How to Survive Winter RV Camping
For my wife and I, cold weather camping has turned out to be the norm, rather than the exception. Here in Texas, those popular summer months are often too hot for weekend getaways. We normally have business commitments from late February well into August that prohibit longer trips to cooler climates during those months. Subsequently, our traditional long-travel months have been September through January.
Our cold weather camping is actually glamping. Full disclosure, our camper is a 43-foot diesel motorhome with heated floors and a fireplace. The winter camping mistakes we made are not the travails of staying warm, rather they are mostly equipment related, some with costly and dangerous ramifications.
Our Top Cold Weather Camping Mistakes
With grown children living in Colorado, we have made several cold weather camping trips to visit them. We’ve also made a few mistakes along the way. In this article we’ll talk about:
- Minor Camping Mistakes
- Stupid Cold Weather Driving Mistakes
– Driving I-70 In December
– Driving the Million Dollar Highway
- A Cold Weather Rooftop Dilemma
- An Expensive and Dangerous Cold Weather Mistake
– Slide Topper or Slide Stopper?
- Better Cold Weather Camping
The minor camping mistakes
Some of the cold weather camping mistakes we have made have been fairly minor. For example, being an ex-northerner I knew rock salt would do a great job of keeping my motorized steps free of ice and snow.
I also knew, but seemingly ignored, that if not rinsed off properly and frequently, said rock salt would also keep my steps free of paint, and replace that paint with an abundance of rust. Fortunately I was able to stem the reaction of iron and oxygen after our trip by cleaning, repainting, and lubricating those RV entry steps.
Still somewhat minor, however, with a less than happy ending, was my failure to clean and lubricate all of my tow bar system components after a rather salty ride over I-70 through Colorado. I finally decided to give everything a once over about a month after we got home and was confronted with several items that needed elbow grease, a little steel wool, paint, and lubrication as surface rust and corrosion had played havoc with most of my towing equipment.
Fortunately the powder-coated pieces fared pretty well. Lesson learned, however, always wash the road salt off of your vehicles and equipment after traveling on salted roads.
Stupid cold weather driving mistakes
While not addressing those salt issues is pretty stupid in its own right, I’ve done worse. Fortunately, none of these incidents resulted in tragedy, but I point out my own ignorance, in the hopes of helping others.
Driving I-70 in December
In the aforementioned ride on I-70 through Colorado, I should note that this was a full drive from Grand Junction to Denver, about four hours. While it’s safe to say we “watched the weather”, we didn’t really have a backup plan.
It was a classic case of we have to be somewhere and have a deadline. Our cold weather camping plans didn’t account or allow for an alternate route or additional time. We basically jumped on I-70 and hoped for the best.
After all, the roads looked great in Grand Junction! As we would our way up and into the Rockies, however, the snow line seemed to edge closer and closer to the highway. Soon we were reaching higher elevations and passing ski resorts, show plows, and chain-up areas.
As each mile progressed, and after each chain-up warning sign (and subsequent fine if you got stuck and blocked the highway) I got a little more nervous. I began to imagine the cost of a huge wrecker having to trudge up the mountain and somehow pull my 43-feet of stupidity out in a blizzard.
Fortunately, none of that happened and once we went through the worst of it the drive was fine. Nevertheless, it was a stupid cold weather camping mistake. Next time there will be more planning and a backup plan.
Million Dollar Highway – An ignorant cold weather camping mistake
The Million Dollar Highway is billed as one of our nation’s most spectacular, yet dangerous drives. In fact, dangerousroads.org states,
“Forget standard driving safety measures like guardrails and shoulders, there aren’t any on this stretch, so swerving off the road is not advised!”
They say ignorance is bliss, and in this I was apparently very blissful. In another one of our December journeys up to Grand Junction, I wanted to try a different route. We had made the run up Hwy 191 through Moab countless times and were ready for something different. Hwy 550 looked like a good route, and in truth it was. Yes, in our big diesel pusher it took every bit of my concentration.
We were however blessed with good weather. Despite there being plenty of snow on the side of the road and tiny patches of ice here and there, it was a beautiful journey. It was not relaxing however, and the uncertainties of how long does this go on and when is it going to get dark made for trepidus travel.
It’s not that I’m a bad planner, I’m not. I plan our trips in detail using the best tools available. However, on a whim, I opted for a different route having done no real research on where I was going. This is where ignorance turned into stupid cold weather camping. When you are driving an 8-wheeled monster the size of a city bus in the winter, you should never wing it.
A cold weather camping rooftop dilemma
I hesitate to call this experience stupid, or a mistake. We got some snow, more or less expected, while winter camping. It was quite enjoyable in fact and made for a humorous run up to the Grand Canyon in the Jeep. We knew we probably weren’t going to be able to see anything, but we were camped close by and it was fun seeing the snow.
When we returned to our campsite at Railside RV Ranch in Williams, we had a couple of inches of snow on the RV. My plan as it were, was to climb up on the roof and sweep off the snow. All in all, this was pretty effective for the inch or two dusting of snow we received. Where it became problematic was after several inches of snow, the bottom layer turning to ice as it reacted to the warm RV.
When it came time to pack up the RV and leave, I spent a lot of effort 13-feet in the air with a broom trying to dissuade the ice from remaining on my RV, lest it slide off into the car behind me on the freeway. I was careful, but didn’t feel particularly safe, and vow to plan better the next time.
An expensive and dangerous cold weather mistake
It turns out cold weather camping mistakes can be dangerous, expensive, and stupid all at once. As our time came to depart loved ones on this particular winter holiday, we opted to head down the familiar Hwy 191 again through Moab and on into Cortez, Colorado where we had an overnight sight booked.
The weather was looking to get bad later in the day, and we had planned to head out early. We were forced to delay our departure due to some family issues and were watching the weather closely. Finally we had to make some decisions, and my wife opted to stay behind a bit longer to help with some family things and follow in the Jeep later. I headed out in the motorhome hoping to beat both the snowstorm and the sunset. I did neither.
Instead, I ended up with one of the most treacherous and frightening drives of my life. At one point, I was hoping to just pull over, but things were so bad and snow had drifted so much I couldn’t tell the difference between a shoulder, a turnout, or a ditch full of snow. The only solace I had were trucks and headlights fore and aft. I felt safer on the road than I did anywhere else so I kept going.
Slide Topper or Slide Stopper?
Eventually I made it to the campground in Cortez, feeling quite fortunate. I vowed to set up camp and get the heated floors and fireplace cranked up and wait for the Mrs. to arrive. After leveling, I pushed the button for my hydraulic slide to push out the passenger slide.
Unbeknownst to me, the snowstorm I had just driven through had encased my entire awning topper mechanism in ice and show. In a testament to the high quality and power of the hydraulic slide-outs in my coach, with a deafening crash that passenger slide opened right up.
Already frazzled from the harried drive in, I bounded outside in the snow and looked all around my coach to try and figure out what happened and what the sound was. In the dark and in the snow, I couldn’t really see anything wrong. My first thought was a timeless quote from C3PO,
‘That’s funny, the damage doesn’t look as bad from out here.”
In the light of the following morning, however, I could see that the powerful slide had ripped the awning slide topper out of its cradle, snapped the spring axle, and bent the primary roller shaft. Ka-Ching! Not only was this a stupid mistake from driving when I had no business driving, but it was an expensive one as well.
The drive was equally as treacherous for the wife, trailing in the Jeep a few hours behind. She had faced the same conditions, albeit with 4WD, and almost all of it at night. We didn’t plan ahead for her to have an extra phone charger or anything in the Jeep that I drive everyday. Somewhere between Moab and ‘where am I’ her phone died. Only by grace did she manage to pull into the campsite a couple of hours after I did.
The best ways to cold weather camp & RV
Those years of bad planning are behind us. We learned some valuable lessons. In fact, I can pull my service invoices and tell you exactly how valuable they were. Still, camping in winter months is very doable and enjoyable with just a little planning. Here are a few reminders on how you can improve your cold weather camping experience.
- Use a great trip planner like RV LIFE Trip Wizard to plan not only your primary route and journey, but a backup route in case of bad weather.
- Make contingency plans in case you have to stay put or take a longer route.
- Research alternative campgrounds in case your route strays.
- Be aware of winter travel laws in the states you travel, including chain laws and four-wheel drive mandates.
- Keep warm outerwear, salt, snow shovels, and bottled water where you can reach them in an emergency.
- Ensure you have emergency triangles, cones, and lights in the event you get stuck.
- Consider pulling in your slides during heavy snow, sleet, or ice storms.
- If you must get on your roof to remove snow, make sure you are properly dressed with warm footwear and there is plenty of lighting.
- Do not overexert yourself. Remember you still have to come down from that roof.
- Keep a close eye on the weather, not only in your immediate area, but in cities and routes you expect to travel in the near future.
Enjoy your winter camping, spring is just around the corner. In the meantime, make sure you have these 10 Winter Camping Items You Shouldn’t Travel Without.
All around RV industry enthusiast who has been RVing for 8 years and enjoys trips with his wife and dogs in their diesel pusher.
Richard Gabrisch says
The good thing about winter camping is the campgrounds are not full and the outhouses don’t stink.
I’ve had my water system freeze and couldn’t use the toilet. Now I keep a 5 gallon jug of water for use just in case. I also learned to park in a rest area and wait until the storm passes.
A few time we had company when others were stranded in their cars.
Be nice. Be comfortable.
I camped for 10 years in a Travel Trailer in Northern Alberta working in the patch. It was my home 2 weeks a month. You had to make sure that it was properly insulated every fall. Every spring and fall I would take it south to get it serviced to make sure i was ready for the next winter. I put on tank heaters for the grey/black tank and also the water tank. I ran 4 50lb bottles hooked up to my trailer as we where not allowed small propane pigs. There was no water at all for the campground I was staying at so had to haul my own water,same as the grey/black tanks.Propane lasted about 3 weeks had to get them filled myself. Used electric heaters also for extra warmth when it got colder than -35 C. I was snug as a bug in winter, a few issues but I survived.
Paul Goldberg says
I am a lifelong snow belt driver. It take a lot to stop me in a car. At the first mention of snow in the motorhome – a 36 foot diesel pusher – I am looking for a place to wait it out. We are retired and when traveling we build in several days to a week if there is a scheduled reason to be someplace. Our planning includes keeping the freshwater tank full, 90 gallons of water will not freeze overnight. Our propane is always topped up at 1/2 and so is the fuel. Holding tanks are emptied at every opportunity so we can be prepared to stay in place for a week if weather traps us. I will NOT consider getting on the roof if there is anything but sunshine on it. This 78 year old body will not recover from a fall easily if at all.
Do not ever set out to drive in any significant snow. Learn to not put out any slides in wet freezing weather. You will have problems both in an out with the slides and it is warmer with them in. Do not separate from your partner, especially in dangerous conditions.
All said, cold weather camping can be rewarding and far less crowded.
Debbie Johnson says
Whew! Glad you’re safe! Thanks for sharing.
Gus van Driel says
Good thing you have a good sense of humor Patrick! LOL
Sharing your experiences is bound to save a lot of people who read this from similar or worse results!
Jeff W. says
I just purchased a 39′ Big Country 5th wheel where i live in Fate,Texas and I also have family in Grand Junction (daughter, grandkids) and was planning on heading up there end of Jan. Or 1st of Feb. It has never been a problem going up in my Pathfinder at this time of year! But after reading about your ordeal, I think I will make that trip in April or May! I cant afford any mishaps! Thanks for the heads up! Stay safe out there!!
8. If you must get on your roof to remove snow, make sure you are properly dressed with warm footwear and there is plenty of lighting. AND, use a well designed fall restraint system. It’s not the 13 foot fall, it’s that sudden stop at the bottom. OSHA would have a party with RVers climbing onto their roofs without any fall restraint system. Cannot believe the RV Industry escapes providing a fall restraint system on their units. Shit does happen, and then Darwin Awards are handed out, and the gene pool is cleansed. Don’t expend your last heartbeat stupidly.
Having lived pretty much all my life in northern MN, where it’s winter nearly half the year, I now avoid snow. Don’t mind a couple of inches where it’s going to melt off the next day, but no longer want to drive on snow and ice covered roads. And being retired I don’t have to.
Laura Kierstead says
1000% the truth! In NY, anything higher than 6′ you need to be “tied off”. I highly advise AGAINST getting on ANY roof to remove snow. I have lived my life an hour south of Canada and have plenty of stories, not one ending positively, and they arent half as slick as the top of a camper! Use a broom and sweep when you get to the top of the stairs, but dont climb on top. Oh God, please no. Dont worry about the cars behind you, if they have half a brain theyll stay far enough back as they would trucks. But this MAY have been the best and funniest article I have ever read! Kudos!
Lew Barr says
I recently purchased a class A and found your article informative and will probably keep me from making the same mistakes. I also have been living in Colorado for most of my adult life and can add a few pointers.
In Colorado, detours can take you hundreds of miles out of your way. In August of 2020, Glenwood Canyon was closed due to the Grizzly Creek fire. Just looking at a map will tell you there are no short detours when the Canyon is closed.
Over the years, I have driven the Million Dollar Highway dozens of times in my SUV, and several times in my motorhome. One time I made the stupid mistake of traveling the Million Dollar Hwy at night. Even though I was in an SUV, it was not a pleasant drive. I will never drive a mountain pass again at night during the winter.
David A Whalen says
I opted for the new 2021 Thor Magnitude XG32 with 4 wheel drive because I use my RV year round. I don’t winterize and keep space heaters going during the winter. I live in St George, UT and we don’t get too cold, but do get a few nights in the teens. I just can’t see myself chaining up before going over Eisenhauer Pass. I also pull a Wrangler and get to Moab from time to time. The MH is my non-contact sanctuary. Good article. I realized I don’t have any triangles and such for a break down.
Michael Harlow says
Always great to learn from other’s mistakes. Thanks so much for being candid and writing a truly harrowing story. I’m glad your wife made it to the campsite during the snowstorm. It’s always sketchy when your phone dies in the middle of a storm.
Hope to meet you on the road one day. We’ve had the same experience going over the I-70. Not very fun when semi’s right next to you start sliding on the ice (luckily away from us).
I look forward to your next story.
Michael & Melissa
Patrick, great read, thank you for the valuable information. My husband & I purchased our first motorhome following 17 years of travel trailers. We bought at the end of 2020 and brought the RV home winterized. This article has helped me to decide not to make my first trip out in it this winter. I will wait for spring, and the cordless heat gun is going in my cart today. Recently, I went out to the storage unit to exercise the generator and noticed all the exterior storage doors have iced preventing the key from inserting far enough to unlock. I have many things to learn about winter camping, and appreciate learning from the warmth and safety off the road for now.
Thank you for this article.
Living in Wyoming I want to remind people from other parts of the country that WINTER can begin in September and can end in July. The heaviest snows are in the late spring. YES pull in those slides. We have seen so many ill prepared campers in and out of the RV world.
We love DRIVE WEATHER and use it in combination with RV TRIPWIZARD for safer shoulder season and winter camping.
Again if your are camping at altitude “winter” can happen anytime of year. Please carry emergency equipment.
We would love to meet you but not have to rescue you.
Laura Kierstead says
I am sitting here crying I’m laughing so hard! I wish there were more articles like yours! I am in Nebraska in a ’21 41′ diesel pusher and it is supposed to get to 15 degrees in a few days and I was looking to see if I can even stay in this thing without frozen lines when I came across your article. It seems it will be fine, but I think it might be best we leave early just in case. Get back to Nashville before the snow flies up here. Thank you SO much! LA♥️