In January of 2014 a very simple article was posted on The Airstream Chronicles. It was titled “Airstream Winter Camping Made Easy.” It was a tongue and cheek article with a simple answer for all those people out there who wanted to know about spending the winter in an Airstream or any other RV for that matter. In the article I offered two simple thoughts to make spending the winter in an RV easy.
- Hook up your Airstream (or any other RV depending on what you own).
- Go somewhere warmer.
Honestly, it is that easy. This year here at Living In Tin, we didn’t take our own advice. We’ve been in the Prescott area working with local clients, and we haven’t been out on the road much at all, with the exception of last week. And I’m sorry to report that since November it has been cold here. Really cold. Snow before our families in New England saw any, ice on the wind shield, frozen water lines, frozen sewer lines, and more. So, for this installment of Living in Tin we’re going to talk about the realities of over wintering in your RV in a cold region. You know, if you weren’t bright enough to head south! 😉
I thought I was in Arizona!
By the end of October things were cooling down in Prescott. And by the time my birthday rolled around, November 18th, I found myself wondering if I was back in New England. The temperatures really dropped! During the month of November we saw snow, sleet, freezing rain, and freezing temperatures. The weather over the past few months has felt more like weather in the White Mountains of New Hampshire than Arizona. Of course, we are at elevation in Prescott, so we do expect some cold weather.
Sure, our Airstream has heat. A propane powered blower. And yes, we can get it pretty toasty in here rather quickly. Turn up the heat, watch the temperature rise. Sadly, in the case of this Airstream we have very little buffer underneath our rig. I’ve never gotten a skirt to wrap around the Airstream, and what that means is our floors are incredibly cold!
Even getting the inside temperature to 70 degrees, the floor radiates cold. A lot of cold. So while we warm from the knees up, from the knees down we’re absolutely chilled to the bone. By the time we head off to sleep each night my feet feel like they’ve been frozen all day!
Travel Trailers in Cold Weather
In the case of our Airstream, we’re considered a “Travel Trailer.” As you can see from the image included, a snowed in Airstream, there’s nothing underneath the trailer. Cold wind blows under the Airstream and really drops the floor temperature. That cold air also hits our water tank, gray water tank, and black water tank. Each tank has the possibility of freezing if the temperatures get too low.
So while the heat inside can keep us warm enough, the underside of our unit is exposed to all of the elements. And this year we’ve found ourselves with frozen water lines, frozen water spigots, and even frozen levers on our Black & Gray water flushes.
In late November we discovered that we couldn’t drain the black or gray tanks. The handles were frozen solid, and the small amount of exposed piping from the tanks was also found to be frozen. The solution? Heat tape wrapped around the handles and pipes for about 6 hours.
Of all the RV types, I think travel trailers might be the toughest to keep truly warm over winter. As mentioned above, without any kind of wrap around your trailer the cold air, wind, etc, will continue to keep your floors cold no matter what. And even with heated tanks on some units, a week of 10 degrees Fahrenheit is not going to be enjoyable inside.
5th Wheels and Class A’s Have an Advantage
While coping with freezing temperatures you start to really notice differences in people’s rigs. 5th Wheel RVs and Class A’s have something your standard travel trailer doesn’t have.
No, not basements like homes in New England have. But both of these types of RV’s have storage under the units. They have huge amounts of storage under their rigs, allowing them to bring more fun goodies along on their trips. Beyond offering great storage, these basements also offer a buffer between the chilly temperatures outside and the floor temperature inside. Visiting friends 5th wheels in the park I’ve noted their floors aren’t radiating any cold. The underside storage provides a great buffer!
Our extremely cold floors here lead me down the path of wondering what living in a 5th Wheel would be like. Of course, I love my Airstream. But as I’m writing this I’m wishing my feet were warmer!
The Gear You Need
So, to survive overwintering in your RV you’re going to need a few items. Warm socks, long underwear, and winter clothes. Just like anyone else who lives in a cold climate, you’ll want to dress warm. But beyond keeping your own core temperature up, you’ll need to keep the core temperature of your RV up as well.
Heated Water Hoses
I’ve been a full time RV’er since 2006. And for many years I never worried about keeping my city water line warm. In the past few years though I’ve found it necessary to make my own heated hoses, and then I finally upgraded to a heated hose manufactured by Pirit.
If you’ve been through RV parks over winter that are actually open you’ll notice a few things. The park’s city water hookups are usually heated. There are many different ways to do it. Some parks pay a premium and install heated water connections throughout their locations. Others create make shift water boxes with heat tape in them. And parks that don’t do this normally aren’t open over winter.
Beyond the park’s water supply, you’ll also see many RV’s with elaborately constructed heated water hoses. Pipe insulation, heat tape, and some type of duct tape or piping tape. Normally the investment in creating your own heated hoses is about $100.00. $30 – $50 for your hose, $35 – $60 for your heat tape, and a few dollars thrown at pipe insulation and tape. Many people who over winter in colder climates leave their setups on all year, as they are permanent residents of the parks they’re in. So you can spot a permanent camper pretty easily during the warmer months. They’ve still got their home made water setups hooked up.
Unfortunately, going Do It Yourself on your winter water supply can be challenging. My first setup for keeping my city water flowing was a total failure. The heat tape was right up against the hose in a few spots, and when it got really cold out the heat tape got really hot. The end result? My water hose melted and water started pouring everywhere.
Over time I got better at constructing my own heated hoses, but usually after a few months of use they were ready for the garbage. After a little searching on the Internet I found our solution. The Pirit heated hoses. These are some pretty heavy duty hoses. They’re rated for providing water fit for human consumption, and the heating element is built into the hose itself. For about $110.00 you can get one of their hoses, and not play around with constructing your own. And when you think about your time and effort building your own, plus the expense of the materials, the Pirit heated hose makes a lot more sense!
For the first time in my RV’ing history I found my black water tank and gray water tank pipes and flush handles completely frozen. With temperatures in the teens for days, and with our Airstream facing the wrong way (our new site has our water on the north side, so no sun) we found ourselves unable to dump our dirty water. In addition to frozen handles, the pipes coming out to the dump valves were frozen too. Fortunately, a Home Depot is right up the road, so I took a trip and bought a 30ft long roll of heat tape.
Running the heat tape under the Airstream I had enough length reach both handles and the pipes. I made several wraps around the gray water pipe, and several more around the black water pipe. 6 hours after plugging the heat tape in I was set to flush!
You should keep in mind, freezing pipes in your RV is a bad idea. Eventually something can break, and you’ll find yourself with water everywhere. Or worse, with your black water everywhere!
Space Heaters Help too
As I sit here writing this article I have a Kenwood Space Heater a few feet away from me. It’s a radiating heater with oil inside it, and it’s an incredibly convenient space heater that tucks away nicely when not in use. This heater has been in the Airstream for years, and between it and the propane heater the Airstream has, we’ve always managed to keep it 70 inside. Well, 70 above the knees that is.
With the extreme cold we’ve been seeing here over the past few months we also got a small electric blower heater as well. That sits at the back of the Airstream and helps keep the bathroom warm. During the day, the Kenwood and the little blower maintain temperatures nicely. At night when the temperatures drop they supplement the main Airstream heater.
Just Go South Already!
I still have to return to my original thought. Your RV is mobile. So get it on the road and head south. That’s what we did 1 week ago. A client needed some work, and they were in Casa Grande. Sure, it wasn’t in the 80’s, but it was in the 60’s and low 70’s and that was enough to help us defrost.
In our case, we’re currently in Prescott working with another local client. But as soon as a customer in a warmer area calls? Yeah, we’ll be leaving the long underwear, space heaters, and heated hoses in storage!