If you have seen our "Winter Wednesday" photos on Facebook then you know that for many of our Airstreamers, the winter months bring new adventures. We touched base with Ramona Creel to find out her top tips for living riveted in the winter. You'll find some amazing tips for how to live through cold weather, ideas for insulating and best practices for taking advantage of mother nature's help!
Understand your heating options
Unlike some of the newer rigs, my little 1989 Excella is not the best-insulated-nor-most-energy-efficient tin can out there. I love Stella, but she has a thin skin and can eat up propane like nobody's business! The first time it got really cold outside (like 2 degrees) and I ran my furnace 24 hours a day, I blew through both 35-gallon tanks of LP gas in 2 weeks -- tanks that normally take me 3 months or more to use up. Yikes! Plus the thermostat was not terribly sensitive and the fan was a tad overzealous for such a small space -- it blew too loud and too hot for too long until the trailer was stifling, then took forever to start back up again once it shut off. I worried that winter travel wasn't going to be feasible in this lifestyle -- which frustrated me, since I love cold-weather outdoor activities. But then I discovered another option.
I found that my world is much more comfortable (and more energy efficient) with a pair of small electric space heaters in my RV. I got a couple of teeny plastic ones from the hardware store — no exposed surface ever gets too hot to touch, they turn themselves off if the cats accidentally knock them over (so I don't set the trailer on fire), and they take up next-to-no room in the off-season. Generally, a single heater keeps me nice and toasty — but even when it drops below freezing, setting up one in the back room and one in the front is plenty fine. And I actually removed the furnace altogether -- a little extra storage space under the stove and the closet!
Prepare for the unexpected
Getting caught in a bad cold snap or winter storm (and having to move into a motel because your rig isn't livable) is no fun. But there are things that you can do before it gets cold to keep toasty in your RV. Let's start with filling your propane tanks -- this might seem like brain-dead advice, but the last thing you want is to run out of propane just as the temperature dips toward freezing (and if you’re heating your RV with LP, you’re going to use it up quite a bit faster than you do in warmer months). Check your levels regularly during the winter and refill well before you get low.
And be ready for power outages! If you’re parked up north during the winter, it’s likely you will lose electrical service at least once during your stay — this can be a scary experience, but it doesn’t have to be the end of the world, if you’re prepared. Remember, even your LP furnace and fridge run on electric starters. Think ahead about what you'll do to stay warm and functional, especially if you're stranded for more than a few days (as I was once in Boston). If you hook up to your car or a generator, keep plenty of extra gas on hand — if you use a freestanding heater inside your rig, make sure it’s properly vented so you don’t die of carbon monoxide poisoning — if you decide to tough it out for a few days without heat, be extra vigilant about your water and pipes freezing — and at some point, when you’ve been without power for a week and the cost of a generator is driving you to the poorhouse, you may just decide to temporarily move to a hotel or a friend’s house!
Protect your pipes
Unlike a house (where your plumbing is insulated by the earth underground), all of an RV’s pipes are exposed to the outside air. This makes them more likely to solidify when the temperature plummets, so you need a few extra precautions to keep things flowing. Keep your gray and black water tanks closed until it's time to dump -- a lot of water washing through the sewer hose at once is less likely to freeze and clog your system than a small constant trickle. And always do a dump the day before you know the temperature is going to really drop, 'cuz an overly full tank that freezes is guaranteed to crack on you. Wrapping your incoming water hose with heated electrical tape and pipe insulation will prevent freezing even at subzero temperatures. (You can also remove the hose at night and store it in a heated compartment, if you don’t mind being without water after dark.) And hanging a shop light with a 40-watt bulb in any storage compartments where water pipes enter or exit your rig will create enough warmth to keep the valves from hardening up. However, you still may have some days when the water is blocked until until the sun comes up, so keep a few extra bottles around for early-morning drinking, cooking, and flushing!
Oddly enough, you really don’t have to worry about your holding tanks freezing, unless you’re spending the entire winter in minus-degree temps. As you heat your living space, some of that warmth radiates out to your tanks, keeping them from icing up. If it's going to get really cold, run your heater even when you’re not home (maintaining a basic level of ambient heat inside your rig is keeping your connections to the outside world from freezing) and can leave your sink cabinets open so the warm air circulates better. You can also leave your water running just the slightest bit, like you would in a house or apartment -- just keep an eye on that holding tank level! And if you're super worried, add a cup of non-toxic antifreeze each to your gray and black water tanks. (Not your fresh water — non-toxic doesn’t mean edible!) This unnatural-looking pink goo is a biodegradable sugar-and-alcohol mixture that lowers the freezing point of water without poisoning the planet — amazing stuff, but really only crucial for those RVers who store their rigs away during the colder months and need to do a true “winterization” to prevent damage.
Seal your leaks
You may find that you're losing warm air to the outside -- but this is entirely preventable. Covering your windows and ceiling vents (both inside and out) with thermal plastic not only seals leaks around the edges, but also keeps heat from radiating out of your RV through the glass panes in your windows. And since hot air rises, you may find your precious heat gathering in a vent lid instead of keeping you warm down below — to prevent this from happening, cut a piece of thermal insulation to just the size of the opening on your vent and tape it into the hole until the temperature rises. Doors in RVs are notoriously leaky -- nowhere near as sturdy as heavy household doors, and the “pass through” leaves a big gaping hole in this all-important barrier between you and the outside world. A bit of temporary weatherstripping up around the edges and a small piece of thermal insulation for the pass-through hole (or even a bigger piece stuck between your screen door and outside door) will take care of that heat loss.
Another big difference between an RV and a house is at ground level. With no concrete foundation or miles of dirt insulating your floor, the cold wind blows under your RV, cooling the floor — throughout the entire winter, even when my ambient air is stiflingly hot, I still have to wear slippers because the floor is so chilly. If you’re staying in a northern area for a lengthy time, it might be worth it for you to insulate under your rig, as well. You can purchase a framed skirt that sits all the way around your RV and keeps the wind out, you can pile hay bales under your floor, you can use latticework and a tarp — just be careful that whatever solution you choose, nothing is near a heat source, like your refrigerator or hot water heater pilot light. (You want to stay warm, but you don’t need your entire house going up in flames because a stray piece of straw caught fire!)
Work with nature, not against it
Closing your curtains at night (especially if they are lined) will keep the warmth in — just that little bit of fabric can make a world of difference. But then you want to open them during sunny daylight hours, so mother nature can help warm the inside of your trailer. Also remember that your awnings create shade, keeping outside light from hitting your RV, and that makes no sense in the winter — you as much direct contact as possible warming as much of your trailer as possible, so retract those bad boys and let the sun shine in. Also try to park away from trees, which cause the same shading problems.
Taking a second prep your outdoor area for inclement weather can save you a lot of headache down the road, as well. Lots of things happen in the winter that can damage your awnings, your patio furniture, and your assorted outdoor decorations — high winds, an unexpected snow, limbs falling out of trees. It’s not as if you’re going to be spending your days lounging around on the patio in 32-degree temperatures, anyway — so better to just put it all away until sunnier days.
What is your best tip for living riveted in the winter? For you adventurers out there, how do you take advantage of colder weather and live riveted in the snow? We'd love to hear on Facebook and to see your live riveted winter adventures!