Ski lodge closed? No problem, with these tips from tiny house guru Zack Giffin.

Ski season's a bit different this year: When your toes are frozen and you need to take shelter and fuel up, you probably won't be popping into a warming hut or ski lodge. With the pandemic, many resort base areas are closed or limiting capacity—so we’re being asked to base our powder days out of our cars. To find out how to make our car base camps more cozy, we turned to tiny house guru and Outdoor Research ski ambassador Zack Giffin.

Zack's first foray into camper life, which eventually led him to building tiny houses, came when he first moved to Mount Baker. Finding a job there was easy—finding affordable housing to rent was not. “The RV was just that ability for me to make that leap into the scary unknown and have a bit of a safety net,” he says. Zack eventually built a tiny house on wheels, which he’s lived in and skied out of for several years now. With an eye toward environmental sustainability he began co-hosting the TV show Tiny House Nation. He’s a staunch advocate for "tiny living" as a tool for financial freedom—you may have seen his Tedx Talk, “Freedom From The Housing Trap” —and has a wealth of experience with making small spaces both practical and comfortable—especially for ski season.


Zack Giffin carries a dog in a snowy parking lot.


Here are Zack’s tips for making your car the ultimate warming hut this season.


Manage the moisture

The first thing on Zack’s mind is how to deal with all that snow that will be melting off your boots and gear when you get in the car. “In the environment I live in, in the Northwest, it can actually ruin your car!” he says. Waterproof seat covers are a must, he says. A car-top storage box can also make a huge difference by keeping snowy gear outside the car. 

If you plan to sleep in your car, you’ll want to crack the windows for ventilation and to relieve condensation, but that can let snow in. Throwing a tarp over the top of your car can help keep snow out of the open windows and relieve condensation buildup.

Consider additional shelter

If you’ve got the budget for it, adding an awning or a tent that’s an extension of your vehicle can make a big difference. Zack points out that having air flow is important if you want to socialize safely during the pandemic—so awning-style open-walled tents are a great idea. “Even if it's a little bit chillier, it’s a way we get to balance the needs of safety,” he says. 

A skier loads skis into the back of a pickup while another sits on the tailgate.A skier loads skis into the back of a pickup while another sits on the tailgate.

Think about how to retain warmth

Zack likes to take notes from Japanese winter culture when it comes to staying warm and cozy in freezing weather. “Winters are pretty intense over there in comparison with most places people try to live,” he says, but the Japanese have found creative solutions, from how they serve steaming hot bowls of noodles to how they heat their homes. For example, having a heater underneath a table and then laying a blanket over the top. (See: Kotatsu.)

How to apply that to your parking lot tailgate? Think about how to retain heat, Zack says. If you have a heater, for example, it’s not going to do anything if it's just sitting there while you stand or walk around. Maybe put the heater under a table, and sit there with a blanket wrapped around your legs to retain the warmth.

Zack Giffin's tiny house sits in a snowy parking lot at night.

Another way to help retain heat is to think about how much warmth you lose to the ground you stand on. Throwing down some inexpensive puzzle-piece floor mats for insulation can go a long way toward keeping your body heat from seeping out to the snow you’re standing on.

Electric boot warmers have also improved over the years, Zack says. “This might be a year where even the strong, tough skiers who are used to painful feet might want to consider an investment in some boot heaters,” he says. “Because let's be honest, what drives people to the lodge more than anything else is their hands and their toes, or they're hangry.”

Zack Giffin prepares sandwiches inside his tiny house.Zack Giffin prepares sandwiches inside his tiny house.

Up your hot food and beverage game

Zack says he remembers coming down to the parking lot one afternoon as an 18-year-old, and having an older guy he was skiing with open his RV door and offer him and his buddies hot stew from a crock pot. He and his friends had been camping in their cars for a month with just beds, no heaters, and this level of comfort was a revelation. “I was like, all right, I get it—that's how people kill life,” Zack says. Now he’s the one with the comfy setup.

An important thing to remember this year, Zack says, is being mindful of staying within your traveling party and keeping distance from others in the parking lot, bringing your own food. “Congregating in the parking lot is something that, especially in Washington state, authorities are going to really be monitoring and watching,” he says. But even if you can’t share it this year, you can still pack and cook hot foods and drinks for yourself.

“Everybody needs to have a way to produce hot water,” Zack says. “That will change the number of hours you can comfortably stay at a resort, because hydration is super important, and you can't go in the lodge.”

Zack recommends a Jetboil. Also, packing your food and drinks in a cooler will help keep them from freezing while you’re on the slopes. Zack is a fan of making big pots of soup. His trick is to pre-portion it into individual containers so he can just throw one on the camp stove at the end of the day, and have no prep or extra dishes to wash. “That to me felt like an amazing wintertime life hack,” he says.

Avoid the idle

With base areas and warming huts closed, it might be tempting to fire up the car engine for some heat while you’re taking a break between runs. But Zack urges skiers to look for other ways to warm up. “The carbon footprint of a day of skiing is already pretty embarrassing,” he says. Keeping our engines off is one way to help cut that down and keep the parking lot air a bit clearer. A little extra shelter (see above), hot food or drinks—or even something like a rechargeable battery-powered heated blanket—can go a long way toward keeping you snug while you’re taking a break without keeping the engine running.

Two snowboarders sit on a tailgate, getting ready for a day on the slopes.Two snowboarders sit on a tailgate, getting ready for a day on the slopes.

Watch your battery

One last word of warning from Zack: Do not rely on your car for music. “There are a million different ways we can produce music,” he says. “Get yourself a little speaker. But don't use your car—you’ll end up killing your battery, especially if you do it over a series of times.”

Pro tip? Pack a set of jumper cables. If not for you, possibly for your neighbor.

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