I have a confession: as much as I love camping, I am a total wimp when it comes to being cold. Even on summer camping trips, you’ll find me sleeping in a base layer, flannel pants, a long sleeve, and usually a beanie and socks, too. And that’s while sleeping in an all-season sleeping bag.
So when I didn’t have time this summer to squeeze in a Yosemite trip, I was pretty bummed – since the temperatures get below freezing in the valley starting in September, I figured a late-season Yosemite trip wasn’t in the cards.
Then one day in October, I got an email from a local business owner. He owns the awesome company called The Tahoe Mule, and he emailed me to see if I’d be interested in taking out a van to take some photos and create content on social media.
Oh, and the vans have heat. Yes, please!
So a few weeks later, we packed up our bags, threw some camping gear in the massive storage section, and cruised down to Yosemite. Though at first the van was challenging to drive ( I merged lanes by saying “ahhhhh” and hoping no one was nearby) it actually became fairly easy to drive after only a few minutes.
I was worried about the drive up Donner Summit in the snow as the vans are only two-wheel drive, but it turned out to be a total non-issue. Not only do the vans come with chains, but they have super adventurous, high-grip tires. We literally didn’t slide one time. Nice.
Once we arrived in Yosemite, #vanlife was a dream. While we waited in line for a first-come, first-serve campsite, we made coffee – because the van comes with both a french press and hot water heater. And when it was still a little dark in the morning, no problem – we flipped on the ceiling lights and studied our hiking maps.
As comfortable as this van is during the day, you’ll want to rent one for the comfort they provide at night. There are too many features to list that make this van feel super luxurious, but the one that is a total game changer is the high-tech thermostat and heat – and you do not need to have the van on to run the heat. We set it at 70 degrees two nights in a row, and though it uses the gas, it used such a little amount that the needle didn’t even move. I think you could run it for a week and barely make a dent on your gas.
This thermometer is so easy to use – just like a house. And since the place is so small it heats up pretty damn quickly!
And holy cow – what a difference the heat makes. To be able to camp in the winter and sleep in comfort is a complete game changer. Not only is it (obviously) more comfortable, but you end up sleeping better, which makes hiking, biking, or whatever activity you’re doing the next day soooo much easier. Gus, the Sierra Mule van I was in, has a lofted two-person bed. And with the provided thick sleeping pads, plus the blankets and pillows we bought, it was cozier than my bed at home.
When you’re camping in a tent, one of the worst parts is waking up and having to immediately go outside into the chilly morning air. The Sierra Mule takes care of that, too, since it comes with a small but totally functional kitchen. With a hot plate, cooking surface, and pull-out mini-fridge, you can wake up, make coffee, and have some breakfast while still in the cozy comfort of your pajamas.
It comes with a french press, drip coffee holder, AND plug-in tea kettle. No excuse for bad coffee.
Ultimately, ditching the tent for a camper van opens up a ton of doors (pun slightly intended.) Not only does it make four-season camping possible, it allows you to explore areas in the off-season, which greatly reduces crowds. I was able to take amazing photos in Yosemite since the trails were empty – and we were only able to be there in mid-November because we had a warm place to sleep.
The other nice thing about these particular Sierra Mule camper vans is that they worked with a local company to instal heavy-duty equipment. The batteries, which are created by Battle Born Batteries, are super durable and can power the van off-the-grid for about a week. Thanks to the solar panels on top, you can power the fridge, lights, plugs (and yes, there are plugs) and more without ever needing to be hooked up to anything. That means you don’t need to camp in RV parks or campsites – you’re totally self-sufficient in these vans. Like, for days.
I’ve always been intrigued by the #vanlife movement (how can you not be if you have Instagram?) and this was awesome way to get a taste for it. True, spending four stress-free days living out of a van is not the same as living in one full-time, but it was a great way to at least realize “hey, I could do this for longer.” Sure, 108 square feet of living space is small – like, smaller-than-a-tiny-house small. But rather than being cramped, it felt cozy and comfortable. Plus, with added luxuries like a sink and solar panels, it barely feels like you’re camping.
Of course, there are some downsides – you have to climb up over the seats to get to the bed, so it may not be great if you’re injured or have trouble moving around – but you’re probably not going on a camping trip then anyway, eh? Aside from that, there’s not much to make it better. The inside looked a bit spartan at first but once I learned about the subtle features, it was anything but.
In terms of affordability, while the campers aren’t cheap to rent, they’re not particular expensive, either – certainly cheaper than an RV and probably cheaper than a car and hotel room combined – particularly in a national park like Yosemite, where rooms start around $400 in November at the Ahwanee ne Majestic Yosemite Hotel. Gus runs $175 a night, and comes with generous mileage limits every day. We went the loooong route from Tahoe to Yosemite and only went over by a few miles.
Learn more about the Sierra Mule at www.thesierramule.com or follow them on Insta at @thesierramule. Also follow the local company that makes the batteries that allow this bad boy to be off-the-grid for days at a time, @battlebornbatteries. Gus has a sister van, Bess, that has folding bunk beds and sleeps three to four people, with only a small sacrifice in storage space.
All right – this post is getting too long. If you can’t tell, I want a camper van now. Anyone want to sell me one?
Who would love it:
- Outdoorsy couples – any more than two people may be a bit cramped in Gus
- Temperature-sensitive campers – like me: if you hate being cold, you’ll love it
- Mountain bikers: with room to carry four adult mountain bikes and plenty of gear, you won’t have to sacrifice any living space to bring your toys along
- Four-legged friends: that’s right, these are dog friendly! You have to arrange it in advance and you’re responsible for keeping it clean still, but yep, Fido doesn’t have to be left at home
Christmas note: Giving the gift of a Sierra Mule gift certificate would make an AWESOME holiday present for an adventurous couple!
Other note: The Sierra Mule provided the camper in exchange for some photos and coverage of the adventure – but of course positive opinions can’t be bought. I thought it was awesome of my own volition 🙂