What You Need to Know to Take a RV Winter Camping Trip
The temperatures are low and the days are short but that doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy RV camping in the wintertime. Campgrounds that are open are generally empty, the crisp air is quiet and the landscape is peaceful. Still, the best part: no bugs.
Have a safe and relaxing winter trip with these tips to help you prepare your RV and enjoy an offseason adventure.
Prep Your RV for Winter
Before heading out, the most important thing to do is make sure your rig will be up to the rigors of winter camping. Most current RVs are designed, built and insulated to take cold weather in stride. Even if you don’t have the latest in RV technology you can still make your trailer or motorhome cozy.
Check window seals and re-caulk where needed. Examine the weather stripping on all exterior doors—especially the entry—basement areas and access panels and replace if necessary to keep cold drafts out.
You can also cut insulating foam boards, available at home improvement centers, to fit snugly between the RV frame and the ground all the way around the base of your rig. This barrier will help insulate tanks, water lines and the floor by blocking out cold air. RV skirts can help, though they don’t provide as much insulation.
Empty your black and gray water tanks before your trip. Add about a quart of special pink RV antifreeze (not the green kind used in cars) to each. This will protect the dump valves from freezing. Insulate the pipes draining into the tanks with foam pipe insulation, and consider adding electric pipe heaters if you’ll be camping in below freezing temperatures for an extended time. Note: you’ll need an electric hook-up or generator for this.
You can also add holding tank heaters, which are available in 12V DC and 120V AC models.
Special tip: Wrap your sewer hose in insulation or heat tape. This will help prevent ice dams from forming inside. Some veteran snow campers use their sewer hose only to dump their tanks; then they clean the hose and store it in a heated compartment immediately. A frozen hose is likely to split when you disconnect it.
Don’t empty your tanks until you’re ready to leave. This will help prevent ice from forming.
Fresh Water Hose
If you have a fresh water hook-up, consider buying a heated water hose to prevent freeze-ups or bursting. These are controlled with a thermostat and AC power is required to operate. Keep all hoses and cables off the ground or out of the snow.
Better still: fill your fresh water tank, and then disconnect your hose from the campground faucet and let the water drain out.
If your water pump is located in an insulated exterior storage area, a small space heater can help keep it from freezing.
If you don’t have dual pane windows, you may be able to retrofit with insulated RV windows. Or, you can add insulated curtains. Keep them closed at night to trap in warm air. For a Class A or Class C motorhome, an insulated curtain made to separate the cockpit from the living area will reduce the amount of cabin space you need to heat, saving propane or electricity.
A low-cost solution is to cover your windows on the inside with foil-backed foam insulation, available at most home improvement stores. Lightweight and easy to cut, you can attach hook-and-loop fasteners to the window frame and the insulation to hold them in place. Also available is a window insulating film that reportedly reduces condensation and stops heat loss.
Most RVs have roof vents or skylights, ideal places for heat to leak out. Seal off these spots by installing RV vent cushions, which fit securely into most standard-size vents simply by pushing them up into position. If you’re handy, you can also make custom-size vent cushions out of thick foam padding, available at home improvement or fabric stores.
Stabilizing jacks can freeze to paved or concrete pads, so place blocks of wood beneath them. This way, you can raise the jacks, drive forward, and then free the blocks with ice melt, a hammer and a chisel. Or, just leave the blocks and get replacements later.
The refrigerant in a propane or electric refrigerator is a solution of hydrogen gas, ammonia, distilled water and sodium carbonate, all under 200 PSI pressure. When outside temperatures drop below 20 degrees Fahrenheit, this liquid may turn to a gel that can plug the refrigeration system’s coils permanently.
To help avoid this, remove the outside refrigerator access cover and apply duct tape over the top two out of three vent slots. Do this on the inside of the cover to prevent leaving adhesive on the outside when removing the tape. An easier alternative is to insert round half-inch pipe insulation in the top two slots from the outside.
In extremely cold weather, it may be necessary to place a small space heater in the compartment, set on low. Make sure that the heater is not near any flammable surfaces.
Many RV builders do not insulate or heat the ice maker water line. If this is your situation either drain the water line, insulate it, or wrap it with heater tape.
Test the furnace before you hit the road. Clean the furnace area using compressed air or a soft brush to remove all dust, debris and insects. If your RV has only a heat pump or heat fins, consider an additional heat source as these systems don’t work well when the outside temperature drops below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you don’t want to run the furnace, portable electric space heaters can make a real difference in staying warm, as can a catalytic heater—just be sure that a window or vent is open a crack for ventilation.
And be aware that interior heat and moisture from your breath and a catalytic heater can create condensation in your RV. An electric dehumidifier, if you’re plugged in, or a container of moisture absorbent will remove dampness from the air and help prevent corrosion, mold and mildew.
If you use propane to heat your rig, it’s likely to last only a few days in really cold weather. Make sure that a propane refill station is nearby and open, or bring a couple of extra tanks with you, safely secured for travel.
Some campgrounds offer propane bottles for rent. Call ahead to find out.
Engine Block Heater
If you camp in extremely cold regions, it’s best to have an engine block heater installed. Turn on the block heater at least three hours before you start your engine.
Ice and snow can accumulate on slide out awnings, preventing the awnings from rolling up properly when it’s time to go. Clean the snow, ice and frost off the awning.
In addition, ice and snow can accumulate on slide gaskets and prevent the slide from retracting. Spraying RV antifreeze on the gaskets may help. And retracting the slide the night before you leave can save a lot of grief on a cold winter morning.
When winter RV camping, the best planning includes preparing for the worst. Always have the following with you:
• Tire chains
• Weather band radio
• Extra blankets
• Extra warm clothing
• Sleeping bags rated for zero degree temperatures
• 5 gallons of drinking water in heated storage space
• A “white gas” camping stove (does not require propane)
• Gasoline-powered generator
• Extra propane tanks
• Blow dryer to defrost pipes and tanks
• Emergency GPS system
• Extra food
• Solar charging panels are good for re-charging house batteries
• Cash for unexpected fees or emergencies
Check the Weather Before You Go
In some parts of the country, winter storms can appear suddenly and are unforgiving. Be safe by checking with the National Weather Service to see what the forecast is for the areas you’ll be in.
Make Sure Campgrounds Are Open
Due to their elevation, some campgrounds close as early as mid-September to early October; so double check to see if your favorite spot is open. You don’t want to be disappointed by a “Closed” sign.
At first glance, winter RV camping can seem like a huge amount of work. But the good new is that many of the add-ons only need to be installed once. After that, they can be left in place.