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One of the most common questions I see in full-time RV forums is “What do I need to do to prepare my RV for winter?” so I thought I would share some tips and things we have done to protect our RV systems from freezing, reduce energy costs, and stay comfortable living in a camper in cold weather.
Things We Do to Prepare for Winter RV Living
In this article, I’ll be sharing how we do the following:
- Protect our the water supply system from freezing and pipes from bursting
- Protect the sewage system from freezing
- Supplement our RV’s furnace with other heat sources
- Skirt our RV with cheap DIY RV skirting
- Insulate our RV’s windows (without blocking out the sunlight!)
- Insulate our slideouts to prevent heat loss through the floors
Here’s a quick video overview:
Scroll on to get all of the details!
What Our Climate is Like in Winter
We are about to enter our second winter living in our fifth wheel, and since we bought the RV in summer of 2016 we have been parked stationary in Kansas City (on the Kansas side). (In case you are wondering right now why we don’t just move south for winter, it’s because we are tied to a job here for now.) The climate here is not as severe as some places people might be living or camping in the winter, but it can get pretty cold.
To let you know what kind of weather we’re preparing for in our RV, a typical winter day in this part of the country is below freezing at night and above freezing during the day. Usually we will get a couple of weeks each year where the high temperatures don’t get above freezing and the lows are close to zero, but we rarely get sub-zero temperatures. And although we usually get at least some snow and possibly ice, the snow doesn’t stay on the ground for more than a few days.
Cold Weather RV Features
We live in a 2009 Keystone Everest, which is a 38-foot fifth wheel with four slide-outs. It is supposed to be a four-season RV, which means it includes the following features to supposedly help insulate and protect against cold weather:
- Extra insulation
- Vents in the roof to release excess moisture from the “attic”
- An enclosed underbelly
- Heat ducts and vents in the storage bay area, where much of the plumbing system is located
- An enclosed water connection point with a heater vent blowing into the enclosure
We specifically shopped for a four-season RV when we chose our Keystone because we knew we would be spending winters in cold weather. However, some people do camp in cold weather in campers that don’t have all of these features.
(For a list of the features to look for in a four-season RV check out my Guide to Buying an RV to Use in Cold Weather.)
Cold Weather Camping Ideas from Other RVers
Before I go into more detail about the ways we prepare our RV for winter, here are a few cold weather camping tips I’ve seen from people who live in climates colder than ours or who maybe don’t have all of the features we have:
- Line the backs of cabinets (that are on an exterior wall) with Reflectix to help prevent heat from escaping through the walls (I’m not sure how much this helps, though, since heat can still escape through the main walls of the RV).
- Spray the bottom of the camper with spray foam. This isn’t something I can recommend from personal experience; it’s just something I know some people do, especially if they don’t have an enclosed underbelly. If I were going to do it, though, I would want to make sure I didn’t do any spraying that would prevent me from accessing certain systems if they needed repair. An alternative is to attach foam board insulation to the bottom of the RV.
- Put Reflectix on the backs of storage bay access doors to help insulate the space under the RV
- Wrap the slides with foam board or vinyl to cut down on heat loss through the walls, tops, and floors of slideouts
- Additional tips I will mention later in this article
Protecting our Water Supply System from Freezing
Since we live in a mobile home park and are connected to a city water supply, we have never used our fresh water tank, and we needed to protect our fresh water line from freezing. To do this we purchased a heated water hose. Some people wrap their regular hose with heat cable and pipe insulation, but our water connection is so far from the city water pipe that we wouldn’t have saved much money doing it that way.
We did have one issue with freezing last year, when the city water pipe sticking out of the ground that our mobile home park was supposed to be responsible for winterizing froze. The only thing they had done to protect the pipe from freezing was to wrap it with insulation and plastic, and the part right next to the ground wasn’t adequately protected, and it froze during a cold snap where the high temperatures were in the single digits.
Here’s a photo of the mobile home park’s inadequate insulation job:
After a neighbor helped us thaw the pipes with a crazy high powered industrial heater he brought from his place of work, I removed the park’s insulation, wrapped the pipe with electric heat tape, covered it with more insulation and plastic, then for good measure I lined a Rubbermaid storage tote with foam board and put it upside down over pipe. It did not freeze again, lol.
Here’s a photo of how I insulated the pipe and water connection:
And here is the insulated Rubbermaid tub I put over the whole thing:
Protecting Our Sewage Pipes from Freezing
Some people leave both their gray and black tanks closed during cold weather and only open them for dumping, but we really wanted to be able to leave our gray tank open and not have to worry about it. After researching, I realized that unless we were in a climate where liquid could freeze in the amount of time it took to travel through the hose (which we were not), it would be okay to leave our hose hooked up and our gray tank open as long as it could drain quickly without any places where liquid could collect.
To make sure our hose drained quickly, we built a downhill track for it out of cheap vinyl guttering and cinder blocks. (We did have one of those accordion folding type of sewer hose supports, but it was constantly falling over and we wanted something sturdier.) Additionally, our sewer hose runs under the bottom of our RV and is fully enclosed with skirting, so frozen sewage hasn’t been a problem for us.
As for our tanks, they stayed plenty warm, having the warmth from the storage bay radiating through the floor on one side, and because our skirting kept them warm enough on the other side. For people who need extra protection against frozen tanks, tank heaters are an option. However, it’s important to make sure that pipes in addition to tanks are protected from freezing.
How We Heat Our RV
When the temperatures dip below freezing, we make sure to run our propane heater so it can blow into our storage bay and keep our pipes and tanks warm. But we use electric heat as backup for when we run out of propane in the middle of the night (because sometimes we are irresponsible and forget about our propane tanks) and because it’s cheaper for us as a main source of heat when the temperatures are above freezing.
These are our electric heat sources:
- An infrared heater, Dr. Infrared brand–we love this thing. It heats our whole lower level pretty evenly, stays cool to the touch, and has a thermostat.
- Our electric fireplace heater (although we hardly used it last year, we have been using it quite a bit so far this year).
- A little ceramic space heater (We keep it in our bedroom so it will be handy if we run out of propane in the middle of the night…which has happened.)
Although many or even most cold weather RVers use electric heaters, there are some safety risks associated with running a space heater in an RV you need to be aware of. Please see my blog post “Is it Safe to Use a Space Heater in an RV?” for more information.
For propane heat, we have two 7-gallon propane tanks. Even though I tried to be, I wasn’t very meticulous in my propane record keeping last year, but here is a rough estimate of our propane usage for a few of the winter months based on my rough notes.
We buy propane either from a nearby U-Haul, which is more expensive (over $3/gallon including their base fee), or from Tractor Supply Co., which is cheaper ($1.86/gallon last winter, and they don’t charge any additional fees) but is unfortunately located 30 min. away from us. (Note: This blog post was written in 2017, so prices have definitely changed since then!)
October – about 20 gallons
November – about 22 gallons
December – about 35 gallons
January – about 35 gallons
Other Options for Heating an RV
I want to briefly mention a couple of other options for heating an RV during winter, even though I haven’t tried these myself, so that you can be aware of them as you’re considering the best solutions for your situation:
Heating an RV with a Wood Stove
I know this may sound crazy, but believe it or not there are actually quite a few people who have installed a small wood stove in their RV as an off-grid heating source. Many of these people are stationary RVers, but some of them actually travel. You can read more about heating an RV with wood in my article Heating an RV with Wood: Safety Tips and Wood Stove Reviews.
CheapHeat RV Furnace Modification
A company called RV Comfort Systems has developed a way to modify an RV furnace to run on electricity instead of propane called CheapHeat, and you can even add a control switch to be able to easily switch it from propane to electricity and vice versa depending on which one is more affordable for you at the time.
The company provides documentation for the installation process so that you can have it installed by any licensed RV mechanic so you don’t have to worry about whether or not it’s safe to use.
RV Comfort Systems has graciously provided readers of my site with a 10% discount with the coupon code RVINSPIRATION.
Reducing Heat Loss in Our RV
Skirting our RV
I don’t know if we actually need skirting to keep our pipes and tanks from freezing, but we decided to go ahead and use it just to be safe, and it made a huge difference in keeping our RV warmer inside and preventing heat loss. We made our own removable, reusable vinyl skirting out of recycled billboard vinyl for around $200, which you can read about in my article about the project.
Later, we ended up staying at an RV park that only allowed foam board skirting, so I also have a blog post about how we made the foam board skirting pictured below.
I also have an in-depth guide comparing other types of RV skirting if you’d like to explore other options, including custom RV skirting and a newer type of inflatable RV skirting called AirSkirts that’s designed to be easy to set up and take down for RVers who travel frequently in cold weather (shown below).
Insulating our RV’s Windows
Our RV windows are only single pane, so we cover them with plastic to reduce heat loss in our RV, and it makes such a big difference.
This year I was kind of lazy about getting them covered and we ended up having some cold days with them uncovered, and on one of those days when it was around 32 degrees outside I found that while our thermometer read 75 degrees on our refrigerator, it read 66 degrees after being moved next to a window.
Some people cover their windows with Reflectix in the winter, but having sunlight in my home during winter has a positive influence on my mood, so I can’t stand covering my windows and making my home feel like a cave–I have to use something that still lets light through.
Last year we covered our windows with a combination of bubble wrap and shrink plastic, and this year I made storm windows out of plexiglass and removable Velcro covers for the screens from clear vinyl. I wrote a separate blog post about my experiences with various cold weather window protection methods if you’d like to check it out.
Preventing and Dealing with Condensation
Some people who full time in an RV in cold winter climates have problems with condensation accumulating on the windows. Fortunately we haven’t encountered this problem, but for those that do, insulating the windows can make a big difference.
Running a humidifier can help as well, but just lowering the humidity alone can still result in money literally going out the window (in the form of electric or propane heat) if your windows are still cold, and if you do insulate your windows, you may find this alone solves the condensation problem. (If not, I do have a blog post all about what causes condensation in RVs and ways to prevent it.)
Below is a picture I took earlier this fall of a window I hadn’t yet insulated next to one of my windows covered with plexiglass immediately after I released steam from my Instant Pot; you can definitely see the difference in the temperature of these two windows (if the plexiglass had been cold, the steam would’ve fogged it up as well).
Insulating Our Closet
The walls of our closet seem to be more poorly insulated than the rest of our RV, which makes our bedroom feel pretty drafty on cold nights, especially on my husband’s side of the bed next to the closet.
In the past I tried taping some extra Reflectix to closet walls to see if it would help, but I didn’t have enough to fully line it so I always intended to do a better job later, but then I heard of some people having problems with condensation accumulating underneath the Reflectix they used to line their cabinets, so I abandoned this idea.
Then one of my subscribers sent me an idea that I love. She found a moisture-resistant, adhesive foam panel product designed to look like wood planks or white bricks. I loved how the product made the closet look, so I decided to try it, figuring that even if it didn’t help with the cold, at least it would look better than the beige wallpaper that I’d always regretted leaving unpainted when we painted our RV’s walls.
I love the results, and I do think the closet feels warmer, but I can’t prove it scientifically. Here’s a blog post I wrote about how I did the project.
Reducing Heat Loss in Our Slides
Even after putting on our skirting last year, I noticed that the floors of the slides in our living area were extremely cold. There didn’t seem to be a draft, and the seals around the edges of the slides seemed fine; it was actually the floors themselves that were, according to my thermometer, a good 20 degrees colder than the rest of the room.
To solve this problem, I went to Lowe’s and purchased some foam board, and we duct taped it to the bottom of each slide. This made a huge difference in the temperature of the floor and the warmth of the whole RV. If I had it to do over again, though, I would use HVAC tape instead of duct tape as it holds in all kinds of weather and not leave residue when removed.
If we move some place else we may have to improvise some other solutions depending on our new circumstances, but this is what works for us in the meantime!
For more winter RV tips, check out my Winter RVing Resource Page!