Van life in the South is hot, sweaty and stupid

Van insulation seemed like a great idea to stay warm in the winter. But we didn't anticipate getting caught in the South's heat and humidity.
thermometer on a tree

Jeremy looked into my eyes and said, “Don’t touch me.” With zero intentions of touching him, I rolled over and turned my back to him. The hot, humid, sticky air of the South is not conducive to cuddling. At least not when you live in a van with no air conditioning.

My insulation fantasies

In case you didn’t know, Jeremy and I did zero research when we started our self-conversion. I always assumed insulation was something we needed. I pictured frigid winter temperatures knocking on the van and our insulation keeping the cold at bay. As a result, I wanted a much insulation as possible.

Two-inch polyiso foam board covers the floor, ceiling most of the walls in our van. One of the reasons I chose this foam board is because it’s closed celled and won’t absorb moisture. The high R-value of 13 was the other reason. Once we got all the insulation in place, I couldn’t help but think of how much warmer we’d be in the winter. See, at the time, I pictured our insulation like some sort miracle. It’s almost like I expected it to generate heat instead of doing an okay job at holding it in.

What an idiot.

Foiled by the South

Even a van build in the South is hot, sweat, and stupid. Some would argue that Williamsbug, VA is the mid-Atlantic. However, I classify it as the South because it still has sweet tea and great BBQ. We bought Mark in February, and for reasons I’d rather save for a later post, we couldn’t start work on him until June. As a result, the oppressive heat and humidity of the South kept us from getting much work done.

It wasn’t until September that we finished the van insulation. The stifling heat still suffocated us while we worked. Regardless of where we stood, outside or in the insulated van, the heat was almost unbearable. Thus, I had no idea what tricks our insulation would play on us later.

A winter van build

Much of the build out happened once the temperatures dropped. Most days the high hovered in the mid-40s. One morning I walked out to the van, all bundled up and ready to work. I imagined the van was warmer than the outside air. However, after stepping inside my magical insulation fantasy shattered. The van felt as cold as the outside. I know, I know, that’s not surprising to most of you, but I lack common sense, so give me a break.

On the other hand, the van insulation did a great job of keeping in the heat. When working within the confines of Mark, I hooked up my little electric heater. About a half an hour later the interior warmed to a pleasant temperature. But after reaching an acceptable temperature, I needed to turn the heater off or it got too hot. The insulation proved a good choice for keeping the van warm.

christina next to a truckload of hemp
The van build got put on hold for all of October so I could work on my friend’s hemp farm.

Thwarted van life plans

Once we completed Mark, we planned to move out west to Oregon. My friend owns a hemp farm out there where we could work and live. However, the ‘rona ruined our plans. Moving across the country during a pandemic wasn’t the issue. Jeremy had just retired from the Navy and neither of us had jobs because of the move. Our Oregon friend was low on funds because of the pandemic and couldn’t pay us. Jeremy and I ended up stuck in the South at my sister’s in Savannah, GA.

My amazing family offered to let us park in their driveway and feed us until we came up with a plan. At first, I hated the idea. I wanted to move! I’d been dreaming about starting van life for years, and I didn’t want to put it on hold. Then I thought logically about the situation and realized we couldn’t afford to move. Additionally, spending time with the family before moving cross country seemed like the right thing to do.


cat sleeping on bed in van
Oreo doesn’t seem mind parking in my sister’s driveway.

The South strikes again

Every time I thought about staying at my sister’s long term one hesitation plagued me. Summer in the South. Temperature reaching the high 90s during the day and only dropping to the 80s at night. Humidity so thick you could cut it with a knife. Rivulets of water running down your body due to sweat or condensation. In one word, nasty. By mid-May, the heat and humidity moved in.

This is when I realized van insulation is not meant for the hot, sticky South.

During the day, the van insulation warms to the same temperature as the outside. We expected this. At night air cools, also as expected. However, the insulation slowly releases its stored heat into van while we attempt to sleep. We did not expect this. Additionally, even once the heat dissipates the insulation does its job and keeps our body heat in. As a result, the small space above the bed turns into a mini oven every night. But that’s not all!

a swollen cabinet door in the van that won't shut
Yup, can’t shut that cabinet door because of the humidity.

The humidity mixed with my sweat make my skin sticky and disgusting. Skin on skin contact repulses me, even if it’s all my own skin. At night I sleep with the sheet between my legs to keep them from touching. But the sheet adds just enough insulation to make the covered leg sweat even more. It’s a conundrum I have yet to solve. But wait, there’s more!

The immense amount of moisture in the air causes our cabinet doors to swell. We installed ball tension latches to keep our cabinet doors shut. The swelling of the wood messes up the alignment of the latches. Therefore, the humidity makes it quite difficult to secure our cabinet doors.

The moral of the story

Insulation is stupid. And so is the South. I’m kidding! Kind of…

For real though, from my limited experience I am convinced van insulation is good for one thing. Keeping heat in. If we had air conditioning I might think otherwise, but we don’t. In an attempt to keep cool at night, we’ve ordered a 12V fan to install by the rear doors. The idea is to blow hot air towards the vent fan. Then the vent fan can whisk it away, leaving us cooler. We shall see.

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I served 11 years in the Navy, and in 2014 I thru hiked the Appalachian Trail. These experiences helped prepare me for vanlife. My husband and I now live in our self-converted van, Mark.

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About Us

We left “normal” life behind and now live in our self-converted van, Mark. Our time in the military and backpacking adventures made vanlife an easy choice. The leap into vanlife and a self-conversion can be exciting yet daunting. We want to share our experiences and provide resources to give you vanlife your way, and the highway.

jeremy and christina at sunset

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