Winter RV camping:
This information on winter RVing is provided courtesy of Tiger Run Resort, Breckenridge, CO.
Skiing and cold weather RVing can make for a fun vacation but, if you don’t set up properly, a fun vacation can become a nightmare. Over the years I’ve watched a number of people forget some simple steps. The following guide may save you some grief.
1) The first thing is to follow that old IBM motto“THINK”. Not every motor home is constructed the same. What may work perfectly fine on one RV may need to be modified to work on yours. THINK about what you are doing. THINK about what can go wrong.
2) SEWER: If you let your sewer line permanently connected make sure it has a continuous slope. This may be accomplished with a four inch plastic pipe or a half round pipe. If water has a place to collect it will freeze and when you flex the sewer line it will break. Wrapping the hose with insulation will slow the rate of freezing.
Many people keep the sewer line in a warm compartment and only hook it up when they want to dump the tanks. If you do this, return the hose to the compartment immediately after use.
Some RV’s and especially fifth wheels have exposed holding tanks and/or dump valves or the holding tank compartments are not heated. Adding antifreeze to holding tanks can help. If the compartment is insulated, but not heated, adding a small space heater to the compartment may be enough.
Some people skirt or bank snow around the base of their RV. If you do this you will need to run breather tubes for the generator and heaters. Think carefully when you skirt, no two RV’s are constructed the same. Many people believe that skirting traps moisture under the RV and accelerates corrosion.
Heat will escape anywhere it can. Placing refrigerator thermometers in compartments can give you an indication of potential problems. Using remotely read thermometers can make the job easier.
3) Water Hose: An unprotected water hose will rapidly freeze, even on relatively warm nights. There are two common ways of protecting your water line.
A) Fill your fresh water holding tank. Then disconnect the hose from at least the dog house, and drain it. Disconnecting at the dog house is important because the water must drain from the dog house faucet. Refill the fresh water tank when ever necessary.
B) At the office you can purchase an insulated, heated hose. Connect the male end of the hose to your inlet water connection. If your connection is on the outside of the coach, wrap the tail of the heater tape around the connection and cover with insulation.
Connect the female end of the heated hose to the dog house faucet. After you verify that there are no leaks in the connections, wrap the tail of the heater tape around the hose and the faucet and cover with insulation. Plug the heater tape into the GFCI protected duplex outlet in the electrical connection panel.
NOTE: Do not turn off or trip the GFCI circuit. This circuit is used to heat the potable water riser. If the GFCI is turned off freezing and expensive damage can result.
4) Jacks: Put blocks of wood under the leveling jacks. Jacks can and frequently do freeze to the concrete. They are almost impossible to free up when this happens. If you use wood, you can raise the jacks, drive forward, and then free up the wood with ice melt, hammer and chisels.
5) Gas Refrigerator: The refrigerant in a propane/electric refrigerator is a mixture of distilled water, ammonia, sodium carbonate and hydrogen gas, all at 200 psi pressure. When the temperature drops below 20 degrees this liquid can turn to a gel and may permanently plug the coils of the refrigeration system.
To help prevent this from happening, remove the outside refrigerator access cover and use duct tape to cover the top two (out of three) vent slots. Applying the tape to the inside of the cover will prevent leaving marks when removing the tape. Alternately, and easier to do, is to use round half inch pipe insulation to plug the top two slots from the outside.
It is also necessary to put a 100 watt light bulb behind the access cover near the base of the coils. Don’t lean the bulb on any flammable material.
These tricks have helped me avoid the $1000+ repair bill required to replace the heat exchanger.
Many manufacturers do not insulate or heat the ice maker water supply. If your coach is one if these, either drain the water line or insulate and wrap it with heater tape on all exposed copper feed pipes.
Hydro-Hot: Many new RV’s are equipped with Hydro-Hot diesel fuel heating systems. At 10,000 ft there is 30% less oxygen and the fuel burns rich. The resulting soot can clog the combustion chamber and the fuel nozzle. If you are going to be here for more than a short period (a couple of days) it is necessary to adjust the air inlet port. On many RV’s this is not a simple job, and unless you have previously performed a cleaning maintenance and/or nozzle replacement I don’t recommend making your first attempt in the cold.
Contrary to popular believe Hydor-Hots are fuel guzzlers. The amount of diesel fuel used can be greatly reduced by turning on the Hydro-Hot 1650 watt electric heating element in addition to the diesel burner, and using a couple of small space heaters in the RV.
Propane: If you use propane heat, the propane on board your RV will likely only last a few days (less than a week).
Tiger Run has a limited number of 100 pound propane bottles available to rent on a first come basis. Your RV will need an Extend-a-Stay and connecting hose. Extend-a-Stays are available at the Tiger Run office. Install the Extend-a-Stay between the propane shut off valve on your RV and the pressure regulator. Be certain to shut off the RV propane valve when installing the Extend-a-Stay or when using the 100-lb bottle. Be certain to check for leaks with a soapy spray solution. If you are the least bit uncomfortable with this procedure, get a professional to help.
Heat Pumps: Heat pumps are not effective below 40 degrees F.
7) Entry Holes: Make sure that all entry holes around pipes and cables are packed with insulation.
8) Water Pump: A susceptible component is the water pump. This is often bolted to the basement floor and, because it is usually full of water it may need special attention. If the coach manufacturer does not supply sufficient heat, a small space heater placed in this location is usually sufficient.
9) Cables and Hoses: Keeping all cables and hoses off the ground and out of the snow may prevent damage, particularly when you get ready to leave.
10) Fuel: Use winter blend diesel fuel and/or add anti gel to your fuel before arriving at the RV park.
Preparing to Leave:
You do everything similar to a normal warm weather departure, but there are a few things to watch for:
11) Engine Block Heater: Turn on your engine block heater at least three hours before you start your engine. I generally run the block heater over night.
Snow and Ice accumulates on the slide awnings. The slide awning generally will not properly roll up with snow or ice on it. Clean the snow, ice and frost off the awning.
Many slide awnings have a small anti-unravel arm attached to them. Even a light frost on the awning can upset the timing of this arm as it rotates. If the arm hits the side of the RV it can do serious damage to the awning or the coach itself. If the timing is affected, it may be necessary to brush the snow or frost from the edge of the awning as it rolls up.
Water and snow can accumulate on slide gaskets. This may prevent the slide from retracting. Sometimes pushing on the slide is just enough to assist the slide drive motor. If you know where the gasket is frozen, spraying RV antifreeze on the affected area may help.
Retracting the slide the night before you leave can save a lot of grief on a cold Colorado morning.
13) Hoses and Cables: Remember that after being in the cold for an extended period of time, hoses and cables are now stiff and some may be brittle. Use caution when removing and coiling hoses and cables.
Remember your situation is unique. THINK! Think about how the guide lines can be applied to your situation. I’ve been setting up in cold weather for ten years, and I still have a problems from time to time. Recently, it was 20 below and the water froze in my new RV. I needed to make a modification
Tiger run employees do not have the time and may not have the expertise to assist you with your set up problems. There are professional RV service personnel who will visit Breckenridge once or twice a week. You can get a list of these people at the office.
If you have a problem or need advice, contacting your coach manufacturer can be beneficial. If nothing else they may consider cold weather in future designs.
If this is your first time setting up in cold weather, observe how your neighbors are set up. This may give you some clues as to what to do, but bear in mind they may not know any more than you do.
Here are some recommendations that I follow in the frozen north!
As Polonious said: Know thyself. For an RV’er this means they need to know what type of equipment they have before venturing out in bad weather in the winter (i.e. Size of the battery-bank; type and amp-hour rating of their converter/charger; and the current state of charge of the battery-bank). To do otherwise may be foolhardy.
Some of these suggestions only work for motorized units.
If the grey and black water tanks are enclosed and heated then the RV is a big step towards being able to be used in harsh winter weather. If the waste tank area is not heated consider adding a thermostatically controlled heater. I use a 500 watt interior car warmer with a mechanical thermostat. There are also specialized tank heaters some of which work on both shore power and twelve volt power.
It is prudent to know how low the temperature may be. Check the weather history for a year ago for the week in the location you may be heading to. It won’t be perfect but at least you may have some idea of what to expect.
The water system may be quite robust and usable so long as there is sufficient propane available to keep it thawed. I have used my RV at -37 C (-34 F). I’ve also boondocked for 5 days where the daily high was -24 C and in blizzard conditions so my solar panels may not have contributed much electrical charging. Do leave the cupboard doors open to allow warm are to circulate. I have another thermostatically controlled electric heater beside my water pump.
If there is access to “shore power” then adding a radiant heater (or two) may lighten the load on the propane furnace. Do keep the heaters further away from the thermostat at night. Do not add so much electric heat that the furnace doesn’t run at all. That is an invitation to freeze the fresh water pipes.
If no shore power is available then a generator system may be needed. Most of the systems in an RV need reliable 12 volt power for their control systems—no power translates into no heat from the furnace. When running the generator, use as many electrical heaters as you can. I suggest 3 hours in the evening before bed, and 2 hours in the morning. Don’t forget to have enough capacity to run the engine block heater, too.
I have a load divider which allows me to run a heater as well as the block heater at the same time. It alternates between the two. Some folks use one timer on a heater—and another on the block heater so as to not overload the electrical outlets the RV is plugged into.
Some folks have an additional outlet added through the wall of their RV. This is powered by a #12 cord plugged into a 15 or 20 amp outlet on the power pedestal. They then plug in a 1500 watt heater to help keep the RV warm. This is particularly useful to those of us who have only a 30 amp service in our RV’s.
On a temporary basis (say 30 minutes), while you are awake, it is possible to use the stove top as a blue flame heater. Do not run them full blast, and never leave them unattended. DO NOT SLEEP WITH THEM ON. This may lessen the load on the batteries.
Be aware that battery capacity drops as temperatures become lower. Some enterprising folks do have heated battery compartments. These heaters operate from the generator or from shore power. Running such heaters via an inverter is a zero sum proposition at best and at worst will decrease the total run time of the system.
If the RV will be used often in harsh conditions I suggest considering a vented catalytic heater such as the Platinum Cat. ( http://www.ventedcatheater.com/ )
If there are not dual pane windows, or if the RV will be used in extreme cold it may be prudent to have blankets that can be placed over them at night.
Moisture build up can be a problem. This may seem counter intuitive—but open a roof vent and a window. Not all the way, but enough to let hot moist air rise up and out of the RV. Try to pick a window where no one will be in the “breeze”. It may be wise to place an electric heater next to that window to try to warm the air up.
Consider adding a “mud flap” in front of the part of the sewer connection that extends from the bottom of you RV. This will help prevent ice build up from slush on the roadway.
I also block off the cab area of my Class C with a thick woolen blanket. This reduces the heated area and reduces propane consumption.
I have another blanket that I hang over the entry door.
Park with the nose of the RV into the wind. Wind direction may change direction overnight—but at least start out that way.
If the floors are linoleum purchase some carpet “runners” to keep your feet warmer. Don’t block off the floor heating vents.
The RV stores often sell vent pillows that help to keep the heat in (and in summer time keep the heat out).
Twelve volt mattress pads and heating blankets are a lovely addition to cold weather camping and allow the furnace to be set back to a lower temperature in the evening. They usually draw about 7 amps each.
Always carry enough RV antifreeze, and the necessary tools, to rewinterize should something prevent use of the furnace. It is far better to have an ounce of prevention than a pound of cure.
Keep the fuel tank nearly full—the dash heater can be used as a temporary back up to the furnace should the propane supply fail.
I find that my dash heater works best for heating the rear of my RV if I set it on defrost while I trundle down the road.
I do not have a slide on my RV. If possible I’d recommend not putting the slide out. It will go out fine—but the next day it may be difficult to retract it.
This comes in 3 stages, the first of which is probably the most important stage for your basic comfort. You need to grab a few cans of “great stuff” expanding foam insulation and do a thorough run through of your entire camper. You’d be amazed at how many holes they leave in these things from the factory, especially the cheaper models and the ones you’re likely to find used. You’ll find gaping, drafty holes around every pipe entry and likely everywhere wiring enters/exits the interior of the rig.
A lot of people worry about moisture problems that develop if you seal up too well, but when it comes right down to it, I know I’d rather have a bit of mildew than an icy cold draft on a night that drops to -15*. The people that worry about such things generally have the money to spend on excess heating as well – not how I roll let me tell you.
So, #1 is to seal every hole you find with expanding foam. #2 is to seal every exterior “vent” and everything that has a “gasket”. Should be self-explanatory. If you can look through and see daylight, seal it. It’s best to use 4 mil or thicker plastic sheeting (painters dropcloth) and foil tape for this anywhere you’re working outside the rig, though I’ve gotten away with 1 mil plastic in the past. As far as those gaskets, especially with older rigs, you’ll notice you have drafts around some windows, particularly the hinge/crank type windows. Seal those at this phase with plastic sheeting and foil tape. You actually don’t need to seal every window from the outside as I’ll be sharing a tip with you under insulation, just seal off the leaky/drafty windows. Most storage bins should be sealed if you’re even a little worried about the gasket. Remember, a 20mph wind at -8* will rob you of ALL your comfort if you have even a single draft getting inside your rig.
#3 is skirting – you don’t have to go crazy and buy expensive 2″ foamboard like so many do – it doesn’t work that way. The goal is not to “insulate” the underside of you rig – it’s to stop cold air from getting under there. Consider it as a huge draft, and when that wind is blowing at -8* come February, that draft is going to rob you of all your heat, freeze your pipes and leave you wondering why you didn’t just move to Florida.
If you have plenty of money to throw at skirting with thick, expensive foamboard, you’d actually do better to use plywood and fiberglass insulation with plastic sheeting sealing the entire thing from moisture and drafts – hire one of the many out of work guys (day laborers) you’ll find in the winter season campgrounds to do it if you’re not good with construction projects. Me? 6 mil plastic sheeting, the “clear” kind, usually found in the paint section of the local home depot or lowes. About $100 for a 100’x20′ roll, which gives you more than enough to skirt a small to medium size rig and have enough for other projects.
The trick with using plastic is to get a good seal to the ground. Double the plastic over so you have a fold bottom-side and fill that with sand/soil/rocks, then tape it up to the walls of your rig using foil tape. DO NOT USE DUCT TAPE OF ANY KIND. My first year out, I tried a combination of different types of tape. I still have various duct tape and masking tape marks all over my rig from those experiments. Standard duct tape is useless in cold weather, too, and some of the newer “sub zero” types aren’t much better. Foil tape is expensive, but worth it.
The added benefit of using plastic is it allows sunlight to penetrate under your rig so you get a significant temperature boost whenever the sun’s shining (free heat is a BIG part of doing it cheap in my book).
This may come as a shocker but these rigs are NOT insulated well at all. It seemed silly to me at first, but my mother was right – blankets stapled to the ceiling and walls did wonders. You might not want to do that with a $100k rig, but you probably wouldn’t HAVE to either. Just old blankets and sheets…even carefully placed and hung coats, shirts, etc…all go a long way toward keeping things cozy inside. If you’re concerned about appearances, use matching colors or comforters and towels with prints on them. I had a comforter (donated by a cousin) with wolves in a beautiful night scene – full moon, mountain, snow. That went on the most “visible” wall so became basically a working tapestry – working because it added at least an R10 value to my wall.
An important note here: hot air rises. This means you need to insulate your ceiling well. I got a very neat looking quilted effect by using a large sofa cover and stapling it up in a regular pattern. You’ll notice the interior feels very cozy with fabric on the ceiling as well.
As for windows – assuming you haven’t had to seal them all with 4mil or thicker plastic from the exterior, you’ll want to preserve some “outside” (a winter cooped up in one of these things can give you a bad case of cabin fever).
Hopefully you’re aligned with your sides on the north & south.
.7 mil plastic (as in 7/10s) is nearly as clear as kitchen type plastic wrap – use this to seal around the interiors of your windows on the SOUTH FACING side of your rig. The north side, however, is something you’re going to have to sacrifice – seal it off with thicker plastic sheeting (2 mil or thicker) and use foam pads or some other form of dense insulation (got a thick blanket?) to cover it over. A lot of people spend a fortune for that foil backed bubblewrap insulation (astrofoil, etc) – it’s basically worthless when you realize you can do the same thing with aluminum foil and regular insulation materials. The foil acts as a radiant barrier, adding a heat-reflecting effect to anywhere you use it. This isn’t a very significant help, but especially on those north facing windows it does help, so it’s worth putting a layer of foil on the window glass before you seal those up. Foil is cheap and any little bit helps.
Use the bubble wrap insulation method for any windows you get good direct sunlight from but don’t look outside through, then seal them over with the .7 mil. It’s not the best insulation, but it allows valuable sunlight through so you don’t feel like you’re living in a cave.
You’ll want to cover all of your windows at night to reduce heat loss with window blankets – any insulating material will do and I’ve found smaller throw blankets work well for this.
If you’re aligned east/west, do the best you can to ensure you get good light during the day, but you’re probably not going to want to keep any windows with a clear view – it’s better to bubblewrap them all and seal off any that don’t get more than 2 hours of sun with heavy blankets.
Be sure to seal around the outer edge of the metal window frames as these get very cold and sweat/frost due to interior moisture if they’re exposed to it.
If you have a tub, rather than the shower stall, stuff fiberglass insulation under it (cut an access hole and use a vent cover on it). Make sure to put the insulation under any water lines, between them and the floor, but not on top of them. This insulates them from the cold outside but allows the warmth to get to them. Same for any water lines running under cabinets, under the couch, through storage bins, etc. If you have water lines running through exterior storage bins, insulate all around the pipe except where it’s attached to an interior wall. I had to cut access holes to an exterior bin to allow airflow to it (again, cover with a vent cover – they’re fairly cheap at home depot or lowes)
After a freeze-up on a -15* night, I went a step further and rigged up computer cooling fans to an adjustable voltage AC/DC adapter and installed one each in the vent under the tub and the one in the storage bin to ENSURE warm air circulated through these freeze prone areas. They use very little electricity to move a decent amount of air and they’re quiet.
This brings me to another point – park your rig as close as you can to your sewer connection. Park on top of it if you can. Over the third winter, I successfully ran 30 feet of sewer line without a freeze up, but this was pretty exceptional. You do NOT want to freeze up your line – it’s a mess to deal with. Keep the line up off the ground anywhere you can, keep a good angle on it (water shouldn’t sit ANYWHERE in the pipe – it should all run through) and wrap the entire thing with fiberglass insulation if it’s more than 3 feet of run. Make sure insulation stays dry – seal with plastic anywhere it might get wet. I used 4″ PVC piping and a roll of pink insulation (R7) to pull off that 30′. Just make sure you take plenty of piping hot showers and you should be fine as long as that line isn’t exposed to the cold.
Same goes for your fresh water line – heat tape and insulate it well, and park as close to your hookup as you can. I ran a good 50 feet that third winter on fresh water, but 30 feet of that was inside my sunroom where it didn’t even need heat tape and insulation.
That brings us to the last point, Heating:
There is no substitute for propane. One ice storm and you’ll agree. Many people run “totally electric campers” – no propane heat, only electric. These people had to struggle with generators for sometimes two weeks after a bad ice storm knocked out power – meanwhile, if you’ve got propane running, even if your house battery dies out, you can crank up the stove and keep yourself warm (open a window if you have to use the stove!)
Also, using propane definitely warms the ENTIRE camper better than electric will. Electric is good as a backup and auxiliary only – if you try to use it as primary your water lines WILL freeze up.
Get a programmable thermostat and install that in place of the original – it will save you a fortune and keep you much more comfortable. Make sure you get one like the Hunter 44155C that has “span” settings – this will allow you to choose how much temperature fluctuation you can deal with before the furnace kicks on. I’d set this to the highest setting (3*), with a programmed 55*, while at work. The programmed setting would kick up to 68* before I got home from work and I’d readjust the span setting to the lowest temp fluctuation (1*) so temps wouldn’t swing wildly while I was home, keeping things very comfy. The orignal thermostats installed with RV furnaces are horrible – wide temperature swings and fully manual control is the norm. Before I switched out I used nearly twice the propane and spent the nights alernating between freezing and sweating – less than pleasant.
Another factor that helps keep things evenly heated and comfortable is air circulation. It may seem strange to run a fan in the winter, but it will go a long way toward keeping the warm air off the ceiling and down around where you and your pipes will be. A small clip-on type fan placed near the ceiling and pointed down at and angle will help circulate air and keep things much more cozy.
And a final point on heating is to look into both passive and active solar heating. You’d be amazed at how much money you can save with inexpensive, DIY solar heating projects. My second winter I set up an active solar heating system that ran on 12V, using a thermostat and computer fans, with simple outdoor collectors.
The system worked miracles, but there were problems with it. It didn’t perform well on cloudy days and windy days would allow some cold air drafts to sneak in. The first link I gave showing my sunroom was the solution to the problem – the materials for the sunroom cost about $250 – electrical conduit, 6 mil plastic sheeting and lots of tape. That sunroom would get up to 75* on a cold sunny day in February – I’d sit there sunbathing and enjoying the warmth while all my neighbors hid inside with their electric heaters blasting. Meanwhile, I used it as a greenhouse with some overnight electric heat to prevent freezes and grew peas, lettuce, spinach, carrots, etc, all winter long. Cold cloudy days still saw temps reach the lower 50s. This was the winter of 2008-9 when we saw temperatures drop to -25* for two nights – I had to run that electric heater a little harder but I didn’t freeze up even once.