Camping In The Cold: To Heat Or Not To Heat

heating a van in winter

Winter camping can be a great experience, but is your rig ready for the rigors of the cold?

Cold weather camping with your motorhome, RV or travel trailer can certainly be a fun and comfortable adventure. There are, however, a few precautions and best practices you may want to follow if you’re serious about exploring the great outdoors when it’s near or below freezing.

Of course, you can always venture outside and rub two sticks together for an old-fashioned campfire, but ultimately it’s important to have an efficient heat source inside the RV, campervan or motorhome to keep you and your family comfortable all night long.

Before we get into the details of staying warm while enjoying Mother Nature’s coldest temperatures, be sure your vehicle is equipped with a functioning carbon monoxide detector and working fire extinguisher. We also highly recommend that if you’re not going to be inside the campervan or RV for a few hours or a long period of time, it’s best to turn off any heater you have running as a precaution against the rig catching fire while you’re away.

Let’s get started—beginning with an overview of the main types of heat sources for motorhomes, RVs and campervans.

Top heating sources for travel vehicles

The 2 most common types of heat sources built into RVs and travel vehicles these days are propane furnaces and heat pumps. In addition, many experienced cold-weather campers recommend adding a supplemental heating system as a backup in case the primary heating system fails or to stay warm on those extra frigid nights.

Here are a few pros and cons of heating with these various methods:

Propane heaters and furnaces

One benefit of using a portable gas/propane heater would be that you can stay warm even if you’re camping off-grid (“boondocking”) and don’t have electricity beyond a small battery setup (and don’t want to drag along a portable generator to help run electric heat).

Some people elect to use portable gas-powered heaters because certain campgrounds charge exorbitant rates for electricity. However, the majority of modern campers use a furnace that draws power from either shore power or the rig’s batteries to power a blower or fan. The furnace itself is fed propane from a propane cylinder and the fans circulate the heated air.

Another type of furnace more commonly found in older rigs is propane-only heaters that don’t have a blower or fan. These furnaces are controlled by a thermostat that is either the old-style type with a mercury switch or a newer digitally-controlled unit.

Heating your RV with gas—with either a built-in furnace or a portable propane heater—is a great way to stay warm while “off the grid,” but either type of heater must have a proper way to exhaust fumes. It’s also important to stay cognizant of the oxygen level inside your rig if you’re using a propane-powered furnace. Don’t button yourself up too tightly! And never use a propane cylinder inside your camper. (Only the small 1-pound propane tanks are safe to use indoors.)

If you want to use propane as your heat source, and your rig didn’t come with a built-in furnace, your options are to look into a catalytic propane heater, radiant heat (such as the Olympian Wave heaters) or a non-catalytic propane heater (like the Mr. Heater Buddy heater line).

Electric heating (heat pumps)

Heating with electricity is doable if you have access to at least a 20-amp 110 power socket. More amps, such as the common 30 or 50 amps available at campgrounds, is preferable. Campers using electricity while camping in the winter tend to use ceramic heaters, although infrared heaters are good for heating a large space.

Class A motorcoaches or 5-wheel RVs tend to come from the factory with a heat pump, which is installed in the ceiling like the air-conditioner. They typically function off of a thermostat and don’t work efficiently under 45 degrees, so you’ll want a supplemental heat source if you’re camping in below-freezing temps. These systems are generally designed for moderate climates. Heat pumps also draw a lot of electricity, so if you’re running one (or more typically, 2), make sure you’ve got access to 50-amp service. You also might want to find out if you’re being charged by the kilowatt-hour.

Another thing to note is that RV wiring is often not capable of running the required wattage that an electric space heater may require, and many RV fires have been caused by these appliances being left on—or by utilizing an insufficient extension cord. If you are running an electric space heater, we suggest using a cord of at least 14 gauge—and don’t run the heater constantly. Instead, give the cabling time to cool down in between heat cycles. Another good practice is to use an electric heater that’s rated for less than 1,200 watts so that it doesn’t draw too much current through the RV electrical system and potentially start a fire.

Fun cold weather activities

Half the fun of cold weather camping is actually being out in the cold! Here’s a list of outdoor activities that can add great memories to your cold-weather experience:

  • Snowshoeing
  • Hiking (if there’s not enough snow for snowshoeing)
  • Snowmobiling
  • Cross country skiing
  • Ice Skating
  • Downhill skiing or snowboarding
  • Sledding or tubing
  • Ice fishing or hunting

Don’t forget that regular routine camp tasks like collecting firewood can also be an adventure in 6 inches of snow.

Is your rig ready for winter camping?

Having a furnace or reliable heat source is key for enjoyable winter camping. Successful winter camping can be measured in a variety of ways, such as if everyone stayed happy, healthy and warm. Here are some tips from experienced winter campers on how to make your cold-weather adventure a success:

  • Place wooden or plastic blocks below your stabilizing jacks to keep them from freezing to the ground.
  • Be aware that extreme cold can cause plastic RV and van parts to become brittle and break. Prevent breakage by handling these plastic pieces such as door handles or drawer pulls with care.
  • Place a cover on your air conditioning unit(s) and utilize RV vent covers so that you can keep ceiling vents open for airflow without snow or rain coming into the rig.
  • Check smoke and carbon monoxide detectors before leaving for your trip. Check them again once you’ve arrived. Better safe than sorry! And have spare batteries for any device you may rely on.
  • Check your RV’s tires for proper inflation levels when you’re in the cold weather. You don’t want to be trying to climb a mountain pass or driving 70 mph on the highway with low tires.
  • If using propane to heat your rig, top off your tanks before heading out.
  • If your furnace doesn’t heat your rig’s “basement,” you may want to run heat tape along your water lines to prevent them from freezing. Fortunately, many modern RVs heat the water pipes as well as the holding tanks. This is sometimes known as a “four-seasons” package.

How to winterize your travel rig for storage

If you’re not planning to use your trailer or motorhome this winter, then it needs to be winterized before the deep freeze sets in. We recommend the following procedures for a start:

  1. Drain all liquids from pipes/lines and tanks. Using your city water hookup and a special coupler, blow 40 to 50 psi through your pipes/lines. Make sure to leave all sink faucets in the open position. Once no water squirts out of the faucets (this procedure can take up to 30 minutes or longer), leave faucets in the open position and put RV-specific antifreeze down all of your drains. Don’t forget the shower trap!
  2. Remove all batteries for indoor storage. This will prolong their life.
  3. Remove any food that can go bad or be negatively affected by the cold. This will also deter rodents from living in your rig when you’re not.
  4. Install tire and air conditioning covers, if applicable. Otherwise use a dedicated RV cover. Better yet, if possible place your rig under covered storage when it’s not in use.
  5. Put out rodent/mouse traps and remove any materials they may use to build a nest. Trust us, you don’t want to have to clean up after a mouse (or family of mice) come spring.

While camping in the cold provides its own challenges, many people say that it’s worth the struggles to enjoy the majestic beauty of the world in winter.

If you’re in the market for a Class B motorhome, RV or campervan, contact Classic Vans to chat about our current inventory. We’ll see if we’ve got something that’s just right for you and your family to take into the great cold and wild beyond!