Winter RVing Adventures with the Family

Being a retired person or full-timer with an RV makes seasonal travel a snap: if you don't like the weather in one part of the country, just keep driving until you're comfortable.

But we're not retired or full-timers.

For nearly each of the past 17 years, we've headed back to the Midwest for the December holidays. We've flown. Driven our own car. Driven a rental car. Before the kid and with the kid. Left the dog at home or brought her with us -- for two different dogs.

We thought we'd been through every conceivable combination of how to get from the DC area to Indiana, to Michigan and back home again, along with where to stay along the way. That was until last year, when we bought Roxanne.

Dog sitting in passenger seat of the RV with wintry view out the window

Instead of staying in pricey hotels and hauling all of our belongings from one place to the next, we had our comfy beds, our food and the rest of our stuff along with us the whole time. In a winterized RV, we can't use the sinks and must flush the toilet with pink antifreeze. So, it's not as useful for washing up, cooking or doing dishes as it is during warmer weather. But we can still heat up coffee or hot cereal if we bring some water along. And we managed to trim the time between realizing it was time to stop for the night and lights out to just a couple minutes. No need to fuss with credit cards, room keys and elevators when we just need to put the beds down.

That was last year. This year, we'd have four nights in the RV out of eight on the trip. We brought the dog with us. And it was wretchedly cold. So, this would be a trip to test the RV's limits as well as our own.

Realities of Winter RVing

The first RV night was at the end of my mom's driveway in Indiana. With shades up to block the streetlight, the three humans and the dog had a nice toasty rest. (Our 2015 van has the separate Suburban furnace that pre-dates the Truma system now delivering heat and hot water in the Travato. It's a little noisy, but it's quite warm.) We ran some errands the next morning and topped off the propane at a U-HAUL store after using about a quarter-tank overnight.

Winnebago Travato parked on street with dog staring out the home window at it

The next round would prove to be much more of an adventure. We pulled into a clearing next to my mother-in-law's Michigan driveway and settled in, not to move again for nearly two whole days. Penny is anxious around other dogs and wouldn't be meeting the one in the house, so she would stay in her bed in the RV during most of this visit except for occasional trips outside. We set the heater and headed into the house, checking in on her often. It was wicked cold out, but Roxanne kept us warm on Christmas night.

Dog sitting in passenger seat looking out the window at a wintry scene

Penny enjoyed watching the goats and horses next door through her perch on the cushion. We had about a half a tank of propane going into our final night, and had started the engine a few times to keep the coach battery charged, so it could spark the furnace.

That night was even colder outside than the first. Single digits, with a wind chill even lower. Around 3:30 a.m., I woke up with my face cold even though the rest of me was warm. The kid and the dog were huddled together. The furnace wasn't blowing, and the propane gauge was... nope. Empty. We made a beeline for my mother-in-law's guest bedroom, kept the dogs from ever meeting each other and spent the rest of the night indoors.

Dashboard showing a temperature of 8 degrees

The next morning brought on a couple of less-than-fun hours. We turned on the engine to warm up the inside of the RV so we could pack everything up for the road. The low tire pressure light came on, and I went through two gas station air pumps with freezing fingers before finding a helpful tire center employee to top me off. We needed propane. But the propane inlet on the side of the van was covered in a solid block of ice! I got change and pulled into a self-service car wash that wouldn't take my money. At the second car wash, I used hot water to hose all the ice and gunk off the van. We got our propane at another U-HAUL and were finally ready to roll.

Front end of red Winnebago Travato covered in ice

Our fourth and final RV night was in front of an old friend's house in Ohio. It was a cold evening, but warmer than we'd had in Michigan. With a full tank of propane and bellies full of delicious Middle Eastern food, we slept very well before heading inside the next morning for showers and coffee. From there, we got on the road for home.

Lessons Learned:

1. Using a Class B RV in the wintertime is not a self-contained experience.

During warm weather, we tend to stick pretty closely to campgrounds and rest stops with central bathroom facilities. We never shower in the RV and avoid #2 unless it's an emergency. But boondocking, or staying in places without hookups, is definitely possible. And of course, there's no need to spend a whole bunch of time inside the van unless it's raining. Spending time is what the outdoors is for.

In the winter, it's a whole different ball game. We think of the RV as an occasional mobile office or temporary zone of quiet, plus a flushing toilet, a dog haven and a small bedroom. We might drink coffee or eat cereal before hitting the road the next morning, but there's not a lot of hanging out time for the humans. It works really well when we're staying just beyond the house of a friend or family member, and can get inside for visiting, showers and a hot meal.

Winnebago Travato sitting in a few inches of snow with ice covering the side

2. We need to keep an eye on three temperatures.

There's the outside temperature, of course. The heater will work longer and harder the colder it is, just like at home. So, it's in direct conflict with the inside temperature on the thermostat.

But the third temperature is a little trickier: the one inside the fridge. Our RV has a refrigerator with three different power sources. When it's running off the battery while driving, the thermostat doesn't work. It's either on or it's off. So, on long trips, it's going to get too cold. Meanwhile, the fridge can't exactly warm itself up when the van is sitting unheated during very cold weather. Also, too cold. But with the fridge and the heater both running, it must be set to the correct temperature or the food inside will get too warm and spoil.

Our solution was a 6-dollar thermometer inside the fridge, which we check when we stop for bathroom breaks and several times a day when we're stationary. We've never ended an RV trip without frozen carrots, but we did much better than usual when it comes to hanging onto our food.

3. It's still our favorite way to travel.

We did end up with a couple of hotel nights on this trip, with Roxanne parked just outside. And there were some chills and a few hassles. But she handled like a champ on snow-covered roads and gave us great visibility even through driving snow. When covering eight nights in five different locations and more than 1,600 miles of driving, it's truly great to have the comforts of home along with us.

And on that note, during the holiday season, we've thought about how fortunate we are to have a home on a foundation and a home on wheels. A minor inconvenience and an hour or two of lost sleep is all we suffered when Roxanne lost the heat. We had a heated house just up the driveway. But it was on a night where a true lack of indoor shelter would have been a serious setback for any human or animal.

Our little family is headed into its third year of RV ownership this summer, and we couldn't be happier with the decision to take the plunge. It's opened up a world of new travel options for us. And we love the convenience of being able to drive almost anywhere, including suburban parking lots and the quick-lube place for oil changes.

Happy New Year, and we hope to see you on the road!

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