In this article...
This winter is going to be a new experience for us in the RV. This winter is going to be cold. Very cold.
We left our sticks-and-bricks house in California in July 2018 to live full-time in our RV and travel around the US. For the past two years, almost all our travel has been out west - including spending the past two winters in New Mexico and Arizona. While we've certainly had colder temperatures and camped in snow, it's never dropped below about 25°F.
That's about to change. We're going to be spending this winter in our RV in northern Vermont. According to official historical data and the experience of locals we've spoken to, we should expect prolonged period (weeks, if not months) of temperatures below freezing, average lows down to 0°F, and extremes (based on 30 years of USDA data) down to about -15°F. In an RV, that's cold, and that doesn't even factor in the windchill!
Why are we doing this?!
First, we want to try something new! We're always seeking out challenges and opportunities to learn, and we want to experience a cold winter in our RV. Our Outdoors RV 21RBS is designed to be used in cold climates - in fact, they often describe their target demographic as someone who wants to go out elk hunting in Oregon in winter. I guess this is an opportunity to put their claims to the test.
Second, (and maybe more importantly) we want to go skiing! We've been carrying around all our skiing and snowboarding gear since we hit the road and haven't used it yet - we're itching to get back out in the snow!
We've been in southern New Hampshire for the past few weeks, and while it hasn't dipped below freezing here yet, that's going to change in the next few days. In less than two weeks we'll be moving to a new campground in Vermont where we'll be staying throughout the winter.
Due to COVID restrictions on travel to Vermont, when we do arrive we'll need to quarantine for 14 days. That means we cannot leave the RV for two weeks, so it's essential that we arrive prepared with everything we need to stay warm and comfortable.
In this blog post, I'll be sharing some of the things to think about when winter camping, and what we plan to do about them. This is the product of my research over the previous weeks and months - through owners' forums, blogs and friends with first-hand experience. While I'm writing it primarily to remind myself of all the things that still need doing, I hope you will find it useful too. And if I've missed something or you have a tip you'd like to share, leave us a comment so everyone else can benefit too!
We've spent the vast majority of our time on the road dry camping - usually boondocking in remote, beautiful places and relying on our solar panels, batteries and inverter to keep us comfortable.
That's not going to work this winter. Even last winter, in southern Arizona with plenty of sunny days, our solar panels were barely enough - just a few cloudy days were enough to really pull the batteries down. Here in the northeast with cloudier weather, fewer hours of daylight each day and the sun lower in the sky, solar isn't going to cut it. Not to mention our power needs will be higher with the colder temperatures. We need hookups.
Our RV is a 30A RV which means that all the devices running in the RV can't exceed 30 Amps or the main breaker will trip. But for winter, we've deliberately chosen a site with a 50A hookup. Why?
You might be surprised to learn that whereas a 30A hookup can provide 30 Amps, a 50A hookup can provide 100 Amps - it's actually two 50A wires (which is why 50A plugs have an extra prong on them compared to 30A plugs). But if our RV can't use more than 30A, why do we want all that extra power?
First, although our RV can't use more than 30A, it means we can plug other things into shore power. For instance, this 50A splitter will split the 50A shore power into two receptacles: one 30A and one 20A. That means we can plug our RV into the 30A receptacle and use the 20A for extra power - for example our heated hoses (more on those later). Or if you want to get even fancier, this adapter will split the 50A into two 30A receptacles, and then you could use a 30A splitter like this one to create three 15A receptacles (limited to a total of 30A).
Second, to avoid (or at least minimize) voltage sag. While AC voltage in the US should be 120V ±6%, that isn't always the case - particularly in RV parks. Low voltage is a very bad thing - it can damage and shorten the life of electrical appliances, and our EMS will automatically disconnect us from shore power if it detects voltage below 104V (and it has done several times before).
There are many things that can cause voltage drop, but the most common reason in RV parks is undersized wiring combined with heavy load. 50A receptacles typically use thicker wiring than 30A-only receptacles, so by choosing a 50A site, we should be less vulnerable to voltage sag which should help to protect our devices this winter.
Above all, I'm just hoping it doesn't get too cold and our electricity freezes...
Just kidding, electricity can't freeze!
But that doesn't mean it's not at risk from the cold. Power outages caused by winter storms are obviously a concern. As long as we quickly turn off any high power-draw appliances, our batteries will keep us going for a little while - maybe a few days if we're lucky.
We don't really have a great backup plan (we don't have a generator) for a long term outage, but we can run the truck and use our DC-to-DC charger to recharge the batteries in a pinch.
Our RV, like most, uses propane for a whole host of things - the furnace to heat the RV, the gas water heater, fridge and of course for cooking.
The price per kWh of energy is similar between electricity and propane (there are ~27kWh per gallon of propane), but we're typically going to be using the electric options where they exist - relying on the electric water heater and 110V AC mode on the fridge. Electricity is simply more convenient most of the time, although it's good to have options!
Propane has a boiling point of -44°F, which means as long as the outside temperature stays above that then the propane won't freeze (or more accurately, condense). However, as temperatures drop below freezing the pressure inside the tank will drop, and the usable capacity will decrease.
When we first arrive we'll be in quarantine, so we're going to rely on our two 7-gallon (~30lb) propane tanks. However, I suspect we'll rent a large tank to get us through the winter. A larger tank not only means less frequent refilling (bonus: the refueling truck comes to us!), but the bulk prices should be cheaper so it'll cost less over the course of the winter. Plus, the larger tanks have a greater surface area inside for the propane to evaporate, so they will continue to work at lower temperatures than our small tanks.
When you think about an RV freezing, it's probably the plumbing you think of first - both the plumbing inside the RV and the hoses.
Our RV has a sealed (and insulated) underbelly and ducting from our furnace vents into that cavity which will help prevent our tanks and plumbing in the floor from freezing. We will be installing some temperature sensors to keep an eye on things so that when we're using our electric heater (more on that later) instead of the furnace, we don't accidentally let the tanks freeze.
I've already put a temperature sensor on the plumbing near our water pump so we can keep an eye on things there. The layout of our trailer means we don't have too much plumbing in the walls (where it might freeze), but the outdoor shower is a concern. Our plan is to winterize that with compressed air - I don't think we'll be using the outdoor shower much anyway!
Our RV also has a thermostatically-controlled heating pad under the fresh tank. Its primary purpose is to prevent the fresh tank freezing when not running the furnace (e.g. when driving) but we'll probably leave it turned on all winter as an extra precaution. It only draws about 40W which, even if it runs 24/7, is only about $5 per month - seems like cheap insurance!
However, we're not actually going to be using our fresh tank this winter - we're going to be connected to water hookups. We want to be able to enjoy nice warm showers this winter and I have no desire whatsoever to be filling our fresh tank every few days when it's well below freezing outside!
The RV park's hookups are protected so they don't freeze, but if we use a regular hose to connect to our RV, that's going to freeze. No bueno!
So, after much research and deliberation, we've bought a heated drinking water hose - it should arrive this week. We considered going the DIY route but it seems fraught with danger - everything from the fire risk to it simply not working well enough and freezing. There are a lot of hoses out there with very mixed reviews, but we eventually chose to buy a 25ft NoFreezeWaterHose following a personal recommendation and good reviews.
We also requested the optional pigtails added to each end - these extend the heat trace so we can wrap it around the spigot and connectors at each end to help prevent them from freezing. All in, the hose cost us over $350 - I hope it works!
Update Nov 25, 2020: check out our blog post all about the installation of our NoFreezeWaterHose fresh water hose and sewer hose.
With fresh water taken care of, what about sewer? The last thing I want to deal with is a frozen "poopsicle" hose!
We've bought some RV antifreeze, and we'll pour a little of that into the grey and black tanks to (hopefully) help stop the valves freezing. We'll probably keep the valves closed most of the time and then dump them when they're about half full - a large mass of liquid is less likely to freeze than a small volume.
We've also splurged on a new hose - a heated sewer hose, again from NoFreezeWaterHose. In addition to the heat trace, it's also based on Lippert's Waste Master hose design which has a much smoother inside profile so "stuff" is less likely to stop and freeze in the hose. This does mean modifying our RV's sewer outlet to use their cam-lock system instead of the existing bayonet fitting, but it's an easy mod and the cam-lock system is vastly superior anyway!
Both the fresh hose and sewer hose are rated down to -40°F so hopefully they should be fine for our needs. Fingers crossed!
Update Nov 25, 2020: see what we think about our NoFreezeWaterHose sewer hose.
Since we plan to be stationary all winter, we've decided to skirt the RV. Skirting is the process of closing the gap between the RV and the ground. Our RV sits about 2ft off the ground and that is a huge cavity for cold air to blow through!
Update Nov 17, 2020: we did it - we skirted the RV!
There are a number of different ways to skirt an RV, but we've chosen to use foam board as it's the cheapest option. Since we're staying in one spot all winter, we'll cut the foam boards to size then secure them in place with tape. We'll also be able to pile the snow against the sides which will (somewhat counter-intuitively perhaps) help improve the insulation by sealing any gaps.
I'm nervous about the fire risk of putting a heater or heat lamp under the RV, so we're not planning on heating the cavity underneath. But again, we'll have temperature sensors underneath so we can keep an eye on things and reassess if we need to. We'll also have to leave an access panel so we can reach the valves to dump.
Our plan is to use concrete blocks instead of our usual leveling blocks under the stabilizer jacks. These should help make the trailer really stable and we don't have to worry about the plastic getting brittle in the extreme cold.
We'll pick up the foam insulation boards and concrete blocks from a hardware store on our way to Vermont as once we arrive we'll have to quarantine for two weeks.
Obviously heating is going to be a major concern this winter! Fortunately, our Outdoors RV 21RBS is not only well insulated (at least, as far as RVs go!) but being smaller (the main "box" is only 21ft long) it means less volume to heat than a larger RV.
Our propane furnace is rated for about 25,000 BTUs per hour and warms up the RV very quickly - we don't foresee any issues with it keeping us warm this winter. It costs about $1 per hour to run the furnace, so we want it to cycle off as much as possible.
But the furnace is also very noisy, so we're hoping our 1,500W portable electric heater will be able to do a lot of the heavy lifting to keep us warm. Its output is only 9,000 BTUs per hour but it does a great job of keeping the RV comfortable and it's much quieter than the furnace. It's obviously not ducted so it won't heat our tanks like the furnace will; we'll have to keep a close eye on things.
We have the electric heater linked into our home automation system so we have full thermostatic control and we can easily configure the system to turn on the furnace if the tanks are at risk of freezing.
So while we're not concerned about us staying warm in the RV, the challenge will be protecting our plumbing - and doing so in the most cost effective way!
One of the biggest concerns we have is humidity - or more specifically, condensation. Condensation forms when warm, humid air comes into contact with a cold surface. Higher humidity and a greater difference in temperature both lead to more condensation.
Left unchecked, condensation can lead to mold in the RV walls which is not something we want to deal with. And at extremely low temperatures, the condensation freezes almost instantly on cold surfaces making it much harder to remove.
We'll be pretty well sealed up in the RV, along with plenty of sources of humidity - showers, washing dishes, wet towels and ski gear drying, etc. Propane is what's known as a "wet fuel" - it produces water vapor when it's burned. While the furnace and water heater combustion chambers are outside the RV and hence don't contribute moisture to the inside air, the stove and oven will both increase the humidity.
We recently purchased a 35 pint dehumidifier and have integrated it into our home automation system. We've been dialing it in during the past week and are using the built-in mold indicator in Home Assistant to automatically turn on the dehumidifier when necessary based on the inside humidity and temperature differential between inside and outside.
The dehumidifier sits in our shower and we keep the bathroom door open so the air can circulate freely. So far we've been really impressed!
Unlike residential fridges which use a compressor, our RV fridge (like others that can run on propane) uses an absorption system. The basic premise is that ammonia and hydrogen mix, absorbing heat from the surrounding area and hence cooling the fridge. But at low temperatures, the ammonia condenses and the whole system stops working.
Our Norcold fridge is fitted with a cold weather kit which should allow it to work in ambient temperatures down to about 0°F. It's thermostatically controlled and automatically turns on when temperatures approach freezing.
I have installed a temperature sensor on the fridge coil itself, as well as in the outside compartment so I can keep a close eye on the temperatures there. If we see it getting too cold, we'll have to look at ways to add supplemental heat to that area - perhaps by protecting it from cold air outside, adding some form of heater (e.g. a heat lamp) or by ducting warm cabin air into the space.
We have temperature sensors in our fridge and freezer so we'll know pretty quickly if they're struggling!
As well as our trailer, we also need to think about our truck - a 2016 Ford F-150.
The good news is that trucks are typically designed to handle conditions much colder than those which we're expecting to face - they're sold throughout North America, including Canada. That being said, I posed the question in an owners' forum to see if they had any tips for me, and got some great advice! Here are some of the highlights.
We're in need of two new tires on the truck anyway, so we'll be replacing these with two new BFGoodrich KO2 T/A tires. We've been running these for years now and have always been very impressed with them. The truck is 4x4 with modes for AWD, 4H and 4L, plus a locking rear differential if we really need it.
While not a pure winter tire, they're winter-rated (with the 3-peak symbol) and reviews describe their handling in snow and ice as excellent. Since we don't have anywhere to store tires, switching to true winter tires isn't an option for us, but we think these will be fine.
The truck is also due an oil change, so when I take it in, I'll be sure to ask for their recommendation on a good oil for cold weather. We replaced the battery this summer with a brand new high-capacity AGM, so we should be fine on that front.
The general advice was to take things easy and be gentle on the truck. We have the remote start feature so we can let the truck warm up (the engine and passenger compartment) for 10 minutes or so before we need to drive. Until the engine is up to temperature, they recommended taking it really easy - good advice for driving in snowy or icy conditions anyway! I've been trying to use up the windshield washer fluid I have in there at the moment so I can refill it with some rated down to -40°F.
One specific recommendation was to reverse the FORScan hack I applied to make the mirrors auto-fold when locking the car.
Inside the truck, we're fortunate to have heated seats and a heated steering wheel which will be very welcome I'm sure! We always carry a good selection of off-road and recovery gear anyway, so that will be staying in the truck. We'll also be keeping a full change of clothes, some warm layers and maybe even our sleeping bags inside the truck too.
Last, we picked up a telescopic snow brush from Walmart so that we can clear the snow off the truck before we drive. We'll be picking up a snow shovel too!
I always like to be as prepared as possible since it's not just about keeping ourselves safe and comfortable, but we may be able to help out someone else in need if we have the right gear.
We're trying to prepare as much as possible so that we can stay safe, warm and dry this winter without it costing us a fortune in electricity and propane.
Undoubtedly we're going to learn a lot this winter about camping in cold conditions, and we'll be sharing what we learn as we go. I'm sure there are still things we've forgotten so if you have any specific recommendations for us then please leave us a comment below!
Stay safe, and stay warm!