Winter RV Travel Tips

We just came back from a really cold winter trip in our RV (Sunseeker 2300 from Forest River) between Calgary, AB and Saskatoon, SK, (Canada of course) and we have a few tips we can share with you now.

This is our second RV trip during the December Christmas season, and some of my mishaps may help others. I hate pretending that I always have my sh*t together, so I don’t mind confessing when I have made some really stupid mistakes.

The temperatures were -25 C (-18 F) degrees most of the time and warmed up on the December 28th to a much more tolerable -8 C (18 F) degrees. I made one really stupid mistake on our first night of the trip, which I will make a special post in our Stupid RV Mistakes series 😉 Now on with tips section of the post.

Winter RV Travel Tip #1 – System Reliability

Don’t even bother setting out for a winter RV trip unless you are confident in your motor-home and the systems you have onboard. Our motor-home is only two years old, and it only has 50,000 Kms on it, so we are still in a pretty safe range for equipment reliability (we hope).

The Furnace – Critical!

You must make sure your onboard furnace is functioning well. The most critical item is the one that keeps you, your pets, and your belongings, warm. In our case the furnace runs on propane (LPG) only, so we have to make sure the furnace is reliable. The furnance has so far been reliable and thank God, because it has been really snappy cold here in the prairies. We have never had a problem with the furnace coming on (knock on wood) and I am hoping to keep it that way.

This spring of 2010 I will be looking at some of the maintenance procedures we need to carry out on the furnace in an attempt to make sure we don’t have any problems in the future. I’m not even sure how many more trips we will make in the deep freeze of winter throughout Canada, because I think we will be trying to escape the cold instead of staying in it just for the purposes of being home for Christmas.

The furnace should be fine as long as there are two particular elements in place. One, is that there is a propane supply coming from the propane tank. Two, there is some form of electricity to the ignition system, and fan system. In my series on Stupid RV Mistakes I will be highlighting what happens when it is extremely cold and you neglect to keep a charge on your house batteries. You have to have some form of AC power supply to the RV so that your batteries don’t deplete in the frigid temperatures. I will describe these three sources here;

  1. You can charge the house batteries with your generator system (if you have one) which provides AC current to the motorhome for AC accessories providing 110 at all of your typical AC outlets in the coach.  You also have DC current via the house batteries which are charged by the AC supply.
  2. You can keep a charge on your house batteries if you have external power, whether it be a direct 15 amp to 50 amp current supply from your “big plug”, or a simple 110 volt supply from your home (typical 3-prong plug). As long as you have your propane supply replenished, and you have an external power source to keep your house batteries alive, you will have heat. The AC power supply is the critical factor here because it is required to charge the DC house batteries which provide the all important electrical power to the igniter system and furnace fan.
  3. You can also charge your house batteries by turning on the engine. Keep in mind that I am only talking about an RV like our Sunseeker 2300 which has these particular systems – built-in generator, similar AC/DC electrical supply systems, and the Ford E450 truck engine configuration. We use the truck engine to charge the house batteries when we have made some kind of stupid mistake which caused the house batteries to completely drain. We’ve also drained the battery on the engine of the RV in the past, so we had to turn on the generator to power the house power system, which in turn gave us AC power at our outlets so that we could run a battery charger on the truck engine battery using an extension cord through a window or a door. I will also feature this predicament in our Stupid RV Mistakes series.
  4. You have a limited amount of time in which you can use just pure house battery power to keep your furnace running (ignition system) and the fan to circulate warm air. If you are in warmer conditions and only need the furnace and fan running once in a while (for instance, if you are staying down in the desert and you only need a little bit of heat at night time) you can rely on your house battery power solely for quite a while, but to be honest with you, I don’t think I will ever use just pure house battery power to keep our furnace going again. You can read more about that in our Stupid RV Mistakes series.

RV House Batteries – You Need To Have Reserve DC Power

In the winter time you need to be sure your house batteries never deplete, which I have mentioned above, so you need to make sure your RV batteries are in good shape. They have to be able to take a charge and hold a charge very well. Of course no battery system is perfect, and deterioration is a naturally built-in condition, so you must maintain these house batteries as per the manual.

You can always tell when any type of battery (or batteries I should say) is/are getting “weak” – they don’t hold a charge as long, and they may take longer to charge up to full capacity. They may not even show an indication of taking a full charge. When you see these kinds of conditions it is time to either replace your house batteries altogether, or have them refurbished professionally. You never want to head out on a winter trip if you’re RV house batteries are on their last legs.

Even if you have a DC supply to your furnace ignition system from some sort of AC/DC convertor/invertor system, and you never intend to power your furnace ignition and fan with your house batteries, you still need a reliable DC power supply to the house for such things as lights, and other accessories. In my opinion, if you plan to go out in the frigid weather conditions like we get in Canada, you want “all systems go”.

As I mentioned above, there is are usually three ways to charge your RV house batteries.

  • using the engine AC supply;
  • external power supply (plugin);
  • or the generator AC supply

You’ve got to make sure that one of these three AC supplies is in play.

Generator – You Need To Have AC Power

I’ve never owed an RV that didn’t have a generator (because this is our first RV) and I could never imagine owning and operating an RV without a generator – it’s bailed us out on many many occasions, and I don’t think we would ever even take our RV out on a trip in cold winter conditions if we didn’t have a functioning generator.

It is critical to make sure that you generator is functioning, and has the ability to start in extremely cold conditions. Of course, this means that you have to have your batteries in good condition with the ability to handle some cold cranking. On this last trip in the winter month of December 2009 we had to cold crank our generator numerous times.

After the generator has been cold soaked overnight in -25°C temperatures it is likely not going to start on the first try. There were times when we attempted to start the generator more than five or six times before it finally stayed running. Keep in mind that this generator is very new, with very few hours on it as of yet (according to the Hobbs meter). I changed the oil, and oil filter, on our generator this past summer of 2009 and it has been very well looked after, so I was fairly confident that it would start for us eventually. However, let’s face it, starting any internal combustion engine in cold soak conditions below -25°C is not a great thing to do – not advisable.

Luckily, after doing some small priming (carefully, so as not to flood the small carburetor) we got the generator going every time – even if it was cold soaked. There were many times on this trip when the truck engine was not running because we were not on the road or idling, and we didn’t have external plug-in power from a house or power receptacle, and we had to have the generator running for many hours at a time. This is why I can’t imagine traveling in an RV without a servicable generator – especially in the winter time.

So making sure your maintenance is up to snuff on your generator is very important, and you want to do this maintenance in the summertime of course, before you ever let the Fall and Winter seasons come down around you. Sometimes the generator is the only source of AC power you have left to keep your batteries powered up, charged, and ready to go. Of course, if you don’t have a generator you can always use your engine AC system, but that is much more expensive due to fuel consumption.

Fully Functional Engine and Power Supply

Of course you have to have a reliable and fully functional engine (power plant) so you can power all of your electrical systems, and keep you driving down the road. You need to have that engine providing heat from the radiator and built-in heat exchanger system that most all internal combustion engine vehicles have.

Assuming that nobody would (in their right minds) head out on the road in frigid cold temperatures without a reliable engine, we can then assume that the engine powering your vehicle down the road can also be your last resort provider of AC current, DC current, and heat. If all else fails on your RV, including your furnace, your propane supply, your house RV batteries, and your generator, you can still survive as long as your engine is running and you have ample fuel on board in your gas tank.

This is the one thing that I keep in mind no matter how dicey a situation can gets – as long as your engine is running properly and your heating system is providing heat, and your electrical system is sound, you will be just fine.

If your electrical system is sound, and your engine is running, you can charge your cell phone which is of the utmost importance in an emergency situation when you need to get help, assuming your cell phone network provider has coverage where you are – if they don’t, you better have something like a Find Me Spot GPS Locator with you for safety sake.

If you’re heat exchanger system on your main engine is working properly, and your fan is working properly via the electrical system, then you will have heat, which can keep you warm in the front of the vehicle, and depending on your RV’s air flow system(s), you can keep your RV house temperatures at a reasonable warmth level to stop freezing your pets, your kids, your food, your belongings, etc. – at least until you get help.

If you’re transmission and your drive-train is functioning normally in the frigid cold conditions (and your tires have air in them) then you will be fine as far as driving to a service center, or home, in case of complete and utter breakdown of your other systems onboard (which I have listed above).

So in the Fall season I make a habit of changing the oil on the engine, the oil filter, the rad fluid, the air filter, and have it checked out by a service technician – or myself if I’m not too lazy. The battery on the main engine has to be in good shape – just the same as the house batteries which I have described above. The battery needs to take a charge, hold a charge, at the same time, have the ability to do some serious cold cranking in the frigid temperatures after a night of not running.

Winter RV Travel Tip #2 – Winter Fuel Concerns

There is one statement that rings true in my mind, that my father-in-law said – he said, “If you want to own an RV, be ready to hemorrhage money.”

No truer words were ever spoken. If it wasn’t for the fact that we use our RV for business purposes, we would never justify the expense, and frankly, I doubt we could even afford the expense. And this particular RV winter travel tip explains why.

You have to make sure your fuel tanks are full, or at least in the upper top half of capacity. Traveling in the winter, I never let the fuel gauge drop very far below the halfway mark on the gas gauge, and for a very good reason. The generator will be fuel starved when the gas tank reaches the quarter full point, and this is because the Sunseeker system was designed so that you don’t completely drain your tanks by leaving the generator on negligently.

One time we let the generator run until the fuel tank was at the one quarter mark, and of course the generator shutdown. Since then, we have always made sure we have plenty of fuel in the tank. In the wintertime though, it’s very important that we never take that chance, and we always keep the tanks full in case we are stranded or storm stayed because of winter storm weather. On the highway between Calgary and Saskatoon we have been storm stayed before when the visibility was so poor that it was very dangerous to drive.

When we head out on the road during the winter season (or we know we will be in weather conditions for a day or two) we always use this approach because we want to have a lot of fuel to run the generator in case of a problem, and we aren’t near a power outlet to power our house batteries. Because the engine is the final safety concern we always make sure that there is enough fuel in the tank so we can idle the engine “in the middle of nowhere” for quite some time so that we have that ultimate backup in a storm stayed condition.

Depending on the cost of fuel at the time, it will cost between $170 and $200 to completely fill the tank of our Forest River RV, so in winter driving conditions we can really go through a lot of fuel depending on whether or not we are running the generator and the engine. Sometimes, I will start the generator just for the sake of keeping it exercised and warm.

It’s never a good idea to leave an internal combustion engine cold soaked for days and weeks at a time. Even in the wintertime when the RV is in storage, I keep the fuel tanks full and the propane tank full. If the temperatures are extremely low, I will go out and run the engine and the generator for 15 minutes to half an hour just to exercise the engines and keep them warmed up, as well as keep charges on the batteries. If we have a period of warmer weather during the winter while the RV is in storage, I won’t bother running any engines because it’s not necessary. It’s always a battle maintaining any machinery when it is left outside in extremely cold temperatures.

It’s also very important to make sure you add some gas line anti-freeze to your tank every time you fill up with fuel. When we are dealing with freezing winter conditions, you never want to take a chance on your fuel lines freezing up. Nothing freezes up a fuel line better than cold air blowing on the lines, and this can be caused by driving down the highway without any gas line anti-freeze in the fuel system. These are fairly large capacity fuel tanks (on RVs), so sometimes it may be necessary to use two of those little bottles of gas line anti-freeze when you fill up your tank.

There are many who disagree with me on that point, and they would be correct, because you shouldn’t need more than one little bottle of gas line antifreeze in your fuel tank to ensure that your lines don’t freeze. It’s just that sometimes when it’s -30°C with a lot of wind chill factor in play, I want to make darn sure the fuel lines don’t freeze.

Typical Gas Line Freezing Scenario

One of the main ways freezing fuel lines can become a problem is under this scenario;

  1. you left your fuel tank only partially full under freezing conditions and frost developed inside the tank;
  2. then the temperatures warmed up enough that all of the frost thawed out and became water inside your fuel tank;
  3. then you run your engine with this watery fuel (enough that there is a fairly high saturation of water and the lines);
  4. then the water freezes up in a cold soak condition causing your fuel lines to freeze up at particular points.

That is the typical way that gas line freezing happens, and this is why having your vehicle in a warm garage can be problematic during the winter months. But if you avoid the scenario I have outlined above, you should be just fine. Keep in mind that some vehicles are especially susceptible to this fuel line freezing scenario, and some vehicles have been designed to avoid and alleviate fuel line freezing altogether.

Of course, you’ll never know unless you actually take the chance of fuel line freezing coming into play, and who wants to do that. In the wintertime you never want to take chances like this, and if you’re in extremely cold temperatures you could literally be risking your life.

Winter RV Travel Tip #3 – Water System

We know that some people are actually living in their RV(s) for extended periods in the winter, and they have to have a fresh water supply. I recommend that you don’t bother using the water system at all – period. I suggest leaving the water system completely out of commission for a few reasons. I would leave the water system in it’s winterized condition even when you are using your RV during the winter.

When we winterize the RV I do it the “easy man’s way”, and simply pour 5 gallons of RV water system antifreeze into the main holding tank and run it through the system via the pumps. I find this to be the best way to do it because it is easy to do it this way, and you are definitely assured that the entire system has antifreeze in it. When you are finished winterizing your water system you will still have some residual anti-freeze in the water tank, and you will have your hot water heater tank drained – so just leave it as it is.

We plug off the sink drains and we actually tape over the toilet seat so visitors don’t try to use the toilet, or pour anything down the sink drains. Of course this is a bit of a pain because you have to have some water on board – you need to go to the bathroom, brush your teeth, wash your face, wash your hands, or clean up any spills.

But this is not really a problem because we just bring some of those handy wipes to wash our hands and our faces with, and we bring some bottled water along so that we can brush her teeth, wash our faces, and provide the dogs with drinking water.

Of course this means that going to the bathroom has to be done elsewhere, such as gas stations, hosts’ washrooms, coffee shops, etc. A small price to pay if you consider that you no longer have the hassle of maintaining a water system in -25°C weather.

[By the way, if you want the Fahrenheit conversion at any time you can use our temperature conversion tool at the top right-hand corner of this website. We will also be adding a kilometer and mile conversion tool sometime this month.]

There are enough things to “worry about” when you are traveling in the winter, so we really don’t need the extra pain in the butt of keeping our water system from freezing. Of course, this is just our opinion, and our way of doing it. If you really need to have a functioning water system on board you will have to make sure that your RV is designed in such a way to keep your water lines from freezing.

In fact, our Sunseeker 2300 IS set up so that we could keep our water system going in the winter, because all of the main water supply lines are inboard within the motor home where there is heat provided from the furnace. However, there is no way of stopping water from freezing on the lines that feed in and out of the RV. So the external water fill line will always be susceptible to freezing, as well as the water draining systems that go overboard into the holding tanks and out.

Winter RV Travel Tip #4 – What To Bring

We always make sure that we bring a list of things required for emergency conditions like -45°C temperatures and a motor home that won’t run. Here’s the list;

  • winter parkas
  • candles
  • flashlights
  • spare batteries
  • first aid kit
  • axe
  • firewood
  • kindling
  • matches or lighters
  • handy wipes
  • water bottles
  • cellular phones
  • extra vehicle battery
  • complete toolkit
  • manuals
  • jerry can
  • credit cards
  • pain medications
  • long (outdoor rated) extension cord
  • space heater
  • gloves
  • toques
  • heavy socks
  • 40 below rated winter boots
  • extra blankets
  • canned foods
  • bear spray
  • extra anti-freeze (engine)
  • extra windshield wiper fluid (winter rated)

This is just a short list of the most important things that we think about before we take a winter trip in the RV, but my wife has plenty of other items on this list which I believe we have listed on Betty’s RV Checklist.

Winter RV Travel Tip #5 – Don’t Bother?

That pretty well sums up how we travel during the winter months, but I have one more possible suggestion that may work for you – don’t even bother. Unless you are forced to live in your RV during the winter months, you have to ask yourself why you’d want to go through the hassle of maintaining an RV during the winter time.

It’s more expensive, there is more to worry about, and it’s really not a comfortable vacation. Don’t get me wrong, we still enjoy driving around in the RV even if it’s the wintertime, but it’s not nearly as relaxing and enjoyable as using your RV in the summer months. I would rather be at home with the fireplace burning, our big comfortable beds, a warm central heating system, and a warm car in a warm garage ready for use when we have to go get something. Not to mention the big screen TVs and all of the other comforts of home.

As a matter fact, the only reason we take our RV out in the wintertime is because of Christmas and we want to see our family during the holiday season in Saskatoon, or in Kamloops, depending on which way we go that particular December. If it wasn’t for this, I would probably never use the RV in the winter again except for when we are traveling straight south down to Palm Springs or somewhere in Arizona, or maybe somewhere in Mexico.

Of course then we will be traveling through winter conditions for 12 to 16 hours. We will be below the frost line in one day’s driving though….

If somebody is living in their RV or motorhome full-time the whole scenario above does not really make much sense, but perhaps there is some tidbits of information in these winter RVing tips. I hope that we have helped you in some way.

Happy Winter RVing!!

One Comment

  1. EVAN WARD wrote:

    great info ! i have found very little info on anyone living in a RV fulltime and your info has been very thinking of buying a older (1989 fleetwood southwind)and living in it fulltime for work throughout afraid of making a big mistake..maybe i should just make payments on a new one that is set up for winter..i dont know what to do..i dont like payments but i dont want to freeze anyways ..if you have time i could use your advice and encouragement

    Tuesday, November 1, 2011 at 9:02 pm | Permalink

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