Don is a retired engineer and long-time motorhome owner who enjoys helping readers deal with the increasingly complex technology of RVs.
RVs and Cold Weather
One problem with RVs is the fact that they are generally not designed well for long stays in cold weather.
An RV is a thin-walled vehicle, full of crevices and cracks, which expose it on all sides to chilly winds, so it can be less than cozy for the person who is caught camping in such bad weather.
Oh sure, motorhomes have had propane furnaces in them for decades, but these older furnaces are not very effective when the outside temperature drops very low, mainly because older RVs are not nearly as well insulated as some of the newer models.
So, if you want to travel into the more northern climates of the US, especially in the Winter, you need to make the necessary preparations that can help your cold weather travels more comfortable.
How to Stay Warm in an RV
Here are my suggestions for staying warm in an older, poorly insulated RV.
- Air Leaks - Spend time finding and plugging air leaks in your vehicle.
- Insulate - Use window covers, shades, and rugs to add to your insulation.
- Smart Furnace Usage - Maintain your furnace and turn it down at night.
- Heat Pump - If you have heat pumps then use it instead of your furnace on coolish nights.
- Smart Clothing - Wear warm clothing, especially keep good socks on your feet.
- Portable Heaters - Use a ceramic heater to deliver heat where you need it most.
- Electric Blankets - Use electric blankets when in campgrounds.
- Rugs - A few cheap throw rugs on your floor can make you feel more comfortable walking around in your RV.
Temporary Fixes for RV Air Leaks
Before you start wondering what to do to make your furnace work better, take the time to seal your RV well and prevent air leaks. It is a little silly to have a furnace blasting heat into your RV if the heat is immediately leaking to the outside world.
The first thing to do is take a good inventory of your RV and inspect all the slides, windows, and door seals.
The rubber seals and gaskets around your windows, doors, and slides should be maintained and lubricated regularly. If they have deteriorated too much, they should be repaired or replaced.
Cracked and hard seals will not keep out the elements. They are probably letting cold air into your RV, in all those places where you can see that the fit is not perfect.
Once you have taken care of the gasket and seal problems that you can see on the outside of your RV, make a thorough check for air leaks on the inside.
If your RV feels drafty, find the spot where cold air is coming into it. The leak is often something that can be fixed with a little silicone rubber, or maybe a little strategically placed spray-foam insulation. Or you can use insulated "snakes" (see below) or painter's tape as temporary fixes.
What's a BTU?
A British Thermal Unit is a measure of energy or heat. One 4-inch kitchen match when burned completely will generate 1 BTU of heat.
Insulated "Snakes" to Keep Out Cold Air
One of the things that we used in our older RV was a couple of those insulated "snakes" that you will find in places like WalMart.
They are yard-long stuffed cloth tubes, usually about four inches in diameter. They are often sold to be placed along the bottom of the door of your house, to stop the cold air from entering. They are cheap and work well to plug the small spaces under the doors of RVs.
Painter's Tape to Keep Out Cold Air
Another quick temporary fix is the use of painter's tape.
You can buy this tape at your local hardware store. It's like ordinary tan masking tape but has one great advantage: the glue won't stick to the surface when you pull it off, even after several days or weeks.
If you are going to be in a campsite for several days, and you have a bad cold air draft behind a cabinet or appliance, place some of this painter's tape over the spot and get immediate relief.
And when you hit the road, the tape will come off later easily, without leaving any residue.
Using Curtains, Window Shades, and Rugs as Insulation
Cold air circulating around your windows and under your vehicle's floor will steal your heat.
Curtains and Shades
If you have Day-Night shades and windshield window shades, as almost all RVs do, you should keep them closed.
Even if you do not have thermal-pane windows in your RV, closing the shades will trap an added layer of air between the window and the shade that aids in the overall insulation of your RV interior.
Another thing you should do is place throw rugs in the central parts of your RV floor where you walk the most often. These rugs, placed in the heaviest traffic areas of your RV, can shield your feet from the cold and often uninsulated floors of a camper.
Using Your RV Furnace to Advantage
Keep your RV furnace in tip-top condition. Read your owner's manual, and perform any required preventative maintenance on your furnace regularly. A furnace can waste a lot of propane if it is not kept in good shape.
You should also be realistic with your furnace temperature setting.
At night, just before going to bed, we set our furnace to a very low temperature of around 52-54° F.
Our reasoning is that while we are sleeping, the furnace only needs to keep the temperature of the RV at an acceptable base level for lying in bed under the covers.
When we get up in the morning, we immediately turn the furnace temperature up to around 63-64°. The furnace will run for eight to ten minutes, and then the RV will be at a comfortable temperature for moving around and starting your morning.
This procedure not only saves us significant money on propane costs, but it eliminates a lot of noise (propane furnaces are notoriously loud), and it doesn't dry out our RV and our sinuses nearly as bad as it would if we ran the furnace at a high temperature all of the time.
The air conditioners on the roof of our RV are the heat-pump type, which can do either cooling and heating, and we save a lot of money using them strategically. A heat pump works pretty efficiently down to about 40° F. So on nights that are cool but not near freezing, we run the heat pump, instead of our propane furnace, to heat the room to a base temperature of 52 to 54° F. This saves us a lot of money over the winter.
Wear Warm Clothes
The proper warm clothes are the next layer of cold management you should address. The right clothes will improve your comfort level dramatically.
Here are some tips we have learned for dressing inside in a cold climate:
- Keep a pair or two of warm sweatpants and a sweatshirt in your RV. They are not only useful when outside, but they can also keep you nice and cozy when sitting around inside the RV.
- Wear socks when inside. Don't walk around on your cold floor barefoot. The socks will not only make your feet feel warm, but they will block most drafts from affecting your feet.
- A pair of bedroom slippers is also good to wear in your RV on a cold night.
- And, of course, when you go to bed, wear some pajamas.
Try an Electric Blanket
An electric blanket can end up being your favorite accessory in your RV on a cold night.
You will remember that I recommended that you set your furnace down pretty low at night when you go to bed. Well, with a good electric blanket on your bed at night you can be very comfortable and sleep well even when the space heater cannot keep the air temperature very high.
The electric blanket is your third level of comfort control equipment, and once you use it a couple of times, you will never do without one again, on a cold night.
And a good, dual-control electric blanket will save you electricity and propane on those cold nights.
Small low-cost Space Heater with Safety Features
Try a Ceramic Electric Space Heater
One option I cannot stress too highly is the purchase of a good ceramic space heater.
The purpose of having a space heater is to bring up the inside temperature in part of the RV a few degrees above the base level provided by the propane furnace.
This space heater should be your second level of heating. It will be cheap to operate, and it will provide a steady heat in the small section of the RV that you are using throughout the day. Place it in the living area during the day, and in the bedroom area during the night.
Get a space heater that meets the following requirements:
- Small footprint. Storage space is always to be considered when purchasing anything for an RV.
- A ceramic design, as this type has a better safety record than older open-element types.
- A built-in sensor that will turn the heater off if it is ever kicked over.
- A multi-speed fan for adjusting the amount of heat it puts out.
- A removable filter that can be easily cleaned and replaced when it becomes clogged with dust and dirt.
One of these heaters can make a big difference in a room's temperature, and it will keep the furnace from cutting on nearly as often as it would if you did not use one.
Of course, these space heaters are no use if you are rough camping without electricity, but in a campground with electrical hookup, it can be a very effective tool for keeping your RV comfortable.
In summary, if you are going to be RVing in a cold climate, whether for only a couple of days or for a week or more, prepare for it, and attack the cold efficiently.
And, if necessary, be prepared to use these tips for improving your RV comfort level.
You will enjoy your travels a lot more!
Common Questions on Your RV Furnace
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
Questions & Answers
Question: I am traveling for work now and I will be buying a camper this weekend to save money on lodging. My concerns are how to keep the trailer warm enough that pipes don’t freeze when I’m working 10-12 hours a day. Can I leave the heater running? Do I leave an electric heater plugged in and running? Do I leave the water running at a trickle?
Answer: The first answer for you is; Where will you be camping and how Cold does it get there?? The projected temperature will control all of your decisions.
With that said, when I "Winter Camp", I use several of my heating tools in combinations that make sense for me.
1- When I am using a campsite, with Electric hookup, I always keep an electric blanket on our bed.
2- Because I have my blanket, I always set my RV furnace down to 60-65F at night.
3- We have a good safe ceramic electric heater that we will plug in at night in the living area, and set it for the same temperature as the furnace. We shopped around and our heater has several safety functions such as being "UL Listed" and a "tilt-over" turn off capability,
4- Also, our roof Air Conditioner is actually a Heat Pump, and we use it in that mode because our temperature control panel will automatically switch over to the Furnace for heat when the temperature drops below a certain point.
5- As to your water lines, if you are going to be camping in very cold weather, you need to look at your Holding Tanks and water lines as a separate issue.
Question: Where do I get an eclectic blanket that will have a regular plug and be 12-volts?
Answer: All of my motorhomes had an Inverter that converted 12-VDC from my coach batteries to 110-VAC that was available on several specific receptacles in the RV.
We used a cheap, low-current electric blanket plugged into one of these receptacles. The blanket did not drain our Coach batteries too much, and this worked for us.
Of course, if we were in a campsite, we just used the regular electric receptacles and the campground's power.
Question: We have a teardrop trailer. What are your thoughts about using a reptile heating lamp in our trailer? We can accommodate whatever the electrical needs are and would only use it briefly while awake to warm the air of the small interior before getting dressed- so it would not be on while we are asleep or any other time.
Answer: Actually, When I owned a Fiver, I would take it up to Virginia and et it in a Moose campground. I would go back every 2-3 weeks for a week or so.
While I did this, I placed a 100-Watt incandescent light bulb into a shop light and then I placed it in the area of the holding tanks to keep them and the water lines from freezing.
I have no idea how much wattage a Snake heating lamp uses, but sure, that should work.
You could also purchase a cheap Christmas light timer and set it to turn on before you get out of bed?
© 2009 Don Bobbitt
Don Bobbitt (author) from Ruskin Florida on November 13, 2018:
Jeffrey - Great job! I will share your idea of the "Dog House" over the heat pump with my followers. This really makes a heat pump a fantastic winter tool rather than just for those 40F plus days.
If I were you,I would look into Solar panels and batteries to run your electric. They are very efficient these days and could minimize your modifications to your RV.
Have a Great Day,
Jeffrey Ray HArdin from Moncks Corner on November 12, 2018:
I use bubble wrap on my windows to cut down on both the condensation and cold air. U use the larger bubbles for windows I need to look out of and the smaller bubbles for those windows I don't need access too.
To help keep my heat pump functioning in extreme cold weather or temps below 45° I've built a doghouse and mounted a small space heater with a temp control. This allows the pump to run in tempos lower than 20° we experience here in SC last winter and will have again this winter.
The rugs on the floor are a great idea. I've also purchased vent covers for my roof vents, this allows me to crack them in bad weather to allow circulation and to draw air better. Will take some tweaking to get it just right, but this allows fresh air into the RV without losing so much heat....
I have a 1997 pace arrow, as you can imagine it gets cold in this puppy and is my permanent home. Was so bad for the first months of winter I was scraping ice off my bathroom mirrors until I built the doghouse for the heat pump...
My electric bill was a consistent $80 all winter. The simmer however poses new challenges, running my AC jumped my bill up to $233. $150 jump...Going to try placing silver liner or cool sel on the roof next spring to bounce off the heat, and try insulating this tank some...
Don Bobbitt (author) from Ruskin Florida on September 26, 2018:
Waide - If your existing RV has an AC that's actually a Heat Pump, they do decent as heaters down to around 40F. I often use mine for heat until the temp drops below 40.
With temperatures below freezing for more than a couple of days, you need to be more concerned about your holding tanks and your fresh water lines. Some RV's are set up for cold winters and have special Basement heating systems that protect the RV from damage while traveling in COLD weather.
Back to your question about upgrading your AC unit, most of the one's I know of, are wired with the heater strip in it and should operate on the regular thermostat.
I recommend that you look at your existing RVand make sure you have a TOTAL heating plan that not only keeps you warm but also your RV equipment protected.
Waide Lewis on September 26, 2018:
I am new to full time RV living and I live in central missouri where3 it gets below 0 in winter. I am looking into boosting my heat capacity. Currently I have a propane furnace and a 13000 btu ac. I am considering upgrading my ac unit to a 15000btu unit with a 5600btu heat strip. I assume I will have to use seperate thermostats and sink the temp. Please advide
Don Bobbitt (author) from Ruskin Florida on September 07, 2018:
RICK - That would be your problem with a space heater. The thermostats in your camper would turn your furnace OFF when they sense the temperature being reached.
There are tricks some people use to "fool" the thermostat, but they can also be dangerous.
I often use a space heater in my RV bedroom, but I ALWAYS set the thermostat on the space heater to a temperature down around 60 and this doesn't affect the furnace operation, but it does allow my furnace (set around 68 at night) to operate properly ad give me a little heat boost in my bedroom.
Have a great day!
Rick on September 06, 2018:
Don, my travel trailer has the thermal package and ducts that heat the underbelly, vital to keep the onboard water tanks from freezing. In order to heat the underbelly, the furnace has to run. If I use a space heater in the coach, won't it "fool" the furnace thermostat causing it to shut down the furnace therefore allowing the onboard tanks to freeze?
Annie Andrews Fairfax VA on December 13, 2016:
I bought a roll of silver insulation from home depot (silver on both sides) and cut my own window shades to fit even for my large front Class A windshield, and side windows. The roll was fairly cheap and it works great in the winter. I also found I needed sections in the knee holes to block cold air, which helps.
Don Bobbitt (author) from Ruskin Florida on March 16, 2016:
Dee106 - Great system you have there.
It's amazing what you can come up with when you get a little chill in your camper around 1 or 2 in the morning.
Thanks for the read and comment.
dee106 on March 15, 2016:
i use the window insulating kit, to keep the drafts out, put the two way tape on, put the clear wrap on, and hit with the hair dry to shrink the wrap tight. no more drafts, we leave one window uncovered for ventilation , and use the roof vent covers and foam blocks to keep the heat in . and cover the a/c unit on the roof.
Don Bobbitt (author) from Ruskin Florida on August 22, 2015:
Patti and Ryan - There are some RV's that are designed for extreme weather that have the holding tanks and all of the lines inside of a compartment that is heated. I had a Camelot that had this system and the compartments heat turned on when its temp dropped below 40F.
Barring this, and if you have a cheaper priced RV, it is pretty standard for these holding tanks to be exposed on the underside of the RV.
I have read of people who have wintered in Alaska and N.Dakota and other cold places who went under their RV and used electrical heater tape and layers of insulation to prevent freezing.
But, from what I read, you had better plan well because it only takes a small unheated area to freeze up and pop a hose or crack a tank when you are dealing with sub-zero temps outside for days on end.
Patti and ryan on August 21, 2015:
What about extreme cold conditions and insulating the tanks and pipes under the motor home?
Don Bobbitt (author) from Ruskin Florida on August 08, 2015:
Lbrown- I am glad that you like my article. I tried to put all of the common-sense things that can keep a camper warmer for the user.
If you have other ideas, I welcome them.
Lbrown on August 07, 2015:
When I was young I ended up having a tiny 8X10 camper with no heat source as a bedroom. My mom bought me an electric blanket because, well, she's a mom and a cold child is just a no go. Once I got said blanket I was able to sleep even when temperatures reached for below zero. I wish I had thought to put insulation or skirting around the bottom too. Now that my husband and I have found ourselves once again in a camper for the winter I intend to use some of these tips!
Starwish246 on January 22, 2015:
Don Bobbitt, I just use "Super Glue" for my window shade projects, because tape (of any type) just heats up, and curls up, or "walks away" on it's own. No sewing involved
Don Bobbitt (author) from Ruskin Florida on January 22, 2015:
Starwish248- What a great idea.
I might try this one myself for those longer stays at campgrounds. But, I really Suck at Sewing, so I hope I can just staple or 2-sided tape it to fit?
Starwish246 on January 22, 2015:
I found a way to help keep some of the cold outside, where it belongs. I bought at the "dollar store", a simple tablecloth with the felt backing. I measured the windshield, and cut the tablecloth to fit. (You may need 2 cloths.) I used velcro to attach the cloth to the top rim of the windshield WITH THE FELT SIDE TOWARDS THE ROOM, NOT TOWARDS THE GLASS. The glass side gets wet from fog, breathing, and rain, and the felt would get all wet, if hung towards the glass side. The soft, fuzzy side of the velcro should be placed on the top rim of the windshield, and the "grippy" side on the tablecloth. These tablecloths are light weight, and fold up when not needed. They can also help to keep the summer sun out - I bought a white one just for that, and I have the felt side FACING the glass (the reverse of the winter use). This is another layer in our battle to keep comfortable throughout the seasons.
Don Bobbitt (author) from Ruskin Florida on December 26, 2014:
Joel- Thanks for the compliments. And I have to say, Winter Camping in a tent is for the most staunch camper. And I am definitely impressed. As to using the electric blanket, I have heard of these battery powered units and people do brag on them. Sounds like you have a plan that works for you. LOL!
Thanks for the comment,
Joel Diffendarfer from Jonesville on December 26, 2014:
Hi Don, love reading your articles...(and yes, your books on Kindle/Amazon are great resources...)....one thing I found in my many "off the grid" adventures (I love to camp during Winter in a tent)...regardless of cold conditions, I survived with an electric blanket...even on the coldest days, I would wrap myself in an electric blanket, and work at my computer...in comfort...
Don Bobbitt (author) from Ruskin Florida on December 26, 2014:
Starwish246- Great example of ingenuity tackling a problem. Using these "snakes" at doorways works well in an RV and at home. So much so that you can purchase several brands on the web and there is even one listed on Camping World.
Thanks for sharing your idea,
StarWish246 on December 25, 2014:
I hate the cold draft that came out under my couch (because of the slide-out). The slide-out only has a piece of vinyl to cover the separation. I decided to make a "Draft Snake" to help to keep out the draft.
So, I bought several pairs of knee high (long) stockings at the thrift store. I made sure that they were tight-woven, not open weave.
Then, I doubled up on them, by putting one sock inside another, to make a double layer. I then stitched the open (top) end 1/2 way closed, using several layers of thread, to make a thick, strong stitch.
I got an empty plastic bottle/container, and cut the top off to use as a funnel. This funnel, I put into the still open 1/2 of the sock top, and used it to pour dried beans into the socks. I prefer the dried beans, as they are easier to deal with, than the tiny rice (which can be used, also). DON'T fill it too much, it needs to be flexible. When I had finished filling moderately with the dried beans, I stitched the top closed the rest of the way. Then, I attached some Velcro strips (one "fuzzy, and one "grippy") near the top, end (where I had sewn it closed. Then, I attached the 2 snake/stockings together with the Velcro, and pressed them up against the slide opening under the couch.
This does help a lot, and I plan to make the same snakes for the whole circumference of the slide areas. After all, every little bit helps.
Just don't forget to remove them, if you ever close the slides for travel, or such. (P. S. They are easy to open, empty, and wash when you want to.)
StarWish246 on December 07, 2014:
Thanks Don. I didn't mention, that in the summer, I use the sunshades to actually screen the sun in the daytime. I put them on the "SUNNY" side of my RV. And as the sun moves in the afternoon, I transfer them to the opposite side. This way, I have sun protection, help the AC keep the cool air going, and also still have the light of day (from the side without the sun). When it is 105 degrees, or hotter, I use the whole works on all windows to keep the AC cool inside. But, I always try to crack my roof vent just a bit, as warm air rises.......
P. S. I'm a Fulltimer
StarWish246 on December 07, 2014:
I bought several foil, insulated automobile windshield sunshades. I bought both the shades, and the velcro, which I used, if needed, to attach the shades, at the dollar store. I put them in the windows at night. I cut any to fit, if needed, and tape the cut "raw" edge with duct tape. I placed a piece of velcro on the window sill, if I had trouble keeping it in the window (put the "fuzzy" side on the window, and the "grippy" side on the shade). On one window, I cut the fitted shade in half, so that I could remove 1/2 easily to have access to looking out that window (while the other 1/2 remained up). This also has the added bonus of reflecting more light from your lights, so the room is brighter (which is nice in those dark, winter months) and also means that you can use less lights, which may save you on the electric bill or generator usage.
Don Bobbitt (author) from Ruskin Florida on January 08, 2014:
blueheron- Great Comment. The feet are the next most important part of the body to keep warm after the head.
As to thermal underwear here in Florida; I suspect that some do exist. These native Floridians start wrapping themselves up if the temperature drops below 70. I don't know if it is a genetic defect or just too many Margaritas that causes this strange phenomenon.
Something I should investigate at the local Tiki Bar, I guess.
Sharon Vile from Odessa, MO on January 06, 2014:
Your point about keeping your feet warm is spot on, as is your point about uninsulated floors. If you can keep your feet warm, the rest of your body will manage okay. Thermal underwear is also great. Do Floridans even own thermal underwear? Or does anyone in their right mind ever take their RV to places that are that cold?
Don Bobbitt (author) from Ruskin Florida on October 23, 2012:
Trudi- Yes a ceramic heater isa great idea, and I do suggest that it have an adjustable temperature. This will save you some electricity in the long run, as well as keeping the temp under control for safety's sake.
Thanks for the comment.
Trudi Goodwin from Texas on October 23, 2012:
We also keep a ceramic heater in the basement of our 5er which has a two-fold purpose. It keeps our plumbing running through the basement from freezing and our bedroom floor is nice and toasty.
melbelle from Southern United States on September 12, 2012:
very good information for RVers.
myjesus49 on September 12, 2012:
Don Bobbitt (author) from Ruskin Florida on September 12, 2012:
myjesus49- Thanks for the comment and I hope all goes well for you and your husband. Good Luck!
myjesus49 on September 12, 2012:
Thank you so much for all these helpful tips. We are new to rv's and now we are living in one part time due to my husband having to work out of town. God Bless