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Cold Weather Camping: How to RV in Winter

Cold Weather Camping: How to RV in Winter

Do you camp in cold weather? While RVing is generally associated with summertime and warm-weather activities, you CAN use your RV for winter recreation, as well! However, you need to make sure you and your RV are well-equipped to take on the unique challenges of cold weather camping.

Can You Go Camping in Winter in Any RV?

While you could make winter camping work with any RV with the right supplies and fuel, there are RVs that are better suited to it than others. It doesn’t really matter what kind of RV you have. What matters more is how it is built and set up for enduring cold temperatures. Travel trailers, fifth wheels, motorhomes, camper vans, and truck campers can all facilitate winter RV travel and living. You just have to be prepared to overcome some of the unique challenges RV face in cold and below-freezing temperatures.

The Best RV Winter Setup: How to RV in Winter and the Gear That Will Keep You Cozy Warm!

Cold Weather Camping Challenges

Camping in cold weather provides a couple of additional challenges that we have run into a few times before when running south from the cold. Snowbirds like us frequently find themselves encountering cold weather on the shoulder seasons.

However, for some cold weather camping is a sought-after experience of its own. For example, we intentionally stayed longer and endured more to extend our Alaskan and Canadian explorations on our Go North Expedition, allowing us to experience downhill skiing in Banff National Park.

No matter what your circumstance is, here are a couple of the challenges that one may expect to face when cold weather camping and what you can do to overcome them.

1. How to Heat Your Camper

This may be a bit obvious, but cooler weather outside means cooler temperatures inside, too. It might also be obvious, but your RV is not as well insulated as a house. You’re going to have to use your RV furnace, make sure you have plenty of fuel to run in your furnace, and increase insulation wherever you can. Additional heat supplies might be necessary to keep the camper sufficiently warm.

Many campers come “4 Season Certified” and it can make a bit of difference in keeping your tanks from freezing and you more comfortable. But houses and RVs are built very differently, and therefore insulation is not as good all-around by the very nature of the product.

icicles hanging from RV awning

Is Your RV Four-Season Rated And What Does It Mean?

Many “4-Season” Packages mean different things. From ducting from your furnace to the bays with your tanks, extra insulation, dual-pane windows, etc. Unfortunately, RV manufacturers have different “4 season camper” standards, so you’ll want to make sure you dig into the technical specifications for each brand.

Overall, be sure to look up what your 4-Season package means so you know what to expect when cold weather really hits. Even if you’re in a 4-Season camper, you might find that installing window insulation kits are helpful. But it’ll only stay warmer if you have a furnace or heater of some sort running!

4 season rv certification for cold weather camping

Set Your Thermostat for Cold Weather Camping

Set your thermostat to a temperature reasonably above freezing to keep you and everything else from freezing. You’ll need to do this for overnights and for when you will be away from your RV. This will likely be done using the furnace control panel, similar to what you’d expect in a home.

Now before you just set your furnace thermostat to 70 and call it good, there are a few things to know. RV furnaces generally run on liquid propane (LP) gas. They also use 12V power to operate their electronics, fans, etc. This means you’ll need to have plenty of propane for cold weather camping. You’ll also want to keep an eye on your RV battery voltage. If your RV batteries die, your furnace won’t kick on regardless of how much propane you have in the tank.

setting rv thermostat for winter rving

Check and Refill Your Propane Regularly

Make sure you’re not going to run out of propane on your winter camping trip. Many RVs have either 20, 30, or 40lb propane tanks, and usually more than one. However, you’ll be surprised just how quickly these tanks can run out in cold weather, especially with a poorly-insulated RV. How long a propane tank will last depends on the weather conditions and temperature, the size and insulation of your RV, and how high you set your thermostat. In the worst situations, we’ve burned through a 30lb propane tank in about a week with below-freezing temperatures, wind, and no skirting.

Most people check the level of propane in a tank by lifting it. However, if your tanks are stored in a special cabinet this can be inconvenient. Having a Propane Level Detector helps to monitor your propane usage, like this one by Truma that we use:

There are even ways to check your propane levels without even going outside. This LPG Tank Check System from AP Products that we have installed in our fifth wheel allows us to check levels from the warmth of inside, just like our water tank levels:

LPG Propane Tank Check System by Mopeka Products | Product Review | Wireless Propane Monitor System

If you’re really serious about long-term cold weather camping, you can also use external propane tanks to increase capacity and reduce trips to refill. Some companies will allow rentals of these tanks for a season, with delivery and refill services.

External propane tank for RV in winter.

Get Supplemental Space Heaters for Your RV

If you’re going to be plugged into power, it might be a good idea to supplement your furnace with small portable space heaters. You can save a lot of propane and stay comfortable by heating just the area you’re in. However, don’t completely replace your furnace use with space heaters. Your RV electrical system will probably only be able to handle one or two small heaters depending on how it’s wired and your electrical service.

We often use a small ceramic heater to help offset some of our propane usage in the furnace if we are in a smaller space. However, in larger fifth wheel RVs you may want to opt for a bigger heater. We like the Delonghi HMP1500 Mica Panel Electric Heater (it is silent!):

DeLonghi HMP1500 Mica Panel Electric Heater | Product Review | Heat Your RV with Electricity

Indoor-safe portable propane heaters are also pretty popular to use in RVs, like the Mr. Big Buddy Heaters. We have friends who swear by these, and it’s great that they are boondock-friendly in not needing a reliable electricity source.

You might also want to get the 6V Power Adapter and 12ft Hose with Regulator to adapt it to a 20lb propane tank. However, these heaters put a bit more moisture into the air, which can contribute to Cold Weather Camping challenge #2 below.

Some people even use RV wood stoves to help with heating their RV. This requires a DIY install, as no RV manufacturers we know of offer this as an option. However, electric RV fireplaces are popular add-ons if you know you’ll be spending time in the cold.

Insulate Your Windows, Skylights, & Fans

Heat rises, and many RVs have skylights or inset ceiling vents that might not be as insulated as your RV’s solid roof. Covering these with insulated covers will help a lot with heat escaping through the thin plastic of your fan cover.

We’ve found that even pulling the blinds makes a big difference in creating a barrier of air that helps insulate your windows. Better yet, purchase some Reflectix Foil Insulation and cut it into the shape of your windows to insulate and reflect heat back into your RV.

Reflectix BP24010 Series Foil Insulation, 24 in. x...
  • Inhibits or eliminates condensation
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Wear Layers & Use Heated Blankets

Be prepared to layer up and use blankets. Even running the furnace full-out and supplementing with electric heaters might not keep all the cold out. And if you’re not plugged in or trying to conserve propane, you might not be keeping your RV set at 72 as we like to (we really are cold weather wusses since living full-time on the road and chasing the sun!).

If electricity isn’t an issue, we HIGHLY recommend using electric heated blankets for winter camping. There are few things worse than climbing into an icy cold bed on a winter’s night. A cold mattress can suck every ounce of warmth out of you! We use our heated blankets to warm up our mattress and sheets.

Install RV Skirting

RV skirting refers to any type of barrier you put around the perimeter of your RV to block the space between the bottom of your RV and the ground. This creates an insulative space of air and blocks wind from pulling additional heat from the bottom of the RV.

While this might not sound like much...RV skirting is a game-changer for cold weather camping. We didn’t truly believe it until we installed a skirt on our fifth wheel, but we were very impressed!

RV skirting comes in many varieties. From custom vinyl material specially fitted to your RV, to home-built barricades of foam, wood, or even hay bales. We’ve used Custom Skirting LLC’s channel-system vinyl skirt specially fitted to our fifth wheel, and the difference is mind-blowing.

It saves propane, reduces furnace run-time (noise), and allows us to keep our RV mostly warm by running just 2 small electric space heaters. Learn more about Why & When You Need RV Skirting.

TIP: Get $100 off Custom Skirting LLC RV skirting when you mention Mortons on the Move!

rv skirting on fithwheel covered in snow
RV skirting helps tremendously with staying warm while cold weather camping.

2. Cold Weather Causes Condensation In Your Camper

Condensation will occur in cold weather in virtually any RV. This is from moisture in the air inside your camper coming in contact with a cold surface. Once it hits, water vapor condenses into water droplets. Cooking, making tea, or even just breathing puts moisture into the air. And when it hits the inside of your RV’s cold window, then BAM! You’ve got water.

Unchecked condensation left for days or weeks on end accumulates and causes problems. Especially if it isn’t on a surface that does well with being wet like walls, on the carpet, or getting behind your bed and soaking your mattress. There are a couple of ways you can combat this:

Towel It Up

If your cold-weather stint is short-term, toweling the excess water is a quick, free, and easy way to deal with the problem. We do this a lot, as cold weather condensation is a BIG sign for us to drive south as fast as we can.

When our cold weather duration is longer, we still use towels some mornings after chilly nights. However, we usually have to resort to some other measures.

Use Moisture Absorbers

DampRids or other brands of moisture absorbers work well to pull moisture from the air. They work especially well in enclosed spaces like closets, cabinets, and under/behind furniture. These are places where the warmth of the furnace or heaters doesn’t have much effect.

Get A Dehumidifier

If you aren’t concerned with electricity use, you might want to consider getting a small RV dehumidifier. This would also come in handy if you’re in humid areas in general.

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Run the Air Conditioner

It might be counter-intuitive to run your A/C when it is cold outside. Your A/C will remove humidity from the air – but it will also cool your RV down. You’ll have to figure out if you can run an electric heater at the same time as your A/C. It’s very likely to pop a breaker if you’re not careful. Try alternating the A/C and furnace/electric heater use to pull moisture from the air. Remember, unventilated propane heaters like Mr. Buddy put more moisture into the air when used.

truck camper in snow

RV Mattress Getting Damp

One challenge many will face in colder weather (and sometimes any weather) is the RV mattress getting damp underneath. This is due to the mattress not having enough airflow.

In a home mattress, the box spring is designed to provide airflow under the mattress. But in many RVs the mattress is on a solid surface. We found the best way to combat this is to get some airflow under the mattress.

The Den-Dry mattress underlay does just this and comes in many sizes or can be cut to fit. In addition, we like to use moisture absorbers alongside the mattress.

DEN-DRY Mattress Underlay-Queen
  • Makes 2 strips, 39" Wide 60" Long (120" total)
  • Den-Dry is easy to install
  • Den-Dry Queen fits a full size mattress

3. Freezing Temps Means Freezing Tanks, Water Hoses, Sewer Hoses, and More

If you’re hooked up to water and/or sewer in freezing weather, you will definitely need to take some extra precautions to keep these exposed water lines from freezing. Additionally, you’ll want to make sure your internal RV water pipes don’t freeze.

Your technique will depend on your intended temperatures as well as your method of camping. We mostly boondock/dry camp, and therefore aren’t hooked up to water very often. When we are, it is usually only for a few days, tops. We typically fill our fresh tank in one go, then empty and store the hose so we don’t have to worry about it freezing.

If you intend to stay hooked up during freezing temperatures, you want to be careful that your water and sewer hoses don’t freeze. They can split and be ruined, among other things.

Keep Your Dump Valves Closed Unless Dumping

One practice is to keep your grey (and blank) tank dumping valves closed and only dump them all at once when you need to. You can also hard-plumb your septic so it is more robust. This way it isn’t as prone to accumulating ice, cracking, and making a big, nasty mess.

Hard plumbed RV septic line

Ensure Your Tanks Are Kept Warm

It is essential you keep your RV holding tanks and interior plumbing from freezing. Some 4-season RVs are designed to dump heat from the furnace into the tank bay to help them stay warm. They may even have heated RV tanks. If you are still worried about freezing tanks, there are Water Holding Tank heating pads that you can add after-market.

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RV skirting greatly helps with insulation of the underbelly of your RV where holding tanks typically reside. To keep an eye on things, we recommend using a simple thermometer to measure the internal temperature of your water bay.

Get A Heated Water Hose

Unless you want frozen hoses and connectors and damage to your RV, you need to invest in a way to keep your water hose flowing. For short-term stays, topping off your freshwater tank as needed and storing your hose can work. For long-term stays, this practice might get old. You might also get tired of needlessly listening to the water pump all the time.

There are some great heated water hoses out there to make cold-weather camping much easier and worry-free. If you’re into a DIY approach, you can also wrap insulation or heat tape around your hoses and connection points.

heated water hose for RV
Heated Water Hose for Cold Weather Camping

4. RV Engines and Driving in Cold Weather

When it’s cold outside, it can be harder to get things going. Driving an RV in cold weather can take some additional prep to make sure everything is warm. Generally speaking, cold starts aren’t great for engines. They can also be harder to get started in the first place. If the temperatures are cold enough, you may even need to use a block heater.

Diesel RV Considerations

Your fuel can gel up in freezing temperatures. Take it from our friends, Peter & John of the RV Geeks. You’ll need to make sure your diesel coach’s fuel doesn’t gel up! Watch below to see their winter survival tips in a diesel motorhome.

Winter RVing in Freezing Weather — Cold Climate RV Survival Tips

5. Taking Care Of Your RV Batteries In Cold Temperatures

RVs need operating house batteries to function – even if they are plugged into shore power. Your fridge, lights, and, most importantly with regards to cold weather, your furnace all depend on your batteries. Batteries, however, don’t really like getting cold! You can start to see the decreased performance below 40 degrees F.

RVs generally have one of three types of batteries: flooded lead-acid, sealed lead-acid (aka AGM), or lithium-ion. All of these battery types struggle in colder temperatures because their internal chemical reactions slow down as the temperature drops. Because of this, appropriate measures need to be put in place to keep the batteries warm or protected.

Best RV Battery for Cold Weather Camping

New RV battery technology has helped solved some of the battery difficulties of the past. Lithium batteries exceed cold weather performance for more than one reason.

First, since lithium batteries don’t require ventilation like lead-acid batteries do, you can install them anywhere. Particularly, in an insulated internal compartment.

For example, we had 5 Battle Born Lithium Batteries installed in the Lance 1172 Truck Camper. The area that they were in received enough bleed-off heat from the camper’s furnace running that the compartment stayed well above freezing. This in turn kept the batteries themselves warm enough, even when the temperature dipped into the low 20s!

Secondly, lithium batteries are literally smarter. If the Battle Born Batteries did get below 32 degrees F, their internal battery management system (BMS) would automatically prevent them from taking a charge until the temperature was safe again.

In the meantime, they could still be used! Discharging a lithium-ion battery still works – and works way better than lead-acid batteries do. We could go about our day, using computers, lights, appliances, etc. as long as they still have battery capacity. Since they can be discharged, you could set up a warming pad like this one to help heat up the batteries or keep them above freezing in the first place.  

If you’re boondocking in cold weather, your battery can be completely drained overnight running your furnace. This has happened to us a couple of times before we converted to lithium-ion batteries. While this can still happen, the batteries will protect themselves before damage is done. Lead-acid batteries have no such protection.

Learn more about the myths around lithium-ion battery failures in cold weather, and how they perform against lead-acid batteries: Do Lithium-Ion Batteries Fail In Cold Weather?

Are You Ready For Cold Weather Camping?

While there are some challenges to cold weather camping, the RVing fun doesn’t have to stop when the temperatures drop! We hope these solutions help you with any cold weather Mother Nature throws at your camping trip.

If you’re not convinced that cold weather camping is for you, that’s okay, too. One of the best things about the RV lifestyle is that if you want, you can live in spectacular weather year-round by chasing 70 degrees.

​Safe travels!

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About Mortons on the Move

Tom & Caitlin Morton of Mortons on the Move gave up the stationary life for one where they are constantly on the move. They are full-time travelers, television hosts, and digital media producers.
They left their jobs, sold their house and possessions, and hit the road in September 2015 in their full-time “home on wheels”. Since then they have traveled the US, Canada, and even internationally by RV.
Now, they are Discovery Channel & PBS TV Co-stars of The RVers, producers of “Go North” on Amazon Prime, co-founders and instructors of RV Masterclass, and contributing authors for Hwy.co and an Arizona travel guide.

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Wayne

Sunday 5th of April 2020

I would like to know just how loud is the air conditioner when you are trying to sleep yes I know you may not have used it in the north but I was wondering and did you travel with a full tank of freshwater because all the websites that I have been looking up say do not travel with the weight of a full tank of fresh water

Ed stanford

Saturday 9th of November 2019

Pull your slides in if it may snow over night. We pulled into Rock Springs Wyoming about 6:30 PM in mid November while heading south. It was raining. Overnight it stopped raining, but precipitation did not stop. With 3-4" snow on the top of the slide toppers, you cannot retract your slides. Lesson learned, pull in the slides if there is snow foretasted. Its no fun climbing on a snow covered roof with a broom to clear the snow or ice off of the slide toppers.

Karen Polansky

Monday 14th of October 2019

I have tried some of these products with varying degrees of success. One of the products I was very disappointed with was the LP gauge. They were expensive and didn’t seem to work at all. Now I only keep one bottle open. When that one gives out I switch over and know I have to fill up the used one. I had to resort to the small dehumidifier last fall on the west coast. It seemed to work well. The damp rid didn’t work for the amount of humidity. I also added an Aire Flow pad under my mattress to alleviate the moisture that was building up. I use the hand warmers and hot water bottle, especially to warm up the bed when boondocking. I’m very interested in solutions for keeping the lithium batteries warm enough. I will check out the ones that you show here. Since my trailer is three season I do winterize. I use basins and have a small water jug in the trailer and a larger one in the truck. I make a modified composting toilet using heavy duty garbage bags and kitty litter. It may not be perfect, but it seems to work.

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