilities of your motorhome or campervan and what the weather is likely to inflict on you!
Make sure you know the law – for example, wild camping can be a pain in Switzerland (and not permitted/ illegal in many places); aires are very few and far between and campsites are really very expensive, so it just pays to be prepared! Here’s some more detailed information about motorhome skiing in Switzerland.
We recommend a practice run with some safety-nets in place – why not pretend you’re wild camping but have access to some crucial facilities just in case (like power), whilst you work out your consumption and needs.
If you’re completely new to motorhome skiing or you’re looking to upgrade your kit to be better equipped for off grid camping, here’s a list of motorhome ski essentials you might find useful.
HOW DO I KNOW WHICH OPTION IS BEST FOR ME AND MY MOTORHOME?
You don’t until you try them out. Unless of course you are adamant that you don’t use your onboard facilities then you will be camping at sites anyway and not reading this!
However you may feel, your home on wheels might have entirely different feelings on the matter! Your motorhome of campervan may well gazump you in the decision making process and insist on certain parking-up criteria. For example:
What are your power requirements and how do you generate it?
If you have no method of independently charging your leisure batteries (solar or generator), you may well have your time at any location restricted by what your leisure battery/s can supply. We for example had only one leisure battery and no solar but we do have a generator which meant that as long as it wasn’t disturbing anyone, we could run our generator a few hours a day at very little cost, topping up our batteries and allowing us to charge 240v items like laptops.
Where’s your water?
Water tanks are probably the most likely challenge you’ll encounter on a motorhome ski adventure. If your tanks are underslung you don’t stand much of a chance of maintaining running water if you’re travelling between November and March. You may be best limiting your trips to the end of the season when your night time temperatures are more stable around the zero degrees area.
If you have internal tanks, you are more independent and self-sufficient. They’re significantly less likely to freeze and you’ll find them in motorhomes at the higher end of the market which come with a wealth of other features that will protect the systems against the cold.
That said – if you eat out (no washing up), use hand sanitiser and don’t shower, underslung tanks will be just fine! If you do value these facilities on your motorhome ski adventure and have externally fixed tanks, book yourself into a campsite!
CAN I BOOK WINTER CAMPSITES AND AIRES?
If you are intending to visiting a specific ski area at a specific time, we’d suggest you book into a campsite.
European school holidays vary so the chances of you hitting someone’s half term, national holiday or religious festival is pretty high. There are quiet times but we’d still advise booking, just in case. You never know – if it’s super dead, you might find a campsite shut or on restricted times as we did in Alagna and you don’t want to be driving around looking for alternative places to park up. Thankfully we were able to get hold of the owners but this might not always be the case.
With the occasional exception, you cannot book aires. A few private ones enable online booking, as do a few municipal ones like La Plagne but for the most part, you just need to embrace the jeopardy that is turning up and hoping for the best!
If you’re on a whistle stop tour of 10 days or less, we’d suggest heading to the larger aires that are rarely choca – places like Montgenevre, Alpes d’Huez (sadly now closed but awaiting news of alternative in resort) and even Vars if you’re happy with a schlepp south to get there in the first place. Closer to home and a short drive from the hugely popular motorhome ski resort of Le Gets, is Praz de Lys – huge two story aire in a gorgeous location – and you can double up with Les Gets if you want to mix up your ski areas a bit.
IS THERE A DIFFERENCE IN ATMOSPHERE?
This is something that surprised us – the general culture of campsites is completely different to aires – even when we know from our Facebook group (Motorhome Skiing and Boarding) that many people combine campsite and aires during their trips.
Perhaps we’re biased – perhaps we had preconceived notions of what the two would be like but they do feel different.
On our jolly jaunt around Europe we certainly found people to be more sociable on aires than campsites – chatty and ready to get stuck in and help out with shovelling or dragging something unwieldy across a snow drift. Campsites, not so much. People seemed to keep themselves to themselves more – perhaps because the hardship isn’t present. In fact, save a fabulous family we met in Le Grand Bornand having trouble with their wifi and Viv and Jase (Days Away) that we tried to help out during storm Eleanor, we really met no-one in campsites. Actually that’s not true. We did meet a couple in Venosc – Pete and his lovely wife who were getting over a ‘little flu’. If you’re reading this by any extraordinary chance Pete, that ‘little flu’ immobilised James completely for 5 days and hung around for two weeks after – you’re off James’s party list!
SO WHICH IS BEST FOR MOTORHOME SKIING – AIRES OR CAMPSITES?
As you can see – it comes down to preference and the capabilities of your motorhome or campervan.
We prefer the flexibility and culture of aires although are eternally grateful for the refuge the few campsites we did stay in afforded us when the s41t hit the fan!
Let us know what you prefer in the comments below – and if you had a different idea before you left!
We also welcome any questions – we will try to answer as objectively as possible!
If you want to join the conversation about motorhome ski adventures, you’re welcome to join our Winterised Motorhome Ski Adventures Facebook group. It’s small – we prefer it like that – there are some great people on there and it’ll start picking up momentum again no doubt in autumn as planning starts in earnest for next season’s motorhome ski trips.