Winter Travel in an RV


From time to time we have all probably had to travel in winter weather. We have received a lot of emails regarding the hazards of traveling in the winter. In the following I would like to share my personal experiences and what I think you need to know to stay out of trouble.

The following paragraphs provide information on:

  • Getting your rig ready for cold weather
  • How to handle freezing temperatures
  • Use of electric heaters
  • Keep an eye on propane levels
  • Renting an RV during winter/freezing temperatures
  • Driving on snow clad roads

The first thing you need to do is know how your RV is equipped for winter conditions.

Is your fresh water holding tank insulated, many of the RV’s have a sprayed on foam material covering the exterior of the tank. Some RVs have heat tape wrapped around the tank (heat tape system) and is wired to a controller in the RV to keep the tank warm. At any rate some protection against the cold is necessary.

The water hose connecting to the campground supply and then connecting to the RV is the cause of most problems. Once the hose freezes the freeze will continue into the RV lines.

Temperature varies and with it the degree of freeze.

  • If your outside temp is to be 28 degrees and the daytime temp is in the 40’s you will need to open an interior spigot so it will drip during the course of the night.
  • If the nighttime temp is to be 15 degrees you will need to disconnect the hose from both the campground and RV connections and drain the hose thoroughly. Roll up the hose and store. Close the water connections with appropriate cap.
  • If the outdoor temp during the day is around 15 degrees and the nighttime temp is below freezing you should turn on the heat tape system to help keep fresh water tank from freezing.
  • Also in extreme cold weather open doors of indoor cabinets to allow some heat to get into those areas where water pipes are routed. Other items in the RV such as bottled water, vinegar, brewed coffee, and many more liquid items stores in the cupboards may freeze if the weather is too cold, by openings up the cupboards and allowing heat into these areas, you protect breakable items as well as preventing a potential pipe fracture.
  • The other holding tanks for both grey water and black water are also important to protect as best as possible. The best defense you can use to keep the water is to dump as often as you can; also you may use antifreeze that is designed for both black/gray water and antifreeze is also available for your fresh water tank, follow directions carefully.

In extreme cold weather let the sunlight come into the coach, but when it becomes dark put padded aluminum foil up to the windows and then pull down the blinds. We set our furnace to run at 60 degrees and open all necessary cabinets. We also use heating blankets on our beds for additional comfort.

Many winter RVers also use electric heaters to help keep the coach heated. I am not against this but offer this advice.

  • Do not use the heater at night or when unattended. I am not so worried about the heater but about over stressing the coach wiring.
  • Run the small electric heater at 1100 watts but not at 1500 watts. Some of the size wires used in RVs cannot handle the 1500 watts over a long period of time. Check the plug in wire and feel how hot it may be, a little warm is ok but not hot. If it is hot, turn off the heater?
  • Also in the morning with the coffee pot going, the electric water heater going, a hair blower running and a toaster going, add the electric heater and I will guarantee you will pop a circuit breaker and it may be the circuit breaker that is outside. Those RVs with a 30 amp system are more likely to get an overload situation than an RV with 50 amp service.

Always keep an eye on propane levels as running out of propane in the middle of the night is not a good experience. Why?

  • The furnace runs from the propane, you may not be able to get it refilled until morning.
  • You can run the RV for heat (be sure you have plenty of gas) but there is the concern of carbon monoxide poisoning. You can crack a couple of windows but in essence you are letting the heat go outside.

One can winterize the water supply items – add liquid to the holding tanks by using a safe anti-freeze which is safe for consumption. I would do this but I would also carry a supple of bottled water for pill taking and brushing teeth and drinking. Most other things you should be able to use the treated water. Make sure you measure the amount of consumable anti-freeze to the water system in the correct proportions.

My experience in cold weather varies greatly from somewhat cold to very cold. I pulled into a campground in January of 2015 just a few miles north of San Antonio trying to escape some really cold weather. I asked the lady when I registered how cold it was and can I put my water hose out. She said, sure put your water hose out and in 30 minutes bring it back in. My next question was why, she said the water hose will be frozen in 45 minutes—well, how cold is it? She said 12 degrees. Following her advice, I was OK for the night. The next morning we saw am RV parked across the road from us who had water running out the door of his rig — broken pipes. He didn’t ask questions or wasn’t aware of what happens in freezing weather.

If renting an RV, check with the RV rental company about your trip and whether or not the RV should be winterized. The winterizing process usually involves draining the water from all tanks, pipes, fittings, and fixtures, then pumping non-toxic RV antifreeze throughout the entire plumbing system. RV rental companies that do winterize their RVs will tell you that you cannot use the water for consumption. If you choose not to winterize their RV, be sure to take care in freezing weather because if you freeze or fracture the pipes in the rented RV, you will pay for the repairs.

If you winterized your rented RV and part of your trip includes traveling to a warmer climate, ask how to add fresh water to the system so that you can consume the water in the rented RV. Ask lots of questions so that you are properly instructed on the entire winterizing process.

Really cold weather can be dangerous but can be managed.

Lastly, driving on snow clad roads is dangerous, you may also want to be prepared to stay another day or two if possible to wait for the roads to be cleared.

Winter can be so pretty, I will never forget Yellowstone National Park in April one year, not real cold and oh so pretty. Be Safe! Be Smart!