Not every RVer stores their rig in the winter or follows the warmer climates by heading south to places like southern Arizona, New Mexico, or the gulf shores of Florida. Instead, some people choose to stay in the colder areas and use their RV for winter excursions such as skiing or ice fishing trips. Although I now tend to be one of those people that chase the warmer temperatures, I have in the past stayed in my RV during the winter months in northern Michigan where the temperatures can reach well below zero for several days in a row.
If you’re one of those adventurous souls that think they can brave the colder climates and still stay comfortable, then here are some of my experiences, tips, and ideas for making your experience one you’ll want to remember instead of one you’ll want to soon forget.
First, you should decide on a destination and how long of a time you plan on for this new RV adventure. These two factors are very important to have planned out ahead of time because they will be the basis of what will best work for you on this RVing experience. For example, if you are just planning on a weekend getaway, you won’t need to do too much planning in terms of water or sewer hookups. However, if you’re planning on an extended stay in one location, then you will need to make more detailed plans for water, sewer, and heating your RV.
The 2-3 day getaway weekend
Before you decide to go anywhere, you will need to determine if there is a location or campground that will suit your needs. For short trips like these it probably won’t be necessary to hook up water or sewage, but you will most likely need electric.
For shorter excursions, I would recommend against filling your fresh water tank. More than likely you have already winterized your RV and my suggestion would be to not use your freshwater system at all. Instead, it would make more sense for you to buy bottled water to drink and take 20 gallons along with you in five gallon containers to use for cleaning dishes, cooking and to flush the toilet. This way you will be less likely to have a frozen water line and you won’t have to winterize your RV’s freshwater system when you return home again.
You will also find that while a majority of campgrounds in colder areas close for the winter season, those that do stay open usually shut off their water supply to most sites because they too don’t want to deal with repairing or replacing frozen pipes.
Now we need to take a look at how you plan to stay warm during your winter excursion. For this, it’s a certainty that you will need electrical power and while the idea of boondocking and using solar power seems ideal to some folks, it’s just not a practical idea when winter RVing. Daylight hours are shorter and in many areas you are likely to experience extremely cloudy days with little to no direct solar exposure as well as a steady stream of snow that also prevents your power supply from working correctly.
If you’re traveling in a larger class A or even some class C motorhomes, then your RV may come equipped with a built-in electric generator that can operate while the engine to your motorhome is running, or in some other cases will draw fuel from your vehicle tank and will run continuously to supply power to your RV. However, this is not the case for smaller units such as class B motorhomes or most towable campers. If you don’t have a built-in unit, consider a portable generator for your RV.
This option may sound good for some RVers, but to most, it’s best to stick to a place where you can plug into an electrical power supply provided by the campground and not worry about running a generator or alternative power source to ensure that you’re warm. Usually most RV parks that are open in the winter seasons will have sites that will provide you with electricity but no water. As a rule, if you are registered as a weekend guest for that site, they will charge you a flat rate per night and you won’t have to worry about your power usage.
Consider using an electric ceramic heater
For short getaways where you have an electrical power supply included in the cost of your site, I would recommend bringing along one or two (depending upon the size of your RV) electric ceramic heaters to offset your main furnace that draws from your propane supply. It’s best to set your on-board heating system to a low setting and then utilize your ceramic heaters to bring your unit to the temperature you prefer. However, if you are in a metered campsite and are being charged for electrical usage, you may want to rely more on propane during your stay as these types of heaters use a considerable amount of electricity. Our friends over at Go-Van also have some great videos that walk you through how to heat your motor home with some of these tactics.
Another option for you to consider is to bring along a good electric blanket. This will allow you to dial down the propane a bit wheel you sleep and still stay nice and warm.
What about my black and gray water tanks?
More than likely the campground you choose to stay at will have a dump station that you can use before you leave for home. However, if you do choose to utilize these tanks, you would be well advised to dump a couple of cups some RV anti-freeze into each tank to avoid freezing up the dump tubes and the release valves.
How to prepare for extended RV winter excursions
Some of the same principles that we applied for the short term winter trip may still apply, but you may encounter that you have other options for heat, sewer, and power. I have stayed several winters in my RVs over the years and I will share some of the things I learned along the way with you so you don’t make some of the mistakes I made when I first started living as a full-time RV.
You may find that some campgrounds offer water during the winter where you plan on staying, and one good item that the winter RVer with a constant water supply should use for this type of camping is a good heated hose. They come in various lengths and different temperature ratings but I would recommend you purchase one that is 25 ft. in length with at least a -20º rating.
This will help to insulate your hose even further but more importantly, it will keep it from being in direct contact with the ground and less likely to freeze or to get frozen to the ground.
You should also understand your RV’s freshwater supply system. Most towable campers as well as class B and some class C motorhomes have systems where the water supply is almost immediately inside the heated area of your RV. However, larger units such as class A and 5th wheels will probably be designed with a water supply built into one of your RVs storage compartments that are typically unheated. If your unit has this type of setup, then I highly recommend that you wrap these lines with heat tape or keep a small electric heater (with a thermostat) in the storage area on a lower setting. Remember, you don’t need to keep it a balmy 72º F in there, but you should have it set to keep that area just above freezing.
We looked at various ways to keep your RV warm for short cold weather stays, and those examples also apply to using your RV for longer winter camping. However, there are some modifications you should consider if you plan on spending a winter in your RV.
Look at your skirting
One important way to keep your RV warmer in the winter is to cut off the wind and air supply flowing under your rig. This can be challenging as all RVs are built differently and there are no universal or “fits all” type of skirting for any type of RV. Just remember, as a full-time RVer you will need to be creative and think this project through.
For example, my first winter season in an RV was in a 19 ft. camper in northern Michigan at a campground that shut off the water during that season. I quickly learned that I needed to stop that cold air under the trailer so I shoveled all of the snow around my RV right up to the base of my floor in the trailer. The next winter I came up with another plan and at another location where I built some real skirting around my rig.
Seal your windows and doors
Another important thing you should do for winter RVing is to seal your windows and doors.
For doors to the living quarters and compartments, I would suggest that you inspect and (as needed) replace those seals prior to your stay in a colder setting. I also recommend using one of those plastic film sheets developed by 3M with its equally high quality adhesive clear strips. I have used these on many occasions and when installed correctly, they do exactly as advertised.
Read my guide on RV insulation for more details on how to keep the cold air out.
Let’s talk sewage
For longer stays in colder climates, I would not recommend using the standard sewage hose you would normally use with an RV, as these are strictly designed for warmer climates. When they are exposed to cold temperatures and ice or snow buildup, they will crack and collapse. Instead, you should install actual PVC pipe that are designed to withstand these conditions. In a future article, we will discuss this process but you may want to do further research on your own to find out what best works for you as all sites and circumstances vary.
Until then my friends, safe travels and remember, home is where you make it, so make it the best it can be.