Do You RV in the Winter Cold?

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January 3, 2009


Airstream RV Blog #87 – Winter Camping from Sean Michael on TheLongLongHoneymoon.com.

With overnight temperatures dropping into the teens, Kristy and I decided to hitch up our Airstream, tow it to a nearby state park, and do a little camping in the cold. The low temperature was a bone-chilling 21 degrees Fahrenheit, with wind chill dropping into single digits. By any measure, that’s a hard freeze.

So what inspired us to go camping in this sort of environment? When we think about RV-ing, we often think about parking our rigs in balmy weather to enjoy a pristine national park setting, or alongside a beautiful beach. We don’t often think about wintertime camping, because it’s a little counter intuitive. But it is fun. The sense of “man against the elements” is heightened when those winter winds kick into high gear.

This wintry situation served as a nice test of our rig. We camped in a full hookup environment, so we had all the electricity we need. But even so, I’m pleased to report that our RV heating equipment handled the job nicely. You never really know until you test it.

We have two heating options on our RV: an electrical “heat pump” and a propane-powered “heat furnace.” If we were dry camping without electricity, we’d probably use a combination of both, powering the heat pump with our generator. So long as temperatures hover above 40 degrees, we’re content to use campground power to fuel the heat pump. We save our propane for those times we really need it — when temps drop closer to freezing. The heat pump alone does not warm the water tanks and pipes; only the propane furnace does so.

I enjoyed a comfortable night of sleep, ratcheting a good 8 hours of shuteye that exceeds my norm. Kristy reports that she “tossed and turned” a bit, though I’m not sure if there’s a reason why. I was warm throughout the night, although there is a bit of chill coming from the large window at the rear of our rig. The walls themselves are well insulated and seem to do a fine job retaining heat.

Camping in the cold is actually a great deal of fun. Have you tried it? Any tips for other winter campers?

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10 comments

  1. We are currently camped at Lake Wilson in central Kansas where the wind is blowing from the north at 25mph with wind gust of 31mhp. The temp is currently 27. Not sure what the wind chill is but it’s gotta be down around 0 I’d think. We like camping in the winter at the lake in the winter but not near as much as in the summer. Of course it is very peaceful if you like that. 😉 I’m more of an action kind of dude but most of all I like being in the motorhome. BTW, I and a couple of friends went jet skiing on new years day here at the same lake. This is a yearly tradition that we’ve done for 4 years now. There is a considerable amount of ice on the lake right now but we were able to ride a bigger area this year than we have in years past due to some recent 40 degree weather. I’m going to try to get the video loaded this afternoon so if you want to ckeck for the New Years Lake video check http://www.youtube.com/user/videogi

  2. jonathan

    i currently am residing in my 2000 coachman 27 foot trailer in wyoming where the temps regularly get to – 30 with the wind chill! this trailer is not a four season but i have found with a little creativity i can get along just fine. i have skirted the trailer wich took about five hours, it helps with the wind and makes the trailer very stable. next time i will install canvas skirting that i heard works very good with alot less work on installation. i have hard piped into the city water and insulated the pipe witch only took about a half an hour. this as well works great to about – 40 (wind chill). i also have an electric heater under the rig and one inside wich i use in conjunction with my furnace and it stays nice and warm.
    i live in my trailer for work, i travel alot. i plan on being here for the next several months.
    winter rving is great!
    happy new year, jon

  3. C.G.(Kay) Sparrow

    I am new to RV’ing and live in Florida, so I don’t know to much about winter camping. I have a class A rig (2007) and would like to visit my daughter in north western Virginia. How do I protect my water pipes from freezing while on the road and while parked? I have a 7kw diesel gen and propanecentral heat. There is a electric heater in the locker where the water and black/gray tanks are located but i’m not sure that will be enough to keep them from freezing.

    Would like some helpful info.

    TKS
    Kay

  4. Eldon Ashbaugh

    I was recently pushed into the winter time RVing, this winter when we decided to go to Omaha Ne, to take my grandchildren to the zoo. I had winterized my coach with antifreeze througt the water pump and all of the drains and was confident it was going to be OK. I went ou to fill the tank and found my lines frozen. We had had a night of -17 deg a few nights before but the antifreeze was supposed to be good for -20. Fortunately nothing had broken. However I could not get any water to fill the tank since my house hoses were frozen also. I decided to go without water in the tank just in bottles. Before I left I went to the hardware store and got a couple of light bulb adapters that you screw the bulb in and then plug into an outlet and fished an extension cord into the compartment that houses the pump and water tank. I tied them up so the heat would not burn down the coach, and plugged them in for the night. I put an outside remote wireless thermometer sensor in the compartment so I could keep track of the temp without going outside. It worked great. the next morning everything was defrosted. I used 2-40 watt bulbs, but after a bit of experimenting i found 1-40 watt and 1 20 watt will maintain the temp the best.
    I am still a little nervous about setting the coach on fire so I plan to permently mount a 120-v light fixture in the cabinet and install some kind of a thermostat that will shut off above 45 deg.
    This all works well if you have 120v ac. But if you do not have shore power and don’t want to run your generator for 80 watts, I have been thinking about plumbing a line from the hot side of my water heater to the fresh water holding tank. If it gets to cold I could open the valve and move hot water to the tank, and move water in the lines which is the greatest problem. With a little searching I could probably come up with a timer to turn on a solonoid that would do the same thing and that way I could keep the lines warm enough just by using porpane and a little battery power.

  5. Mark Funfsinn

    This is our third winter in our class A 2006 Tiffin Phaeton motorhome and have no problems with temps down to single digits. We have not seen sub-zero F temps in the northeast Maryland area where we have been working. The basement is insulated and stays warm with the propane furnaces so no freezing there. We travel with the 7500W generator running to power the furnaces, and we use propane from the onboard tank during the trip.
    While camping, I hook up to the campground water source that must be located in a shallow pit below ground level to avoid freezing at the outlet fitting. I use a standard RV water hose wrapped in heat tape and foam rubber insulation that is secured to the hose by a thick stretchy vinyl tape that is made for this purpose (hardware store item).

  6. We are spending the winter in S.Ca.Riverside County camp ground about 75 miles from Ca. low desert and 90 miles from Ca. high desert, we can see the 7,000 ft. Mts. of Big Bear and 8,000ft. Idyllwild Mt. from our camp site. The night lows high 30’s to low 40’s this time of year. With 2 electric heaters our 5er stays in the high 70’s most of the night.

    Larry

  7. Except for when my wife was being treated for cancer and we were stuck in northern Michigan for most of one winter, we head south when it gets cold.

    Of course, we have been in northern Florida, and even in Arizona, when it has gotten darned cold for a bit.

  8. GMAs

    I think we wrote about our experience before… in the Grand Canyon trailer village where we arrived in the 31 ft AS. Yep it was a nice hot drive up… good to have the shore power to light off the AC. Life was good in the village and we sat outside under the awning taking it all in. (you don’t drive around.. they have free shuttles)

    Then the neighbors moved in…
    A VW bus from the flower power era…. A young unmarried couple that apparently was from the hippy generation that time forgot. He with his VW bus, tent and Coleman stove set up right next to us. When we went to introduce ourselves.. we were met with resentment. Attacked for being in the AS, branded as being energy pigs for hauling it around. We retreated to the other RV’rs and left them to their own. .

    First complaint was that he had this God-awful music that sounded like someone banging two garbage cans together and scraping their fingernails across a chalkboard. (caused every dog in the park to howl) Lucky some of the others put an end to that by reporting it to the ranger Rick. Next came the insults about wasting energy with the trailers RV’s. He insisted that they should ban (outlaw) all of the AS and others as they depleted the natural resources. He stuck fast to – you only need a 50 hp engine (of course his was air cooled and I quickly pointed out that it wasted a lot of fuel just to keep it cool vs the water cooled high tech lean bruning vehicle engines. (that shut him up for a while till he had a few more drags of fortitude and came back for more)

    When asked why he was not camping with the others in tents… he replied that they needed the electric to keep the tent warm and elect blanket going during the night along with the lights. (again he pointed to the wasting of gas for needless issues)

    On to the show…

    Well dinner was excellent … steak on the coals… even corn bread from the oven… and apple pie for desert… you just can’t beat the comforts of the AS for home.

    The tram arrived and everyone loaded on… shorts and T-shirts… we arrived at the Range Rich nightly campfire and slide show. It was amazing that the toad didn’t complain about the bon fire and wasting all that wood burning … global warming was not thought of yet I guess by them.

    After the song singing… and slide show the ranger rick’ett said… well tonight is going to be very cold…. Thinking.. you have to be nuts hon… its clear sky and 70 degrees out… she said that a Grand Canyon storm is coming in tonight with winds up to 45 mph, rain, freezing temps down to 20 deg and a chance of “6 inches of snow”… ahhh ok was all I could say…

    On the way home…
    The toad and his better companion were seated across from us… when suddenly she spoke out saying “ what do you think about the weather… should we sleep in the bus tonight” His reply was.. no the tent is waterproof and we have the elect heater as well as the elect blanket… should be OK… When she turned to us as to say… what do you think… I said… well we have a heater in the metal turtle.. with a smile… (of which I had also engineered a elect element in front of the propane heater so as to come on first using the shore power then when it gets colder (air going into the propane heater is below a set temp) the propane heater comes on too and keeps the insides warm … someone used to make one of them accessories… but I don’t see ‘em any more along with the older AS gensets.)

    So as we arrived at the AS… I bid them good night .. put up the awning and retired after setting the thermostat to a cool 68 degrees.

    The next morning….
    When I woke up I went out to the front of the AS and looked at the temp .. Rubbing my eyes twice as I couldn’t believe it… wow… it was in the low teens’. I opened up the eyebrow windows and no light came in.. hmmm. I opened up the window shades and wow.. snow… the ranger rick’ett was right… about 6 inches all around… white came to the Grand Canyon over night. Yet it was nice and 68 deg inside the AS… and the propane heater didn’t even come on… only the electric element and the blower cycled about every 10 to 15 min. Good thing the water heater had the elect element in it also, as the shower was nice and hot….

    I smelled the fresh coffee that started on auto timer… and went to get a cup… getting into my shorts and t-shirt… I sat down on the front couch…

    Then I noticed the toad and his companion were out there busy pumping on the Coleman stove, which flared up and then would die out. His companion looked over and I held up the coffee cup as to say… want one… she nodded and I waved as to say it was on the way…

    Outside things get worse….
    After putting some warmer pants and parka on I grabbed a cup from the overhead filled it and headed out the door… When I got out their…oh my gosh it was cold… the wind was still blowing and anything exposed was cold… cold. I gave her the cup of coffee and she held it so as to warm her hands…

    Looking at the tent.. I could clearly see that things did not go well over night… I asked her (the toad was busy playing with the Coleman stove cursing it with every flair up and die out) what happened… ahhh she said well about 1 in the morning the wind blew… then it started raining… the tent did well but the rain came almost horz… and through any crack and seam till the runoff started coming in the bottom edge. That shorted out the elect heater and blanked.. but then it got worse… it started snowing and got really cold.. We couldn’t sleep and …(toad) tried to get the Coleman stove lighted… it was so cold it just flamed and almost started things on fire…at about 3 am I went to get into the bus but he couldn’t get the doors open… they were frozen shut by the rain water… When the snow quit the wind picked up again and it really got cold… she went on to say…

    By now the toad had given up on the Coleman stove and threw it … he saw her with the hot coffee and she offered some to him.. but no he was too proud… he would have nothing from that energy wasting AS… instead he now had gotten in the bus through the window in the back. Once in there he tried to start the thing… the battery just clicked… and another round of cursing, kicking and acting like a spoiled kid ensued.

    Things get even worse…
    Knowing a little bit about air-cooled aircraft engines… I suggested that the oil may be a little thick (not to elude to his head) and could be needed some preheat (back then 40 wt oil was the norm for the vw’s and cold wx made it about as thick as gooo)
    I told him that I had a set of jumper cables in the PU and would be more than happy to bring it around to jump start ‘em… ahhh this didn’t set well with him and by now he was a frustrated un-happy camper. When others now had joined us he was even more set on not taking any help from the RV’rs.

    I told his better half that if she wanted to go into the AS and warm up… where it was 68 deg instead of the 20 outside.. she was welcome to do so… that only got her a look that could kill from the toad… and she decline. I went back in and started breakfast… ham and eggs… ahhh great AS never was so good…

    A ray of sunshine….

    About 30 min later I heard a knock on the door and their she stood… saying… she was sorry for the way the toad was acting.. but if I could help get the bus started … they were leaving… No problem… I got my coat on.. went around and jumped into the PU… which started right away… I asked her if she would like to ride over to the bus..and this time she did…

    When we got there I pulled the PU along side the bus and opened the hood.. took out the jumpers and handed the one end to the toad and hooked the other up to the trucks battery while his better half was warming up in the PU with the heater on.

    He finally got the bus running…

    Once done… he didn’t even say thanks for the help… instead demanded that his better half get out of the PU and into the bus… he was leaving… threw all the camping stuff soggy and wet into the thing… back up and blasted off… least his better half said thank you… and then said something that I though was interesting… “Hey .. How much do one of them AS cost…” The toad got upset and started to whine… I replied that it was about 25 thou… (they sold for that back then) She said… that it was a nice trailer and next time she comes back with a different boyfriend hoped that he had one… The toad kept gunning the engine in the bus… I said.. Your welcome… and they rattled off like an old singer sewing mach.

    Several hours later we too hooked up and departed… (You know life is good when you have an electric hitch and jacks) We went through the checklist to insure that everything was set to travel mode… and waved bye to our other friends as we left… heading to Page Az we saw the bus along side the road.. Smoking from the engine compartment… I commented.. Should we stop… and only got a look from my other half… that said… you nuts…

    Needless to say the AS is one good trailer in the cold… but it has some drawbacks… air doesn’t get into the closets or enclosed spaces and so when you go to open them… you get a blast reminder that its cold outside. We also thought it would be nice to have double windows (although later we did take the screens out and put plastic in place of them to help on the heat loading when out in the cold)

    The heater in the AC unit makes too much noise… the electric element that was installed as a accessory in front of the return air to the trailer heater took care of the issues where freezing of the water and flooring are concerned. It makes the heater in the trailer more like the one at home but, never seemed to ever run out of ability to heat the insides… (Well one time when we got into sub-zero temps in Rantoul IL. where the propane would not come out of the tank… but, the electric heater… along with two other elect cube heaters seemed to work fine. (The inside alum looked like pillows from the ceiling.. and we lost a couple of pop rivets… we let the bathtub water leak a little to keep the lines from freezing up… (Old farmers trick) but otherwise it was warm and got us through the night… next morning the car wouldn’t move.. the tires were frozen to the ground… so I was told… but, by noon… we were on the road again.

  9. GMAs

    Sean…
    I have a question for you… what trailer brake controller do you use? Does it change the breaking effort when it gets below freezing and need to be reset? We found that when we go camping and the truck/trailer is parked over night.. gets cold cold… when we first start out in the morn… the brake controller doesn’t seem to be as effective.

    As the cab warms up it then seems to change back as we reset it to where it was.

    We are thinking about getting the hydralic tie in one next. Your thoughts?

    By the way… we happended to watch a rig that was backing down a hill into a parking spot next to the frozen lake. Ahhhh guess what the breaks don’t work on a AS when its backing up as they quickly found out as the truck slid on a patch of ice…and the trailer went out on the lake ice. Lucky the ice was thick enough to support it but near the shore it started to break down. With two of us tied to two more 4×4 vehicles we help winch it back up the hill as the trailer wheels broke through the ice… and the back end went into the water.. (sunk about 5 ft) . no real damage other than a flooded bathroom at the rear… and some wet soggy cloths… the older couple didn’t ever have someone tell them that the trailer breaks don’t work in reverse mode…

    We have used the 12k warn winch now half a dozen times to help others get un-stuck with their AS in tow. If you don’t have a winch… might think about getting one. Even in the snow the 4×4 is good but not that good all the time. We have only had to winch ourselves out once when the truck high centered on a snow/ice bank we thought was soft. The front wheels went over and then broke through. leaving the truck high centered on the berm. It came from a snow plow that cam through early morn while we were sleeping I guess… shoved the bank in front of the camping spot. Made up mainly of now ice…. the 4×4 would not pull with the trailer in tow over it. We hooked on to another 4×4 across from us and got the truck free and then went back and hand dug the width of the trailer out. . Then we helped the others get theirs also over the snow berm that the plow truck left on their side of the road.

    so even though you pull in and park for the night… in the winter you have to watch out for the flooding , mud and snow as well as the un-expected snow plow that visits the campground early morn.

    One other item we have used a couple of times in the cold wx was the front trailer reciever which allows you to see the trailer going into or out of the camping spot. Now why? Well ever try backing up with the mirrors all froze over and /or the side window frosted. going forward with the trailer in front allows you to use the wind shield wipers as well as the window defroster to see better.

    ahhh yes its a whole different world out their during the winter time. We actually enjoy it more than the summer. But, you have to be prepaired as the fun can turn nasty very quickly. We found this out when the campground by the river got cut off one afternoon. Seems like the riseing water and a ice jam helped move the only bridge in and out down river 50 feet or so… We were cut off for about 36 hours till the national guard got a emergency bridge (bailey) back in. Lots of mud and washouts to contemplate moving the trailer over. We spent half a day in 4 wheel low drive.

    Hey its all a adventure that contenues each time you take road. their are three things I really hate though– one being mud the other being snow and the worst being ICE. AS don’t do well on ICE with their high profile. They slide sideways quite nicely given the right conditions.

    We stopped at flagstaff Christmas eve in a snow/ice storm. We wanted to go inside and get something to eat /coffee… When I got out I noticed a old hitching post in the front of us at the dinner. So I popped the winch on the PU and pulled out about 5 ft of cable… and wrapped it around the hitching post…. like the cowboys do in the movies with their horses… it didn’t go un-noticed in the dinner.. and was interesting the comments made. I replied to one trucker.. well you know you just can’t trust the chevy brakes these days… with the parking lot being icy and all… I didn’t want it to slide away… or leave without us if the wind blew harder.. he looked puzzled and said… ya but thats a ford… I just smiled…. the manager overhearing the comment later came over and told us that if we wanted to spend the night right their because they closed the interstate… it would be OK… big rigs had pulled in on both side of us and it made a real nice wind break… so we did… we spent Christmas eve with some of americas best truckers party’n and having a good time… next morning there was 4 ft of snow. I hate snow. Its all white n cold… and you have to dig… and dig… AS don’t do well in the deep snow either… sort of like a whale slideing on its belly on land thing. Makes for lousy gas mileage too.

    So even the worst of times have memories that most of the non RV’r s can’t imagine. Pack the kids in too… Our trailer is a camper, emergency shelter, hunting/ fishing cabin and get away place.

    Like you said… go camping now… anytime you can get away.. is good… you can always sit at home later when ya get older with memories of the adventure.. but when you get older you can’t go camping due to health and age… so ya miss it.

    Oh and the kids are already fighting over who is going to get the AS when we pass on… they too are hooked on the camping adventure now.

    The adventure contenues…

  10. GMAs

    awww its late and I know the difference between breaks and brakes.. but the computer did it all by its self in auto mode… guess you get to re-living the moment and forget how to spell… grin…