While most RV boondockers prefer to head south in the winter for warmer climates, there are still a few hard core campers who make a habit of roughing through the freeze.
If you’re new to boondocking or RVing, don’t attempt to live in your rig during freezing temperatures for any significant length of time. There are a lot of factors to consider, and a lot of preparation that needs to be done…
Boondocking in Freezing Temperatures
Boondocking in freezing weather is a serious matter that demands your fullest attention. It’s something you should prepare for at about a couple months in advance. When you have a spouse or child with you, you will stress and worry all through the night because you know they are depending on you. But once you emerge from it successfully, you’ll feel as if you’ve graduated to a higher plane of off-grid enlightenment…
Snow Tires or Tire Chains
If you plan to boondock for at least a week in freezing temperatures, you will need to be able to drive out of your camp site and get to a store for supplies, assistance, or even medical help if necessary. If however, you allow yourself to be locked into your camp site because your vehicle cannot get traction over icy roads, then you’re effectively at the mercy of forest rangers, law enforcement, or other emergency personnel.
Loss of Propane Pressure
Remember that propane tanks will freeze up once temperatures inside the tank drops to below -44 degrees F. At that point, you will no longer be able to get any propane from your tanks. Even if temps have not hit -44 degrees F, pressure will continue to drop inside those tanks. There are companies that make propane tank blankets, but these can be expensive.
You may experience a drop in propane pressure just from running too many appliances at once. You may have to coordinate what to shut off and what turn on. A higher quality propane regulator, one designed to answer increased demand with higher pressure, will solve that. The Marshall Excelsior (MEGR-253HP) Regulator (see it on Amazon) is an example, and is probably the most respected among propane tank users.
Do not move your propane tanks inside your RV living space. Even a tiny leak at the valve or other connection, can kill you while you’re sleeping at night, especially when you’re talking about the larger #20 or #30 pound tanks. The smaller 1 gallon canisters are fine to use indoors.
A Generator is Necessary to Survive the Winter
This is largely because the winter months, particularly in the northern states, deliver fewer hours of sunlight for solar panels. Moreover, if it snows where you’re camping, you will now have to climb up on the roof of your RV to sweep the panels clear.
A generator is far more reliable in keeping your batteries charged.
Get a generator that can provide between 3,600 to 5,000 watts of power. You can also get two 2,000 watt generators and chain them together for 50 amp service. You’re going to want this power to run a couple of electric heaters in your rig, as well as electric blankets, and to keep your water lines from freezing.
Buy one or two 5-gallon gasoline canisters, fill them up, and keep them handy. Also get a long narrow funnel, you will definitely want it when trying to pour from a very heavy, 5-gallon canister.
Generator Exhaust Inside Your RV
The exhaust from your generator will likely fill your RV’s interior. This is because freezing cold weather acts as a blanket that prevents warm exhaust from rising up into the atmosphere. Instead, that exhaust will billow horizontally across the ground, moving underneath your RV, and eventually finding tiny openings into your living quarters.
You can buy generator exhaust extension hose from Amazon (see it on Amazon), and move that exhaust further away from you.
Batteries Hate Being Charged in Freezing Temperatures
Most brands of flooded cell batteries and AGM batteries have difficulty charging at temperatures below -4 degrees F. Once a battery goes below that temperature, it effectively fails to charge, and will slowly suffer damage. At that point, all DC electrical systems in your RV will stop working, including your water heater, furnace, and water line heaters. You will need a battery warming pad to keep them at ideal operating temperatures.
If your battery is located inside the RV and protected from outdoor exposure, you can generally withstand colder outdoor temperatures before the battery reaches -4 degrees F. If your RV’s battery box is located on the tongue of a trailer, you’re going to have much more difficult time protecting the battery.
Lithium batteries are worse. They stop charging once temperatures reach 32 degrees F. RVers with a lithium battery bank must install a battery warmer, no ifs, ands, or buts about it.
Your Water Lines Will Freeze
If you have any amount of water line exposed to the outside air, it will freeze up. Most RVs use pexate piping which is actually designed to expand and prevent bursting. But still, if it’s frozen you will be without water. But these lines typically won’t freeze up until you get colder than 25 degrees F. This is because the heat inside your RV will radiate to the water line.
You should install water line heating pads (or pipe heaters) to any exposed amount of water line. It helps to also add insulating material (yellow fiberglass wrap with foam rubber wrap). These pads and heaters are designed to be wired to your RV’s battery bank.
If your RV is already equipped with water line heating pads or heaters, don’t let yourself feel rest assured that they’ll work. These heating pads generally require voltage between 12.8 to 13.5 volts to operate properly. If your battery voltage drops below that level before night time temperature hits freezing, then the pads or heaters are effectively useless. You will need a way to ensure you have proper voltage all through the freezing. The most popular way to ensure this is to keep a generator running all night long.
If your battery temperature has dropped extremely low, down to -4 degrees F or more, it won’t recharge, and therefore won’t be able to generate the voltage necessary to keep your water line heating pads working.
Note: Most water line heating pads are designed to work only when temperatures drop to below 42 degrees F. Hence, if you attempt to test your water line heating pads by turning them on and feeling the pads with your hand, you probably won’t feel any heat.
Freezing Water Tanks and Sewage Tanks
It actually takes a lot of cold along with several days exposure to cause water tanks and sewage tanks to freeze up and burst. Just because outdoor temperatures have dropped into the 20s, doesn’t mean your tanks will freeze. If day time temperatures get up into the 40s, and night time temperatures get into the 20s, your tanks will likely never freeze up. However, if day time highs only reach the 30s, and the lows dip into teens or single digits, your tanks will freeze up in a couple of days.
This also assumes that your tanks are exposed to the outside air. Some RVs have moved the fresh water tank to inside the cabin, allowing them (and the water lines) to remain protected from the freeze.
Obviously the same is true with gray tanks and black tanks. But, a bigger problem are the release valves. These will freeze pretty quickly, and you won’t be able to release sewage. You’ll have to crawl under the RV with a hair-dryer (running off a generator) to thaw out the valve so that you can dump.
Assuming you’re trying to maintain a tolerable 66 degrees F inside the RV with freezing temperatures outside, you will see a lot of water condensing on your windows, walls, and floors. Some of this water comes from you and your family breathing. But most of it comes from the use of portable propane heaters.
It’s not uncommon to have water running down your walls and windows and pooling on the floor. Some RVers have reported soaked carpets after boondocking for a week or more in freezing temperatures. We recommend using only rubber-backed carpeting. The rubber backing will prevent water from soaking the carpet.
If your RV’s subflooring is plywood board (which 90% of RVs are) then you must find a way to keep that floor dry, or else mold will set in and rot out that wood.
You can try using a dehumidifier to mitigate the condensation. Some boondockers say that keeping a couple of window cracked open will eliminate condensation, but in our experience, this doesn’t work too well, unless you open the windows all the way, and who wants to do that when it’s freezing outside?
Skirt Your RV
To guard against freezing water lines and tanks, hang a skirt around the bottom of your RV, running around the entire perimeter. This will stop cold breeze from blowing underneath. The skirt will also help retain some heat radiating from the floor.
If you can’t find any RV skirting available for purchase, use plastic storage bins instead and line them around your RV. Make sure to get the lids too, this will increase insulation. Use Reflectix Sheeting, or plastic trash bags, to fill the gaps in between the bins. Use large rocks inside the bins to keep them in place.
Run a Heater Below Your RV
Many campers will place an electric heater underneath their RV, directed towards the water lines. They will run this all night long. This only works if you’ve already run a skirt around your RV (see above). Do not use a propane heater underneath your RV if you have skirted the RV, because the propane exhaust will have nowhere to go.