When you spend the night in a ski area parking lot during a snowstorm, there’s a point in the early morning hours when the soundscape inside the van shifts. The quiet huff of snow and wind is broken by the distant thunder of avalanche bombs, and the beep and scrape of snowplows.
Those were the sounds that woke us one morning in the Sunrise lot at Oregon’s Mount Hood Meadows, the ski resort on the southeastern flank of the snowy volcano, an hour and a half from Portland. For the price of a $4 Sno-park permit, we had snagged one of the 18 overnight vehicle camping spots and participated in a great northwestern ski tradition, one that’s existed since the 1960s and become even more popular in pandemic years: van camping in the ski area parking lot.
You can sleep in your vehicle in nearly every major ski area in Oregon and Washington, thanks to a combination of Forest Service regulations that restrict the building of lodging on the mountains, and a history of camping-friendly resort ownership.
There are downsides. Lack of nightlife, for one, and winter van life is probably not for people who are particular about where they go to the bathroom. But camping, with its mellow, first-chair mornings, easy access to the lifts and long evenings of parking lot après, can be an affordable, accessible lodging option, and a taste of the vanlife hashtag.
Bare bones, but that’s the appeal
In December, with our eyes on the atmospheric rivers rushing in from the Pacific, we left Portland in my partner’s van, and pointed it toward Mount Hood Meadows. We were part of a trend. The 2022 North American Camping Report from Kampgrounds of America found that, since 2019, the number of people van camping has increased by 1.6 million. The report also tallied 2 million new R.V. renters — vans are considered Class B R.V.s. A range of rental companies has ramped up in the past few years to serve those new renters. In the Portland area you can rent from boutique rental companies like Escape or Roamerica, or peer-to-peer rentals like Outdoorsy.
At Mount Hood Meadows, we backed the van up to the snowbank on the edge of the lot. Camping at Meadows is first-come, first-served; you can stay for three-day-long stretches, and it’s free, although you do need an Oregon Sno-Park pass (you can pay by the day or get a $25 season pass; some mountains may add fees).
From the Sunrise lot it’s a short walk or shuttle ride to the Sahale Lodge at the base of the high-speed Mount Hood Express Quad,…
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