For a lot of folks, RVing is synonymous with summer, and there’s nothing like camping in short sleeves on bright sunny days and balmy nights. But, full-time and seasonal RVers also live in their RVs when Old Man Winter holds nature in his icy grip. Suddenly, the sweaters and jackets come out, and that cozy rolling home doesn’t seem so snug any more.
One easy fix is to stay in temperate places, but my husband, Mark, and I have seen temperatures below freezing in both Arizona and Florida in January, and during our shoulder season travels, we’ve gotten caught in some nasty snow storms. In our 10 years of full-time travel, we’ve never been colder than in two blizzards while camped on top of a Colorado mountain during fall in late September.
Insulate to Prevent Drafts and Air Leaks
In our RV, a 36-foot Hitchhiker fifth-wheel, the draftiest places are the two escape windows and the vent on the microwave. If the wind is hitting our trailer in the right direction, it whips through these spots, and you can feel the breeze inside. Lowering all the blinds at night and inserting a piece of insulating foil between the blinds and the windows makes a big difference. We have custom-cut a piece of Reflectix to fit each of the many windows in our RV.
The four vent hatches in our ceiling also leak precious warm air into the night sky because the plastic hatch covers are so thin. Vent-hatch insulators, placed in the hatches, really help. Any pillow will work, but Camco makes a product specifically for this purpose. If you’re not sure whether buying these products is worthwhile for only a few weeks in January, we’ve found they also come in handy on the hottest days of summer for keeping heat out of the RV during the day.
Shrink-wrap the Screen Door
Some RVs have screen doors that can be winterized with plastic panels that cover the screen mesh, but many RVs don’t. We like to shrink-wrap our screen door using a hair dryer and plastic shrink-wrap designed for residential windows and doors. Last winter we did a “dual pane” shrink-wrap job, covering both the inside and the outside of the screen mesh with plastic wrap. What a difference it made. If the sun is shining on our RV door, we keep it open so the sun can warm our RV. The heat penetrates the shrink-wrap film, but it doesn’t escape to the outside through the screen mesh.
Face the RV Windows to the South
We boondock all the time, so we can usually choose the orientation of our RV. While it’s nice to choose an orientation that takes advantage of the best view, in the winter months, we follow the sun. Between November and February, the sun hangs low in the sky and traverses a short course, rising in the southeast and setting in the southwest. Because our biggest windows are on the curb side and in the back of our RV, we position our trailer with the curbside back corner facing due south. This way we receive maximum sun exposure through our windows all day, warming the inside of the RV from the sun’s rays as much as possible.
Baking, Exercising and Warm Blankets
Bleak, cold winter mornings are a great time to bake a batch of muffins, and if it’s still miserably gray and chilly in the afternoon, baking a casserole or a roast can help warm up as well. If we’re indoors for much of the day, we’ll periodically hop up and do a few exercises to keep our blood flowing. A few crunches on the floor or a few sets of lunges or push-ups is often enough to get us warm again. We have a big collection of throw blankets in our living room and a heavy-duty down blanket on our bed as well.
All of these tips are great, but the most important part of staying warm in an RV is the heating system. The essential strategy for heating an RV depends on whether you are boondocking for long periods and relying on solar power, or whether you are staying in a park where there are electrical hookups.
Most RVs are built with a factory-installed propane furnace. These beasts are loud, and the warm air is ducted to outlets in the floor. The beauty is that they not only warm the RV, they remove the moisture from the air. Unfortunately, they also blow a lot of the hot air out of the RV, and since so much heat is lost to the outdoors, they burn a lot of propane. Ironically, if you’re outside and your hands are cold, hold them near the vent on the outside of the RV while the furnace is running. They’ll be warm and wet in moments! Worst of all for boondockers, the blowers on RV furnaces use a lot of battery power, too.
Many RVs also have a heat pump as part of the air-conditioning system, and those work well if the temps outside aren’t too bitter. However, they require AC power to run, so they are great if you are hooked up to a power pedestal, but are not so great if you are boondocking.
Many RVers turn to supplemental heaters to keep their RV warm. When you are camping with electrical hookups, small ceramic and other portable electric heaters can be an excellent choice. These heaters don’t require propane, and they are often efficient. They also tend to dry out the air in the RV and reduce the problem of condensation forming on the insides of the windows and walls.
Many boondockers, including us, swear by their vent-free propane heaters. These come in several varieties, but they all provide excellent heat without using electricity. The winter months are the hardest season to charge up RV batteries by solar panels, because the sun is out for such a short time period. So, saving electricity is often at the heart of the winter boondocking experience. They are also much more efficient in their use of propane than a traditional RV furnace.
The only disadvantage of a vent-free propane heater is that it contributes to the moisture buildup inside an RV. We routinely wipe down the insides of our windows to sop up the condensation, especially on cold mornings when the dewpoint reaches a certain level. It’s not a fun chore to wipe down the windows, but I have to say that, by springtime, our windows are absolutely sparkling clean on the inside.
Vent-free heaters are required by law to be manufactured with a sensor that automatically shuts off the heater when the oxygen level in the room drops below a certain point. Many RVers keep a window slightly open to allow fresh air to flow through. However, even with the windows closed, RVs are so drafty that these heaters rarely shut off at altitudes less than about 6,000 feet. At altitudes higher than 6,000 feet, we find our vent-free propane heater must run nonstop for several hours before it triggers the automatic shut-off (and, of course, the stove and oven keep on working because they don’t have a shut-off sensor). It is only in the most extreme multi-day, high altitude Rocky Mountain blizzard conditions where we have had our heater turn off.
Some folks are nervous about having a vent-free propane heater in their RV, and guidelines regarding their installation in RVs vary from state to state. Ironically, when we stopped to refill our propane tank at a big gas and propane retail store in one state, we discovered they not only sell the heaters, along with big and small propane tanks and propane, but they had specialized in RV installations for decades.
With all these options for heaters, we’ve found there are strategies for using them optimally. If you have electric hookups and a heat pump or space heaters, then those can be run as much as needed to keep the RV warm day and night. The noisy RV furnace will only be necessary if the temperature drops well below freezing.
Boondockers must decide whether or not to heat the RV overnight. We usually don’t bother. The consequence is that we sometimes wake up to temperatures in the 30s inside our home. In the morning, we turn on both the RV furnace and the vent-free propane heater simultaneously until the inside temp rises to 50 degrees (it usually takes 30 minutes if the initial temperature is 30 degrees). Then, we turn off the furnace and let the vent-free propane heater take over until the temperature is up to about 70 degrees. At that point, we are usually set for the day until evening, as we let the sun’s warmth through the windows take over. As the temperature inside cools after dark, we run the vent-free heater until we go to bed.
We follow this strategy both in Arizona and Florida in the winter and in the Rocky Mountains in the summer. It works well as long as the overnight temps outside stay in the mid-20s or higher. Sometimes we leave the RV furnace on its lowest setting, which keeps the interior at 50 degrees overnight. However, we find that it is better for us to sleep through the night in peace and quiet than to be woken up by the roar of the furnace turning on and off all night.
Our strategy changes completely when the outdoor temperature drops into the teens at 10,000-feet elevation and snow piles up on the RV roof. Even after removing inches of snow from our solar panels in a mountain blizzard while boondocking (so our batteries could get charged by the sun), we’ve twice found the outdoor temperatures dropped so low we had to run the vent-free propane heater nonstop day and night to stay warm. Because the high altitude caused the heater’s oxygen sensor to trip every hour or so, shutting the heater off, we had to drag out our generator and run our electric space heaters and furnace instead of the vent-free propane heater. If the snow had persisted, and we had wanted to stay in the area for weeks rather than days, we would have found a cozy RV park with hookups.
I hope these RVing cold-weather tips give you ideas for how to make “roughing it” in your RV during the winter months a warm and comfortable experience!