What started as a three week trip to the gulf coast, turned into one week of winter camping. The first problem was a mega-storm, bringing 70+ tornadoes, that just happened to cross our intended route. Other problems also arose, so we cut our trip short, turned around, and headed home.
This was the first time we had camped in winter. Being from the mid-south, I’ve always considered winter to be just a break in routine, and a time for sitting beside a wood stove drinking coffee.
But we camped in winter, and we enjoyed it (in a different way), and we learned a few things we didn’t know or expect. I will add that this was not quite considered cold weather camping, as the temperatures only got down to just above freezing. And, while we had to keep a close eye on the weather, we never had to winterize the RV in any way.
The first thing we found out was that we need heavier curtains. RVs generally have cheap single-pane windows which don’t do much to keep the cold out. Other options are putting heat-shrink plastic or bubble-wrap over the windows. We also put a heavy curtain across the cab, which helped a lot.
Roof vents are just a thin piece of plastic, so they have no insulating value. I had already insulated our vents with a reflective bubble-wrap type of insulation, which seemed to work pretty good. But, you can also buy or make cushion type insulation to put in the vents.
The main problem, I think, with winter camping is keeping your water pipes and tanks from freezing up. Since temperatures stayed a little above freezing most nights, I usually connected to a water source, but on a couple of colder nights we just used the water tank so the hose wouldn’t freeze. I didn’t have a heated hose, but I had some heat tape I could have used on the water hose. But, why bother? We could just keep all the water we needed inside where it was warm. Some RVs, however, have an externally located freshwater tank, which runs the risk of freezing also. Another option is to winterize the freshwater system, and just used bottled water.
RVs have a built-in forced-air furnace in which the ducts are routed in a way to keep (most of) the plumbing from freezing as well as keeping you warm. But, RV furnaces are often loud and inefficient, and may drain the propane tank in one night, so they are frequently replaced with some other heating source. If using other heat sources, remember that water pipes are generally (mostly) inside the RV, so leave cabinet doors open so heat can get to the pipes and the water tank.
WARNING: Unvented propane heaters, unless specifically made for RVs, are not safe to use inside an RV. This includes using your oven or cook-top for heat. People die every year from non-vented propane heaters!
Since we stayed at campsites with electricity, we used electric heat. At first, we relied on a couple of little personal electric heaters we have used before just to take the chill out of the RV. We quickly found these were not quite sufficient when the temperature drops close to freezing, so we bought a regular 1500W electric heater.
To keep your wastewater tanks from freezing, you can pour some RV antifreeze down the drain, but you’ll be watering down the antifreeze every time you use water. Another trick is to not dump the tanks until they are near full. This prevents the loss of heat from the tanks. But, as temperatures drop, they will still freeze solid. You can also get heating pads that stick to the wastewater storage tanks. When it gets really cold, however, you’ll have to put skirting around the RV, and some heat source beneath it.
I also learned that sewer hoses don’t stretch as far in cold weather.
I generally enjoy being outside, but I don’t have any cold weather hobbies. So, when bad weather comes along, I sometimes get cabin fever. I learned that cabin fever can be worse in a 160 sf RV than in 2000+ sf house. And, cabin fever can make that little RV corner bed feel claustrophobic. I honestly don’t know how van-dwellers survive.
Another thing I learned was to choose campsites near the bathroom. Hot showers feel pretty good, unless you have to walk half a mile back to your RV. And, while in the summer I look for campsites with lots of shade, I learned to to look for sunlight instead.