The Cold and the Freeze

the camper in the cool morning

Posted on November 8, 2020

Being cold is something we’ve had to deal with regularly on our travels so far. We took off from Wisconsin in late September and headed fairly directly towards Seattle; our route was anything but warm.

Now, our camper is equipped with a propane-fueled heater that keeps us adequately warm, but we can’t run it all night, every night – this would quickly deplete our limited supply of both propane and electricity.

Normally, we’d just head south and be done with it – nothing keeps you warm like warmer weather. However, because our route led us north in the fall, we had to develop a few main tactics for staying warm on the cheap.

How to stay warm.

Tactic 1: run the heater for a few minutes before you go to sleep.

The worst part of trying to fall asleep while cold is the coldness. Running the heater for a little while isn’t too bad on the propane or electricity supply, and it keeps the whole camper a pleasant temperature for a reasonable amount of time (assuming all of your windows and vents are shut). If the air outside is near-freezing, though, your camper might become chilly again faster than you’d like, which brings us to…

Tactic 2: wear many layers of clothes and blankets.

While you run the heater, put on a few layers of clothes – enough that it’s almost difficult to move. Then, drape a blanket or two over that. While it may be a little hot at first, the camper can get cold fast when the heater turns off. This tactic helps you combat the cold using your own body heat.

Tactic 3: light some candles.

Candles are handy for staying low-key in residential areas. They also give off some heat. While this may be more of a “perceived” warmth than actual warmth, it’s your perceptions that matter. After all, our perceptions are what make up our reality in entirety.

Tactic 4: make some tea.

While the stovetop range in our camper directly states not to use it for “room heating” purposes, there’s nothing wrong with boiling water for some tea. While this is less propane-efficient than running the furnace, it feels better to be using the propane for something productive rather than just temporarily heating up the air. As an added bonus, you get hot tea afterwards, which is good for the soul (and the warmth of the soul).

When it freezes…

These four tactics can help you stay warm if you end up in a camping situation where the temperature nearly dips below freezing. However, if your area IS going to get below freezing, you may need to either winterize your camper (and stop your life)… or leave (and avoid the freezing altogether).

Note: some sources say that you don’t have to worry about winterizing unless you’re going to be below freezing for quite some time, or if the temperature gets into the low 20s. That judgement call is up to you – they’re your pipes, not mine. Because we are rather invested in the health of our plumbing system, we have opted to take one of these two options whenever it’s going to freeze. Like all things, this reasoning could change with experience or circumstance.

Option 1: winterize your camper (and stop your life)

Winterizing your camper is a somewhat involved process – after you’ve done it once, though, doing it again isn’t that hard. I suggest learning from an expert on the subject. If you want our high-level routine, however, look no further:

  1. Entirely drain your water tank and every single water line (ensure nothing comes out of any water source)
  2. Dump your gray and black water tanks
  3. Pour a couple gallons of RV antifreeze into your water tank
  4. Run each water source until antifreeze comes through (antifreeze is colored so you can tell when this happens)
  5. Splash some antifreeze down each drain, too

This option mentions “stopping your life” because your life kind of stops when you lose access to your fresh water tank. What do you cook with? How do you wash dishes? How do you shower?

While these issues can be solved by bringing in some water yourself (which is annoying to repeatedly purchase and rather bulky), we considered it easier to just avoid the problem altogether.

Option 2: Avoid the Problem Altogether

Avoiding the problem altogether means you have to go where the temperature isn’t freezing. This involves daily weather research and is also quite situation dependent.

In our case, we had a clear destination (Seattle) and a clear route on how to get there. Every morning, we checked how cold it was going to get where we were planning to sleep that night. If it was slightly below freezing, we would search around for nearby areas that weren’t getting as cold.

We were traveling through Wyoming, Utah, and Idaho during October – the low temperatures at night wavered between the low 40s and the high 20s. This means that Option 2 was viable for us. If there was a place that was freezing, odds are you could drive half an hour to the other side of the mountain and get a 5-degree temperature differential (which can be enough to make the difference). Your mileage with this tactic may literally vary.

What we did: a combination of both tactics

When we made near the end of our trip, after almost a week of strategically avoiding the freezing temperatures, we found ourselves in a predicament – everywhere east of the Cascades was freezing, and we were still a couple days away from Seattle (at our leisurely pace).

We faced the facts – we would either need to winterize our camper in Idaho or drive the rest of the way in a single day.

After weighing our options (and considering that an actual house was waiting for us at the end of the drive), we opted to make the rest of the trip in one long driving day. This was less than ideal, because we sped through an area that both of us really wanted to stay. Sometimes, that’s just the way it goes.

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2 thoughts on “The Cold and the Freeze”

  1. I would like to argue that heating tea is equally as propane efficient as heating the air.

    if you burn the same amount of propane in both cases, and in both cases, 100% of the propane is being converted into heat, i feel like the same amount of work will be done.

    sure, heating water is harder than heating air, BUT, cooling water is also harder than cooling air… it takes more energy to heat the water to the same temp to heat the air, but in the process of cooling the water, more energy is released than cooling the air that same amount.

    hopefully im making sense. I took a thermodynamics class once and now i think im hot shit.

    im not.
    in fact, Im actually very cold shit.

    This article is very relatable, as i am currently on month 3 of Minnesota winter without heat. A couple of weeks ago my space heater broke… now you’ve got me thinking i just don’t drink enough tea.

    1. The feature that the propane heater has over tea heating is that the propane heater is equipped with a fan. This distributes the air throughout the camper relatively effectively, although it does require electricity to operate.

      Also, if it takes more energy to heat water than air, but the cooling of the water takes longer than that of air, then wouldn’t that mean it balances out, and energy spent heating water vs air is a non-factor? I just spent like 8 minutes staring at this sentence and I think it makes sense now, but I’m still not 100% sure. Let me know if you don’t get what I’m getting at.

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