winter RV trip
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15 Tips and Tricks for Cold-Weather RV Trips

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winter RV trip
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Home Away From Home

Nothing beats an RV for combining comfort and independence: It's like driving a hotel room that's set up exactly the way you like it. Of course, summer is "RV season" for a reason: Warm temperatures and lots of places to park provide the greatest freedom to roam. But that doesn't mean you can't take your RV out for trips in colder weather, too — as long as you follow these expert tips and tricks for staying comfortable and safe.

Related: 40 RV Retirement Spots for Snowbirds

thermometer freezing temp
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Know What's 'Cold'

What qualifies as bitter cold in Florida might be a pleasant, warm spring day in places such as Alaska, Minnesota, and Montana. So before we get into the nuts and bolts of taking an RV on a cold-weather trip, let's define what "cold" means. When it comes to personal comfort, it's all about how you feel: If you can feel the cold seeping in through the walls of an RV or have to bundle up before you step outside, it's cold.

But when it comes to what might harm your RV, freezing temperatures are the biggest thing to watch for. If water freezes in your plumbing, it'll expand and burst pipes or even tanks. And if waste from the toilet freezes ... well, that could end up very badly. "If it drops below 24 degrees at night and it doesn't get up above freezing during the day, then chances are you're going to freeze your unit," warns Joe Jedwabnik, chief operating officer of GoNorth Car and RV Rentals and a RV Industry Association-certified master technician. If temperatures go back into the 50s during the day, your rig might fare better — but anything that has you and your RV flirting with freezing temperatures is cause to take a few special precautions. 

Related: 17 Tips for RVers Riding Out the Coronavirus Pandemic

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Watch Your Water Pump

RV plumbing is one of the components most at risk in cold temperatures, so knowing where the water pump is will provide a clue to how well your RV is able to handle cold. "Some companies keep the water pump right outside the wall but in the back storage compartment, where there's a chance it might freeze," Jedwabnik says. Some put it in the coach itself, where it will still freeze in extreme cold; but in borderline temperatures, consider opening under-sink cabinets or drawers before you go to sleep to help the heat from inside your motorhome permeate to where the plumbing is and keep it from freezing.

Related: Renting a RV? These Are the Features You'll Want — and Some You Won't

RV and Marine Antifreeze
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Flush With RV Antifreeze

Draining the water out of RV's plumbing is an important part of winterizing, whether for storage or for use in serious cold. But that doesn't mean you have to commit to living without water. As Jedwabnik points out, you can still use water for things such as washing your hands and dishes — just don't put that wastewater down RV plumbing unless you know there's plenty of antifreeze in the system. Instead, winter RV travelers will often toss this used "washing water" out the door.

That's not an option when it comes to using the toilet, but Jedwabnik has a solution: Flush with RV antifreeze. Pouring antifreeze down the toilet instead of water ensures that when you pull up to a dump station, the contents of your waste tanks will still be liquid, not frozen solid and bursting at the seams.

Related: 27 Essential Steps to Winterize Your RV

RV dump station
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Look Ahead for Dump Stations

Speaking of dump stations: Where are they? It can differ from state to state, Jedwabnik says. In Alaska, it's pretty easy to find RV dump stations (and propane refills) at many gas stations. Campgrounds are another logical location. But in Washington, you're more likely to find dump stations in state-run rest stops or campgrounds, and finding dump stations open during the winter is the bigger challenge.

The solution is to plan ahead — and call ahead — a little more diligently than you might for a summer trip to ensure favorite spots for stopping, dumping, or refilling on propane will be open. When in doubt or dire need, head toward high-traffic tourist destinations.

Related: Boondocking and Other RV Terms You Need to Know

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Call Ahead for Campgrounds

Dump stations aren't the only RV facilities that tend to close in cold weather; it's always best to call ahead and make sure campgrounds or parking places are open too. As you're searching for amenities, consider these tips from AAA Alaska: Search recreation.gov to find open campgrounds and other facilities on federal lands and in national forests; Reserveamerica.com allows you to make reservations and research availability at state parks and RV sites nationwide; and AAA offers its own tools for finding campgrounds or plotting an RV itinerary through the Western U.S.

Not an AAA member? Learn about RV coverage plans and join here.

Related: The Best RV Sites in Every State and When to Book Them

Check the Weather
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Check the Weather Forecast

One of the most important things to do before a trip is to check the weather — not only at your destination, but also at key travel points in between. Skipping this is one of the easiest ways to get in trouble. Pay particular attention to mountain passes and other high-elevation areas, where the weather may be much more extreme. It also helps to keep an eye on which way the weather is trending. If the forecast for departure day looks good but gets progressively worse as you get closer to taking the trip, you might want to consider pointing your RV in another direction.

Related: 50 Best Products for Surviving Winter

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Do Preventative Maintenance

An RV or travel trailer breakdown is inconvenient in any season. But it's potentially dangerous during the winter. Help prepare an RV for the best handling in inclement conditions by keeping up on preventative maintenance and getting the RV inspected before winter travel. "Driving in inclement weather requires preparedness," says Aldo Vazquez, spokesman for AAA Alaska. "Make sure your vehicle is properly maintained and is road trip ready by taking it to a trusted auto repair shop and getting a pre-trip inspection." Vazquez also recommends doing a pre-trip walk-around before setting out, checking for obvious issues with tires, leaks, tanks, straps, and so on. While this is good practice in any season, it's especially important to spot such issues before braving the cold.

Good Sam Club members are entitled to discounts on RV maintenance and inspection — in addition to free dump station privileges — at Camping World centers.

Related: You Won't Believe These 25 RV Horror Stories

RV winter driving
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Start Slow With Winter Driving

Even if you're used to driving a car in winter, an RV is going to handle very differently — so follow another piece of advice from Vazquez to practice the driving skills that allow you to get used to your the size and handling. It's particularly important in winter, when a rig will need more space for accelerating and braking, and negotiating turns can be more challenging. Practicing in an empty parking lot is a great way to build confidence, or you can take a local RV training course or arrange for driving lessons from the retailer.

Related: 30 Biggest Mistakes of First-Time RV Drivers

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Check Your Chains

If you're likely to face truly bad weather, there are two ways of making your tires more winter-ready without spending thousands of dollars on a new set. Jedwabnik says adding studs to tires is the best option (and some states require you to have them on certain routes), but they aren't allowed everywhere. Carrying tire chains is your next best option; you can put them on when you really need them for going through a mountain pass or other treacherous terrain, then take them off again. "If you have chains on your motorhome, it's almost like having four-wheel drive," Jedwabnik says.

But make sure chains are fastened correctly — and recheck every so often. Driving can loosen the chains, and if a piece loosens up enough to whip around in the wheel well, it can easily slice through an RV's delicate pipes and electrical lines.

Related: 12 Dangerous Roads You Should Never Drive in an RV

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Two Batteries Are Better Than One

Actually, your RV already has two batteries — one to power the vehicle and another to power its furnace blower and provide lighting and electricity in the living area. In normal weather, that one battery in the living area is enough to keep the furnace going and still provide electricity in the morning. But Jedwabnik warns that once temperatures creep into the 30s and the furnace keeps running through the night, you're likely to run out of battery power and wake up shivering with no electricity in the coach. "Have two batteries" for the living area, he recommends. "In cold weather, I've never seen where one is enough." Some manufacturers build in extra space for housing that second battery.

Related: Cheapest Auto Parts Store: AutoZone vs. Advance Auto vs. O'Reilly vs. Napa

RV winter
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If You Get Stranded, Stay With the RV

There's always a risk of finding yourself stranded on the roadside during a winter trip, no matter how well you've thought ahead and prepared. When that happens, it's best to stay with your vehicle, which provides shelter and makes it easier for rescuers to find you, Vazquez says. Don't try to walk in a severe storm or overexert yourself trying to push or dig a heavy RV out of the snow. Instead, tie a brightly colored cloth to the antenna or place a cloth in the top of a rolled-up window to signal distress.

If possible, run your engine and heater just long enough to remove the chill and conserve gasoline — but make sure the vehicle's exhaust pipe isn't clogged with snow, ice, or mud. If the exhaust is blocked, it could cause deadly carbon monoxide to leak in. Leaving the inside dome light on, if possible, will help make you more visible in the dark.

Signing up for a roadside assistance program can certainly pay off in a pinch. AAA offers RV coverage as an add-on and Good Sam Roadside Assistance is a favorite with many RVers.

Related: Holiday Travel Horror Stories

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Know Where the Jack Is

A passenger vehicle almost always comes with a spare tire and jack, but an RV might have just the spare tire. That's because you'll often have different-size motorhomes mounted on the same chassis, and since the manufacturer doesn't know which, they have no way of knowing what sort of jack you'll need, Jedwabnik says. You need to buy one to change your own tires — and enough wood to create a flat, stable surface for the jack and and the right lug wrench to loosen nuts often tightened to a higher torque than on passenger vehicles. (Fuses are another thing Jedwabnik recommends having just in case, and the coach part of your motorhome will usually need a different type of fuse than the vehicle part.)

Camping World can be a one-stop shop for many RV needs. They offer a wide variety of parts, gear, appliances, and even camping equipment and accessories.

Related: 18 Reasons You Really Don't Want to Buy an RV

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Pack an Emergency Kit

If you're going out adventuring in the cold, it's smart to have extra layers. Don't be shy about adding a few winter-specific items to an RV's roadside safety kit, too. (You do carry one, right? If you don't, start. Amazon sells a wide range of options.) AAA Alaska recommends that it include:

  • Flashlight with fresh batteries
  • Mobile phone and car charger
  • Jumper cables or jump pack
  • Basic toolkit (screwdriver, pliers, adjustable wrench, duct tape, etc.)
  • Tarp, raincoat, and gloves to help stay clean and dry working at the roadside
  • Ice scraper and snow brush
  • First-aid kit
  • Cloth or a roll of paper towels
  • Small shovel
  • Can of de-icer
  • Warning device, such as flares or reflective triangle
  • Driving water
  • Snacks/food
  • Traction aids (sand, salt, tractions mats)

Related: Related: 21 Things to Keep in Your Car For Safe Winter Driving

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Bring Extra Blankets, Too

Having a ready heat source is part of the joy of driving an RV. But when temperatures drop it's not unusual to feel the cold radiating straight through the walls, even with the furnace going. "Usually the walls are not that thick and they're not that insulated," Jedwabnik says. If you're sleeping on the side of the bed nearest the outside wall, you could find yourself a good 10 degrees cooler than your partner. Having extra blankets on hand is an easy, inexpensive solution. You might even consider a heated model.

Related: 30 RV Accessories That Are a Waste of Money

RV driving snow
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Research If It's Safe to Tow

Most motorhomes are built for towing a play vehicle of some sort. Most come with a standard 3,000-pound hitch, which really isn't a lot of towing capacity, Jedwabnik says. So if you're looking to pull snowmobiles, four-wheelers, or other vehicles on a winter trip, check the hitch capacity and manufacturer recommendations — urgent considerations for winter driving.

Related: How Much RV Can You Get for Your Money?

winter rv camping
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Consider a Dedicated Cold-Weather Rig

If you really love winter RV travel, consider buying an RV designed for it. These special rigs will have more insulation, and vent warm air from the furnace to keep tanks and plumbing warm. "The big thing would be looking for a unit that's designed to be used in four seasons, like a Bigfoot or something that has a cold-weather package straight from the factory," says Tim Anderson, owner of Alaska Performance RV.

Related: The Coolest Off-Road RVs for Battling Rough Weather