One afternoon in May, a few years ago, James and I decided we’d get a motorhome and take it skiing for a season in the Alps. We went online to work out some of the logistics of actually undertaking this venture, and due to the sheer lack of information about, we concluded that we’d invented the whole concept of taking a campervan skiing. Wrong.
Despite being late to the motorhome skiing party by about 40 years, we did establish one thing. There’s not a lot of information out there to help first timers and so here we’re going to share some of the things we learned early on in our motorhome skiing adventures.
In this Beginners Guide we’re going to show you how to prepare for a motorhome skiing trip and here’s what you need to consider:
- Planning your motorhome ski trip
- Preparing your motorhome for departure
- The journey to the mountains
- What you should do on your first day
- How to go with the flow
- What to do if it all goes wrong
- What not to do under any circumstances
- How to do it better next time
- Hannah talks with fellow motorhome blogger about things you need to know to go motorhome skiing (video)
Planning Your Motorhome Ski Trip
How long are you going for?
Deciding how long your trip is going to be will dictate almost everything else you do. If you’re substituting your regular Saturday-to-Saturday package deal for a motorhome or campervan skiing trip, you need to plan a lot more meticulously than if you’ve purchased a single crossing on the Channel Tunnel and have no fixed return date.
The beauty of motorhome skiing is that if you only have five days booked off work, you can actually squeeze in nine days on the mountain, as long as you have a couple of drivers and are happy to turn up at work on Monday morning still reeking of Piz Buin and wearing the same pair of socks you’ve had on for the last 24 hours.
These shorter stints mean that to get the most out of your trip you need to embark on some night driving and be ready to suit-up the second you arrive in resort.
With online booking for passes and ski equipment if you need it, you can leave the UK after work on Friday night and be in your chosen resort to catch the first lift on Saturday morning. All you need to do is spend the week in the run-up prepping like a boss – packing your vehicle; doing all your maintenance checks; and ordering a shopping delivery.
Winterised Tip: If you’ve been sitting on the fence, now is the time to invest in Amazon Prime (current offer if here) – it’ll save you time and probably cash when you realise you need more socks and a snow shovel on Thursday night at 9.30pm.
Who’s Coming on Your Motorhome Skiing Holiday?
A wonderful thing about motorhome skiing is the total lack of commitment required. If you have 5 beds (berths if you want to get fluent in motorhome speak) in your van you have capacity for a bunch of latecomers – but make sure they have the right constitution for a motorhome ski adventure, and are on board with your vision of what your trip looks like. If you suddenly get a tag-along who is a bit precious and has personal space issues, leave them at home – they aren’t going to add any value to your trip.
Kids! Robust kids are awesome motorhome ski companions. They don’t give a hoot if they can’t blow dry their hair, they don’t take up much space, and being a Snomad makes them the coolest kind in class.
However, a word from the wise – we have it on good authority that if you are taking children skiing for the first time, you are well advised to book a campsite in advance. Kids are not so good with being double-cold, carrying skis, falling over for the millionth time etc so their first trip to the mountains needs to be as drama free as possible. The security of electric hook up, hot showers, maybe a pool and somewhere pretty safe to have snowball fights should not be underestimated. By all means, if you have Dora the Explorer in your clan then wild camp in La Grave if you wish, but don’t say we didn’t warn you.
Winterised Tip: Cater for the least intrepid in your party and get over it. There is nothing worse than forcing someone so far out of their comfort zone that you make them miserable – it’s just not worth it. Leave them at home, or make life easy for them. If you have someone who has to have a 15 minute shower every day, book a campsite.
Where do you want to go?
The world is your lobster! You don’t have to stick to tried and tested Meribel or Courchevel – in fact you might find that your family favourite resort isn’t very motorhome friendly in winter. See if there’s a resort or area that floats your boat.
If the answer to that question is EVERYWHERE, we’re going to poop at your party. We had a bonkers plan to ski somewhere different nearly every day for 5 months and it just doesn’t work like that. If it’s your first trip and you have an unlimited budget, skiing a couple of days here and there and moving on, is doable but definitely not an economical way of motorhome skiing. For a start, switchbacks drink fuel like fighter jets and if you’re up and down the mountain three times a week, you’re going to feel that in your wallet. Ski passes are also far cheaper when you don’t buy consecutive days, and with the admin required to keep the boat afloat (essential daily motorhome chores), you’re just not going to have the energy to be moving all the time.
We recommend choosing a few areas and getting to know the mountains – when we paused in an area for a bit we got to know the place and enjoyed the experience better too. For example – there are five mountain aires and places to park in the Milky Way (Via Lattea) that sits on the French-Italian border, so you have the opportunity to master these mountains. Variety cannot be underestimated – in this skitropolis you have international mountain travel options – the popular motorhome ski destination of Montgenèvre; Claviere; Cesana; Sauze d’Oulx; and Sestriere. You can wake up with a different view every other day for a week with just a few short hops.
Winterised Tip: Keep it simple and have a Plan B, even if you’ve booked a campsite. Roads get closed, ferries get cancelled, the French strike, pandemic’s break out. If you have a Plan B, you have the option of what we call a ‘Plot Twist’ – makes everything considerably less stressful when things don’t go your way!
We have a dedicated website that will help you find places to park – wether you want a fully services campsite or a wild camping spot in the middle of nowhere, snomadsites.com has hundreds of winter park-ups for you to consider.
How well equipped is your motorhome?
It’s boring but in our experience, the readiness of your motorhome to undertake a motorhome ski trip, directly correlates with
- The time you have on the slopes
- How much you will enjoy yourself
- How likely you are to repeat the experience
Here is a helpful chart to show you how likely you are to enjoy yourself on your motorhome ski trip.
Here we see that the type of winterisation your motorhome has strongly influences the % fun likely on any given motorhome skiing trip.
(we are of course joking but there’s alway a little truth in jest!)
We have covered a lot on this topic so if you want to read up on winterisation and vans, check out some of our articles here.
Winterised Tip: Know your van. Whether you have a £100k land yacht or a £2k Bongo, learn about how the habitation functions work. If you don’t, and your electrics stop working or your water stops coming out of the tap, you won’t know how to fix it or if you could even be risking further damage.
We see a (very) few people saying they have never had any issues with their motorhome. The fact is, if you get caught in a very tricky winter on the wrong day, your van will struggle somehow. Even if it’s just knowing how to clean your solar panels without damaging them, how to release a seized handbrake or how to unstick a frozen roof vent.
Credibility Statement: For anyone who is new to our story – we are speaking from a position of considerable experience on the totally rubbish and inappropriate motorhome front! I have a career in motors, James being a plumber, and both of us with a huge amount of travel experience – we know what we’re doing and aren’t shy of a bit of drama. But, we wouldn’t wish it on anyone else and certainly would never wish to repeat some of our experiences in that first season.
We had a brand new van on our 2017/18 season long trip. It had been registered just days before we left. During our trip, we had three catastrophic habitation system failures that required engineers to fly from the UK to meet us, with major parts. Had we owned the van, we would have been coming home for an early bath – probably on day 2.
Preparing Your Motorhome for Departure
Keeping it simple is the key to success. There are a lot of things that worry people unnecessarily so we’ll try to put you mind at rest. Clipboard at the ready folks!
The checklist covers the following:
- What everyone needs
- What the vehicle needs
- What the dog needs (or cat or ferret)
Winterised Tips: Use one of those segmented document files and keep it very accessible when you’re travelling but put it somewhere secure the rest of the time. The Gendarme don’t need to see your campsite reservation docs or your ski pass confirmation.
We have a waterproof, zip-up version – you can pick it up here on Amazon. It’s not cheap but you should never have to buy another one and it’s also fire retardant – whilst that’s not something we hope you are worrying about, it certainly adds to the durability credentials!
Print everything. We don’t care that everything’s digital now – we still print off everything as a back up and can’t see that changing – especially if you’re travelling in France.
This is really down to the individual.
Winterised Tips: Try not to over do it – for one week you only need one merino base layer – that’s the whole point of them.
Don’t let your kids each bring four-hundred device chargers – even if you do have enough sockets, if you charge everything at once, you’ll either end up sat in the dark very quickly or you may have a hefty electric bill.
Our gear lists have caused some controversy over the years – we gently poke fun at people who talk about completely unnecessary (and sometimes senseless) ‘essentials’ and that’s because for two key things – cost and space.
Two lists of our suggestions for essential (or just super useful) gear:
Winterised Tip: We pack with the philosophy that everything needs at least two functions. Try and stick to that rule if you can!
Stuff to book in advance
This list is going to be hugely dependent on where you’re staying and how long for but probably includes at least a crossing, ski passes and somewhere to stay if you are looking for a guaranteed spot.
The Journey To The Mountains
ROAD TRIP!!!!!! We BLOOMIN love this bit. If it’s your first time driving on the other side of the road or up mountains, fear not. It’s fine. If you look in each of our aire and campsite reviews on SnomadSites.com, you’ll see that we generally mention if a place is super easy to get to or if it’s terrifying. We can do this as I (Hannah) really don’t like sheer drops and cliff edges so rest assured, these reviews are accurate. If you share my discomfort, have a read of my weirdly popular article, Chairlift Thrills, Cliff Edge Spills and the SAS – you might find some familiar concerns!
Here are our tops tips for the outbound road trip to the mountains:
- Whether you’re doing it in a oner or splitting the trip, travel the first bit at night – northern France and the rest of your route is all very lovely but that’s not what you’re looking at this time – driving into the mountains as the sun rises. Nothing beats it
- Do meal prep, at least for your first 24 hours because you’re not going to want to waste a single second thinking about cooking and boring stuff like that
- Have a park up routine ready – who is doing what and make sure your snow boots and shovel are to hand – before we even arrived we’d dug a bent Jeep out of a snow drift outside Les Gets #heroeshaveshovels
- Expect the unexpected and roll with the punches – delayed crossing; Gendarme inspection; chains on; chains off; park up full; and our favourite – nothing is working
- Check ahead for weather – it just makes it easier when you arrive if you know what you’re heading into
- Stop at Decathlon and buy everything you already realised you forgot
Return Journey Tips:
- It doesn’t matter if you’re away for a day or five months, the state of the roads in the UK when you get back will INFURIATE you – prepare for rage
- Plan ahead for getting your pets wormed – some vets will prescribe and let you take them to a European vet for administration on the return leg which can reduce the cost. Remember you can’t often book appointments in Europe so leave a bit of time for the faffing
- Aim not to park up anywhere near port if you can help it. The reality is that it’s unsettling – desperate people are trying all sorts of ways of getting across to the UK and if you end up involved, it’s not a relaxing way to end your trip
- Prepare for the post-holiday blues and book another crossing whilst on your return leg
What you should do on your first day
This depends on the duration of your holiday but to make the most out of any trip we follow the following routine:
- Get a wriggle on
- Basic set up (Level and chock wheels, thermal screen on, connect gas, hook up, make sure fridge is on) and check what facilities on site are working or not working
- PM Arrival: Avoid Après bars – get on the slopes – even if that means just taking a sledge out or going for a walk
- AM Arrival: make sure there is zero faffing – divide and conquer – someone run and collect passes, someone pack lunch, someone download the piste app
- No bars on the first night – gentle wander about the resort and a trip to the tourist office to see what’s on, followed by a jolly good sort out – set the van up for the stay (faffing elimination exercise)
How to go with the flow
Now this may sound a bit odd but we sincerely hope something moderately unexpected besets your motorhome skiing trip! Why? Because it won’t be any kind of adventure without some trouble. Hopefully not too bad – just enough for a pub story.
We can be fairly confident that combining a ski trip with a motorhome trip almost ensures some drama but having had to practice managing this repeatedly, we have a few coping mechanisms to share!
“Plot Twist” – we’ve said it before but it’s far more powerful and exciting than “Bugger, what the F are we going to do now?”.
- Always have bottled water in the van – you just never know when another Beast from East is going to come and solidify your tanks or when the simple process of going up and over a mountain pass might be too much for your pipes
- Know what to do when there’s a proper issue:
- Breakdown cover numbers accessible
- Medical cover documents
- Medical Insurance Cards
- Snow Chains – it really does pay to know how to put them on
- Receipt for your ski pass and mountain cover
- Mountain rescue number is 112
- Have another route to your destination in mind – roads get closed for a whole load of reasons, avalanche, accident, weather
- Stay in if there’s really heavy snow due or team up with another van to keep your van and immediate area clear of snow – trust us when we say that coming back to a totally buried van isn’t just a pain in the bum, it can be a real pain in the bum – digging out in the dark, losing cables, disappearing generators, trying to clear heavily laden roofs
- Go slow – up and down mountains but try not to cook your clutch or your brakes. Don’t worry about crazy drivers – they can wait or they can fly past you, just don’t feel any pressure to go faster than you, your passengers or your van wants to. The best option is to pull over in the aire de chainâge at every opportunity – letting faster traffic past and is good manners
- And the best thing – if you haven’t booked a site, check out the skiing conditions before you arrive – you might find the next mountain over has far better snow!
What to do if it all goes wrong
This happens. Vans break down; accidents happen; people break bones; people get sick… These are the only really important things. Go home or park up somewhere easy that offers safety for everyone until the storm has passed or you can sort yourselves out. Crack open the emergency tea.
Every situation is different and it’s rare that people have big dramas however, we’re listing a few of our little ‘challenges’ here so you can see that it’s not the end of the world and solutions tend to present themselves after a cuppa.
- Ferry cancelled (ask for another route) or train delayed (you can get cash back for significant delays)
- Leisure battery completely drained (Pack up, move to a place with decent hook up, keep everything on low and give it a day to recover – don’t just run your engine in the hope that’ll fix it – the maths is painful and a whizz around the block doesn’t work either)
- Blew the only type of fuse we didn’t have a spare of (ask next door and then get to a garage and remember to take the blown fuse with you to replace – communication is easier with props)
- Terrifying smells (Suspected formaldehyde poisoning for us – true story! Vacate and aerate but we always have a few of these air purifying bags with us now and they works a treat)
- Debilitating sickness – James caught Asian Flu when we were away and was in bed for 7 days. We had no water (frozen solid) and he couldn’t travel. We were lucky enough to be in Montgenèvre and on a good aire with hook up so I watched about 5 boxsets and met other people to ski with once I dared leave him. We knew what it was because it was an epidemic, but we had a local clinic number at the ready. The learning from this is that everyone on board should know how to go the admin jobs – emptying cassettes, filling tanks, changing gas bottles.
- Stuck – nothing that chains, the best winter tyres, trax, grit, salt or a JCB can solve. We employed the same attitude we have to cats up trees. You do not see a load of dead cats hanging from branches so the fire service should not be who you call to rescue your moggy. Pay a tree surgeon or a window cleaner if you really think it’s going to starve or fall. Likewise, people rarely perish from their motorhomes getting stuck. Our solution? A cup of tea and a think. There are lots of YouTube videos on unsticking oneself from a fix such as this but whilst you’re supping on a brew, someone will likely offer to help and many hands usually make light work.
- Catastrophic failure. Sadly, we lost water and heating on a number of occasions during our season and on three occasions, it was a serious problem. It’s all very well thinking you can snuggle up in a 20 tog duvet but wild camping, with no method of flushing a toilet, brushing one’s teeth, igniting the gas, washing up dirty plates or warming wet toes, you’re really just enduring the experience. AirBnB it.
- And our favourite – habitation door failure. It’s a bigger issue than you first imagine. You cannot leave the van. If there are only two of you, one of you always needs to be there as the entire thing is open. No insurance covers for theft of any type (van or gear) if you leave the damn door open! No fun. You also can’t travel by ferry as you have to leave the vehicle below deck and you really have to stay in a secure campsite
- You crash. This did not happen to us but if it had we would have immediately booked into and AirBnB. Check your insurance policy before you go so you know whether they cover accommodation in these circumstances and if they do, get it authorised and get to the nearest resort and enjoy your trip. You may find that if you’re booked on a campsite, they have self-catering chalets and cabins to rent
- You hate it. You won’t be the first person for whom motorhome skiing is not their idea of fun. It seems so idyllic – Instagram images of mountain peaks and steaming vin chaud. Promises of skiing right to your bedroom door and chasing powder days across the Alps. Sometimes it’s like that and sometimes it’s being under a van at midnight at -26°C trying to work out if the entire thing is about to blow up. If you hate it, try not to ruin it for everyone else!
11 things you should never do under any circumstances
- Mess about with the Gendarme
- Try to drive off without doing a proper check – cable unhooked, chocks out, step in, everything stashed
- Ski without insurance
- Ignore your gut
- Utter the words “one last run then” – there lies certain injury
- Run your leisure batteries down below 12.3 Volts
- Travel without a full complement of fuses
- Try to roast a chicken, with all the lights on and dry your hair at the same time
- Have a backpack with speakers in it
- Run low on canned tartelette
- Travel uphill to 2000m to fill your water tanks in -15°C – don’t even ask.
How to do it better next time
Try really hard to remember the things you screwed up the first time and then don’t do them again. Easier said than done but we found a few useful processes helped us to avoid cock-ups we made first time around:
- Cockpit check. Pretend you’re pilots and run through everything you need to have done before take off. Arm doors, crosscheck. It helps if you dress up for this, even if it’s just a hat
- Try something different – we’re looking forward to trying a few more campsites than we have previously as we favour aires and sostas but the lure of a more admin free trip really appeals!
- Don’t take as much stuff. You don’t need 7 pairs of goggles and you don’t need 9 pairs of ski socks but you do need more salad cream than you thought and a spare Nandos sauce.
Hannah talks to fellow motorhomer Kat about taking your motorhome to the mountains
How do you prepare a motorhome for winter? If you are planning to use your motorhome in deep winter conditions you will need to insulate your water tanks and pipework at the very least but there are many things you can also do to make sure you are safe and warm in a motorhome in winter.
How can I ski on a shoestring? If you have access to a motorhome or campervan, skiing can become very cost effective – even for long periods of time as you can benefit from area passes and very cheap places to park
Can I rent a campervan to take skiing? Yes but you must be certain that the campervan you hire is equipped for the job. Most ‘winter packs’ are designed for a more mild winter. Check that your motorhome has regulation winter tyres, a screen cover and has had the fluids exchanged to appropriate winter specification.