Traveling in your RV in winter is fun and comfortable as long as you take precautions.
[Photograph above: Our fifthwheel RV and truck camping in the snow at 19 degrees F or -7 degrees C. Sunriver RV Park near Bend, Oregon]
We hit a brief snow storm in Yellowstone National Park as early as September in 2015. It was only light snow fall but it was enough to show how risky it can be on the road. In the picture below, the back dual wheels of our Chevrolet K3500 had lost traction on this very slight incline just in front of where the truck is now parked. Thankful to four wheel drive, the truck moved away easily once all wheels were engaged.
Camped snugly in our fifthwheel RV in a brief snowstorm at Grants Village in Yellowstone National Park.
Our afternoon adventure in September in Yellowstone was forecast for some afternoon thunderstorms with light hail and a 90% chance of snow. The weather delivered as promised and we enjoyed seeing the changing of the seasons in the world’s oldest national park.
Snow falling at Firehole Lake Drive in Yellowstone.
Snow hit and we’re winding through a mountain pass!
Later that evening, on our way back to our RV campsite in Grants Village we hit the worst of the snowfall on Craig Pass, 8,262 feet of elevation and a fresh coat of snow on the road. We dropped our speed to around 25mph throughout the winding climb where another motorist had already spun and became stranded in a ditch. Emergency services were already on the scene thanks to Yellowstone’s organized emergency assistance. Sobering for me in one of my first ever experiences in driving at night in heavy snow.
Not knowing the capabilities of our 1 ton truck, I immediately applied high range four wheel drive and used very light application of lower gears and throttle for speed control with nil sudden moves in steering, braking, or acceleration.
Rainy day sight seeing in Yellowstone National Park.
Feeling 2 inches tall in contrast to Yellowstone Lake. Weather is on the build.
RV travel takes you to places with beautiful scenery but this also often means extreme weather. The weather can change quickly and when you are away from your home environment, you can’t predict the patterns very well. Now you are completely reliant on regular weather checks. Our snow event in Yellowstone was expected and thankfully, we had received ample warning and were prepared.
Late November 2015 and we were stuck with alternator failure. Madras, Oregon.
Saved! Power lead plugged in to 110v at a drive through coffee stand.
We were on a 950 mile journey from southern California to easter Washington state and we anticipated the trip should include two nights rest. We were aware of several mountain passes on Interstate 5 and chose to take Highway 97 to bypass the mountain roads and shortcut through the Oregon towns of Bend, Redmond, and Madras. The road is slower, but steady.
What to do with alternator failure
After our second night camping comfortably in 17 degree F temperatures, our alternator showed signs of failure after starting the engine in Bend. It’s Sunday morning and repair shops are not common in this part of the world on a Sunday. Continuing in these weather conditions with the possibility of an electrical shutdown resulting in engine failure was not an option on this road. Highway 97 has stretches of remote country for several hours, so help is not always convenient. Here we are, stranded in Madras, Oregon on a Sunday with battery power draining and it’s life-threatening cold outside. Where to go? What to do?
Our roadside assistance would only offer to tow our truck and fifthwheel to a closed workshop where assistance would be available the next day. This would require a taxi to a motel and our rig left in the cold with no power overnight. Not an option to me.
Thankfully, there are auto parts stores that do open on Sundays and we visited the local NAPA (National Auto Parts Association) store. The assistant there tested our alternator and confirmed diode failure. The diode is built into the alternator and our store had one in stock! Great! Now to fit it. It’s going to take me an hour or more to change this and I don’t have tools. In this cold air it’s risky to work outside for long periods, so I needed a technician now, or it’s a motel for the night.
Our NAPA assistant gave me a contact who was able to change our alternator in a matter of minutes, but we had to wait three hours for him to drive from another town. We needed to keep our rig warm because it is not yet winterized. We planned to keep it warm and running until we reached our destination to fully winterize the tanks and water lines in the fifthwheel RV, but now we were caught out with lost battery charge and the house battery in the fifthwheel had reached the end of its useful life and was not holding the charge. We needed battery power to ignite the propane furnace and operate the furnace thermostat. Without heating inside the camper, we would freeze our plumbing.
It would have been an option to winterize the RV right then and save this risk, but we know help was not far away and left the thermostat at 55 degrees F to keep our rig above freezing. The furnace has registers in the storage areas underneath the fifthwheel, and this maintains the holding tanks above freezing thanks to the insulated lining in the bottom of the RV.
We soon found a small coffee stand that was closed to trading because it was a Sunday and they had a power outlet on the outside. Plugged in to 110v our camper was now safe from a catastrophic freezing event!
The diesel technician arrived and changed our alternator and with a six hour delay, we were on our way to the Tri-cities in Washington.
Kennewick, Washington. Overnight snow is okay as long was you have winterized your cooling system, diesel fuel, and windshield washer fluid.
Snow tires and chains as standby are essential for safety. 25mph crawl traveling north on State Highway 243 in Washington State. We had high range four wheel drive engaged and again, no sudden movements with steering, gas pedal, and braking. About three car-lengths at 25mph is safe depending on conditions. Best to use gentle speed reduction with lower gears and not stamp on the brakes. Sometimes it’s necessary to leave your vehicle in second or third gear to maximize the four wheel drive traction and helps to slow the vehicle down hill or in traffic.
With ice building on the mirrors and visibility dropping, slow going is also safe going.
On this day, we passed several stranded truck and trailers. Even with chains, many trucks just could not get enough grip to tow their loads up 5% grades in the snow covered roads.
Routine shopping trip. What it’s like in a supermarket carpark on a snowy day in Leavenworth, Washington.
We engaged four wheel drive, (or is it six wheel drive in a dually), many times in our visit to Washington State over winter.
Essentials for RV travel in the winter
- Snow tires – marked M+S on the sidewall.
- Four wheel drive.
- Chains for backup. We did not use our chains, but we stayed away from high mountain passes in the winter.
- Very very gentle application of throttle, steering, braking. No sudden moves, give yourself plenty of time and space to brake. Keep slow and use low gears with four wheel drive high range engaged. Thanks to this strategy we had no emergencies in our hundreds of miles of traveling in the snow and rain.
- Take plenty of water, heating, and warm clothes including gloves and rain jackets.
- Plan your route to avoid high mountain passes.
- Try to avoid snow country altogether. On our trip back south through Oregon, we took the coast road where it rarely snows. Taking your time and patience is a key.
- We were able to leave our propane furnace switch to a low heat setting (55 degrees F) while underway. This meant we did not have to winterize and could use the fresh water and grey/black water tanks for convenience. Winterizing means no water, now shower, no onboard toilet. We wanted to keep ours useable. This is provided you have good underneath insulation and heating directed under the floor to keep the tanks above freezing.
- Keep a keen eye on the road for black ice. This is clear on the road surface and is well disguised. It can appear on mountain curves and just before a stop sign!!! Many incidents where a driver cannot stop and has to slide right through a busy intersection and hope for the best.
- Winterize your vehicle with antifreeze in the coolant and antifreeze in the windshield washer.
- Diesel tanks may need an antigel solution. Diesel can thicken in the extreme cold and clog the fuel lines and shut the engine down. We were advised to put a few gallons of gasoline in our diesel tank. There are products available to suit your vehicle.
- Use a block heater to keep the engine warm in cold temperatures. This helps with an easy startup in the morning.
- Take a good working phone and emergency food and blankets.
- Keep your dog warm too!
Sparky is from the subtropical coast of eastern Australia, so he gets extra special treatment in the cold. Boots and socks for frostbite protection and a warm overcoat so we don’t have to dry him down when he’s back inside our RV. See related article: RV Travel with your Pet Dog