Cold Weather RV Camping Guide
December 1, 2011
Filed under Trailer How To
For many RVers, the lure of winter camping is hard to resist. Under a mantle of snow, the world takes on an ethereal quality; the silence seemingly amplified by the absence of humanity. There’s no concern over reservations or traffic jams, and you can almost always pick your favorite spot. In fact, when it comes right down to it, there’s only one real disadvantage to winter camping: The cold.
While most of us have the good sense to pack warm clothing, boots and hats, keeping the cold out of your RV when it’s time to relax can be a challenge, especially when it wasn’t designed for four-season use. Day-to-day life can become a challenge as you continually tend to the plumbing, holding tanks and dump valves to make sure they don’t freeze. And, of course, there’s the ever-present fear that something could go wrong, leaving you stranded in the frozen wilderness.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Many RVs are designed for cold-weather camping with heated and enclosed holding tanks, dual-pane windows and extra insulation — but even if you don’t have one of these, you can still get by. With a little advance preparation, and by taking advantage of the many products designed to make winter camping more comfortable and safe, you can be ready for an extended stay in the home of Old Man Winter.
Don’t wait until you get to the campground to find out your trailer has a nasty draft; get to work while the weather is still tolerable. While most RV repair centers are busy during the summer months, they slow down by the fall, and this is a great time to have your LP-gas system, furnace and water heater serviced to make sure everything’s in good working order.
Next, take a look around your RV and see where the cold air can get in. According to Bill’s RV Service in Ventura, California, the most common area for heat to escape is the entry door. Over time, the original light-duty weather stripping gets crushed or deteriorates, leaving a gap between door and seal. Replacing the old weather stripping and re-adjusting the door for a proper fit will go a long way toward heating efficiency.
If your RV doesn’t have dual-pane windows, the bad news is they can be difficult to obtain as well as costly to purchase and install. Window manufacturers do have replacement dual-pane windows available for some “stock” sizes, so an inquiry may yield results. Alternately, consider covering the windows with foil-backed insulation, available at most home-improvement stores. This particular type of insulation is very light, thin and easy to cut into the shape of each window. Attach hook-and-loop fasteners to the window and the insulation, and you’ll be in business. Obviously you won’t be able to see outside, but once the sun sets, this won’t be a concern anyway. As an alternative, 3M manufactures a Window Insulator Kit, which consists of a clear film placed on each window, and reportedly reduces condensation and stops cold drafts.
All trailers have roof vents or skylights, and because heat rises, these are great places for it to escape. To cure this particular problem, companies like Camping World offer RV vent cushions, which are designed to fit securely into most standard-size vents. You can also make custom-size vent cushions with some thick foam padding, available at home improvement or fabric stores.
On the outside of the RV, consider any area where cold air can make an entrance or where heat can escape. While storage-compartment doors may not seem like a concern, bad seals or ill-fitting doors can allow cold air into the basement or storage areas under dinette seats or the bed. And on fifth-wheel trailers in particular, the large basement storage area typically located beneath the bedroom should be insulated to keep drafts out. Moreover, examine every opening and potential crack and crevice, and treat it accordingly with weather stripping, caulking, insulation, etc. just as you would in your home.
With your RV properly sealed, it’s time to protect critical components that will be exposed to the elements. While heated and enclosed holding tanks are certainly a step in the right direction, they don’t make liquids impervious to freezing. In fact, UltraHeat, a manufacturer of RV holding-tank heaters, claims that a typical heated and enclosed underbelly will only protect from freezing down to about 15-20˚ F. UltraHeat’s holding-tank heaters are available in 12-volt DC and 120-volt AC models, and are thermostatically controlled to turn on below 44˚ F and turn off at 64˚ F. They also manufacture pipe and elbow heaters to keep exposed plumbing from freezing, although these are not thermostatically controlled. With its holding-tank heaters in place, UltraHeat’s own testing concluded that even exposed holding tanks, pipes and elbows were safe to minus-11˚ F, and enclosed tanks could withstand even deeper cold.
Depending on how cold it is outside, you may also find it necessary to keep some RV antifreeze in the black and gray holding tanks to prevent the contents from freezing and some heat tape on the dump valves to prevent them from sticking. Keep the valves closed until you’re ready to dump to prevent ice dams from forming in the sewer hose, and consider wrapping the hose in insulation or applying heat tape. Companies like FluidX Equipment offer a variety of heat-tape products for various applications that you may find useful.
Last but not least, if you’re staying at a campground with hookups and you want to protect your freshwater supply, put a heated hose on your list. Pirit manufactures a thermostatically controlled hose that turns on when temperatures drop to 45˚ F, and turns off at 57˚ F. Available in 25-, 50- and 100-foot lengths, Pirit hose is drinking-water safe and tested to -42˚ F. A 25-foot hose draws only 180 watts on a standard 120-volt AC outlet.
Depending on your trailer or camper, its level of insulation and how cold it is outside, your RV’s furnace may or may not be enough to keep you warm at night. If you find that you’re still cold with the thermostat cranked all the way up, a relatively easy solution is to add an auxiliary heater such as the Olympian Wave Catalytic Safety Heater from Camco RV. Available in three sizes (1,600-3,000 BTU; 3,200-6,000 BTU; 4,200-8,000 BTU), these heaters are designed for indoor RV use and operate on LP-gas. They have no flame, require no flue or chimney, are silent in operation and feature a safety shut-off valve to prevent accidental non-ignition fuel discharge.
Just remember that catalytic heaters use oxygen to operate, so always have some form of ventilation (a cracked window or vent) to make sure you have adequate oxygen to breathe. Also keep in mind that interior heat and moisture from your breath and catalytic heater can create condensation in your RV, so it’s a good idea to consider an electric dehumidifier (if you’re plugged in) or a desiccant air drier like Dri-Z-Air to keep the interior dry and comfortable.
If you discover that winter camping is your thing, you may want to invest in an upgrade to a hydronic heating system from Aqua-Hot or Espar. For example, Espar’s hydronic heating systems operate on either gasoline or diesel fuel (both of which are more BTU-dense than LP-gas) and can generate anywhere from 14,700 BTU to 120,000 BTU/hour. A pump routes hot water from the burner unit, located in the basement to fan-and-radiator heat exchangers located throughout the RV, which is generally a motorhome. In addition to abundant, evenly dispersed heat, a hydronic system allows you to create heating “zones” in the RV and provides continuous hot water as well. It’s not a cheap upgrade (figure on shelling out $3,000 or more plus cabinetry modifications in most cases); but it’s very effective when RVing in extreme cold.
With a little advance preparation and the right equipment, you can easily enjoy the wonders of winter comfortably and safely.
Aqua-Hot Heating Systems, (800) 685-4298, www.aqua-hot.com
Bill’s RV Service, (805) 339-0882, www.billsrv.net
Camco Manufacturing Inc., (800) 334-2004, www.camco.net
Camping World, (888) 626-7576, www.campingworld.com
Dri-Z-Air, (800) 270-5220, www.drizair.com
Espar Heating Systems, (800) 387-4800, www.espar.com
FluidX Equipment, (801) 486-1015, www.fluidxequipment.com
Pirit Heated Hose, (888) 747-4844, www.pirithose.com
UltraHeat Inc., (574) 522-6594, www.ultraheat.com