Living Fulltime in an RV – During an Iowa Winter


This is a reposting from one of my earlier blogs from 2011

Living Fulltime in an RV – During an Iowa Winter

I’m not an expert – just experienced

winter 1
When I’m talking about living in an RV in winter this is what I’m preparing for.

Things that NON snowbirds have to do to survive these northern winters.  Just to be clear, I am NOT talking about winter camping.  I am talking about living in an RV during a northern winter.

I will breaking the preparation into categories and will cover one category a day.  Some information will be repeated in separate posts because some preparation covers more than one area.  (I just don’t want you to think you are having déjà vu when you see the repeated information.)


Part One – Picking Your Site

          The number one thing that needs to be done to prepare an RV for LIVING through the winter is find a place to park so that you don’t have move the darn thing.  Trust me on this, once the cold weather sets in, you do not want to have to move it. Roads are slick, cross winds are brutal and water lines WILL freeze without heat.  Making your ‘home on wheels’ stationary for months at a time takes some forethought.

         In the middle of a northern winter, no one even considers ‘boondocking’.  At a minimum you want a spot with electricity and sewer. It is POSSIBLE to do without a freeze proof water source – but not recommended.  You can always carry in or buy five gallon water bottles to drink, wash dishes and bodies, as well as flush the stool. However, the thought of carrying sewage away from your campsite just seems like an insurmountable obstacle, for me.  Okay if push came to shove, you could use one of those blue totes and drag it through the snow to a dump site. But – yuck!

          If you are staying in a park or resort, find out who maintains, roads, parking, sidewalks, etc. and how often.  What amenities are available to you at the park; are there laundry facilities, showers, pools, exercise equipment, and so on?  What other forms of recreation are available in the local area? Are there other people staying through the winter and do they get together to socialize?

winter 2
100# and 30# LP tanks

         You will also need to know if you pay for electricity and if you do, is it metered or is it estimated.  Since you will most likely be using a LOT of LP, is it available in the park? Is LP delivered to your site?  Do they have larger tanks (100 pound) available for rent or exchange?

          And how about trash?  Is it picked up at your site?  Do you need to carry it to a dumpster and where is it located?  Are recycle bins available? What, if any, restrictions are there on what can be placed in dumpster/recycle bins?  Is it permissible to burn paper and cardboard trash in the campfire at your site?

         Now, about emergencies; who ya gonna call?  (No! not Ghost Busters) Is there on-site help for mechanical and electrical problems and how do you contact them?  What days and hours are they available? Is 911 service available (if you are fulltiming, you most likely are using only a cellphone – cellphones may NOT work with the 911 service since they do not give you LOCATION)?  Where are the closest Doctors, Dentists, Veterinarians, Pharmacies and Hospitals?

(Next topic;  Water Out – Waste Water)


Part Two – Waste Water

winter 3
Here is a sewer hose that will drain completely

photo from


winter 4
Here is a sewer hose that will

not drain completely and will freeze

in the winter.* photo from

         Okay, so I hope that in Part One I convinced you that you want a site with a sewer hook up.  Now, about that hook up, you want to keep the dump valve closed until you have at least three-quarters of a tank so that you get a clean dump.  You need the force of moving liquid to move the solids. That’s as nice a way of saying as I could think of. It is critical that the sewer hose has a constant decline to the sewer.  If it does not have enough of a drop, waste will collect and freeze in the hose. Many people (myself included) run the hose into or through a PVC pipe to make sure that there is no ‘sag’ in the line.  Other folks use a section of rain gutter as a bridge that holds the hose. Either of these systems will work.

          You may wish to put insulation around the waste hose to give the fluid more time to drain before the freezing temps cause a problem.  I have seen people add heat tape to the drain hose also. I do NOT recommend that. Heat tape works fine on water lines that have water in them.  Full lines are less likely to overheat. An empty sewer line may melt or scorch from the heat of a tape. There MAY be tapes made for this purpose, however I’ve never seen them.

          Frankly, if the sewer line has the proper decline it should run fine except in the very, very, very, coldest weather – when you are not going to go out to empty your tanks anyway.

One last thought on sewer lines.  If you are really concerned that they may freeze, add some RV/Marine Antifreeze down the stool.  Make sure it is RV/Marine Antifreeze and not engine antifreeze. You can find it a almost any auto parts or home store like Home Depot, Menards, Lowes or even your local hardware or grocery store may carry it if you are in an area where it is demand.

*About the hose that will not drain properly.  To be fair, that is what the person was trying to accomplish.  By forming this “P-Trap” in the line they could leave their dump valve open all the time without sewer gas entering their RV.  You could certainly do this where you need not worry about freezing temperatures. However, if it freezes, it will block the flow and possible rupture the hose.

(Next topic;  Water In – Fresh Water)


Part Three -Water In


Okay, “water” out is taken care of in Part Two so let’s talk about water in.  As mentioned earlier, you can carry water in, if needed.

winter 5
One solution for water

is to bring it in bottles

           However, it is handier if you have a freeze proof water line into the RV.  In my own case, the resort in which I stay, has freeze proof hydrants.  That is NOT the same as a freeze proof water line.

winter 6
Freeze proof hydrant

         With our system, we can use the faucet to fill our fresh water tank. However, you can not leave it hooked up to a hose when the weather drops below freezing.  The hose has to be disconnected from the faucet so that the faucet can drain to down below the freeze line. If you leave the hose hooked up the faucet will freeze and break.  That is an expense and inconvenience you don’t want in the middle of winter.

winter 7
Hose and faucet with heat tape

           My neighbor this winter is using a water hose with a built in heat tape.  He has an additional heat tape on the faucet and delivery pipe which is also wrapped in insulation.  I’ll be interested in how well that works for him.

I have also heard of people who wrap their water hose with aluminum foil than add a heat tape and insulation.  I prefer to not take the risk of the delivery line breaking so I only use the hose to fill the fresh water tank.  Then I disconnect and empty the hose before storing it until need again.

(Next topic;  Water Conservation)


Part Four – Water Conservation

        Fulltime RVers by the nature of our lifestyle are conservationists.  We live inside little boxes on wheels so we have to be conscious of what goes in and what goes out of our little box.  Water, in the winter, most likely comes from your fresh water holding tank as discussed in Part Three’s post. And then it goes into your waste water tank(s) and has to be dumped, as discussed in Part Two.  Because you will be required to both fill and empty, you will want to use the least amount of water that you can.

        Your major uses of water will be washing (dishes and yourself) and flushing the stool.  You will also consume water in your cooking and drinking but they will truly be minimal by comparison to the other two areas.

        It may seem obvious that the less things that get dirty, the less has to be cleaned.  However, how you apply that knowledge can make a lot of difference. We use paper plates (not foam) and paper cups almost exclusively.  When possible we cook in the microwave in Glad or Ziplock containers so that leftovers store in the same container in which they cooked.  We do use regular silverware but I’ve often thought that chop sticks would work just as well for most things (I haven’t cleared that one with Ella – GRIN.)

          winter 8

           Those dishes that do need to be washed are first wiped clean with paper towels.  Wiping them first means less water used to clean them. Rather than use the sink(s) for dish washing, we use dishpans for washing and rinsing.  The wash water can be used for flushing the stool and the rinse water can be reused as wash water by reheating on the stove. If you’ve followed the wipe before you wash suggestion, the rinse water will be very clean.

          We use a similar method for personal hygiene.  Wet wipes can take care of most basic hand and body cleaning.  A bathroom sink full of water can be used multiple times before it goes into the waste tank.  If the park where you are staying has shower facilities available, make use of them. If they don’t you may take what my mother called “possible baths”.  You wash down as far as possible, then wash up as far as possible and leave ‘possible’ for another time. When you do use the shower in your RV, wet down, turn off the water, lather up, turn water on to rinse.  Here is a video I found that shows another way to shower using a 2 liter bottle.

One of my new neighbors told me that he has the recipe for a body wash that uses less than a quart of water and does not need to be rinsed off.  He hasn’t given me the specifics yet. When I get them, I’ll pass them along.

Don’t run the tap while brushing your teeth or shaving. To wet your toothbrush or razor, use a paper cup with just enough water to do the deed.

Consider using a ‘dry shampoo’.


Some of this may seem strange to you however it takes me back to my childhood.  I grew up in a semi-rural area that did not have ‘city water’ or ‘city sewer’. We had a hand-pump in the kitchen and an outhouse ‘down yonder’.  And those years of tent camping was like ‘boot camp’ for conserving water.

(Next topic:  Insulation – Outside)


Part Five – Outside Insulation

          So, now we have water in the RV.  How do we keep it from freezing in the RV’s water lines?  If you have a full four season RV you MAY not have to add skirting.  Again, my opinion here is that the cost of adding insulation is miniscule in relation to replacing broken pipes and water damaged floors and cabinetry.

What I recommend* is using foil sided foam board for the skirting.  The foam board (½ to ¾ inch) is rigid enough to stand up to the weight of snow and the blast of winter winds.  It is also easy to cut with a razor blade knife.  

*You will of course ask the office where you are wintering what restriction they may place on the type of skirting.

winter 9
Foam board insulating skirting

          Some of my neighbors go all out with the skirting by building complete frames out of 1x1s and attaching the foam board with plastic pop rivets. Others only make a frame to attach the bottom of foam.  Personally, I find the board when taped together with aluminum duct tape is sufficient. Because the insulation will have gaps at the bottom due to the unevenness of the ground, I use expanding foam from a can to complete the seal.  The foam also helps to stabilize the board against the wind and snow.

(Next topic:  Insulation – Inside)


Part Six – Inside Insulation and Warmth

          If you’ve done all of the above steps you are now about ready to live comfortably through the winter.  Inside the RV can be further insulated by adding heat shrink film to the windows.

There are many brands available. The images here are from Duck Brand and they show installing on a sticks and brick home. The idea works just the same on you RV windows. Insulated blinds or curtains are also nice. We found that by adding film to the windows and opening the blinds on the sunny side of the RV we gain a lot of passive solar heating. Close the blinds on the shaded side and at night to keep as much heat inside as possible

         The most fuel effective way to heat your RV is with electric heat because all of the heat generated stays within the RV. Your LP furnace should do a great job of heating the RV but it also blows a lot of heat out the exhaust. That being said, the ONLY way to make sure your plumbing is protected is by running the furnace. There are a few companies that sell electric add-ons for RV furnaces that give you the option of using electric heat or LP heat by turning a switch. I haven’t used them but they sound like a great idea if you have the cash for the purchase and installation.

          What works for us is to use electric space heaters or an electric fireplace … when the outside temperature is ABOVE freezing. Use proper caution to avoid fire and tripping hazard. When it goes below freezing, we run the furnace because the plumbing in the RV is run next to the heating ducts, which is what keeps them from freezing. On those cold days and nights we also open all of the doors to all cabinets that have water lines in/through them. And if needed we will run both the furnace and the auxiliary heaters.

          One last bit of advice, keep one window (we use the small one over the kitchen sink) open just a crack. I know it seems counterproductive when you are trying to keep all of the heat inside. However, you will also be keeping the moisture from cooking, cleaning, and breathing inside also. The moisture will collect on the cold windows (and walls) if there isn’t sufficient airflow. That moisture can be damaging to your walls and cabinets.


Published by Tom

husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, and Santa

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