RVers generally are an inventive and self-reliant bunch. One thing that really gets their creative juices flowing is trying to live in an RV below freezing for a sustained period of time. The typical RV is not at all designed for use in the snowy, icy northern climates. My Keystone Cougar fifth wheel has a sticker on the side proudly proclaiming “Polar Package” hahaha, pure marketing hype. There is not a chance it would be useful in any “polar” climate. It is barely adequate in the relatively mild climate of Vancouver Island in the late fall. Thankfully we have never had to test it out in any serious cold weather.
Somehow though even with the cold weather limitations of most RVs many hardy, ingenious folks find ways to do it anyway. Below you’ll find some of the best tips and tricks I’ve come across for cold weather RVing.
Beefing up the RV Insulation
First thing you’re going to want to do is add some extra insulation to the RV, especially the windows and underbelly area. These areas are where the rig loses a large percentage of its heat.
Window Film – Pick up something like the 3M Indoor Window Insulator Kit to apply to all the windows. It’s inexpensive and really helps keep heat in by adding an extra air barrier.
Foam Board Insulation – Add some foam board insulation to the bottom of the RV underbelly. This will help with keeping your waste and water tanks warm preventing freeze ups.
Reflectix Bubble Foil – This stuff comes in rolls and can be cut to fit into window openings or anywhere you want to add an extra layer of insulation. The foil will reflect the heat back in and the bubbles provide insulating air gaps. We use it for both cold and heat. When not needed it rolls back up for easy storage.
Heavy Drapes – Another great way to keep the cold out is good old, tried and true drapes. Nothing like a thick set of drapes to cozy up a place.
Skirting the Rig – Adding a layer of skirting material all the way around the rig works really well. It blocks the cold winds from whipping under the RV and sucking out the heat and sets up a dead air space for insulation. If you have a fifth wheel you can build an enclosure under the front and add a small heater in there. This gives you some extra storage and warms the area right under the bedroom. I’ve observed the setups of the full time year round RVers in Vancouver Island RV parks and almost every one of them has skirting of some sort.
Methods of Heating the RV
You’ll likely want to use a combination of heating methods when faced with extreme cold weather RVing. This is one area where you have to be very aware of the dangers and take proper safety precautions. If you do things wrong it can result in death by fire, asphyxiation, or carbon monoxide poisoning.
Propane RV Furnace – The on-board propane furnace does a great job but is very inefficient sending a good portion of the heat out side as exhaust. It will become very expensive to run as the temps really plunge. You’re going to want to get an additional large propane tank so you can buy it in bulk to save money. This will also save you from the task of constantly refilling the smaller RV tanks.
Most on-board RV furnaces have a special duct or two that runs down into the underbelly to heat the tanks and basement storage, so it is a good idea to use it as the primary heat source. You’ll spend some extra money but is better than an expense and hassle of plumbing or tank repairs from a freeze up.
Electric Heaters – Space heaters are cheap and if you’re on a free electric hookup can help reduce the heating costs. They can also be placed in the basement compartments to keep them warm, just make sure to follow the safety instructions. I have a little oil filled heater and like to have it near me on cold nights. Keeps me warm and cozy without having to have the main heat cranked up. We also use a small electric heater in the bedroom at night to keep the chill off.
Propane Radiant Heaters – These are terrific for boondocking in very cold weather where you have no electric shore power. They are available as a portable unit like our own Big Buddy heater or as a built in type such as the Olympian Wave 8 Catalytic Safety Heater. They make a great second source of heat for the RV. *Note* you have to be very mindful when using them as they do eat up the oxygen in the air and need some decent ventilation. Always read and follow the instruction manual and safety precautions. Also make doubly sure you have a good working CO and Propane detector on board. We use ours during the evening while awake and then use the big RV furnace at night while sleeping.
The Big Buddy portable heater throws out a great deal of pleasing radiant heat. It is much cheaper to run than the regular furnace but doesn’t give us the benefit of heating our underbelly, plumbing, basement storage and tanks like the large RV furnace. So I like to run the main RV furnace during the coldest night time hours while we are bundled up sleeping.
Incandescent Lights – LED lighting is all the rage right now but one thing good old incandescent bulbs have going for them is heat. Ninety percent or more of the wattage they use is put out as heat. This is bad when dry camping on the RV batteries but on shore power they provide bonus heat. I’ve kept my old bulbs and swap them out when I want to use them for the additional heat. This is particularly handy in the basement storage area where in my rig there are 4 light fixtures. I just leave them on in cold weather and they are like little heaters down there. Some folks do the same with trouble lights.
Ventilation – Get the Moisture Out!
Once you have the rig all insulated and warm the next battle will be how to get the moisture out so dreaded condensation inside the RV doesn’t occur. In the course of a day living in the RV we put a great deal of water into the air space. Showers, dishes, cooking, burning propane and our own breathing all contribute and it needs to be expelled from the RV. In our home base area of Vancouver Island located on the Pacific coast of Canada we know this battle all too well. Left unchecked the condensation can quickly build up on all the windows and some walls and lead to mold.
Vent Covers – These I feel are a must as they allow for the opening of the RV vents in all weather conditions. The typical RV roof vent is 12” by 12” and can release a lot of the moisture, especially with the aid of a fan. Make sure to open them up during cooking and showering.
Attic Roof Vents – These are relatively easy to install and will help remove moist air that gets trapped in the attic area of the rig. Here recent how-to blog post on installing them.
Stove Vent – Use the stove vent and fan when cooking, especially when boiling stuff like potatoes for instance. The quicker you can get the moisture out the better.
Absorbent Cloths – Cloths like Sham Wows that can hold a ton of water are really handy for removing moisture. I use one to wipe down our shower stall and any condensation that builds up in the windows. We also have one by the door to dry off the dog and our coats. Then the moisture can be wrung out down the drain instead of finding its way into our air.
Dehumidifier – There are many small portable, dehumidifiers on the market that are suitable for use in the RV, some even work on 12 volt power.
Protect Your RV Plumbing
Damaged RV plumbing is one of the most common problems that happen to extreme cold weather campers. Water expands when it freezes and causes pipes and valves to crack or burst. Here are a few tips reduce the risk.
Heat Strips – Use what’s called heat strips or tape on your RV fresh water hose and cover that with foam insulation. It doesn’t need much heat to keep the water above freezing. You could also spend some extra money and buy a pre-made heated water hose.
Use The Fresh Water Tank – Another option is to fill your internal fresh water tank and use it for your primary water source. Make sure the water pump is located in a warm area.
Internal Piping – Open up cupboards and access panels where plumbing pipes are located to allow heat from the rigs living area to get in there and warm the pipes.
Waste Valves – Keep waste valves closed when not using them. Wrap-up with insulation any that are exposed to the elements.
Sewer Hose – Rinse it out well and stow it when not in use to prevent damage. A more permanent ridged pipe may be a better bet if you would like to leave it connected outside 24/7.
Tanks – Only dump tanks when they are full to reduce the chance of freeze ups. Adding a little bit of RV antifreeze after dumping may be good idea as well.
Misc Cold Weather Tips
More tips and tricks that hopefully will help you out when the icy weather hits.
Heating Pad – A heating pad can aid in defrosting pipes or keeping an important area like the water pump warm. Also feels really good on cold feet.
Fridge – Best to leave your fridge on even when really cold. RV absorption refrigerators can be hard to get running again in cold weather.
Insulated AC Cover – You won’t be needing it so to help keep down drafts it’s a good idea to use an insulated cover on the AC unit.
Plastic Parts – The average RV is loaded with plastic fittings, levers, trim, etc. When it is very cold out extra care is needed when handling them as they become brittle and easy to break.
Many thanks to Eddie and Aileen from the RV Happy Hour for sharing photos of their rig. As full time RVers they have spent some extremely cold winters in Wyoming toughing it out in their fifth wheel trailer and shared some terrific tips with us. But the best advice of all is “The RV has wheels, Go South!!!“.