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Are you wanting to buy an RV you can use in cold weather? If so, you'll want to make sure the camper you choose can withstand freezing temperatures or else you may find yourself dealing with frozen pipes, spending a fortune on propane, or battling condensation and mold. In this article I'll go over some of the issues RV owners face when camping in winter, how to solve them, and what to features to look for in a four-season RV in order to avoid the problems and hidden costs that can arise when RVing in cold weather.
Can you use a regular camper in cold weather?
Some RV owners buy a cheap camper planning to live in it in a cold climate, figuring they'll just skirt the RV and run electric space heaters and everything will be fine. And while with enough creativity it is possible to survive cold weather in just about any kind of camper, “an ounce of prevention is worth a a pound of cure,” as the old saying goes.
Here are some of the issues that can arise when RVing in freezing weather and may be prevented by buying an RV that's built to withstand the cold:
- Frozen pipes and water lines – Many campers that aren't designed for cold weather have pipes and water lines that are exposed to the elements. If these freeze, they may stop working, or worse, they may burst and leak, resulting in a mess, water damage to your RV, and/or costly repairs.
- Heat loss through the walls, ceiling, and floor – Campers designed for use in warm weather don't usually have much insulation inside the walls, ceiling, or floor. Skirting your RV can help prevent heat loss through the floor, but may be inconvenient to use if you move a lot. A layer of snow can insulate your roof if you're in a place where snow stays on the ground all winter, but there's not much you can do to stop heat loss through your RV walls if they don't have adequate insulation. This can lead to the next two problems.
- Condensation, mold, and mildew – Condensation in an RV results when warm, moist air caused by everyday activities like cooking and breathing comes into contact with the cold surfaces…like poorly-insulated walls. These damp surfaces provide the perfect breeding ground for mold and mildew, which many RVers are constantly battling in places like under their mattress or in the back of their closet. Running a dehumidifier may help, but removing the moisture from the air doesn't solve the problem of cold walls. Also, dry air feels cooler than humid air, so running a dehumidifier non stop may also mean you have to set the thermostat to a higher temperature in order to feel comfortable.
- Heating cost – Keeping the inside of a large RV at a cozy temperature can easily cost hundreds of dollars per month, even with a four-season RV. In an RV that's losing heat through the walls, the heating system will be doing overtime to keep up.
What's the difference between “All Season”, “Four Season”, “Arctic Package” and “Polar Package”?
Now that you know why cold weather features are so important, you may be wondering what kind of RV you need to buy in order to know you're going to have better insulation and protection against freezing pipes.
Terms like “Four-Season”, “Polar Package” and “Arctic Package” are terms RV manufacturers and dealerships use indicate that an RV has features that help make it more habitable in cold weather, but they aren't a guarantee–they're just a starting point. You'll want to evaluate each feature separately to determine whether it will work for your needs.
Features to look for when evaluating an RV's cold weather readiness
Following is a list of features available in some RV's that help them withstand freezing temperatures. Look for these features when considering an RV to buy if you plan on camping in cold weather. Before buying an RV that's missing one or more of these features, you might want to research potential ways you can modify the RV to better prepare it for cold weather.
Features that protect the RV's plumbing system
- Enclosed underbelly (no exposed pipes, holding tanks, or water lines under the RV)
- Water hose connection point and/or dump valves for emptying holding tanks located in an enclosed, heated area (you'll also want to buy a heated water hose or wrap your hose with electrical heat tape and foam pipe insulation)
- Area where water heater and water lines are located is heated
- Sewage pipes all drain downhill so that no liquid can become trapped and freeze
- Holding tanks are enclosed and/or heated (you can also buy tank heaters to install yourself if yours are exposed and unheated)
Features that reduce heat loss
- Extra insulation in walls, floors, and ceilings – look at the R-values to compare the insulation with other RV models, but realize that R-value doesn't tell the whole story (read why in this article about the myths surrounding RV insulation). Walls with a layer of foam insulation in addition to or instead of fiberglass insulation are going to do a much better job at holding in heat.
- Enclosed underbelly (provides an extra barrier to prevent heat loss through the floor)
- Heated underbelly (heating elements or heater vents keep pipes and waterlines inside the enclosed underbelly warm)
- Ducted storage bay area (heater vents blow into the storage area under the RV)
- Furnace ductwork runs through the floor
- Double-pane windows (Single-pane RV windows can be insulated with plastic or plexiglass, but this is a time-consuming task that it would be nice to avoid).
Other features that help RV's withstand cold weather
- 30k+ BTU propane furnace
- An electric “fireplace” as supplemental heat (which is really just a space heater, but indicates the RV wiring is safe for running electric heater)
- Attic vents to reduce humidity and prevent condensation
- Cold weather protection for refrigerator
What kind of cold weather RVer are you?
In order to determine which cold weather features you need, think about about how you'll be using your RV.
If you'll mainly be camping in warm weather but just want to be sure you're prepared for the occasional fall camping trip or chilly night, you won't need nearly as much in the way of cold weather protection as if you are planning to live in your RV full time in a place where the temperature stays below freezing for multiple days.
And if you will be in a climate where the temperature drops below zero, you will want every possible protection you can afford, and will probably need to do some additional modifications to prepare for winter as well.
Another important consideration is how frequently you plan to travel in cold weather. If you will be staying in one place all winter long, you can skirt your camper to help protect it from the elements. But if you plan to move on a regular basis, you may want to consider an RV that doesn't require too much in the way of cold weather preparation.
By thinking through the effect freezing temperatures may have on your RVing experience, you can weigh the cost and benefits of buying an RV that is designed to withstand the cold.
More tips for RVing in cold weather
To learn more about the things you can do to survive freezing weather in an RV, check out this cold weather RVing resource page.