Winter camping has its own set of joys and fun activities, different from those of camping in warm weather. From the inside of your RV, watching the snowfall and freeze while you’re all warm and toasty can feel like a dream. Winter camping as actually just as popular as camping during other seasons, according to a 2017 report. However, one thing poses a threat to your idyllic wintertime adventure- sub-zero temperatures.
Aside from cold noses and toes, these low temperatures have the ability to freeze your RV plumbing system. The onboard water system is a huge benefit to camping in RVs, with a toilet and a shower always available, it’s one huge reason people choose RVs and travel trailers over tent camping. However, your mobile plumbing system has the potential to freeze, and this could even cause ruptures in pipes and tanks, turning your cold-weather retreat into a frozen nightmare.
Not only the fresh water system but the waste tanks as well are in danger. But don’t fret, there are plenty of methods you can employ to keep your RV in tip-top condition and make sure your winter camping vacation goes off without a hitch. Winterizing your RV for storage and long journeys in freezing temperatures is explained below, along with how to insulate your water pipes and skirt your RV, to keep warm air circulating and hot water flowing.
RV camping in freezing temperatures
If it’s your first time RVing in sub-freezing temperatures, we suggest you go to a campground or RV park with full electric hookups. This will ensure you have plenty of power to keep your furnace running, your batteries charged, and generally keep you and your RV happy. When you’re on the road to the campsite, you can keep your LP (propane) turned on. This is the easiest solution, just keep your furnace running on low.
If you aren’t comfortable leaving your LP on, it’s best to leave your RV winterized until you reach your campsite and take on water. Winter camping can be very rewarding, whether you’re enjoying the beautiful snowy National Parks, or checking out some ski resorts when there are fewer tourists around. It may seem like there’s a lot that can go wrong, but knowledgable RVers will tell you that it’s possible to camp in freezing temperatures, so long as you’re careful and follow the guidelines we’ve set out below.
Winterizing your RV
To winterize your RV is to simply to prepare it to withstand cold weather conditions. It’s usually done before putting your camper into storage for the winter. A large part of this is preparing the plumbing system, but it also involves preparing your camper’s interior, exterior, and chassis as well. The plumbing faces the biggest threat from damage however, so this is the logical place to start. If you don’t take the necessary precautions to protect your RVs water system, any remaining water in holding tanks or water lines can freeze, expand, and break fittings and water lines.
To winterize your RVs plumbing system, you will need a few supplies, which can be found at most RV parts stores:
- Non-toxic RV/marine antifreeze, 2-3 gallons depending on your RV’s system
- A water heater bypass kit, if you don’t already have one installed
- A tank cleaning want, to clean and flush the black water tank (if your RV doesn’t have a built-in tank flushing system)
- A water pump converter kit, or tubing to connect to the inlet side of the pump
- Basic hand tools, for removing and installing drain plugs
Always read your RV owner’s manual before winterizing, as there may be unit-specific instructions. Some RVs actually come with built-in winterizing controls, so if you’re lucky enough to own one, winter camping becomes much easier.
How to winterize your RVs water system
1. Remove any inline water filters. If you have one at a sink faucet, you may need to install a bypass hose. Locate and drain the fresh water tank, the grey and black water tanks (at a dump station), and the water heater tank.
2. Open all faucets and flush the toilet, to help get the last bits of water out of the system. This includes the shower, inside or out. Locate and open low point water drain lines, there should be one for both hot and cold water. You can use your 12v pump to help force most of the remaining water out of the system, but turn it off as soon as your system is empty to prevent damage. Recap all the drains and close the faucets.
3. Bypass the water heater. Most RVs have a bypass installed, but if yours doesn’t, you’ll need to install one or have it installed at a service facility. Failing to bypass the water heater will cause it to fill with antifreeze, wasting 6-10 gallons.
4. Install the water pump converter to introduce the RV antifreeze into the water system.
5. Turn on your 12v water pump, to pressurize the system and pump the antifreeze throughout. Start the faucet closest to your pump until you see antifreeze come out, and repeat this process on all faucets working further out from the pump, finish with the outside shower if you have one.
6. Flush the toilet until the antifreeze appears, and pour a cup full down each drain. Pour some in the toilet, and flush so that and remaining water in the holding tank won’t freeze.
So, now your RV is prepared for storage throughout the winter or prepared to go on the road through freezing temperatures to your campsite. Once you get there, of course, you’ll need to refill the system with fresh water, but there should be no damage caused on the road. If you keep your RV winterized until you arrive at the site, you’ll need to flush out all the antifreeze before you refill your system- do this by attaching a hose to your water hookup, and opening all faucets. Let the water run through the system and flush out all the antifreeze for at least 10 minutes until the water runs clear.
We recommend filling your fresh water tank as the next step, although you shouldn’t fill it to capacity, just in case the water freezes. If this happens, the ice will be able to expand into the space left into your holding tank, rather than threatening to rupture it. It’s also advised to use your water tanks when in a campsite in the winter, and not leave your camper hooked up to the city water, as this leaves your water hose susceptible to freezing.
Once you reach the campsite
By the time you get to your campground, there are a few things you should do to keep your plumbing protected and running smoothly.
- Unless your freshwater hose is heated, fill your tank upon arrival and immediately drain and store the hose. If your fresh water tank isn’t heated and you’re concerned it may freeze during your stay, don’t fill it completely. Leave enough room for expansion so if it does freeze the holding tank won’t burst.
- If you have an exterior shower, remove the head and drain the hose. The showerhead is the part in most danger of freezing and damage, so just store it inside your RV when not in use. If the back of your shower opens into an interior cabinet, leave the door open to protect the water lines and allow some warm air to get in and circulate, helping to keep water lines warm.
- If you know there are electric hookups at your campsite, consider taking an electric heater. This will save you both propane and furnace time. Try to get an electric heater that shuts off if it tips over for safety purposes, or an oil-filled electric heater, to eliminate fan noise at night. If your freshwater pipes are located in the back of your cabinets, leave the doors open to allow heat to circulate. If they’re in the floor alone heating ducts, occasionally cycle your furnace to prevent them from freezing.
- Prevent your holding tanks and valves from freezing by adding RV antifreeze to the tanks.
- Be aware that during your travels, ice can build up in your dump valves and termination cap. If this happens, use a heat gun or hair dryer to melt the ice.
Wrapping your water hose
Wrapping your water hose is a great way to prevent freezing, by keeping it warm and insulating.
You will need:
- Heat tape or heat cable, the length of your hose
- Foam insulation tubes
- Duct tape
1. Run the heat tape or heat cable parallel along the length of your water hose. Use tape to secure it in place every foot (30cm).
2. Cover both the hose and heat tape with foam insulation tubes. You can buy these at most hardware stores, they’re usually split on one side. Press your hose inside and wrap around duct tape every 1-2 feet to keep it in place. Cover the whole hose with this insulation.
3. Wrap the outside of the foam with pipe insulation tape. This is has a foil-like exterior and will prevent heat from escaping. Wrap it along the length of your water hose, overlapping each piece to prevent any gaps. The same can be achieved using aluminum foil and holding it in place with duct tape.
4. If you’re using a heat cable, it should be plugged into a power source in order to stay warm. The cable will detect when temperatures become too low and automatically turn on to provide heat to your water hose.
5. This method can also be applied to your sewer hose or any other external hose. We recommend you always store water hoses coiled and safe inside your RV, no matter the weather, but in freezing temperatures, this is much more important. It’s a necessary precaution to avoid damaging the hose.
Insulating water valves
Using skirting around your RV is an excellent way to keep heat in and unfriendly weather out. Some RVers choose to use alternative methods such as hay bales, but these can attract mold and vermin, so it’s better to use traditional skirting.
1. Use skirting around your RV to hold in heat and keep water lines from freezing. A skirt shields the area underneath your RV from the outside elements and protects exterior water lines and valves. The wind blowing underneath your RV can freeze water holding tanks and actually suck heat out of your RV, so skirting is a very effective form of insulation. You can also use insulating foam boards around the perimeter of your RV to help prevent it from getting cold underneath. Make sure these fit as snugly as possible so they are the most effective.
2. Keep a heat lamp handy to melt any ice that might form. Water valves are usually located in an exterior compartment on your RV, meaning they are more susceptible to freezing. You can use a small space heater or a heat lamp to keep these components warm and prevent damage, just remember to switch them off when you aren’t using them.
3. Avoid dumping water tanks until they’re almost full. Empty tanks are more likely to freeze and plug valves and hoses with ice, so keep the valves closed so the water stays inside. When you’re dumping, leave about 1/4 of the liquid in to help prevent freezing.
4. Use a holding tank heater if you’re worried about freezing temperatures. These are essentially electric blankets that wrap around the tank to keep it from freezing. You can simply turn it on whenever temperatures dip below zero.
Thawing frozen hoses
If you’re unfortunate enough that your hoses do freeze, there are a few methods you can employ to thaw them out quickly.
1. Use a heat gun on the hose connections to thaw any frozen water. Point the gun at the frozen area for 5-10 minutes, moving it around and changing the angle to help all the ice to melt. If you don’t have a heat gun, you can use a hairdryer, but this is less effective and may take significantly longer.
2. Once the connections are thawed, carefully disconnect the hose from the ports on your RV and the water supply. If it still seems difficult to disconnect, use your heat gun to thaw it further. Never force it as you could cause damage.
3. With the openings of the hose pointed upward to prevent thawing ice from spilling out, bring your hose inside your RV to the warm air. You can leave it in the shower so that the water simply drains out as it melts until the hose is empty.
4. Check your water hose for damage before reattaching- since water expands when it freezes, it has the power to burst your hose or water pipes. Check your hose for cracks, tears, splits or any weak area, before deciding that it’s safe to use. We recommend keeping a spare water hose in your RV in case of such damage, especially during the winter months.
Insulating your RV
Adding some extra insulation to your RV will help both you and your water pipes keep warm on winter camping trips. Insulating around the base of your RV can block cold winter winds from damaging piping, so there are endless benefits to adding extra insulation to your RV.
- Check the sealing on the windows and doors. Throughout summer you probably won’t notice any tiny gaps in the sealant around your doors and windows, but when it comes to colder months, these can make a big difference. Replace any areas that are missing or weak, and the same goes for the weather stripping around exterior doors. This will help prevent cold air and moisture from leaking in.
- Window film and reflective foil coverings are great cost-effective ways to insulate your RV windows- you’d be surprised how much heat escapes through the glass. Foil lined reflective insulation can be custom cut to fit your RV’s windows and will actually reflect heat back into the camper.
- You can use foam board flooring to insulate your RV floor, or alternatively, heavy rugs and carpets can also help keep freezing temperatures at bay.
Winter camping in freezing temperatures holds its own set of challenges for RVers. There are frozen pipes, burst water lines, and cold toes to worry about, but by taking the proper precautions, you can keep your RV system safe and happy. Keep track of indoor and outdoor temperatures by using the thermostat installed in your motorhome. Following our guidelines can help prevent freeze-ups and protect your plumbing systems from cold weather, and now you know how to keep RV pipes from freezing when camping. Always winterize if your camper is going into storage, or just sitting unused for any period in cold weather. It’s worth it to spend an hour or two putting antifreeze through the system, to avoid potentially expensive replacements in the future.
Winter RV camping can be a wonderful experience, as every different season presents its own challenges. Whether it’s freezing temperatures or camping in the rain, everything you and your motorhome make it through gives you more valuable experience as an RVer.
Bonus tip: For some more information about other winter camping essentials you can check out this video below!