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There’s plenty to be said for being spontaneous while you are full-time RVing. But winter RV living is definitely going to turn out best with some planning and preparation.
We didn’t plan very far in advance as we traveled the continent in our travel trailer for 17 months.
Of course, we went from the initial idea of “possible” full-time RV living to actually moving into the RV in 100 days. So what do you expect?
As we have aged, it seems that we have also grown more spontaneous. We make decisions quickly and act even quicker.
This new ability has put us in some fantastic situations and allowed some amazing things to take place in our lives. It has also put us into some stressful situations in the cold weather that could have been avoided with a little planning and preparation.
On our next big RV adventure, we might choose to follow an RV route that keeps us in constant 70 degree weather. But that’s not how it went for our maiden voyage, and now you can reap the benefits of the lessons we learned the hard way as we experienced winter RV living for the first time.
7 Hard Lessons We Learned About Winter RV Living
Let me start out by saying that I don’t have any true regrets about our full-time RV travels (with the exception of not being equipped to boondock extensively). All in all, our travels went about as smoothly as you can hope for and our family made memories that will last us several lifetimes.
Having said that, it’s not very hard to look back and find lessons that we did indeed learn the hard way. Some of those hard lessons could have been avoided with a bit more time and attention given to planning and execution. No doubt about it.
1. A Heated RV Water Hose Is Worth Its Weight In Gold
When we rolled out of the moderate climate of Sedona, Arizona in early December of 2017 and headed north toward Utah, we did not know what we were getting ourselves into.
Our stop in Williams, Arizona (west of Flagstaff) for a few days definitely got a bit chillier. We actually had the perfect temps to do some exploring around the Grand Canyon and fully enjoyed it.
But then, things got real. Real chilly, that is.
When we rolled into Utah in that second week of December and put down roots for a week or so in Kanarraville (just south of Cedar City) and explore nearby national parks, the extreme temps arrived just behind us. We didn’t even know what hit us.
We woke up that first morning with no water coming out of our faucets, introducing us for the first time to true cold weather RVing. After two or three nights of disconnecting and draining the RV water hose at night and reconnecting in the morning, I decided it was time to look at alternatives.
Of course, I tried the cheapest route first
When I headed into Cedar City to try and track down a heating option for our water hose, I wasn’t even sure what I was looking for yet. I hadn’t even explored on Amazon because I wanted the solution NOW.
So after a couple of unsuccessful stops at local stores, I found a farm and tool supply store that carried a couple of options that I thought might work: a heating plate normally put under pet beds (about $35), and an actual heated water hose (over $100). You can guess which one I chose. (Did I mention that I learn things the hard way sometimes?)
It only took one night, and another frozen hose, to understand that the heating plate option was not going to cut it in the low-teen temps we were experiencing.
Back to the store I went to exchange that first purchase for what should have been my first purchase: a heated RV water hose like this.
That product worked great…but it wasn’t the end of our fight with frozen hoses that winter. You can see a bit more of that story and see some additional RV accessories I recommend in the “water” section of this post.
(Hint: When you plug in your heated RV water hose, make sure the outlet has power to it!)
If you would prefer a DIY option for your heated hose, which I ended up choosing in the end and was very happy with, you can check out this YouTube tutorial.
2. Propane Tanks Will Only Run Out In the Middle of the Night
I guess it’s human nature to push things as far as they can go. And that includes the limits of your propane tanks.
When I look back on it, it was kind of like playing a game of “chicken” with those tanks…betting that the morning would arrive before they could empty themselves.
And more than once, I paid the price for playing that ill-advised game. Well, I should say WE paid the price, because we all had some very chilly mornings due to my lack of planning. (Sorry family!)
On our travel trailer, we had two 20-lb (5 gallon) tanks. Seemed like plenty to get us through just about anything. At least, it was for the summer and fall months.
But it didn’t take long for me to get a feel for just how much faster those tanks can run dry when the temps drop near zero. Or below zero as we experienced at our next long-term stop in Larkspur, Colorado.
Yup, just as the extreme temps (record-setting, if I remember correctly) dropped in on us during our stay in Utah, it didn’t take long for them to find us in Colorado as well in mid-December. (Yeah, duh.)
Christmas with family is important…and challenging
We had lived in the area for three years before our move to Texas, so we were very familiar with the climate. There was no doubt it could get bitterly cold, but we also knew it could be remarkably mild as well in the winter months. We just needed a little bit of luck on our side to keep things in that mild category.
But luck had left the building.
Instead, we quickly found ourselves plunged into the numbing reality of sub-zero wind chills. Yes, I believe Colorado also set some record lows during our two-week stay there. (Yay for records.)
The bottom line is that my estimates for our propane usage just couldn’t keep up with the reality of the conditions. We were emptying both tanks every other day or so, and I was very thankful our RV park had an on-site propane station. Otherwise, we would have been in a world of hurt!
So please, if you are heading into some extreme conditions, spend an extra few bucks and get an extra propane tank to keep with your rig so that you don’t have any miserable and stressful mornings like we did.
3. An RV Electric Heater Will Keep the Whole Crew Comfortable
Without a doubt, propane is your #1 friend when it comes to staying warm and comfy in your RV during the winter. If you don’t have it, you’ll quickly be a popsicle.
But having a backup/supplemental heat source also makes a lot of sense.
During our travels, we had a small RV electric heater like this one to add an extra layer of comfort. And it came in very handy on more than one occasion, that’s for sure.
If you have a larger RV, I would definitely recommend having at least two RV electric heaters this size, or a larger one with more output. This type is definitely for a small space and just won’t cut it in a Class A.
Your toes will thank you if you follow this advice from the road.
4. Time Passes Slower When You RV In the Cold (Plan Accordingly)
I love my family. I really do. We’ve been through plenty of stuff together and have come out the other side still tight.
But when you are “locked” in a small RV with any group of people without much hope of escape, let’s just say that things can get edgy. And occasionally ugly.
The reality is that you need to make some plans to get yourself and your family out of the RV for a decent amount of time each day or tensions will mount and things will blow. It’s like the human version of the Instant Pot, but the product is not nearly as enjoyable. 🙂
With the Instant Pot, the building pressure produces some very tasty meals that will actually be perfect for your cold weather RVing experience.
But when the RV becomes your own version of a pressurized Instant Pot, nothing good can really come out of it. So do yourself a favor and make some plans outside of the RV to keep everyone sane and satisfied during your RV travels.
(Purchasing the Instant Pot could have been a stand-alone lesson as well, because it was great to have for making soup and other dishes to warm the bones. Highly recommended!)
5. A 4 Seasons RV Still Has Its Limits (sorry water pump)
Did you think I was done with sharing our winter RV living saga? Never fear…I have more!
Colorado just kept on coming at us with its need to prove just how wintry and bitterly cold it could actually be. Clearly, we had severely underestimated its ability to do winter, despite having lived there!
So here’s how it went down: For five days around Christmas, we actually decided to get an Airbnb in Denver so that we could have a more reasonable drive to visit family during that period (it was close to an hour from our RV park to their place).
We had made those plans before the extreme temps hit, but we actually extended our stay a bit longer to try and allow for the coldest conditions to pass.
I did some things right…
While we were away from the RV, I thought I was taking the necessary steps by keeping the thermostat set at 55 degrees to keep everything from freezing and also making sure the heated water hose was disconnected and stored inside and the water pump was turned off.
I neglected to consider the location of our water pump in the travel trailer: in an enclosed space just inside the wall of the trailer, where it was more exposed to the cold temps and also cut off from the interior heat.
(I did make a trip back down to the RV during our time away so that I could refill the propane and make sure all was well. Such a genius.)
But I didn’t do all the things right
What I should have done (gotta love hindsight) is opened up the water pump enclosure so that heat could circulate into that space as well, attempted to close up gaps around the adjacent electrical cord to cut down on cold air intrusion, and also probably placed a small warming source (heat cable or a shop light) in that space with the water pump.
But none of that happened.
When we finally returned to the RV, we walked inside to find…that everything was perfect. No disasters, no messes, no issues. Yay! Time to warm it up and turn the water back on.
And that’s when it happened: a puddle of water started emerging from under our master bed.
Instant chaos and pandemonium ensued. There was yelling. People got upset. It wasn’t our finest moment.
As you can guess, that water pump had frozen and cracked. Even the city water passes through the water pump, so the water just spilled forth when it was turned back on. Since we got the water mopped up immediately, there was no damage to the travel trailer at all from the incident.
Luckily, I only had to drive about an hour away and spend $80 or so to get a replacement water pump and install it myself. This could have ended so much worse, but I hope that you are able to learn a lesson or three from our errors in this scenario and avoid the stress and expense.
6. A Heat Cable Has Many Practical Uses You Should Explore
As I mentioned above, the RV park personnel in Larkspur, Colorado were very helpful and gave us some valuable tips about cold weather RVing. If they hadn’t taken the time to enlighten us a bit when we arrived, our stay could have been far less enjoyable and far more expensive than it was.
He did tell us about keeping our gray tank closed and only draining when necessary, and also about keeping the RV hose flat to avoid dips that would cause ice dams in the hose and damage it.
But by far the most valuable tip he gave us was this: Purchase a heat cable and wrap it around the refrigerator condenser, located in an exterior panel of the travel trailer, to keep it from freezing and blowing.
As you might know, the refrigerator is probably the single most expensive item in your RV (at least for travel trailers). It should be protected at all costs.
If I hadn’t gotten that tip and our condenser had been damaged, we could have potentially been out $2,000+ for a new refrigerator. Yeah, ouch!
So thank you again, RV park guy, for sharing your wisdom and spreading the RV love with the community. I now pass it along in your honor.
Don’t forget about that DIY heated RV water hose
So in all, there are at least three very practical uses for that type of heat cable during winter RV living:
- Wrapping and protecting your refrigerator condenser (if located on the exterior)
- Creating a DIY RV water hose for FAR cheaper than purchasing one
- Placing around your RV water pump to protect from extreme temps (especially while away from the RV)
Heat cable: the winter RVer’s new best friend.
7. Winter RV Living Requires Some Planning Ahead
Yes, this one obviously goes without saying again. But sometimes the best wisdom, even if it seems obvious, bears repeating:
Planning ahead for your winter RV living is an absolute must that will save you heartache, headache and dollars in the long run!
You know that I’m speaking from experience here, as I have clearly laid out in front of you. Please learn from my mistakes.
Coming out of that experience, here are my best recommendations (a recap of everything I have mentioned) if you are heading into similar territory:
- Keep a spare propane tank (filled) with your rig
- Don’t leave your grey tank open, as you might normally do, or you will regret it. Just drain regularly.
- Take steps to keep your sewer hose from “ice damming” (place hose inside pipe that will avoid dips in the hose)
- Purchase several rolls of heat cable to keep handy for various uses (protect refrigerator condenser and water pump, create DIY heated hose, etc.)
- If you don’t want to DIY it, purchase a heated RV water hose to save your sanity (and keep you from freezing your tush off)
- Get yourself an Instant Pot to whip up some fantastic dishes and warm your bones
- Keep at least one small electric RV heater available for those coldest days
Do You Have Any Winter RV Living Tips to Share With Us?
Hey, we certainly don’t know it all. Many of you have a lot more RVing experience than we do. We would love to hear from you about lessons that you have learned, and tips that you have used, to keep yourself safe and warm during winter RV living.
Just drop your suggestions in the comments below, or ask any questions you may have. We would greatly appreciate both!
Todd Bonner is the slightly quieter half of the dynamic TREKKN duo. He spends most of his time sharing information about RV travel and safety, RV accessories and tips, and the National Parks he has visited and still desperately craves. When he’s not busy working on TREKKN, you will often find him staring at breathtaking pictures of Glacier National Park, probably his favorite spot on earth.