RV Camping in The Winter

RV Camping in The Winter

As I do full-time RV camping, and as much as I love the summer, I really relax when winter comes. No longer will I have to worry about if other campers are going to be in my favorite places when I arrive. All will be quiet.

Many people have visions of winter camping in which they are too cold and uncomfortable to sleep or enjoy themselves. It is true that, if you don’t know what you are doing, that indeed can occur.

Actually, worse can occur, if you don’t plan. This guide is designed to explain why camping in the winter is actually quite desirable and also provide details on how to winter camp, what you can do and where you can go, so you will be safe, comfortable and happy out in your winter wonderland.

Best Reasons to Camp During Winter –

Solitude:

If you don’t want to be jammed in a campground somewhere with other camping families on seemingly every side of you while their dog is stealing your hot dogs, you really want to go RV camping in the winter. Please realize that not every place you want to go will be available, depending upon the area. In my literal “neck of the woods,” places in the high country are inaccessible, due to unplowed roads full of snow.

But, with fewer campers, if any, you can go into open campgrounds and take your pick of spots.

Lower Fees or Free:

If you like campgrounds as opposed to dispersed camping – camping where you choose – you will find that those open in the winter are often cheaper or absolutely free.

On one local national forest area, the signs say, “No fees, no services.” This translates to mean that the $20 and over fee of the summer season has gone, but you will find the water shut off and there will be no camp hosts or dumpsters for your trash. Is packing your own trash out worth $20 a night? It is for me.

No Bugs

Wildlife Tracks:

camping on a snowy winter day

You will have a much better grasp of what wildlife is really around you if you are snow camping because you will see their tracks in the snow.

In Some Places, Winter is the Only RV Camping Season:

Places that are too hot to camp during the summer are often great winter places to camp. People rave about going to Joshua Tree Wilderness, in the Southern California desert, in the winter. You would not want to try it in the summer.

Campfires are Safer:

There is little danger of you starting a forest fire in the winter.

How Can You Camp in the Winter? –

You don’t need to relegate yourself to tent camping in the winter. Just as in summer camping, you have options:

RV Camping:

When camping with your RV in the winter, you will need to time your coming and going around snow storms. You don’t want to be on an icy road in a snowstorm.

You will also learn about the limits of your heating system and how long that propane tank set really lasts. You will need to think about how to keep your water tanks from freezing in low temperatures or drain the tank each winter.

Cargo Trailer or Van Conversion Camping:

You can get in anywhere you want to fit with a small cargo trailer or van conversion. Your rig is cheaper, but you will need to insulate it.

This author’s cargo trailer conversion only cost her $2,300 new. Like a RV, it is insulated for winter with foamboard under the trailer for camping as well as on the inside. Without insulation, as you heat the inside, you will develop condensation, which will rust your rig.

In a smaller conversion, a Buddy Heater is overkill, unless you are in temperatures around or under 20 degrees Fahrenheit. A better heater is the Camco Olympian Wave 3 heater.

This author stores her water inside the heated trailer, so it does not freeze. Get a porta-potty, so you don’t have to go outside in the middle of the night or in the rain.

If you don’t have a vent in your CT or van conversion, have a professional install an RV roof vent. This author has found that a small floor vent was a good idea as well for indoor showers in order to dissipate the steam from above and below.

Camper Shell Camping:

You can go camping out of the back of your truck in the winter, if you have a camper shell and make it like an RV if done right. You won’t have enough clearance to combustibles to use an Olympian heater, so you will need to have a really heavy winter sleeping bag with another over-bag.

You will need a warm camp sleeping pad that is made of foam but inflates as well. It is going to be your mattress and insulate you from the cold creeping up from below.

You will be sleeping in your jacket with a hat on your head if it is cold outside. You will be able to sit up inside and cook over a stove, if you are careful and stay aware of how hot your fiberglass camper shell ceiling is getting.

If you have a steel or aluminum camper shell, the condensation at night is going to rain down on you. A suggestion is to spray foam the entire inside ceiling of the shell to avoid this issue.

Tent Camping:

You will not be able to use a simple summer tent. You will need a tent designed to vent the condensation, so your tent does not rain it down on you as you try to sleep.

You will need a vestibule, which is an additional part of the tent that covers the front, like a porch. This will allow you to leave wet clothing and muddy boots outside of the tent but protected from the elements.

This is also where many people cook their food, so they are under shelter in inclement weather.

This author advises a double-bag sleeping system, if you are car or tent camping. The bottom bag is your winter bag and the overbag can add more insulation and warmth, as needed.

You can throw it off if you get too warm. As in car camping, you need the foam-insulated sleeping pad to keep the cold ground from chilling you from below.

There are a lot more considerations if you are tent camping in the winter. Truly I wouldn’t suggest dry camping in the Winter. It’s not easy folks. I’ve tried it once!!

Hammock Camping:

Yes, you can do it, but only if you have modified the hammock quite a bit. You will need an over- and under-quilt system to stay warm enough. In a tent, you will have your sleeping pad on the ground to keep you warm.

The quilts that go over and under the hammock are like putting yourself in a cocoon, so you are not exposed to the cold air on all sides.

Rain Coverage:

With all of these methods of winter camping, you need to devise systems of tarps that you can wander around under in the rain. The author has a flag pole holder attached to the back of her cargo trailer conversion.

She places a pole in the holder in the rain and has a system of heavy magnets and bungees that keep a tarp over the back door as her vestibule.

RV owners need to retract the awning before winter snow because it could damage the awning and affect camping. In rain, they need to make one side of the awning tip towards the ground, so the rain doesn’t form a big puddle in the midst of the awning.

What Can You Do? –

Cross-country ski:

tent camping in the mountains

There are so few people who do this. It is really a shame.

All you have to do is shuffle your feet to propel yourself. If you have ever roller or ice skated, you will know how to turn.

You won’t be cold because you are moving and getting a great cardiovascular workout. If you don’t like downhill skiing, choose gently rolling terrain.

Snowshoe:

It used to be that the only snowshoes on the market fit men. As a woman, I would feel like I was doing a moonwalk, with my feet far too wide apart.

In the last few decades, the snowshoe manufacturers began to realize that women might like this sport, too, so they began to make snowshoes that fit a woman’s gait. Also, there are snowshoes that allow you to run in them without poles. Really!

Now, you can even get snowshoes for your kids. Of course, you can rent equipment like this as well, but you need to check because not everywhere rents snowshoes.

Why snowshoe? Even though I prefer to cross-country ski, not everywhere I go is conducive to cross-country skiing but is a nice place to explore.

For example, there is a wonderful place not far from South Lake Tahoe where I snowshoe up this trail first to a beautiful and aptly-named meadow. Then, I snowshoe a gentle incline to a place with volcanic dardanelles.

They are so beautiful to see with the snow dusting them. Once I have arrived at the dardanelles, I am almost to an aptly-named lake.

The lake is right under these dardanelles. But that isn’t even the best part. Hiking around the lake gets you to a large volcanic “splat” that is about 25 feet or so high and maybe a bit more around.

It looks like a huge cupcake. Every year, from the drips of icy water off of the “cupcake” an icicle about 10 to 12 feet in height and 9 feet in width is created. This is why you should snowshoe: you will have a great aerobic workout and see great beauty in the snowy world.

Wild Skating:

There are some places in the winter, depending upon the area of the country, that the ice freezes on a lake enough to support one’s weight for ice skating. It is my understanding that you are better served with specific skates designed for wild skating than ice rink skates because of the irregularities and tree debris that accumulate on a lake.

Please be careful and ensure that the ice is firm enough!

Downhill Skiing:

There are places where you can camp in the winter inexpensively where you have quick access to downhill ski resorts, if that is your thing.

It is not as common here around Lake Tahoe, but I have seen accounts by RVers in Colorado and other Mid-West states where people parked their RVs near enough to ski resorts at good rates and stayed close to powder all winter long.

This is great if you are a digital nomad who can take your work with you, or if you take a job at a ski resort for the winter.

Snowmobiling:

Well, okay, I had to include this. But, I will tell you about an interaction I had once with a snowmobiler.

He was camping in his RV and sitting on his snowmobile “in the winter obviously” at the top of the ridge. I had just skied in up behind him.

The skies were blue, and the air was crisp and cool. I felt invigorated, having just skied up from down below.

He asked me, “Are you having fun?” I replied that I sure was. He said that he was not enjoying himself. I had to think for a minute about the idea of driving in a car for an hour or more to get to the snow and then sitting on a machine, driving around some more.

Maybe that makes sense why he was not having fun. A suggestion I would have would be to see if you can rent a snowmobile first and see if it is for you before you spend thousands of dollars on one, or get into debt over it.

That being said, here in California in our national forests, and I am sure on national forests in other states as well, we have designated snowmobile trails, some are groomed. It is another option.

Where to Camp? –

Sno-Park:

If you like to camp in the woods, as I do, you mostly won’t be able to be in the high country. That will be filling up with snow.

You will have to be mostly content to camp at the “snow, then melt” locations, meaning just above snowline or below. No one is going to plow the high country for you to allow you to get off the road when the snow is piling up in feet.

There is an exception, though. Here in the Sierra, one can camp overnight at one of the 19 California Sno-Park locations.

Camping is allowed if there are no signs that prohibit it. As I recall, the limit is three days.

The daily fee for Sno-Park camping is $5, but it makes sense to just buy the season pass for $25. Then, you can return later in the season.

There are some common-sense rules you have to obey in a snow park. They will not allow you to tent camp there.

You may only camp in an RV or other vehicle. The reason being has to do with the snow removal equipment.

They don’t want to take you out. You will be camping on a plowed parking area. You can build a campfire, but it cannot be on the parking lot, so you will need to do some shoveling of snow.

The park may or may not supply a trash dumpster, so you must pack it out after you packed it in.

You must carry a snow shovel and tire chains. Please carry a snow shovel and tire chains whenever you are driving above the snowline in the winter.

I can’t tell you how many people I have had to shovel out who did not prepare ahead and just drove right into snow that even four-wheel drive could not extricate them from.

You need to have some eight-foot poles for each corner of your vehicle in order to identify it if there is a massive dumping of snow overnight. You don’t want the plow to hit your vehicle it cannot see under a bunch of snow!

The advantages of going to a snow park to camp include that you can enjoy a nice weekend of cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and building snowmen and women with the kids. Nearby, you can stage a snowmobile, if that is your thing.

Usually, there are groomed snowmobile trails near snow parks, at least in California.

Honestly, for me, the disadvantage is the lack of privacy. You will have to share your site with every family that brings the kids to the snow park.

That is why they are not really my favorite places to winter camp, even though I am an avid cross-country skier.

Camping Just Above Snowline:

One lovely camping area like that I love with no fees or services is at the 3,200 foot elevation level and is wooded with pines and oaks. A “creek” that is more like a river runs alongside the campground.

Another cheaper campground at just a little bit higher elevation is only $8 a night in the winter and is a horse RV camping campground with pines, cedars, firs and black oaks. Both of those campgrounds are simply too hot for me in the summer.

In the winter, they are magical with the rain and sometimes a dusting of snow.

In my town, there is the year-round campground at the 4,000 foot level that the local water utility administers. It surrounds a lake that is nine miles around.

You have to time this one a bit because, if you have an RV or trailer to get in the campground, you will need to go when it has not just snowed. It is too unsafe to navigate the roads just after a dumping of snow with a trailer or RV.

The same is true for the day you hope to get out. You have to watch the weather if you want to camp in the winter near or above the snowline.

Camping in Oak Woodlands Below Snowline:

There are some really great places – both campgrounds and dispersed camping – where you can camp in oak woodlands that don’t tend to get snow, at least at my latitude.

The problem is that, if these are not campgrounds, you tend to run into a lot of private land. You need to secure permission of the owner if you want to camp on their land.

In California, it is a crime to camp on private land without having secured the owner’s permission. Here in the Sierra, campgrounds in the oak woodlands that are open in the winter tend to be on BLM land or administered by utility or fire districts.

How do you find these great campgrounds in pretty, wooded locations that you will have all to yourself? Look in the resources below for Don Wright’s book. It is a gold mine of information on campgrounds that are cheap or free throughout the entire country.

Camping in the Desert:

Actually, many RV individuals and others hate camping in the winter and they decide to go to the desert.

Deserts in Southern California, Arizona, Southern Nevada and some of New Mexico are temperate enough to be around 70 degrees Fahrenheit all winter long during the day – shirtsleeve weather!

There are many dispersed camping locations, if you are careful not to park places you will get stuck in a wash in the rain. There are also some inexpensive campgrounds.

There is a big caveat. Those temperate locations are in the lower-elevation desert.

That is where the snowbirds go. If you go into the high desert, such as outside of Reno or Carson City, Nevada, you will find the temperature at night is about the same as most of the Sierra high country.

It often is 20 degrees Fahrenheit at night in the Nevada Great Basin area.

Here is another big caveat to desert winter camping, even in the lower-elevation desert places – the wind. You can have your windshield and vehicle scored in desert windstorms, when the vicious wind sends the sand up in the air to scour your windshield.

For normal winter desert camping, there are Bureau of Land Management (BLM) campgrounds available in the desert that are inexpensive or free and are open year-round. If people would like to spend the entire winter season on the desert, they can at BLM Long-Term Visitor Areas (LTVAs) for the low fee of $180 for the entire season.

Requirements at most of the LTVAs are that you have a self-contained camping unit that has at least 10 gallons of wastewater capacity. Many of the snowbirds go to Quartzite or Yuma, Arizona using the LTVA pass.

If you have a rudimentary cargo trailer or van conversion without the wastewater storage, you can go to the Mule Mountain, La Posa or Imperial LTVA. You must pack out all of your trash and waste and must arrange for where you will get water.

From videos, I have seen that Quartzite is set up with all of those amenities, for a fee.

If you don’t wish to stay on the desert for the entire winter but desire to stay over the normal 14 day permitted stay, you will have to move 25 miles from your last campsite. Then, you can stay for up to 14 more days.

What Do You Need (Equipment and Clothing)? –

an orange tent setup in the mountains

I have touched upon some of the things you will need for RV camping in the winter, such as sleeping bags and pads, heaters, tarps and porta-potties. The REI article has quite a bit more information.

I also want to speak to clothing. That is really a key issue.

If you live in a temperate winter environment, you will try to go camp in the mountains in the winter in cotton hoodies and sweats. Please don’t do this! We say, “Cotton kills.”

Cotton does not wick away sweat or water, as in a rainstorm. Cotton stays wet for a long period of time. If you get wet in cotton while camping in cold temperatures, you can get hypothermia and die.

Instead, you will need to buy clothing that wicks the water away. These days, you can even buy wicking fabrics in Walmart.

You will need a set of clothing for moving your body in the woods on your snowshoe that is lighter, yet warm. I have a jacket made of Gore Windstopper that has some insulation and armpit zips for cross-country skiing.

I have down and Primaloft jackets for freezing temperatures and for temperatures from above freezing through 50-some degrees Fahrenheit. I have Polartec Powerstretch long-sleeve, warm and wicking shirts under the jackets.

I like the XC pants by Sporthill for my bottoms. All of this is warm but wicks the sweat safely away.

A good Polartec 300 jacket is great for high activity on a cold and clear day. You will need a waterproof and breathable rain shell as well.

You will also need a set of clothing for sitting in camp that is warmer. You need winter gloves and hats. Hats are essential, since we lose most of our heat in winter through our heads.

You don’t need to stay home in the winter. There is solitude and peace to be had when RV winter camping as well as some really great high-activity aerobic activities.

You don’t have to tent camp. You can camp out of an insulated van, cargo trailer or out of an RV. Dress carefully and stay hydrated. It really is a lot of fun.

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