Katie Bamber piles into her mountain-modded camper van and takes off on a mission to ski her way around the Alps – and save a little cash in the process
Last winter I reverted to ski bum life, 16 years out of the business. I’d bought a van, prepped it for cold weather and taken it on a few jaunts to the far reaches of Scotland. The idea was to take off with a very loose plan to chase snow and ski on different terms. To make it more about what I like best about the sport. I had a 4WD VW Transporter jacked up on fat tyres, insulated and installed with a leisure battery and diesel heater; skis, kit, cooking equipment under the bed frame, with a folding mattress on top…
December 9: me, the van and the man zipped across the Channel and ploughed through the top part of France to make it for dinner in Champagne. The road trip was on.
Wild and free | Laax-Flims
Wild camping: just about the only thing in Switzerland that is free. Keen to avoid the likes of St Moritz, so as not to prove right the man’s (new to skiing) preconceived ideas of it all (exclusive and expensive), we made tracks for Laax. Prove him wrong I did not, in Switzerland, but the best setting for camping it did provide.
Snow was coming down thick and fast as we drove into Laax at 9pm. The ‘plan’ was to find a quiet road or track and follow it until remote enough to switch off and camp. At the end of Via Selva, barely out of the village, was a small clearing covered in snow and deserted. Beers in the snow, dig out the cheese, and relax…
Not quite remote enough it seems: at 6am the snowplough had come to work on the 20cm that had fallen overnight. The dog walking brigade came next. Following the dogs up the snowy track, we found ourselves happily lost in a tangle of easy walking trails, with outlets of fresh running water pouring into troughs for a glacial bird bath and morning drink.
Fast forward a ski day and we were slumming it another night in paradise, aka nearby Bonadutz. Thank God no one was around to witness our first (and last) attempt at cooking outside, at altitude, subzero. Freezing in full ski gear, we crunched through semi-raw pasta – penne alla car park.
Ski highlight: I loved the yellow marked freeride routes in Flims – ungraded but avalanche controlled. Pick of the bunch is ‘The Pign’ (77), which runs from Vorabgletscher towards Forcula and includes a short skin or boot to the start. Piste-wise, the long cruising red down into Laax at the end of the day, into the open arms of Rocks Lounge, is unbeatable.
Part of the family | Ischgl
Over the border in Austria it was a very different set up. Wegefreiheit is the ‘right to roam’ in mountain and forest areas (bodes well for ski touring), and technically you can park up anywhere in Austria to sleep, as long as you don’t set up camp. Privately owned land is the exception. “Good luck finding any in this valley”, said my ski guide Honé, a 30-something-year-old Ischgl native with – I was encouraged to see – a van identical to mine.
Between the cosmopolitan Ischgl and down-to-earth Galtür ski resorts is tiny village Mathon. There, the Heindalis Hof has turned its backyard into a small motorhome campsite that fits six or so vehicles. Our neighbours were Winnebagos – think bandanas, goatees and retro ski gear. These were our people now.
Each morning the owner brought out raw milk fresh from his cows and opened up his wife’s yoga studio so we could shower, all for €8 a night. Buses run until 10pm between the villages and it’s a quick five-minute ride down to the action in Ischgl.
Ski highlight: Because the Ischgl clientele doesn’t typically go in for it, we had the off-piste to ourselves. Fresh tracks days after snowfall, easy lift-accessed powder – it’s all there for the taking. For a half-day tour, we skinned from the Heidelberger Hütte to the top of 3,069m Breite Krone (‘wide crown’ after its hill-like shape). Honé even magicked up a skidoo to skip the flat track from town to the hut.
5-star camping | St Anton
Clear blue skies for weeks to come. This dry winter, light on snow, at least made for easy camping. At night the mountains glowed white and stars were out. Arlberg Camping, previously EuroParcs, is the crème-de-la-crème of campsites. Located in Pettneu, down the road from St Anton, each pitch comes with an en suite heated hut. It’s also right next to the wellness park with an indoor-outdoor pool.
Once checked in you can pre-order pastries for breakfast to collect en route to the (free) ski bus that runs up to St Anton’s base station. Catching the bus, early doors, with a bunch of togged-up, groggy skiers turns out to be quite a nostalgic experience.
Ski highlight: Clocking up miles on a great link of pistes from Schindler Spitze down to St. Anton – think 7km of uninterrupted skiing over 1,356m of descent. With plenty of afternoon sun, it’s incredibly lappable.
(Feels like) Summer in the Alps
Skip a few months roving around Austria (via Zauchensee, Obertauern, Leogang, Saalbach, Kitzbühel, Zillertal, Montafon) to Easter weekend and spring in the Alps: I was in Chamonix looking to escape heavy rain. Freezing levels were high, but the storm had dropped a metre – maybe two – of snow above 3,000m.
With plans to set off on the Haute Route, between Chamonix and Zermatt, delayed, I was parked up by Lac des Gaillands under the Mont Blanc massif, listening to the sweet sounds of avi bombing at first light. Waiting for the avalanche warning to drop from cat.4, I skied the Vallée Blanche to warm up for the multi-day tour ahead. For ski-in ski-out digs, look for (non-official) camp spots beside the piste, hard skier’s right, as you get down to base village Argentière.
Who would’ve thought, but after four nights in high mountain refuges and stinking, snoring dorms, the van with its makeshift bed felt like luxury accommodation.
Ski highlight: Endless fresh tracks after heavy snowfall at Les Grands Montets following Adventure Base guide Neil, who knew all the honeypots.
Winding down with the Italians | Cervinia
Trundling into Cervinia, it was clear the snow was melting fast. On the mountain marmots were out, but three lifts up on the Swiss border the scene was madly different and we got in some nice glacier skiing.
My new van bud was my sister and one night sharing the confined space (without arguing) was good going, so we left it on a high and cashed in on an end-of-season discount at spa hotel Aux Pieds du Roi.
Cervinia is one of the last resorts standing late-April and it was very much in wind-down mode, as was I.
We stopped in Aosta city surrounded by snowy peaks before the long drive back. It was April 22, the temperature was in the 20s and it felt like summer.
Ski highlight: Cervinia’s favourite run ‘Ventina’, 11km from top (Plateau Rosa) to bottom (town), which we hit at prime time, after ice thaw and before slushy bumps formed.
The takeaway: Less is more
It turns out that if you keep it simple, winter camping isn’t so different from summer. Especially this winter, light on snow. In total I did about 10 weeks. There were a couple of nights in hotels. I had buddies join me for parts; I did some solo. And learnt a lot, fast.
Of course, it takes a little time to find your groove, both with camping basics and the gadgets. I went all out with the heater model fitting a top-of-the-range Eberspacher, which is essentially too effective and makes the van hellishly hot (designed for a boat/bigger space). The comforting drip drip of the diesel through the heater is all good until you have to get up a few hours later to crack the window with a pseudo-hangover.
Just remember that if all else fails, two in a bed (or two hot water bottles) and beers chilled in the snow works just fine…
VIGNETTES Swiss road tax discs 40 CHF for the year; Austrian autobahns and S-roads require a vignette, bought in petrol stations (10 days costs €9.60); Expect to get rinsed in France (and Italy) with pay-as-you-go tolls.
EUROTUNNEL To start the adventure off right. 40 quick minutes on the train and you’re off… Crossings by ferry are often slightly cheaper than the tunnel. Go f rom Newhaven, or Portsmouth or Southampton and it’s cheaper (toll-wise) once wheels are down in France. See Eurotunnel’s website for times and prices.
ROUTE PLAN Madly impatient and hopelessly disorganised, my ad lib attitude was a recipe for disaster (car arguments and vast tolls). The sanef.com toll calculator is a good tool.
FUEL Fill up close to mountains for winter diesel that won’t freeze. Don’t forget antifreeze in your windscreen wash.
Park4Night APP It will be your new best friend – even without subscribing you can see all campsites and great parking spots other users have discovered and tagged (which range from quiet laybys to great hidden-access wild camp spots).
LEISURE CENTRES Most resorts have community sports centres with a pool, saunas and showers. Entry is usually under €10 and visiting becomes part of a nice daily routine, post ski.
CAMPSITES Book in before you roll up. Alpine winter camping is more popular than I assumed and spots for vans with hookup, especially, need securing early.
JETBOIL Unless it can be cooked in a Jetboil, it’s not cooking. Outside cooking at altitude when subzero? Forget it…
INTERSPORT Instead of lugging around a full quiver (to handle the mad change in snow between December and April) hit up Intersport for skis, ubiquitous throughout the mountains. Intersport