How to Find the Best RVs for Cold Weather RVing
Most RVers avoid cold weather camping, either by traveling to warmer climates or by winterizing and storing their RVs until spring. A growing segment of the RVing community, however, is choosing to brave the winter weather for full-time rving in cooler climates.
Choosing the right RV for your cold-weather adventure makes all the difference. Many manufacturers claim their rigs are suitable for four-season use, but it can be hard to sort through the rhetoric to know if you will truly be comfortable.
Not all “Arctic packages” are created equal. Before your winter wonderland turns into a bone-chilling nightmare, be sure to do your homework and know exactly what to look for in a cold weather camper.
Things to Consider for Cold Weather RVs
Insulation is a well-known and very important factor in cold-weather comfort. The right insulation will keep the warm air inside and the cold air outside, even in freezing temperatures when icy winds blow.
Insulation is measured with an “R-value” that indicates how resistant a material is to conducting heat. In other words, the higher the R-value, the better the insulation is.
There are three common types of insulation found in most RVs: fiberglass, rigid foam, and spray foam. Of these, fiberglass has the highest R-value, followed by rigid foam. Spray foam has the lowest R-value.
When considering RV insulation, remember that moisture tolerance is also a factor. Fiberglass is better suited to dry conditions, as moisture reduces its effectiveness and leads to a shorter lifespan. Rigid foam has a lower R-value, but it is moisture resistant and long lasting. Spray foam is unaffected by moisture, lightweight and inexpensive, but its low R-value makes it a poor choice for winter camping.
Well-insulated walls are important, but a true four-season RV will also have well-insulated floors and ceilings. If the rig has slide-outs, be sure to find out how these specific areas are protected from the elements.
Read more in-depth about RV insulation here, and be prepared to ask thorough questions about insulation before purchasing any RV that is intended for winter use.
RV Heating System
If the insulation is effective at keeping cold air out and warm air in, then the next factor to consider is how that inside air is being heated.
The standard in most RVs is forced-air heat from a propane furnace. A clear advantage to propane heat is that it does not require a connection to shore power. This is helpful if you have plans to boondock in cold weather. If winter storms knock out the electricity, you can stay warm as long as you have sufficient propane and the battery can continue to run the fans. It is also possible to connect these furnaces to a larger propane tank for longer stays or to refill without needing to move the RV.
Propane furnaces also consume significant amounts of propane, which can be costly for extended stays in cold climates. For this reason, many winter RVers prefer to use other sources of heat. Heat exchange pumps are often available as a feature in the RV’s air conditioning system. They can also be added aftermarket if desired. These pumps run on electricity, which can reduce costs since electricity is often included in the nightly fee at a campground. But, because these heat exchange pumps do not work at temperatures lower than 40°F, they are of little use in winter conditions.
Electric space heaters can be an excellent way to supplement other forms of heat. They are not powerful enough to heat the whole rig in extremely cold temperatures, but they can help reduce propane usage. Their dry heat helps manage moisture issues, and they can be moved to direct heat to specific areas, such as bedrooms, as needed.
Note: As with any free-standing electric heaters, be sure to have internal safety and risk mitigation steps in place!
Some diesel rigs are equipped with hydronic heat, which can be very expensive but have many advantages in cold weather. These are less common and generally only available on higher-end Class A vehicles.
Heat energy output is measured in BTUs. BTU stands for British Thermal Unit, though ironically this measurement is no longer used in the UK. The higher the BTU number, the more powerful the heat output, so when comparing heating systems this is the number to look for. It is worth noting, however, that bigger is not always better. The heat output required to heat a smaller space is less than what is needed for a larger space, so as long as the heating system is proportional to the size of the rig, a higher BTU is of little advantage.
Learn more about different types of RV heating options from this helpful video.
RV Tanks and Underbelly
Any RV being used in freezing temperatures should have an enclosed, heated underbelly. Inspect any RV you are considering from underneath to see that the underbelly is fully enclosed and sealed against the elements. Water lines and holding tanks should be well-insulated. (fresh water, black water, gray water, etc…).
This is an area where different manufacturers’ “arctic packages” differ considerably. Find out more about how the underbelly is enclosed and heated. Some underbellies are “heated” with little more than an uninsulated furnace duct running through them. Yes, this will increase the temperature slightly, but it will not prevent freezing in prolonged sub-freezing conditions. A designated vent from the furnace will keep the temperature above freezing and the water flowing freely. The best-equipped rigs have pre-installed heating pads and good insulation in key areas such as dump valves and water lines.
Just like in a house, windows are prime areas where heat can escape from an RV and cold drafts can blow in. If a well-insulated rig is a priority for you, then dual pane windows are an important feature to look for. The difference in insulation between single and double panes is significant. Not only does the insulation of dual pane windows help keep you warmer inside, but it also helps reduce condensation and the associated moisture issues. However, the choice between single and double pane windows is not as obvious as it may initially appear.
Dual pane windows insulate well because of the space between the panes that is filled with gas. The vibrations and other motion caused by driving or towing the vehicle cause this gas to gradually leak out, which leads to fogging between the panes of glass. Even on the most carefully driven rig, dual pane windows will eventually fog and need costly repairs or replacement.
RVs with single pane windows can be used successfully for winter camping, but adding insulation to the windows is recommended. There are a variety of aftermarket products available to help reduce heat loss through single pane windows.
Read more about different options for RV windows and make an informed decision.
A well-insulated rig with a good heating system, an enclosed, heated underbelly, and insulated windows will be sufficient for cold weather RVing. There are some models, however, that are designed with winter in mind and these often add extra features to make the experience easier and more comfortable. While they are not essential, those who use their RVs frequently in cold weather may appreciate these perks:
- Insulated/heated water lines. These can also be purchased separately and added. This feature extends the temperature range for using city water hookups
- Water heater bypass. This can also be purchased separately and added, but having one already installed saves the cost and hassle. This feature makes the process of winterizing or preparing tanks for extreme temperatures much faster and simpler.
- Tankless water heater. Eliminate the need to bypass the water heater at all. A tankless water heater saves energy and guarantees you will not run out of hot water
- Custom RV skirting. Skirting around the bottom of the RV makes a big difference. It is a hassle to set up and take down if you are often moving, but if your rig will sit still for a while in cold weather, RV skirting is very helpful. Custom skirting matches the model-specific measurements and simplifies the process
- Heated mattress. A pure luxury that needs no explanation
There are reasons why many RVs are not built for four-season camping. When shopping for a winter-friendly model, keep in mind that you may need to compromise on other factors that might also be important to you, such as cost and weight.
Higher quality materials come with a higher price tag. Additionally, many cold weather features are the result of more recent technological developments, meaning that they are not available on older, pre-owned models. The best RV models for winter camping also tend to be the most expensive.
Cutting costs is not the only reason that RV manufacturers skip many of the best winter features. Weight is also an important consideration. These features are seldom available on the “light” camper models because added insulation means added weight. Heavier rigs are less fuel-efficient and require more skill to drive safely.
While most available models of RVs are not ideal for use in cold weather, the increased popularity of winter camping is creating a larger market for well-equipped RVs, and manufacturers are beginning to respond accordingly.
Recommended Models RV Models for Cold Weather
Once you know what you are looking for in a cold-weather RV, the next step is to find a model that offers those features. Whether you are looking for a travel trailer, a fifth wheel, a Class C motorhome or a Class A motorhome, here are some great options to help start your search.
Best Cold Weather Travel Trailers
Northwood Arctic Fox
Why it stands out: The Arctic Fox is made with four season foam insulation, including well-insulated ceilings. Reflective foil insulation is used on the roof and the slide-out. The water lines are insulated, the dump valves are enclosed, and the holding tanks are both insulated and suspended, allowing for warm air circulation around them. There are several floor plans to choose from. The Arctic Fox is available as a travel trailer or fifth wheel. Based in the mountains of Oregon, the designers at Northwood know cold weather and have designed the Arctic Fox with winter in mind. This trailer is a favorite choice for winter campers and with good reason.
Other travel trailers to consider: Windjammer 3008W, Lance 4Seasons, Heartland Bighorn, Keystone Raptor, Starcraft Launch
Best Fifth Wheel RV for Cold Weather
Why it stands out: Simple observation at many campgrounds will tell you that Montana is a popular fifth wheel model.
This is especially true among full-time RVers and frequent cold-weather campers. The manufacturer decided to put it to the test by placing a Montana fifth wheel in a controlled environmental test chamber. Even at a low of -4°F, the inside temperatures remained comfortably in the 70s while all parts of the plumbing systems functioned normally and measured in the mid-40s. The Keystone Montana is built to withstand extreme conditions and has the evidence to prove it.
Other fifth wheel models to consider: Heartland LM Arlington, Jayco 327CKTS Eagle, Forest River Arctic Wolf, Keystone Raptor, Heartland Bighorn
Best Class C RV for Winter
Jayco Redhawk 26XD
Why it stands out: A Class C offers the convenience of a motorhome for winter camping with a smaller size and lighter weight (not to mention price tag) compared with a Class A. Winter features are not always easy to find on Class C, but the Jayco Redhawk has them all. It is well insulated, particularly in the roof, and comes standard with 12V heating pads on the holding tanks. The furnace is a powerful 31,000 BTU, and the 42 lb propane tank will last many cold nights without needing to be refilled. It is easy to see why the Redhawk tops all the lists of preferred Class C RVs for cold weather.
Best Class A RV for Cold Weather
Newmar Dutch Star
Why it stands out: The Dutch Star offers cold weather luxury that is hard to match. Its hydronic heating system also provides hot water on demand. Radiant floor heat helps keep the whole rig comfortable but is especially nice on cold feet. There is built-in electric heat which, combined with floor heat. It can keep the coach warm in all but the coldest conditions without burning fuel. Optional heat pumps for the AC unit can also be added. There are plenty of ways to stay warm in the Dutch Star, and with excellent insulation, you are unlikely to need all of them. For all these reasons, the Newmar Dutch Star is a top choice for winter RV trips.
Final Turn: Best RV for Cold Weather
There are plenty of reasons to take winter adventures in an RV. With the right RV, well-equipped for cold weather, there are few reasons not to. Cozy, comfortable evenings sipping hot cocoa await, once you have found the four-season rig that meets your needs. Stay warm and happy camping!