Looking for adventure, challenge, change? Motorhoming is all of that, which is why we got into the lifestyle.
However, aside from snowbirding in warm climates down south, you can ramp up the adventure and challenge of motorhoming to a higher level by adding yet a fourth travel season: winter, with freezing temperatures and snow.
Does that not sound like fun? It’s not for everyone, but a considerable number of winter sports enthusiasts enjoy stretching their motorhomes’ capabilities by turning them into chalets for skiing (downhill and cross-country), snowshoeing and snowmobiling. Or it can simply be to enjoy the ever-changing beauty of nature in winter.
Winter RV Destinations
The challenges begin with destinations — where to park a motorhome overnight during a season when many RV parks are closed. Every state has a selection of parks that are open year round; to find one, go online to www.trailerlifedirectory.com, click on “Find a Campground” and under “More Search Options” select “Open All Year.” Some of the RV parks may have limited hookups, so check with the campground before you book a site.
A few examples of individual parks that offer full service and are open during winter include Bear Den RV Resort near Grangeville, Idaho, Danforth Bay Camping & RV Resort in Freedom, N.H., Park City RV Resort in Park City, Utah and Tiger Run Resort in Breckenridge, Colo.
An RV park eliminates most of the winter challenges by supplying full hookups at the site, or partial hookups such as electricity at the site along with a fresh-water source and a dump station (you may need to move your motorhome to get them) nearby.
Of course, the more primitive destinations, without hookups, present the greatest challenges — and often the greatest beauty. One example is the Michigan State Parks network; winter sites can be searched online at www.michigandnr.com/parksandtrails (select “Campground Search”).
Another example is the Oregon Sno-Park system, which can be found at www.tripcheck.com (click “Travel Center”, then “SnoParks”). My favorite is Wanoga Sno-Park, 15.5 miles west of Bend and seven miles east of Mount Bachelor Ski Resort; cost is $5 daily for a permit, or $30 for a season. It’s very motorhome-friendly and near the parking loop is a cabin with a wood stove, where winter sports enthusiasts gather to tip back a few with friends and enjoy getting acquainted with lots of strangers who enjoy winter sports. Nearby Mount Bachelor Ski Resort invites motorhome owners to park in an area dedicated to RV overnighting ($10 per night, no hookups).
Other possibilities include state parks in other snow-country states, snowmobile and cross-country ski trailhead parking lots, and downhill ski area parking lots. Most are without hookups, and in some cases they present limitations imposed by nighttime snowplowing schedules. Local snowmobiling club websites are great sources of information because it’s necessary to check with local sources for information on motorhome suitability in trailhead parking lots.
Doing without hookups may seem like an invitation to discomfort and freeze damage. But many of us winter birds welcome the challenge of successfully enjoying winter without hookups — while appreciating everything the motorhome has to offer, including a hot shower. It’s definitely a contest with nature, but if we’re well prepared, we usually win!
If a specific winter destination has aroused your interest, the next step is to analyze the suitability of your motorhome for temperatures ranging down to zero. If temperatures are predicted to drop below zero, it may be a good idea to postpone the trip until the next break in the weather.
RV Batteries in Winter
Without an outside source of electricity, the most immediate challenge may be battery reserve power — keeping appliances, especially the furnace, going overnight without the need to run an AC generator. Demand on batteries is higher in winter because of low ambient temperatures, fewer daylight hours and recharge limitations created by cold batteries (resistance to charging). Power requirements can be handled by relying on an AC generator, a good electrical converter/charger and a good set of house batteries with a total of at least 210 amp hours (350 minutes of reserve capacity at the 25-amp rate), or more if the motorhome is large.
The converter/charger is critical; it transforms 120-volt AC to 12-volt DC. Aggressive multistage battery charging is needed. Check specs on your brand and model; it should have a bulk-charging phase rated for at least 40 amps. The goal is rapid battery recharging and less AC generator running time.
Windows AND Slideouts
Motorhomes with dual-pane windows have a big advantage; those with single-pane windows are subject to more heat loss. In those situations, some windows may be covered with insulation, or storm window kits (available at hardware stores) can be used — clear plastic that is stretched over window frames.
Most coaches have slideouts, and it’s necessary to clear them of snow or ice that may have collected while they were extended; this may require a ladder. Slideout seals should be checked for air leakage.
RV Water and Tanks
It’s essential to prevent water lines, holding tanks and valves from freezing unless you plan to winterize using RV antifreeze. Never use automotive antifreeze in any RV water system. Unfortunately, freezing can occur in some motorhomes even when the interior is well heated.
Check all water lines and tank valve areas (to the extent possible) to see if the lines and pump are not adequately exposed to the heated interior, or to furnace heat ducted into subfloor areas. Exterior fresh-water connections and tank valves may be located in utility bays that have uninsulated plastic floors and are not well heated by the furnace.
It is not necessary to keep the lines room temperature — just higher than 32 degrees Fahrenheit. When it’s difficult to judge, insert the wire probes or wireless sensors of electronic thermometers (available in hardware stores) into the questionable areas and record low temperatures on a cold night with the furnace set to 60 degrees.
Additional insulation may be needed to reduce the rate of heat loss. Among many insulation choices, foil-backed bubble-wrap (Reflectix, available in hardware stores), is useful for lining compartments and for many other applications.
For areas that cannot be adequately protected by heat from the furnace, strategically placed 120-volt AC droplights (60-watt bulbs) often can provide enough heat. Power must come from an outside electrical hookup or from the motorhome’s inverter — if battery capacity and recharge capability are adequate. It’s best not to run an AC generator while sleeping, because of the possibility of carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning if the exhaust system were to loosen and leak. An operational (regularly tested) CO detector is essential.
RV nontoxic antifreeze can be used overnight to protect P-traps, drains and holding tanks/valves. The amount used in holding tanks must vary with ambient temperature and the anticipated amount of fluid in the tank. Even when tank valves are protected with antifreeze, the compartment must be heated if it contains fresh-water lines. If you have an icemaker, the water line should be disconnected and drained.
For the more challenging freeze-protection situations, electric heating cables and pads are available for dump valves, pipes, water lines and tanks. These heaters, available from UltraHeat Inc. (www.ultraheat.com) in a variety of types and sizes, are thermostatically controlled and are offered for 12-volt DC or 120-volt AC power sources. The company’s website is a good source of information about winter motorhoming.
On a cold day a portable catalytic heater feels like sitting in front of a stove, leveling the temperature inside the coach and reducing cycling of the forced-air furnace. The heater most commonly used in motorhomes is the Olympian (www.uscatalytic.com), offered in sizes ranging up to 8,000 Btu.
The Olympian catalytic heaters require a connection to the LP-gas system, but not to a 12-volt DC electrical source, which reduces battery drain in no-hookup situations. They’re flameless, producing radiant heat, and are highly efficient in terms of fuel usage because they’re not vented to the outside. They produce very small amounts of carbon monoxide, resulting in a recommendation by the manufacturer that a window or vent should be left partially open. During winter, adequate ventilation is necessary anyway — to combat condensation, the potential for which is increased by a catalytic heater.
A catalytic heater should not be used as the major source of heat because operation of the RV furnace is needed to circulate warm air throughout the coach, among the water lines, tanks and valves.
Winter RV Driving
When we change from our typical driving in a car to winter roads in a coach, a significant reorientation is necessary, especially for those of us who do not live in snow country.
Motorhomes have good winter traction due to heavily loaded tires, especially on rear-drive axles. Nevertheless, the weight of a motorhome is comparatively high and it’s important to address the most common winter driving problem: excessive speed. Anticipate the need for braking far in advance. With anti-lock brakes (ABS), use steady pressure on the pedal (no pumping) and the system will prevent wheel lockup. However, remember ABS does not ensure you’ll be able to stop in time on a slippery road.
Tires with good tread are important, as are tire chains to be held in reserve for icy roads (and gloves for their installation). Chains are mandatory in some states under adverse conditions. If you use an auxiliary braking system for your dinghy vehicle, take care to adjust it so wheel lockup does not occur.
Make sure the windshield washer systems on the motorhome as well as dinghy contain freeze-protected fluid. For diesel engines and generators, ensure that your latest fuel purchase is winterized fuel, and/or use an anti-gel fuel additive. Follow manufacturers’ cold-weather recommendations for oil viscosity in the engine and AC generator. And, of course, a snow shovel is essential.
It’s very wise to limit travel to daytime hours and to heed weather forecasts that predict slippery roads.
Winter motorhoming can be quite an adventure, especially satisfying if you’re into the mechanical aspects of your coach as well as the travel.