Winter Camping – Lessons Learned

Winter Camping – Lessons Learned

When we bought our RV we had an option to add an additional Arctic package that we opted not to get. Without the package our RV was already rated to be able to survive 0°F temperatures without a problem and we really didn’t think we’d be staying in weather that cold anyway. Also, with the package we would have had two floor vents for the additional furnace capacity and we really didn’t like the idea of floor vents since without it all the vents were above the floor in cabinetry. On the other hand, the package also included additional insulation for the water pipes which might have been good to have.

As full time RVers with relatives in Colorado our thoughts about never going to really cold places in the winter was maybe a bit short sighted. In our first winter we decided to go to Colorado for Christmas and as luck would have it, the warm weather the area was enjoying before Christmas was forecast to change. In fact, we decided to stay in Capulin, NM and there was already snow on the ground when we arrived about a week before Christmas. Low temperatures were already in the mid-teens and low 20’s and this provided a good opportunity for us to figure out how to survive cold weather in our RV. We had been in freezing temperatures at night before but daytime temperatures had been above freezing. Now we had several days of temperatures below freezing.

One of the first things we learned even before getting to Capulin was that wind in the winter can be quite strong, particularly in west Texas and New Mexico where there is little in the way to slow them. In Amarillo we had a 24 hour period with wind gusts over 50 MPH. We decided to close the slides as we had been told to do to protect them and our slide toppers. We spent all day closed up but it really wasn’t that bad. We just had a movie day sitting in bed. The only disadvantage was that we couldn’t get to the refrigerator for food without at least opening the slide a little. We did get three lessons from this experience. First, before you close the slides get some food and drinks to have available until you can open back up. Second, use a checklist to close up. We have a cabinet door for our tech cabinet (computer, internet, satellite TV, etc.) that we leave open so that things don’t overheat. If we leave the door open, the slide catches on it when you extend it and the cabinet door breaks in two. Luckily, it’s fairly easy to fix and you can’t even tell it was broken. Finally, we didn’t take our tire covers off before the wind hit during the night. We never saw them again as they could have blown miles away in the open fields surrounding the park.

Also, while in Amarillo, the park required us to disconnect our water hose at night and turn off their water spigot or risk having to pay for a repair if it froze up and broke. We saw full timers in the park who left theirs connected and realized we needed insulation and possibly a pipe heater to protect the water riser. Lesson learned, keep extra pipe heaters, insulation and tape handy to wrap exposed pipes. This not only protects from liability but also ensures you have a constant supply of water even if freezing temperatures exist for several days. Another lesson learned was that even though we have a heated water hose it doesn’t protect the water regulator. We have a nice regulator with a gauge to see the pressure going to the RV. I assumed the heated hose would keep the regulator warm enough to be ok. The regulator did not freeze but the gauge did. Fortunately, replacing the gauge with another one from Home Depot repaired it. After that we started using our simple regulator without a gauge while freezing temperatures are expected.

One night we suspect our heated hose froze up even though it was plugged in. After some thought I realized there was a problem with it’s design when used with our RV. On the outlet end of the hose there was a thermostat about 6″ from the end. Our bay where the hose connects is enclosed and it stays warmer than the outside air due to our furnaces being nearby. One night in the middle of the night I realized this was a problem – funny how things just come to you at the strangest times. The next day I cut the cord to the thermostat and extended it so that the thermostat is now outside where it can now sense the outside temperature rather than the temperature of the bay. This had the added benefit of making the hose easier to route within the bay.

Since we were going to be away for several days leaving our cat in the RV and also wanting to keep our pipes from freezing we spent some time before leaving trying to figure out how to optimize our propane use. In warm weather we go through a 40# bottle in about a month. In cold weather we can go through one bottle in about 7 days, maybe less. If we had added the arctic package with it’s larger heater we would have used up our propane even faster. We found that using our fireplace and a space heater in the bedroom we could actually keep the inside quite comfortable even in 10 degree weather. In fact, we could make it uncomfortably warm. The problem there is that we need to have the rear propane furnace come on to heat the basement thus keeping our tanks and pipes from freezing. The tanks have 12v electric heating pads on them which helps keep them from freezing but there still needs to be heat to protect the pipes. After some experimentation, we found that we could set the fireplace to 65° and the rear furnace to 62°. This allowed the propane heat to come on to keep the basement warm while using the fireplace to reduce propane consumption. For the bedroom, we would set the propane furnace to 64° and adjust the space heater to make it comfortable for us. The space heater could keep the small area as warm as we wanted without the propane heater running at all.

As Murphy would have it, we had issues with one of our space heaters and with the front furnace when we needed them most. The fan on the space heater quit working and I assumed we just needed a new one which we bought. I took apart the broken one and checked the internal connections but found nothing visibly wrong. When I put it back together it just worked and has worked ever since but I’m glad we have another as a backup. I’m sure we will see the problem again. The furnace was much the same. It would light and then shut off a few seconds later. The control board would retry 3 times and then lock out further tries. I checked the limit switch and the sail switch but both were good. At the same time I checked each of the wiring connections. After that it started working again. It’s not uncommon for corrosion and/or vibration to cause these kind of issues. It’s been working for several weeks since then but as with the space heater who knows when it might fail again. The next step would be to check the electrode and possible clean it with fine steel wool when it does fail. The lesson learned is that you should know how your equipment works and be ready to either hire someone or do some troubleshooting yourself. Given that we were in the middle of nowhere and it was close to Christmas it was great to have the knowledge to look into this myself. Gas appliances can be dangerous so make sure you know what you are doing before attempting to fix them. Never bypass any of the safety features of the appliance.

A lesson learned after having issues with critical appliances is to have options. We have tank heaters, good insulation, two propane furnaces, a fireplace and now 3 space heaters. We have both propane and electric heat sources. When something fails we have options to stay warm and safe.

Sewer connections was another area ripe for lessons. We had heard about poopsicles but being a bit hard headed we had to see for ourselves. We left our sewer hose connected and our gray valves open and had no issues – at first. When I would check there was a small amount of ice buildup but no real problems. Then we had a couple of days where it never got above freezing. When we got ready to move, the ice inside the hose was very thick. We connected the ends of the hose together and threw it in the back of the truck hoping it would thaw out on the way to our next site. It didn’t. I had to work the ice out of the hose to clear it. Not very pretty. If it’s going to be below zero for more than a night, you should close the valves. Some people even say you should disconnect and stow the sewer hose. Speaking of valves, we have a valve at the end of our sewer outlet on the RV. This valve froze open and so I just capped it and we went on. When I went to connect at the next place I forgot to close the valve and well we had some seepage from the main valves closing off the gray and black tanks. Again not a pretty sight when I opened the cap. Silly me, by the time I was doing this the valve was unfrozen and I could have closed it to prevent most of the mess. One final lesson learned was the sewer adapter connection to the park sewer pipe. We have a screw in adapter and I like to screw it in as far as I can to reduce the risk of it coming undone. When we went to remove it, it was frozen in place. We had to use a hairdryer to thaw it enough to remove it. Lesson learned, keep a hairdryer handy in cold weather!

One final problem we encountered, maybe more of an education than a problem was with our Lithium batteries. I installed them so I should have known this but I didn’t really think about it. What happened was that the front bay where our batteries are located dropped below 32°. When that happens, a solenoid cuts off the charger so that the batteries are not damaged by charging them. That’s a good thing, but the problem is that it also forces the 12v power for the coach to come exclusively from the batteries even when we are plugged in to shore power. If you were in an extended period below 32° that could be a real problem if the batteries became depleted as the lights and furnaces run from 12v power. Unfortunately there is not an obvious and easy solution to resolve this problem. It is simply a known limitation. I may look at it some more to see if I can find a way to solve this but in the meantime I added a 120v plug in the front bay so that we could add some heat there when needed. I also ordered a thermostat to control when the heater comes on so we don’t waste energy or overheat the bay. In the summer the thermostat also has a cooling output I can use to drive a fan to help lower the bay temperature. High temperatures can shorten the life of Lithium batteries.

Finally, when RVing in the winter you need to be flexible. Several times we had to modify our plans to travel during better weather or road conditions. This is not the time to just take off with all 16 tons of our home when waiting a day or going a day early would provide better conditions. Take recommended precautions when driving in cold weather including having food and water and blankets available. Don’t just assume you can get them from your RV because after an accident you may not be able to get to those things. Also keep in mind that your pipes can freeze while moving if temperatures are below freezing. Take necessary precautions to prevent that from happening.

11 thoughts on “Winter Camping – Lessons Learned

  1. Wowza- many lessons learned along the way thus far in your RVing lifestyle! I’m sure that by next winter you’ll have it all figured out so your winter travel “issues” will be a thing of the past!

  2. These are really great tips. I haven’t seen a lot of this information anywhere. I fear we are going to have to learn a lot. 🙁

  3. Yikes!!! Sorry there were so many issues visiting us in the colder temps. Of course today was almost 60 degrees…. Crazy! We sure enjoyed your quick visit though.
    “Poopsicles”…haha, enjoyed that part, although I have a feeling you did not! Love y’all.

    1. We actually didn’t technically have poopsicles it was just frozen gray water but it still wasn’t pretty 🙁

      I think we would have been better going on into Colorado – at least this year it was warmer than New Mexico!

  4. Reading this aloud to Peter was our morning entertainment. Sorry, you’re having to learn so many new lessons, but now you’re ready for many great years of cold weather RV’ing ahead. You’re definitely giving great advice to those who plan to RV in the future! 🙂 Miss you guys!!!

  5. Nice truck and fifth wheel combo. Love the colors. The only factory tour Karen and I did was to the RV Factory when at the time the Ambition was high on the list. This was just as they were moving to the new location.

    I’m going back to start reading your blog from the start. Really enjoyed the information on lessons learned when winter camping. Thanks for details.


    1. Thanks for taking a look, Mark. We went through much the same process as you guys did in researching and preparing for our full time adventure but we aren’t as good at putting things into words as you are. All the work we did has paid off as we made the right decisions for us and haven’t felt the need to go back and try again on either the truck or the trailer. I know you guys will do the same.

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