Motorhoming in winter: how to winterize your RV for use or storage

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Do you plan to use your motorhome in winter or will you be storing your van away until the springtime?

Whatever your choice, your RV needs to be prepped for the winter months.

The colder weather means that extra checks and precautions are needed, not to mention the possibility of rodents getting in!

On this page we’ll share our top tips for winterizing your RV, whether you’ll be using it or storing it away until the warmer weather returns.

Cree motorhome in winter snow
Our VW Cree in the snow at Felixstowe, Suffolk

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The wonder of wintertime

Just before we get into the nitty gritty of using your motorhome in colder weather, we’d like to take a moment to reflect on the shorter days and longer nights of winter…

The winter months can be mournfully beautiful. There are dazzlingly bright days where we make the best use of the daylight hours before scrambling back to the motorhome for a hot meal and a warm cup of tea just before night falls.

We continue to use our van throughout the winter but if the weather gets too severe we limit its use due to her being typically old and made in England. In other words, unprepared for bad weather! (Hobo Gav points out that VWs are German, but there’s nothing “vorsprung durch technik” about our old VW Cree! She may have a German engine but the coach-build was done in the UK.)

So, no matter the make and model of your RV, how do you go about using a motorhome in winter? The following tips will hopefully make winter motorhoming as enjoyable as any other time of year…

Tips for using your motorhome in winter

One of the first things we do before the really cold weather arrives is to empty the water tanks and pipes, just as if we were putting the van in storage. We have no insulation under the van and frozen pipework and tanks can crack.

It is possible to have retro-fitted insulation but our van costs enough to keep on the road as it is!

We could apply a layer of lagging to the water tank but that would only make a difference of a few degrees. And once frozen, it would then actually take longer to thaw out due to the lagging! As grandmother said…”What keeps out the cold keeps out the heat”. Plus those little pipes would still freeze up anyway.

One trick when emptying the water systems – both fresh water and waste – is to give them a final flush-through with a saline solution. There are always little dips and kinks in pipework which can retain some water. Saline is less likely to freeze and therefore helps to avoid pipes cracking.

Once the water tanks are empty, we leave the whole system open to air it out. Taps and grey waste drain hole – all open. (Don’t leave the fresh water cap off though; you just don’t know what might get in!)

If you’re really fussy and want to get every last drop out of the pipes – just to be on the safe side – this Floe Drainage Kit has 5-star reviews…

motorhome water drainage kit to prevent frost damage in winter

How do you use a motorhome without onboard water?

So, with the water tank drained, you might be asking what we do for water when using our van over winter.

Simple: we use bottled water for drinking/boiling and use a hand-held spray for flushing the loo. Actually, the most difficult part is remembering not to put water in the wash basin for hand-washing (which would end up in the pipes and waste tank that we’ve already drained!)

Also, if you leave the outlet tap undone, putting any water down the sinks will result in you pouring grey waste onto the ground outside. This is a contentious issue – people see water coming from a motorhome and assume it is toilet waste. So they report you and make motorhomes less welcome. Obviously not environmentally friendly, given the chemicals in soaps, washing the car leaves more residue without anyone noticing. However, given how the van life community gets judged, it’s best not to allow water to leak out.

So, to keep water out of the tanks and pipes you could let it drain out into a container that has a lid. If you’re staying on a campsite and there’s no grey waste facility, put the lid on when you leave and empty it when you find the next facility – not in a ditch! Better to keep grey waste water in a container than have to deal with burst pipework – or angry locals!

Then, when the tank is empty just run a little saline solution through the pipes again to give that little bit more protection.

RELATED CONTENT: See what a Scottish council told us about waste water on our wild camping page

How to prevent condensation, moisture and mould in your motorhome

Of course, you need to stay warm in the van, especially during cold nights. However, we remove extra bedding and towels during winter as it collects moisture and will become damp. In fact, it is best to remove all bedding when not in use and only take what you will need for any journeys you make.

Vacuum packs are one way around the damp issue, as well as shrinking the size of your bedding. We have a large bag to store linen in, which keeps it damp-free and saves us space.

vacuum storage bags to help prevent damp on clothes in a motorhome over winter

When we use the van in cold weather, we always ensure that there is a little ventilation, especially if cooking. Condensation leads to damp and musty soft furnishings as well as mould round the windows.

But once back at the storage yard, most of the little gaps must be closed to prevent rodent or insect ingress. Many a motorhomer has found their van’s furnishings eaten by rodents when in storage over winter! (We’ll say more on this below).

It goes without saying that a carbon monoxide detector is a vital addition if you’re using gas in your van. We use this Fire Angel Carbon Monoxide Detector. It has 5 star ratings from 1000 reviews…

carbon monoxide detector for motorhomes

We always ventilate our habitation area whilst using gas by opening a window or skylight.

If we’re on electric hook up, such as at a campsite, then an electric fan heater keeps things toastie – and keeps the damp at bay. And it’s a nice treat! However, if you are using an electric heater, keep the use of other appliances to a minimum as it could trip the campsite’s power supply! We’ve seen it happen!

We also put a few of these little dehumidifiers around the habitation area and in the wardrobe, just to soak up moisture. And they really do work!

dehumidifier/moisture absorbers for motorhomes

Checks to make on your van for winter use

Although we still use our motorhome in winter we go out less frequently and make a point of regularly checking the following…

  • That all the lights are working correctly
  • That oil levels and engine and auxiliary fluids (such as antifreeze and windscreen washer) are topped up. (Do you have the correct ones for low temperatures? And do you have the right coolant for your particular vehicle? We were told that our VW T4 must have pink coolant and no other colour!)
  • Tyres need to have a good tread for driving in snow and ice. Also, look out for cracks and splits in the tyre walls
  • The windscreen wipers must be capable of clearing the window in heavy weather
  • If you have a solar panel on the roof, make sure it is clear of grime build-up (and snow/ice) that would effect its ability to absorb the sun’s rays
  • Make sure any vents and flues are clear – especially important if using gas appliances
  • If your van is unused for any length of time put chocks in front and behind a tyre and release the handbrake to prevent it sticking on. (We then always leave ours in gear)
  • Spray lubricating oil or WD40 on any door hinges. We’ll also spray the engine’s electrical components and leads with a moisture-repellent
  • Apply a small amount of Vaseline to window and door seals to prevent them from cracking and splitting

These are routine checks that we carry out throughout the year, but we pay more attention in winter; breaking down in icy conditions and freezing temperatures is a serious matter. You don’t want to be stranded for hours on end in the cold.

More tips for using your motorhome throughout winter

If you are intrepid enough to live in your van over winter in Britain, or going from our temperate climes to brave a winter in the northern parts of Europe, what changes do you need to make if you haven’t got a van with the ‘winter pack’?

Winter motoring packs are something that many new motorhomes come supplied with. Most older vans do not.

Have a look at what you get in a typical pack…

8 piece winter motorhome kit for emergencies

As aforementioned, lagging and insulation can be retrofitted to good effect but do your research first. Find out which works best with your make and model.

TOP TIP: Some post 1995 “winterised” motorhomes have double floors so that the pipework sits in between insulated layers. Naturally, the double floor keeps you warmer as well as preventing frozen pipes. Other motorhomes may have heating elements which keep pipes above freezing. There are some with lagging pre-fitted. These things are not necessarily standard so make sure you know what you’re getting and paying for, whether you’re buying a new or second-hand motorhome.

Should you suffer a frozen pipe, a low-wattage hairdryer will help thaw it out – hopefully before it cracks!

Remember too that propane gas (red bottle) has a lower freezing temperature compared to butane (blue bottle).

And one other thing: closing outside fridge vent covers will prevent water ingress from driving snow or rain. It seems obvious, but it’s something we overlooked in our early days as we sat there wondering where that damn draught was coming from!

It is a great idea to carry a couple of old towels onboard. They are great for mopping up spills and for drying mucky items. However they really come into their own when you encounter wet grass or mud! We were slipping on a grassy campsite – unable to get up a slight incline. Traction boards were not working but a hand towel under each front tyre soon had us moving again.

How do you heat a motorhome in winter?

Heating is not a luxury if the temperature outside remains near freezing all day; it is a necessity!

The cheapest method – but least reliable in the UK – is to use the sun! We don’t mean solar panels but the actual sun. Whenever it hits on a window, make sure that curtains and blinds are fully open. You’ll be surprised how much warmth comes in.

Of course, if you have a solar panel, the winter sun will charge your leisure battery.

RELATED CONTENT: See our solar panel set-up to see how we make use of natural energy

Once the sun goes down, or just before, get those blinds shut to help keep in the warmth of the day. But that is simply a complimentary warm-up on certain days. Chances are, you’ll need a bit more help from equipment.

There are different types of heating to suit most types of motorhome and budget. We have an in-built Truma gas heater, though rarely use it because we tend to wrap up rather than use more gas.

There are many different portable heaters on the market – electric blown-air fan heaters and oil-filled radiators. These would generally require EHU unless you have an array of solar panels and midnight sun.

We use this Dimplex electric fan heater when on campsites, but only sparingly. It’s mid range, has good reviews and it’s worked well for us during some really cold nights…

how to winterize your RV: Dimplex fan heater

There are also blown-air units which can be run on gas and diesel.

Some motorhomes have radiator and boiler-style heating. The boiler may be gas, electric and/or diesel. We feel this is something for the serious motorhomer; basically it is expensive to have it installed in a van and we’ve heard it’s very difficult to install retrospectively.

There is also the option of a heat exchanger which takes heat from the engine and re-routes it to an existing system, saving your gas.

If you go off-grid you could use a generator such as the Jackery Portable Power Station/Generator. These can be linked up to your solar panels and can then power your electric heater, keeping you warm on those cold nights.

We haven’t used a diesel heater yet but this one has great reviews…

Triclicks RV diesel heater

Keeping yourself warm in your van over winter

If there is a risk of really cold weather, taking a few precautions is a good idea. Don’t let yourself get too cold before you start layering up – make it a prevention exercise rather than an emergency reheat from hypothermia!

Draw blinds and curtains as soon as the sun goes down and cover the van’s windscreen outside and all the cab windows inside with thermal blinds. This will save some heat from escaping.

thermal blinds for motorhomes

Make sure that you have suitable clothing and bedding: thermal clothing, a 13 or 15 tog duvet, waterproof clothing, and an extra blanket or two.

Or how about Trudi’s favourite…the good old fashioned hot water bottle and a constant supply of hot tea!

There is such a thing as a USB heated blanket. Oh the joys! You’ll need EHU or a decent leisure battery of course but don’t go draining that! (Although if you have invested in a generator, it will power up the battery for you).

RELATED CONTENT: We’ve got some great winter clothing in Motorhome Gifts and Accessories

Winter, Hobo Gav in a lot of snow
Hobo Gav in some serious snow and minus 16 degrees in the Harz mountains in Germany

Laws for winter driving abroad

There are plenty of things to consider when driving abroad. We are talking about winter conditions here – not about the other technicalities – though do please research laws about driving overseas, insurance, and things like wild camping, not to mention the latest Covid regulations.

Indeed, many countries have rules surrounding winter driving. They are for your safety, so best you find out about them before travelling.

If you are going overseas in winter it might be a good idea to have the following…

  • Snow chains and winter tyres – which are a requirement in some countries
  • A snow shovel and good traction mats – which could well get you out of trouble
  • A full set of spare light bulbs – which is mandatory in some countries
  • Beam deflectors – so that you don’t dazzle other drivers
  • Reflective clothing – in case you’re having to clear snow outside of the motorhome
  • A red warning triangle – to tell other road uses that you are stationary and stuck/broken down (again, a mandatory requirement in most EU countries)
  • A torch with spare batteries.  (We have head torches – they are invaluable for when you need both hands. We have seen woolly hat head torches – genius!)
  • And plenty of gas: remember, Calor is a UK company – you cannot get Calor gas in mainland Europe. Either travel with enough gas for your entire trip or get an alternative – and check that you can take it on a ferry!

We’ve got many of these items listed in our Road Trip Essentials page. Please take a look!

Tips for storing a motorhome over winter

So, we’ve talked about using your van over winter – which we believe is the best method of keeping it safe and running well.

But what about storing your motorhome over the winter months? Let’s look at the best ways of protecting your van and storing it safely…

Security is a major consideration. If you have paid storage, then look at their yard – who has access, are they trustworthy?

Make sure that the owners recognise you. So if someone else is fiddling with your vehicle, they will realise straight away that there is a problem.

Even if you think you fully trust the yard owners, it is still a good idea to remove valuables. Also lock the motorhome against intruders. Even if the vehicle is insured against theft, don’t leave gadgets inside which are worth stealing; the yard owner may see the van still in situ but he may not notice if someone has been poking about inside it!

JUST TO NOTE: although we regularly use our van over winter, when not in use we always return – and secure – our van at the storage yard. We use the yard because we don’t have a driveway on which to keep it. And don’t want it parked anywhere on the street.

Obviously, if your motorhome is stored on your drive or in the street, you will have to make it obvious that this van is not going to be worth getting into! Flashing warning lights, security devices with stickers and highly visible locking (steering wheel clamp, wheel clamp etc.) will all convince the opportunist to walk away.

Bear in mind that many insurance companies might not pay out if they suspect your precautions are not effective enough. Look at your policy to see what it expects of you.

RELATED CONTENT: See some of the security devices and items we use in our RV Extras page

Ways to protect your motorhome in winter storage

As mentioned above, get those water tanks and pipes emptied if you’re storing your van all winter and leave all the taps open to let air flow.

Pop a note in your diary to check the motorhome at least once a month. If you can, we’d suggest doing this more regularly, even weekly. Look for damp patches, check fluids (brake, clutch, antifreeze/coolant, oil etc). Check the lights too.

Start the engine and, if possible, move the vehicle. Of course, a little jaunt to the seaside would be ideal but at least get the tyres rotated a little.

A vehicle that has stood stationary for long periods can end up with flat patches on the tyres. Prevent this with tyre savers. There are also axle stands which claim to take the weight of a motorhome all over winter to stop this.

how to prevent flat spots on RV tyres in winter storage

Another trick is to increase the tyre pressure by a couple of notches, pumping up the tyres an extra 0.2bar (or 2.9 psi).

If we leave our van for an extended period over winter, say a couple of weeks, we leave the roller blinds up. Blinds that are closed for weeks on end can make the roller-mechanism sluggish, especially on older vans like ours.

Charging motorhome batteries over winter

Giving the battery a quick charge may prevent it going flat. Our German-made solar panel does this for us. Before fitting a proper solar panel to the roof, we had just a small one which we rested in the back window, solely for keeping the battery levels above total wipe out. Though it was effective only for that – and nothing else.

You could in fact remove both the engine and leisure batteries and trickle charge them at home. Without a battery in the engine, how would anyone steal your van? It’s worth considering if you don’t have storage yard facilities or anywhere to secure your vehicle.

Some people who store their van all over winter cover it with a purpose made cover for motorhomes. This protects against the worst of the wet stuff as well as sun damage. However, if you’re relying on solar energy to trickle charge the battery, covering the panel on the roof would be daft!

winter cover for motorhomes

Condensation in a motorhome

Condensation is a relatively minor irritation if dried quickly. However, a repeated issue can cause damp patches around windows and then onto and into walls. Not good! Then your soft furnishings get that distinctive mildew smell and maybe even mouldy rot.

If you store your motorhome on your driveway, then a small heater or dehumidifier would be ideal. If it is in a yard, then those small plastic dehumidifiers – that we mentioned earlier – will take the moisture out of the air.

Another brilliant tip for preventing condensation build up is to have little trays of cat litter around the windows. The litter will absorb much of the excess moisture in the air.

Remove as much cloth and paper as you can – even toilet rolls! (Well, leave one just in case!) Magazines, books, towels, bedding, kitchen roll all need to go. Look around your motorhome and remove anything that may absorb moisture. Even battery operated lights can corrode if left in cold, damp conditions.

Cover seats with a cotton sheet to prevent condensation and dust marrying into a type of mud. Also where possible, pull seat cushions away from walls to allow for air movement.

Of course, moving fresh air is best for preventing moisture build-up. But open windows and vents may also allow in precipitation or insects. Or worse, vermin.

We opt for closing just about everything when the van is back in the storage yard. But because we use our motorhome in winter for short trips away we’ll get the habitation area fully aired by having the windows open for an hour or two.

A WORD OF CAUTION: NEVER cover any air vents – such as those built into the hab door – when the van is in use, especially gas vents. Carbon monoxide build up is a killer. We have talked about suppressing a draught or two around the fridge door but have decided that, if it’s not too cold, to let the winter puff its icy breath at us, as a safety precaution!

How to keep rodents out of your motorhome in winter storage

Mice and rats naturally look for somewhere cosy for the winter. If left full of food, your van’s cupboards and soft furnishings will make for them a wonderful winter palace!

So, in order to prevent rodents (and insects) getting in we make sure that most foodstuff is removed if we’re away from our van for any length of time. If we decide to go out for a day or two, or take a winter road trip, we take with us only the food we’ll need. However, we always keep a few tins on board which emit no tempting smells.

To further discourage any unwanted visitors whilst we’re away from the van, we clean cupboards and surfaces. It has been recommended that mint oil on pieces of cotton wool will deter mice. We have found that essential oils discourage ants so rodents are probably equally put off by scented areas.

We’ll leave the cupboard doors open. This allows any accumulated damp air to disperse into the main body of the van. And don’t forget the fridge! Leave the door open to prevent mould and smells. (Anything that smells of food – even if the fridge is empty – might be enough to tempt a mouse in).

How to test for vermin in your RV

Have you heard of the biscuit test for vermin? The idea is that you leave a biscuit on the floor in your motorhome. If, when you return to the vehicle, the biscuit is untouched, then you do not have vermin. Great!

However, we reckon that if you’re storing your van for an extended period over winter and you leave a biscuit laying about there’s a good chance you WILL have vermin getting in! Why tempt the little blighters!?

We had an issue with ants in the summer. Trudi, in particular, is not keen on wholesale slaughter of creatures so was chasing them, catching them and ejecting them! She found that lavender and tea tree oils acted as fragrant deterrents. Then she made doubly sure that all surfaces were squeaky clean.

We then accidentally spilled a little chocolate drink, wiped it casually and thought “job done”. Within ten minutes, the ant bugle call has gone out! The little critters were emerging from every little nook and cranny.

How amazing that these “dumb, unintelligent” beasts of the ground can so quickly locate a food source. How concerning that they were there…waiting!

So, act in anticipation of beasties (ants or vermin) looking for warmth and sustenance.

Motorhoming in winter – summary

We hope you’ve found these tips useful, whether you’ll be using your van over winter or storing it away. Either way, by following the advice on this page, motorhoming in winter can be as enjoyable as any other time of year.

Carrying out a few extra checks on your van over the colder months might take time. But it’s time well spent. It will keep your van in tip top condition all year round.

Wherever you go in your motorhome in winter, we hope that the roads are clear and your memories keep you glowing inside.

We’d love to hear what tips you have for motorhoming or storing your van over winter. Comment below or get in touch via email.

But what about the summer season? Do you need to make different checks? Yes you do! Read how to prepare your motorhome for the summer season.

And if you’d like more hints, tips, and advice make sure you subscribe to our free newsletter for behind the scenes content, exclusive to subscribers.

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