Heating an RV in cold weather during the winter, especially in a snow storm, is quite different than heating a house, and it often requires utilizing different kinds of heaters and a little creativity too. Proper preparation and gear is essential to avoid winter camping problems. Here are five winter camping challenges, and how to avoid them.
1. Keep holding tanks from freezing
After a weekend of winter camping the next step is to pull into the dump station to empty your tanks. You then pull the dump valve and nothing happens as the contents are frozen. Now, you will have to wait until they thaw before you can dump the waste. To avoid this, consider using holding tank heaters. They are similar to electric blankets and attach to the underside of the tanks with adhesive. Although if you’re just an occasional winter camper, pour non-toxic RV antifreeze in your tanks through the P-traps or toilet. This will keep the contents slushy. Some RVers recommend using rock-salt, but it can corrode metal parts in the gray and black plumbing systems.
2. Maintaining heat
Regardless of how well you seal up your windows and vents to keep out the cold, you will still need an adequate heat source to keep your RV from freezing up. This is just one of the winter camping problems you’ll face. To overcome this, your built-in forced-air furnace should always be the primary source as the ducts are routed to keep the plumbing from freezing and keeping the occupants warm. Further, a secondary option are oil-filled electric heaters. They emit a mild radiant heat, are essentially noise-free and present little fire hazards. Catalytic safety heaters too, which run on propane rather than electricity, offer radiant heat and operate safely below the combustion level of flammable materials. Also, finding out how to effectively maintain power when winter camping is also pertinent to enjoying cold winter camping.
Please note: whenever using an unvented propane-fueled heater inside an RV and not researching either the critical need for ventilation, nor the fact that these heaters are really not safe for use while unattended or sleeping, requires extreme consideration. Calling them “safety heaters”, just because their hottest point is not as hot as an open flame, is very misleading. Re-check all manufacturers claims and remember you are in a closed environment and may need other heating methods for sleeping. See below for heating recommendations and descriptions.
3. Seal windows, vents & skylights: biggest heat loss areas
How to find and prevent leaks in your RV is always important anytime of the year. But during winter it’s essential to keep yourself and your plumbing system warm by keeping the warm air in. So, while leaks need to be detected (and fixed), you also need to increase insulation for winter camping. Windows, roof vents and skylights are good places to start. The majority of RV windows are single-pane and many don’t seal well.
RV windows are the biggest reasons for the poor insulation. The metal window frames are extremely cold to the touch when temps outside are in the 20’s, and all that metal around our many windows conducts the cold right into the rig.
Some folks like to have thermopane (dual pane) RV windows, but if moisture gets between the two panes, which can happen more easily in an RV that rattles down the road all the time than in a house that stands still on its foundation, the moisture is likely to remain there permanently, no matter what the weather does outside or how many years go by.
One option is to install storm windows (if offered by the manufacturer). Another solution is to insert heat shrink film on the insides of the windows. This is a clear film that you cut to size, stretch over your windows and then heat shrink with a hair dryer. It’s available at most home improvement stores. Roof vents and skylights are the next places to insulate. Most RV accessory stores sell RV vent cushions, which fit into standard roof vents. They can simply push up in place. For larger openings like skylights, vent cushions can be custom made to fit precise sizes.
Proper sealing of windows and vents is important to maintain heat in your RV.
4. Ensure you have a fresh water supply
Winter camping problems also extend to keeping a supply of fresh water. If you hook up to the campgrounds water spigot, you may freeze your hose. To offset this, utilize an electrically-heated RV hose, which is basically a hose with built-in heat tape. Another option is to leave a faucet dripping as moving water doesn’t easily freeze. If you do this, have your gray tank open or a significant gray tank capacity. Or, fill your fresh water tank and utilize your water pump. When your fresh water tank runs dry, refill it with the campground spigot. Also, drain or store the water hose somewhere warm between tank fillings.
5. Getting your fridge to run properly
Who would think keeping food cold would be a problem when winter camping. Two problems can possibly crop up. The first is the mixture of chemicals and fluids in the refrigerator`s cooling unit can start turning into a gel below 20° F. This slows down the recirculating and cooling process. Another potential problem is the refrigerator thermostat sensor may sense cold air coming through the exterior refrigerator vents, rather than the cold air in the food box. This may cause the refrigerator to cycle-off as it’s cold enough in the food box when it reality isn’t.
So, to avoid these winter camping problems, block the first two or three top vent slots of the exterior refrigerator access door. This will keep cold air from the back of the refrigerator. Don’t forget to remove the obstructions after your campout. For your refrigerator’s thermostat sensor, use a non flammable material in the event it might come lose and contact the refrigerator burner or electric heating element. Again, err on the side of caution.
Let’s talk about heaters and safety:
The basic difference between an RV furnace and a vent-free propane heater is this:
- RV furnace – Uses a lot of electricity, uses propane inefficiently, brings fresh air into the rig (because it’s vented)
- Vent-free propane heater – Doesn’t use electricity, burns propane efficiently, uses up oxygen in the RV
So each has its place under certain circumstances. In a nutshell:
- The ventless propane heater is awesome as long as there is sufficient oxygen for it to run. Use it in the mornings and evenings, and since you’re usually in and out of the rig a lot, there is a lot of air exchange inside the RV from opening and closing the front door all day long as well as from all the drafts and breezes that blow in the RV windows and microwave vent.
- The RV furnace is best for other scenarios: in cases where there is a risk of the water pipes freezing (the hot air ducts keep the basement and water lines warm), at very high elevations in extreme cold, and at night, because it is vented and continually circulates the air in the rig. The RV furnace is very loud and therefore can be more of a problem for sleeping well.
We’re seening a lot of use for the vent-free blue flame heater for about 95% of RV heating, and then turning to the RV furnace on rare occasions.
Vented vs. Ventless Propane Heaters and Propane RV Stoves & Ovens – Safety Concerns
An RV furnace is a vented system, meaning that it releases warm, moist air from inside the RV to the outside, and it brings cold air from outside to the inside of the rig. This makes it very inefficient in its use of propane, because it is essentially heating the outdoors as well as the indoors. Put your hands by the RV furnace vent outside, and they will get nice and warm and a bit damp too!
While RV furnaces are safely vented yet very inefficient, vent-free gas heaters are very efficient and are required by law to have an automatic shutoff when the available oxygen goes below a certain threshold (there is a built-in sensor that triggers the shut-off). Once it has shut itself off, it won’t turn on again until you air out the RV a little by opening the door or windows for a while.
Ironically, propane RV stoves and ovens are not required to shut off automatically when the available oxygen is depleted. Obviously, this makes them inherently quite a bit more dangerous than vent-free propane heaters.
Of course, an RV fitted with propane tanks is basically a rolling bomb, so it’s a very unsafe place to call home, but who’s really thinking about that! No one’s going to give up traveling because of the propane that we all are using.
Hope this helps avoid winter camping problems, decisions to make when heating for overnight boondocking, and extended stays in the cold and snow.
Safe and happy travels.