Snowed in: winter camping in the van with freerider Markus Ascher.

Markus Ascher has converted his old Mercedes-Benz fire truck into a winter camper van. The Austrian freerider roams about in it in the Alps. His route: wherever he can find new snow.

For comfort: sheep's wool in the winter van

Luckily Markus Ascher doesn't need much: the white mountains, his skis and the former Mercedes-Benz fire truck - his transporter. The man from Tyrol converted the vehicle into a matt-black winter camper van, handcrafted in months of careful work. And the passionate freerider lovingly refers to it as: "my mobile mountain hut". The description fits just like the new snow on the Alpine peaks. Especially inside the old MB 310 you feel like you are inside a cosy cabin in the mountains: the interior of the cabin is made almost entirely of solid wood, untreated and unpainted, of course. "So that the wood can breath", explains Markus. Sheep's wool clads the walls to ensure that the winter van doesn't turn into an igloo in freezing temperatures.

Man at the wheel of a camper van

The route? Keep following the new snow!

That means that sheep's wool isn't enough against the temperature around zero, emphasizes the 31-year-old adventurer. That is why the camper van doesn't just have auxiliary heating and specially insulated glass in the windows, but another treat that is also taken from the Alpine cabin tradition: a black wood burner - including integrated chimney. What? A real wood-fired oven in a Mercedes-Benz transporter? "Yes", replies the bearded freerider. "Cosy and warm - just like a cabin up in the Alps." With his "four-wheel hut", Markus tours Europe's mountains in the winter, always looking for fresh snow. "The winter camper van is ideal", says the globetrotter from Austria. "I can choose my route as I like. I save on accommodation and I'm always in the outdoors."

We're losing our contact with nature and with it, our closeness and respect for mother earth.

Man walking through the snow forest with an axe.

Markus Ascher heeds the call of the mountains

Because this is where he feels most at home. "I enjoy the solitude and the peace of the mountains. I'm much rather in the mountains than in the valley." And he much prefers sleeping out in the open. "That's more difficult in the winter", admits the Austrian. "So the van is a good solution. It's almost as good as sleeping out in the open." Markus believes he was born with this proximity to nature. "You can only develop a sensitivity for nature and your own actions in the outdoors if you spend a lot of time out in it." That is what Markus Ascher believes is missing in modern society today. "We're losing our contact with nature and with it, our closeness and respect for mother earth."

From van to winter camper - here are Markus' tips

- Why insulate?- "For example to avoid build up of condensation but also, of course, to keep it nice and warm inside the van even when the temperature hits minus outside."

- What kind of heating?- In addition to his wood burner, Markus Ascher also has an auxiliary heating system from Eberspächer in his Mercedes-Benz winter van.

- How warm does it get?- I set the auxiliary heating to a pleasant 18 degrees at night. I wouldn't want to do without it. The wood-burner was always ice-cold by morning."

- Can you do without heating?- "With a very, very good sleeping bag you could get by without heating, but it's definitely not so much fun - you'll know what I mean the moment you have to clamber into frozen ski boots the next day.

- What kind of drive?- If you are out in the snow in the mountains a lot, Markus recommends a four-wheel drive.

- What tires?- Markus Ascher advises not skimping on the winter tyres. "This year I've spent a bit more and treated myself to 'Nordfrost Van' from Ginslaved", he says. They're tires with an additional rubber mix especially suited for cold temperatures and snow." So: don't save on your tires. "The right tires make a heck of a difference and decide who stays on the road, who slips, and who drives on safely."

- And on the tires?- Snow chains - should be part of your kit. Always, advises Markus. "You never know when you might need them. And if you haven't got them with, well, that's no joke. Unfortunately I found out the hard way through trial and error - even though I grew up in the mountains. So take your snow chains with you! And even with a four-wheel drive, you simply won't be able to continue without chains at some point."

Austrian established as freerider

This man from Tyrol grew up in the mountains and soon developed a passion for winter sport. He stood on skis for the first time as a two year old, could almost ski before he could walk. Markus Ascher took part in competitions, established himself in the scene and made a name for himself as an amazing free skier and "mad Austrian". "I think that as a freerider you have a special closeness to nature", says the 31-year-old freeskiing nomad. The sport reflects everything for which nature stands in the mountains: freedom, no limits, you define where you want to go, which route you want to take: in the mountains - driving in his Mercedes-Benz camper van. Skiing to Markus Ascher is synonymous with being out and about. "Discovering new places - that's what drives me", he says. This yearning took him most recently to Iran and Turkey - to ski.

It's the details you mustn't forget when you're camping in the winter

"For the time you spend in the van I recommend very boring things, but they are things I always miss if I forget them", says winter-camping expert, Markus Ascher: "Comfy, warm slippers, tea and a thermos flask. For outside and especially in case you get snowed in - which is something I always hope for, as a freerider - you need good winter boots, a small shovel, a good ice scraper and a broom." Or a good heating system, then you don't have to bother with scraping away the ice.

Black Mercedes-Benz van drives through the winter landscape

A typical day: skiing, chestnuts and tea

What is a typical day like in Markus nomadic life? Simple: after skiing extensively on and off piste, the skier comes home to his matt-black van in the evenings. Sometimes alone, sometimes with other freerider friends. Taking off wet clothes, he slips into slippers, switches on the heating and stokes the fire. Gets the tea on and then it is time for pasta or chestnuts - which he prepares or roasts on his idyllic wooden kitchen counter and wood burner. At least that's a typical winter day. In the summer, Markus lives in a house in the woods, in Kramsach in Tyrol, which he also renovated for the most part by himself. In the garden he grows herbs, vegetables and fruit - the goal: to be self-sufficient. He takes part-time jobs or goes on long road trips: to Italy, France - or as in just recently: to Kyrgyzstan.

What would a freerider be without his skis? Nothing! But Markus Ascher has found a practical solution for his skis.

Essential items for Markus Ascher's trips into the mountains aside from snow chains: special soft tires from Scandinavia.

Compact, spacious but above all, reliable - is how Markus Ascher describes his MB 310

Model number of an MB 310

First a fire truck, now a winter camper van

But Markus Ascher spent the last summers converting the fire-red engine into a matt black winter camper van. He got the idea on a road trip through Portugal. He noticed that a lot of "road trippers" used the old Mercedes-Benz 310. So he got one - on the internet. The four-wheel transporter, year of construction 1991, had a mileage of only 18,000 kilometers because it had originally been a fire truck in Styria and wasn't used every day. "These vehicles not only have a lot of space, but they're reliable, robust and economical to use." Two more advantages that spoke for the MB 310: uncomplicated technology. "I can repair or convert most things myself." And: the four-wheel drive - which, in addition to snow chains and special Scandinavian soft tires, are essential especially on snowy mountain roads, for the camper van's winter performance.

Markus Ascher's Top 3 Freerider Regions in Europe

"Well, the region I come from of course - Tyrol, Salzburg, Vorarlberg. There are so many ski resorts and mountains that you'll always find good snow somewhere without having to drive too far. Otherwise the Chamonix area and Valle d'Aosta on the Italian Mont-Blanc side. But you mustn't forget the Pyrenees in Europe! There you'll find massive mountains and huge skiing areas, which can compete easily with the Alps. Val D'Aran, for example..."

Conversion - learning by doing

He didn't plan much when he initially started converting his van. "We just tried things out", says Markus. For a while he worked away at the vehicle in the garage, every day for weeks, together with other freerider friends. "It was worth every second. The van really is an important part of my life." Markus also wanted to make sure that parts removed from one part of the van were used elsewhere. "At the beginning, the transporter was a prototype. We refined things gradually. I still work a lot on my van", says the Austrian. "I immediately felt at home in my van. And that's not changed."

No road in sight, just snow? - For Markus Ascher and his winter camper van this doesn't pose a problem.

The Austrian initially set off on his trips rather naively. "I've had to learn a lot by bitter experience", says the freerider.

Markus Ascher has fitted his van with special winter tires. He warns: "don't skimp on the tires."

In the summer, Markus Ascher often heads south, but the winter belongs to the mountains, preferably in his Tyrolean home. His winter van is also his second home

Made in 1991 and still in mint condition: Markus Ascher's Mercedes-Benz 310. The Austrian uses it to go off on many winter adventures.

The end to a perfect evening, according to Markus Ascher: a mug of tea, a tasty meal and the heat from his wood burner in the camper.

This is what Markus Ascher's winter camper van looked like previously. For many years it served as a fire truck in Styria.

Photos: Felix Schwarz, Markus Ascher


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