Don is a retired engineer and long-time motorhome owner who enjoys helping readers deal with the increasingly complex technology of RVs.
How to Keep a Camper or RV Warm in the Winter
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 do the necessary preparations that can help make 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 them 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 on 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.
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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 at 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 or 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 are 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 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 an 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: 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: 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: 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