Winter Weather for Nomads: Keeping Warm

It may seem counterintuitive when considering how to keep warm in your rig in the winter, but I suggest not running your onboard furnace if you can avoid it. They are notoriously inefficient and use a LOT of propane for the amount of heat they produce. They also require electricity for the fan blower.

Instead, make use of a portable propane heater such as a Mr. Heater Little Buddy (which is quite small, using just a standard, one lb. green tank such as you’d use for a Coleman portable stove, for a little over five hours of heat). The Little Buddy is either on or off, with no graduated power settings, and that worked well for my 17′ x 7′ living space last winter. It also has an auto shutoff in case it tips over.

If you have a larger cabin, you may want to move up to a Mr. Heater Buddy (which can run up to 81 hours on a 15 lb. propane tank like you use on the front of a trailer) or the more efficient (and more expensive) Olympian Wave 3. For more exact information on this topic, I advise you to watch this excellent video, which gives a great overview of how these types of heaters work, and what you can expect from them. Both have auto-safety shutoffs.

You do need to stock up on propane for such extended usage, and you’d be surprised how fast that can dwindle if the roads are closed for a week and you can’t replenish. And of course, there’s the asphyxiation danger of running a propane heater indoors without proper ventilation for a steady supply of fresh air. Many folks won’t use a portable propane heater overnight in their rig, and that has to be your own decision.

For myself, I used my Little Buddy in the evenings until I went to bed, making sure to keep it up off the floor so my blind cat couldn’t run into it. Then I turned it off or—if I had used it a good bit during the day and knew it was about half-full—I’d just leave it run until the propane ran out and it would shut itself off. Then I crawled under a layered cocoon consisting of a down comforter with a 100% wool blanket on top of that, and finally a zero-degree sleeping bag on the very top.

On very cold nights, I also wore thick socks to bed, along with this very warm crocheted pullover cap, because most heat escapes through your feet, hands and head. I almost always keep my hands under the covers, or I’d have worn mittens, too!

I was always very warm and cozy until morning, when I’d get up and grab a fresh propane tank, switch it out with the empty one (I got really good at doing this half-asleep and quickly), ignite the heater, and jump back into my still-warm bed. During all usage, I left my kitchen window cracked about an inch, and I did not worry about asphyxiation. The heater label states clearly that it is safe to use with adequate ventilation.

In the morning, I also put on a saucepan of water or milk to boil for oatmeal. That helped to warm up my very small cabin quite fast. And though people warn against using your stove to warm your rig (and I wouldn’t do it as a rule; it’s not intended to be a furnce), I have certainly done so for very short periods of time when it was the easiest and most expedient thing to do. My rule is that if I need to do it for more than ten minutes, I’ll turn on a heater.

Also, if you are plugged into electricity (at least until it goes out in the storm), make use of it! Buy a small ceramic space heater (or two), plug them in, and just keep them on a low setting continuously. This will keep you plenty warm, especially if you pretty much stay in one area.

If your RV is larger, you may want to take the following precautions against having to heat vast areas of unused space, or losing heat to air leaks:

  • Decide the function you really need to be able to do during the storm, and try to gather everything you’ll need into as small an area as possible. Either surround that area with some kind of curtains or screens, or—likely the easiest to do—curtain off all other unused areas. Small areas are easier to keep warm. Do remember to allow heat into sink cabinets, though.
  • Cover your windows first with clear plastic bubble wrap. This will add an insulating layer while still allowing light through. It’s bad enough being cooped up in a trailer or camper for days without making it depressingly dark, as well. Plus, some sunlight will bring a bit more warmth in.
  • In case that isn’t enough, you may also hang heavy fabric or curtains or even blankets over your windows to further insulate them. I thought of this when having my trailer’s curtains made. I chose a pretty print fabric I’d enjoy looking at for the front, then had them backed with a matching shade of heavy fabric which was cut from blackout curtains bought at Walmart. They do a great job in warm weather of keeping out the sunlight and its heat, along with allowing me to sleep as late as I want without being woken by the morning sun. And in the cold weather, the double layer did a great job of insulating my windows.
  • If you have a large windshield or stairwell to your door steps, it’s especially important to somehow insulate those areas. You lost the most heat through uninsulated glass and the stairs coming up from your inevitable leaky door. If you have the room, it’s worth pre-cutting EPS (styrofoam) insulation to tightly fit your stairwell, and the bubble wrap or blankets will work well on your windshield.
  • Heat rises, so a critical place to insulate is your ceiling vents and fans. These openings are 14″ x 14″ standard, and I was able to cut a perfectly fitting square of one-inch semi-rigid foam from packing material I got in a shipment from some product I bought on Amazon. I’m always scavenging and saving such things (as I have room) that I think may come in handy later on. But they have to strike me as useful for a specific need, not just “oh, maybe I could use this someday,” for me to keep it. Otherwise, I would quickly run out of storage room.
  • Most modern RVs no longer use carpeting, thankfully. Hard flooring is much easier to keep clean, but during cold weather, it can be really uncomfortable. That’s what throw rugs are for! You can find cheapies of every size and color at any big discount store, overstock outlets and some dollar stores. And I have yet to go into a thrift store that doesn’t sell them. They don’t have to be beautiful, just warm. You can donate them again when you’re done with them so you don’t have to store them.
  • While sleeping, if you have electric hookups, an electric blanket will be your best friend. Remember to put them over you only. Do not sleep on them, as this can cause a fire hazard. If you want to crawl into an already-warm bed, simply turn it on half an hour before you turn in, then crawl underneath and head off to dreamland.

One consideration is that if you remain shut inside your rig for any period of time, the simple act of breathing—respiration—will put moisture into the air. Add to that cooking and heating with propane, and you have a recipe for high humidity and possible ice formation on outer walls and windows. This will eventually melt and cause water running down your walls. We all know water inside an RV in any place in any form is a bad thing, so if necessary, run a dehumidifier. At least, put out some Damp Rid to collect as much moisture as it can from the air.

If you plan to stay in one place for a significant period and know you’ll be contending with snow and especially wind, I recommend putting a skirt around the open space between the bottom of your rig and the ground. That will keep the wind out, which steals so much of your floor’s heat by blowing away the air that would otherwise stay pretty stagnant—and therefore warmer— beneath your rig. There are a lot of ways to do this, and because most folks reading this won’t be doing it, I’ll just say do a Web search on the best methods if you need to.

Lastly, there’s the matter that, as RVers, it’s entirely possible you never planned on being stuck in a snowstorm or blizzard, so you never packed proper warm clothes. If that’s the case, and you don’t want to spend a bundle on clothes you’re not likely to use again any time soon, get to a local thrift store, Goodwill or Salvation Army. You may not find the most stylish things, but who cares? You only need them to get through this event. The only folks likely to see you are your immediate family, so shop with warmth and comfortable fit as your primary goals. Spend a little instead of a lot, and then you can feel good when you’re finished with them by re-donating them.

Again, when it comes to severe winter weather, it’s best to just get well out of Mother Nature’s way until she’s done having her tantrum.

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