How to Survive Winter Camping in an RV

Winter camping in an RV has its’ own set of challenges. You must prepare your motorhome or camper to be able to survive the elements. From keeping the cold outside and your pipes from freezing, there are important tasks you need to  prepare your RV for winter camping and survive the freezing elements.

RV Toy Hauler Fifth Wheel Winter Camping
Always On Liberty at a campground in Kentucky before we launched to full-time RV travel status in 2014.

Check out that photo above. That was US in our first six months of full-time RVing! A freak snowstorm and freezing temperatures hit right before we left Kentucky. We were SO ill-prepared for this thing called RV winter camping. Admittedly, we didn’t know a  single thing and had to learn hands-on just how to better prepare our RV and survive not only the snow but the bitter cold temperatures.

One would think having grown up in Pennsylvania and living in New England most of our adult lives would have seasoned us for the harsh cold winters. But when we started full-time RVing, we became those people who bolt for the much warmer desert southwest or southeast coast of the United States. We became those Snow Birds we used to talk about.

Having said that, we have incurred freezing temperatures and winter camping in all of our RVs; our fifth wheel toy hauler, Landmark fifth wheel and now our small Class C motorhome. And we know that even though we have the choice to dodge the freezing cold and snow, there are others that are not as nomadic due to jobs and livelihoods.

So, if you get a freak snowstorm or bitter cold temperatures, here’s so great survival tips to help you enjoy winter camping a bit more.

Survive RV Winter Camping Tips-2
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How to Survive Winter Camping in an RV

Table of Contents:

Our First Winter Camping Experience

Just imagine waking up in your nice warm and cozy RV, van or camper and looking out the window to a new fallen blanket of snow. Like a Currier and Ives painting, it’s a winter wonderland. Well, until you turn on the water or flush your commode and nothing comes out. Yep! That happened to us!

When we ordered our first RV; our Heartland Cyclone fifth wheel toy hauler, we opted out of ordering the Yeti Extreme Cold Weather Package thinking we’d never use it. It was costly and we never thought we’d be in the position of enduring freezing temperatures.

Guess what? HUGE mistake on our part! We had no clue how important spending that extra couple thousand bucks to know we wouldn’t have to worry about frozen pipes or tanks. But then again, we probably wouldn’t have learned from the strifes and trials set before us that almost cost us living our dream.

Typically RV manufacturers cold weather packages include a higher R-factor insulation value, enclosed underbelly, heated holding tanks, dual pane windows and more.

But, let’s assume that your RV or camper doesn’t have an extreme cold-weather package. What can you do to make living in an RV survivable and  comfortable when the temperatures drop below freezing.

In another article, Winter RV Camping: Keep Your RV Interior Warm in Cold Weather, we talked about simple methods to help preserve heat inside your RV.

But in this compilation, we offer a helpful guide and checklist  that will help you prepare your RV for winter camping and maintain a safe and comfortable winter camping experience. The last thing you want is to be that RV owner or camper waking up to frozen pipes and teeth chattering or a leaky roof during a warm spring thaw.

We highly recommend bookmarking this guide for future reference.

CAN YOU SURVIVE WINTER CAMPING IN AN RV or CAMPER?

Get acquainted with your RV’s Systems

You’ll need to prepare your RV for what the cold weather may bring; especially extreme freezing temperatures (below 32°). Read and familiarize yourself with your RV manufacturers’ and RV component manufacturers’ manuals.   Know how your systems work before something breaks or having to deal with it in the extreme elements.

Evaluate your location and weather

If you’re going winter camping in your RV, search out the location where you’ll be parking. Check the surroundings. Look for possible areas of direct sunlight. The warmth of the sun in the late mornings and afternoons will give your RV heating system a break and warm your RV at least a few degrees. Avoid parking under trees as heavy snow could break branches that may fall on your RV’s roof or slides. And, make certain the ground is solid. The last thing you want is for your RV to sink when the ground thaws.

Prepare your RV for Winter Camping

There are a few things you’ll need to do to prepare and conduct interim of freezing temperatures and snow. But, you’ll be ahead of the game if you do it before you’re forecasted for adverse weather.

As per our motto in the Coast Guard, Semper Paratus, meaning we’re Always Ready. (Just had to stick that in there!) Be prepared and proactive of what severe weather and winter camping may bring you. What you do today will save you, your family and your RV from strife and damage.

Roof

Inspect your roof and all seals before winter temperatures and snow arrives. If there are any gaps, cracks or broken seals, take care of them immediately. Remove any old caulk and reseal with Dicor.

Also, if you notice any cracks or tears in your roof, high adhesive tape made especially for RV roofs is your friend! Make certain the surface is clean and throughly dry before applying to get ultimate adhesion.

For more information, check out our RV Maintenance: RV Roof Inspection and Maintenance article.

Basement or Under-Belly

To prevent heat loss under your RV, you’ll need to install skirting around the bottom of your RV for insulation.

While you can use rectangular hay bales, be aware that may become an invitation for mice to take refuge not only in the hay but make their way into your RV. Or, you can use R-value sheets of foam insulation and tape them all around the bottom of your motorhome, fifth wheel or travel trailer.

If money is not really a concern, you may want to invest in vinyl skirting that snaps onto the bottom of your RV. Whichever you choose, the more the better. And, it will keep the belly of your RV warmer and in turn, helping to prevent your pipes from freezing and keep your floors warmer.

RV fifth wheel with foam insulation skirting for winter camping
This fifth wheel has the RV value foam insulation installed for basement insulation.

Propane Tanks

You’ll need to inspect your RV’s propane fittings and fill. If you’re parking for extended time period, you may want to get a larger propane tank delivered and schedule regular propane delivery.

House Batteries

Preparing your RV batteries for cold weather depends on what type of batteries you have. RVs with flooded lead-acid house batteries need to ensure the water level is full and you begin with a fully charged battery. Remember to use only distilled water.

Lead acid AGM batteries will not require any water level check, but will need to fully charged. Both types of flooded lead-acid batteries should function fine even in below freezing temperatures.

RVs that have lithium batteries will not recharge below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. You can continue to use and discharge lithium batteries below freezing, but really need to ensure your lithium batteries are kept in warm space so they can recharge. This may be as simple as placing a drop light in the space with a 60-watt incandescent light bulb to keep the space above freezing.

Windows and Doors

Inspect all window and door seals; making sure their is no cracking, gaps or missing caulk. You’ll need to recaulk any deficiencies. Again, do this while it’s warm outside for the caulk to adhere properly.

If your motorhome or towable RV has black window frames, be sure to get black flexible sealant. And, if your RV has white window frames, you’ll need to get white flexible sealant.

Inspect all weather stripping around your RV windows and doors; making sure it’s not damaged. Replace as necessary.

For windows, if you really don’t care about checking out the view, cover your RV windows with reflective insulation. It looks like silver bubble wrap that acts as an insulation barrier that can be easily installed on the inside of your windows. It has two inner layers of insulating bubbles that resists conductive heat flow.

In other words, it keeps the warm air in and cold air out. And don’t forget to pull the window shades down; adding another layer of insulation.

Window insulation for your door will help conserve heat inside your RV.

Ceiling Vents

In the ceiling of your RV, you’ll notice your AC vents. Close them to prevent heat loss through those ceiling vents. If your RV’s ceiling vents do not close, replace your one-way ceiling vents with two-way closable AC vents that you can manually open and close like we did.

If your ceiling AC vent covers can’t be replaced, either remove them and stuff a little insulation  or carefully tape a small piece of the window insulation I mentioned above in windows and doors section.

And speaking of ceiling vents, your fantastic fan is an invitation for immense heat loss. So, when you’re not using your fantastic fan, we suggest plugging the void with an RV fan vent and skylight insulator.

This also applies to any skylight in your RV. Remember, heat rises so if you can mitigate heat loss through your ceiling crevices and voids, you’ll win part of the battle.

RV ceiling fantastic fan and skylight insulation (click photo for details)

Refrigerator

Disconnect and winterize your residential refrigerator ice and water line. Use RV antifreeze after you blow the water and air out of the lines. Remember that you’ll not be able to use your ice maker or water dispenser so for family members who may forget, just put a piece of tape labeled ‘do not use’.

Don’t forget to take a moment to read How to Maximize Efficiency of Your RV Refrigerator.

Generator

Conduct all preventative maintenance on your RV generator before winter weather arrives.

  • Change the oil and all filters if necessary.
  • Make sure the generator runs properly under load and ensure you have plenty of fuel for it.
  • Exercise your generator at least two hours each month under load.

If you’re still contemplating buying an RV, you may want to take a moment to read Motorhome Generator: Diesel vs. Propane.

Furnace

Service and inspect your furnace regularly. Do not wait until winter to do a maintenance check and service.. Make sure it ignites and functions properly.

Also, check around the furnace for spider webs, mud daubers, leaves, acorns and any other debris. Make sure your propane tank is full or near full capacity.

And since propane monitoring is essential especially in the winter, you may want to get a reliable propane tank gas level indicator that you attach to the bottom of your propane tank(s) and bluetooth it to your smartphone.

Because we all know those onboard propane monitoring systems in RVs will fib a lot. Ours did in all three of our RVs. Since we installed ours, our readings have been 99% correct.

Plumbing

To keep your RV’s water tank from freezing, consider installing a water tank heater. We also recommend disconnecting from the water hookup and using the RV’s water pump. You also can place a drop light in the utility space to keep the space’s temperature above freezing.

If you’re at a full hookup, you may want to turn your faucets on to drip; especially at night. Also, as mentioned earlier, open your lower cabinets to expose your water pipes so warm air can circulate around them.

If you’re wanting to go or already are winter camping and boondocking, check out our articles:

How to Empty Your Holding Tanks Without Moving Your RV

AquaTank II Water Bladder – Product Review

How to Conserve Water While Boondocking

Leveling Jacks and Tires

When winter camping, you’ll want to insure your RV won’t settle or sink into the ground during fluctuating temperatures; especially during warm thaws. Even if you’re parking on asphalt, concrete, brick or packed surfaces, you surely don’t want to damage the parking surface with the weight of your RV.

First, we highly recommend installing RV SnapPads on each of your leveling jack pads to add a bit more circumference in each jack pad footprint. But, we suggest doing this while it’s still warm outside (above 55 degrees) to insure proper installation per manufacturer recommendation.

Once you’ve decided the exact location of where you’re going to park your RV for the winter months, place leveling blocks under your leveling jacks as well as beneath your RV’s tires. Also, for travel trailers with a tongue hitch, you may want to place a couple leveling blocks under your trailer hitch pad as well.

You’ll thank me for this winter camping tip in the Spring.

Now that the temperatures have plummeted and the snow is falling, you should be prepared to enjoy winter RV camping. But your work doesn’t end with preparation. You’ll need to apply the above suggested guidelines to prevent potential issues that will leave you out in the cold or damage your RV or RV components.

RV WINTER CAMPING QUICK TIPS

Exterior of your RV:

    • Keep entry door(s) and windows shut; open only when necessary (with exception of using propane space heaters inside).
    • Keep vehicle and generator exhaust vents and/or exhaust pipes clear of skirting and snow accumulation. You want your RV exhaust to blow outside; not underneath.
    • Keep the roof clear of snow, ice and debris. Extra weight isn’t good for the roof’s construction. As well, constant icing and melting could potentially cause water intrusion around seals, cracks and crevices.
    • Do not leave your water hose connected to the outdoor water spigot unless you have a heated fresh water hose. Or, just fill your water tank and refill as needed. If you’re boondocking and don’t want to move your RV, you can refill your RV’s water tank with a portable water bladder.
    • Monitor your propane and keep up with your filling schedule. Don’t wait until your propane drops to less than 1/4 tank to be on the safe side.

Interior of your RV:

    • Know how and when to use your RV’s heat pump vs. furnace. Typically, you don’t use the heat pump when its less than 40 degrees. On warmer days over 40 degrees, its very efficient as well as it will give your furnace a break.
    • Use portable heaters with extreme care and caution. Never leave them unattended or when you’re sleeping. And keep them out of reach of children and pets. Make certain the area around your heaters is kept clear of objects, rugs, blankets and combustible materials. Never use a portable heater with an extension cord! And always keep out of reach of children and pets.
    • Open drawers and cabinets where water lines and drains are located during extreme low temperatures. This allows interior heat to circulate around the waterlines and plumbing.
    • Wear a sweater or this cool sweatshirt and put another blanket or two on the bed.
    • Utilize your ceiling fan by switching it to reverse. This will push the warm air down to your comfort level.

I’m sure there are other tips that you may learn along the way through experience. But if you’re new to RV winter camping, these survival tips should help you   and your family stay warm and preserve your RV through the cold months.

Weather Related Articles:

Winter RV Camping: Keep Your RV Interior Warm in Cold Weather

RV How-To-Guide: Winterizing Your RV or Camper

5 Best Portable Heaters for your RV or Camper

How to Stop Condensation in Your RV

RV Tips for Weather Emergencies

8 Most Popular Weather Apps for Travelers

Survive RV Winter Camping Tips
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