Winter Motorhome Travel

December 3, 2012
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Winter is often a time of hibernation for RVs, but motorhomes are adventure vehicles, which means the voyage doesn’t have to stop once snow begins to fall. In fact, coaches tend to have excellent traction during winter because of the high amount of weight on rear-drive axles.

Of course, usual winter-driving precautions apply — including those involving speed on slippery roads and braking. Also, use windshield-washer fluid rated for the expected low temperature, carry tire chains and avoid driving at night when possible.

Nontoxic RV antifreeze

Pour a gallon or two (depending on tank size) of nontoxic RV antifreeze into holding tanks for freeze protection. Never use antifreeze designed for engine cooling systems.

Water and Waste Systems

Winter RVing involves some new and different challenges, such as making self-containment work well when the mercury dips. Some motorhomes are not specifically designed for below-freezing temperatures while the water system is in use (not containing nontoxic antifreeze), but with a few improvements they can capably serve as mobile chalets for winter sports and scenic touring.

Even when the furnace keeps the coach interior reasonably warm, water systems can be vulnerable at certain points where pipes are isolated from the heated interior. Inspect your motor­home to determine where water lines are routed and whether they’re liable to freeze at certain points — something that may be preventable by leaving cabinet doors open at night to allow more warm air circulation, or by adding insulation or heat tapes (assuming an electrical hookup is available). Be sure the water pump and tank are located in a heated area.

Ideally, holding tanks are enclosed in the heated underbelly. If not, they — and the dump valves — must be protected by pouring nontoxic RV antifreeze down the toilet and into drains leading to the gray-water tank in amounts appropriate for the anticipated temperatures. The usual summertime sources for filling a water tank are sometimes unavailable, but water often can be acquired at service stations (just make sure it’s potable).

carbon monoxide detector

Always test the carbon monoxide detector before venturing out in winter.

Reserve Power

An available electrical hookup makes winter motorhome travel easier, but without external power, an adequate number and size of batteries is essential for the power demands of the furnace, lights and other needs. The motorhome’s electrical converter must produce an output of 14.2 volts or higher while operating the AC generator for proper battery recharging. Thus, battery reserve power is the highest priority during winter. It’s also important to test carbon monoxide detectors for proper function.

An accurate built-in voltmeter or a portable digital multimeter is essential, functioning as a “fuel gauge” for batteries. To measure battery charge status, check voltage at the auxiliary batteries while there is little or no draw on batteries; do it exactly the same way every time. When voltage drops below 12, recharge is needed. When it drops to about 11.25, you’re “out of fuel.” While charging, voltage should rise gradually to 14.2 or higher as power is being stored.

Keeping Warm

Motorhome insulation

Many types of insulation can be used to prepare a motorhome for winter travel.

A forced-air furnace (or two) should keep the interior comfortable, especially if the coach is equipped with dual-pane windows. Serious winter motorhome travel enthusiasts usually add LP-gas catalytic heaters, which use less LP-gas than a furnace and no battery power. Such heaters are not code-approved for factory installation but are popular aftermarket items because the heat is so effective. Condensation on windows and vents will occur during the winter, and the only solution is air circulation; leave a vent or window open slightly, and use exhaust fans when more is needed. Using a portable dehumidifier, like Dri-Z-Air, is also effective. Insulation may be added where practical, such as foam board to cover windows in sleeping areas, a drape to close off the cockpit or plastic storm windows (available in hardware stores). Look for air leaks under the floor and seal with polyurethane spray. An ample supply of LP-gas is essential, along with a close eye on the tank gauge; refill stations usually are available during winter.

With advanced planning for self-containment, we can stay comfortable despite harsh conditions and make winter motor­home trips some of the best.

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