Top 6 Winter Boondocking Mods

When RV owners hear the words “winter boondocking” they usually think about camping in freezing temperatures in a picturesque, snow-covered mountain forest. Winter boondocking, however, doesn’t always have to be that extreme. Winter boondocking can also mean camping without snow like in Arizona’s Sonoran desert where temperatures might dip into the 20s at night, yet see daytime temperatures in the 50s. Either way, winter boondocking presents its own set of unique challenges that must be tackled if you want to do it successfully. This article will explain how and will provide six truck camper modifications to help make your winter boondocking experience a better one. Oh, if you don’t own a truck camper, don’t despair. You’ll still be able to use some of these mods and still be able to glean some ideas that may be of use for your RV.

Obviously, keeping the camper warm during freezing temperatures is key. This can be a challenge for some truck campers, but not all. A manufacturer might say that their camper is four-season capable, but that doesn’t necessary mean that it will do well in winter weather. Such is the case with the Wolf Creek 850 truck camper I presently own. Northwood Manufacturing says it’s a four-season rig, but the only things that make it so are a 20,000 BTU propane furnace to keep the camper warm and a single fan to help circulate the warm air in the basement (dubbed the “heated holding tanks” option, this fan prevents the holding tanks and plumbing in the basement from freezing). Moreover, the outer walls of my camper are only an inch thick. That’s a full inch thinner than the two-inch thick walls found on the more stout Arctic Fox truck campers. This disparity meant I had to look for other ways to insulate and warm my camper better.

The first thing I did before embarking on my first winter trip was to inspect my camper for any weaknesses that could be penetrated by the cold. I closely inspected all outside walls and joints for gaps. Any gaps that were found were quickly sealed with caulking. Weather seals on doors, hatches, and vents were also inspected (if you have a slide-out, you’ll want to examine the weather seals for that, too. When extended, slide-outs are notorious for letting in cold air). Any defective seals were replaced, and in a few cases, were beefed up with a thicker and better weather seal. A non-insulated outside drain valve hatch was insulated with Reflectix Bubble Pack Insulation. Block foam was also applied to the outside of the two truck bed access doors.

Propane is a critical resource for anybody seriously interested in winter boondocking. You need it to heat your camper, cook your food, chill your refrigerator, heat your water, and if you have one, run your propane-fired generator. The more propane you have the better, so make sure your tanks are full before embarking on your trip. Our truck camper came standard with a single 5 gallon propane tank, but we opted for a second tank to double our propane reserves. If this option is available when you’re shopping for a camper, get it. If your camper is smaller and has room for only a single tank then carry a second tank with you. You may not need it, but you’ll feel better knowing it’s there if you need it.

What else can you do to make your camper more adept for winter boondocking? Here are six, easy to install modifications:

1. Catalytic Heater

Hands down, the best winter boondocking mod you can make. The propane furnace that came with your RV will keep you warm, but it will also rapidly deplete your propane reserves and quickly draw down your batteries while in use. The catalytic heater or “cat heater” is the best, most efficient way to heat your RV during the winter. They throw off a tremendous amount of heat, use no electricity, and use less propane than a furnace. They do require fresh air for proper air exchange, so you’ll need to crack a window or vent when it’s in use. When buying a cat heater don’t waste your money on the cheaper, lower capacity models, buy an Olympian Wave-6 in case it’s needed during an extreme cold spell. When not in use, make sure you keep it covered as dirt and dust can collect on the coils and cause it to smell when first turned on.

2. Dual Thermal Pane Windows

Yes, those single pane windows in your camper will provide you with terrific views of the winter weather, but they also lose a tremendous amount of heat. One way to remedy this is to retrofit a set of thermal pane windows in your camper. Thermal pane windows typically have two panes with the void in between filled with argon or krypton gas. The insulation difference between single and thermal pane windows is pretty significant. Besides the cost, the only real negative with them is that they aren’t particularly suitable for high-vibration environments. The severe vibrations can cause the seals to fail, the gas inside to leak out, and the windows to fog over. In spite of this negative, however, the pros of thermal pane windows far outweigh the cons.

3. Memory Foam Mattress and Cabover Insulation Upgrade

As any truck camper owner will attest, the cabover area in truck campers can get quite cold during the winter. One effective remedy is to upgrade the flimsy and cheap OEM spring mattress with a Memory Foam Mattress. The queen size memory foam adds a tremendous amount of insulation for a large, 33 square feet area. I went with an 8-inch thick mattress which provides just the right amount of insulation and comfort. And before installing the mattress, I also recommend installing a layer of Reflectix insulation to the bottom of the cabover. The memory foam mattress and Reflectix together will significantly improve the insulation value of the cabover area while at the same time making your sleep much more comfortable.

4. Basement Insulation Upgrade

There’s no doubt about it, a frozen fresh water tank or frozen water line can ruin an outing not to mention inflict costly damage to the plumbing and tanks in your camper. The four-season campers being produced by truck camper manufacturers today have adequate amounts of fiberglass insulation in the basement, but improvements to the insulation there can still be made to retain the heat better. Fiberglass, block foam, or Reflectix insulation can be used though I’m partial to the latter as it’s cheaper and easier to use. Apply the new insulation along the outer walls of the basement as well as on the bottom to hold in the heat and keep out the cold. Apply it to the desired surfaces using a staple gun or Reflectix tape.

5. Basement Vent Fan

If you have a basement in your truck camper and you lack a vent fan to circulate air in the basement, then this modification is a must if you want to start boondocking during the winter. Fortunately, most four-season truck campers already have a vent fan to prevent the holding tanks and plumbing from freezing, but another fan is sometimes warranted to improve air flow even more. Fortunately, my camper already had a passive cold air return vent so installing a fan at that location was a fairly easy modification. Any small computer fan or similar 12 volt fan will work for this modification. In addition to the fan, I also recommend installing a switch so the fan can be powered off as well as buying a fan that can reverse directions.

6. Vent and Skylight Insulation

The vents and skylights in your RV serve important functions. Unfortunately, these fixtures are like sieves when it comes to heat loss, but effective remedies can be put in place. For the ceiling vent fans, cut a 14×14-inch piece of 2-inch thick foam and place it into the vent housing. Cover the foam with a specially made cover (vinyl or fabric work best), then cover the foam and vent housing with a 16×16-inch plastic cover to hide the foam insert. Or you can go the easy route and buy an insulation kit like the Camco Vent Insulator on Amazon.com or at an RV store like Camping World. You’ll be amazed at how well the insulation insert works. For skylights, cut a piece of Refectix insulation to fit on the inside of the skylight surface.

Honorable Mention: Flannel and Wool

Not an RV modification, technically, but hey, if you’re going to winter boondock you might as well be warm and cozy doing it, right? Having the right bedding and clothing is essential for a positive winter boondocking experience. We don’t go anywhere without our flannel lined winter sleeping bag. We use it as a comforter on our queen size bed and it does a great job keeping us toasty warm during the winter months (when buying one make sure it’s rated for 0 degrees F). We also use flannel sheets on our bed for additional warmth and comfort. For those extra cold nights we also like to wear flannel pajamas (do you see a pattern here?). For both indoors and outdoors I like to wear heavy boot socks to help keep my feet extra warm. The best one’s are made of wool and are extra thick. I actually prefer these to slippers when I’m inside my camper.

A special thanks to Nolan Sturgeon and Kerry Stark for permission to use their photographs. 

About Mello Mike 879 Articles
Mello Mike is an Arizona native, author, and the founder of Truck Camper Adventure. He's been RV'ing since 2002, is a certified RVIA Level 1 RV Technician, and has restored several Airstream travel trailers. A communications expert and licensed ham radio operator (KK7TCA), he retired from the U.S. Navy in 2004 as a CWO3 after 24 years, holds a BS degree, and now runs Truck Camper Adventure full-time. He also does some RV consulting, repairs, and inspections on the side. He currently rolls in a 4WD Ram 3500 outfitted with a SherpTek truck bed with a Bundutec Roadrunner mounted on top.

11 Comments

  1. One key ‘luxury’ we have for cold weather camping is an electrically heated mattress pad. IMHO, far better than an electric blanket. With it, your precious energy resources can be be focused where most needed and little cabin heat (and the resulting loss of it) is needed overnight.

  2. I would highly suggest moving to a diesel heater, propane bottles get cold and loose a lot of volume not just from weather but it also cools from decompressing taboot.
    -Second bonus, Diesel is a dry heat compared to propane producing humidity (iced up interior windows )
    -You will also get 5 fold the heating time with the same volume of diesel. And another bonus is for me at least, my truck is diesel as well. Only down side is you have to create a quite box for the diesel pump ( ticking)

    • Some data to clarify;

      1) Propane has 17.5% higher heating value per unit weight (21.5kBTU/lb) than diesel (18.3kBTU/lb). Diesel has a 50% higher heating value per unit volume (138.5kBTU/gallon) than propane (91.5kBTU/gallon). The difference is density. Propane, being a pressurized gas, has a much lower density than diesel. Diesel is sold by volume and propane by both volume and weight so price comparisons (kBTU/$) can be challenging.

      2) Propane is stored in a container of fixed volume so its volume remains constant. The ratio of liquid to gas inside the fixed volume changes when fuel is consumed. The tank starts at 80% liquid/20% vapor and becomes 100% vapor with about 5% of the energy content remaining.

      Temperature, either from the environment or chilling due to evaporation during use can lower the pressure in the container. At 70F, pressure is 110psi. At 32F, pressure is ~43psi. At some point, environmental temperature and chilling due to evaporation (use) can reduce pressure to the point where gas evolves too slowly to operate the equipment.

      3) ‘Dry’ vs ‘wet’ heat. The ‘type’ of heat is relative to the mechanism of combustion, not the fuel type. If a fuel-burning appliance is a ‘direct vent’, combustion occurs externally and by-products of CO2 an H20 are ‘directly vented’ into the conditioned space, along with the heat. If an appliance is ‘indirectly’ vented, it has a sealed combustion chamber and a heat exchanger which allows the heat to be transferred into the conditioned space while the combustion byproducts are vented externally. It is more common for a propane appliance to be directly vented and a diesel appliance to be indirectly vented but both types are available. Combustion of 1lb of propane produces 1.62 lb of water. Combustion of 1lb of diesel produces 1.18lb of water. Where the water ends up is a matter of user choice.

      4) Storage of fuel; Since diesel is not under pressure, it can be stored in a container of any shape with 100% volumetric efficiency. Propane requires a cylindrical tank that occupies a storage volume significantly higher than its fuel volume (space around the tank is nearly always large and unusable). With the low fuel density of propane and the volumetric inefficiency of its storage tank, much more heating value of diesel can be stored in a given space.

        • I have diesel heaters (1 air and 1 coolant) with no propane in the camper. I too believe diesel is the way to go for someone willing to invest time in getting to know and understanding how to use them. But, there are several shortcomings in using diesel equipment. If you are not prepared to understand and deal with them, propane is probably a better, more trouble-free fuel (which is why it predominates in RV appliances);

          1) High altitude results in a lower oxygen concentration which can prevent diesel-fired equipment from operating. While some newer units have user-accessible settings to adjust fuel-air mix ratios that allow/adjust for high-altitude operation, most do not.

          2) Diesel heaters are not particularly well automated/engineered to provide stable habitat temperatures (as propane furnaces are). a) Running a diesel heater at the low(est) settings is often necessary. Doing so for a long duration causes significant carbon collection in the burn chamber requiring disassembly to rectify. b) Because the reignition of a diesel heater is more challenging than a propane heater, using start/stop cycling of a diesel heater to maintain stable temperature levels (as a propane furnace does handily) is problematic.

          3) Diesel heaters require glow plugs for ignition which require periodic replacement. They can and do fail without warning and therefore are a necessary spare. They can be difficult to replace and require a special tool.

          4) Fuel pumps for diesel heaters can be (most often are) noisy and extremely difficult to quiet.

          5) Fuel spills of diesel have the potential to stain and ruin cloth/clothing. Diesel is readily tracked around and ‘transferred’ from clothing to furniture.

  3. Consider battery operated heated socks for sleeping or a Day hike in cold weather. Dozens are available on Amazon. Make sure the one you buy has the highest battery capacity, so the battery can last all night long while you sleep. The batteries are rechargeable via a USB connection

  4. H Mike, I have the same camper as you (Wolfcreek 850) and was wondering were you mounted the Olympian 6 heater and if you removed the furnace and if so, what did you put in it's space?

    • I haven't installed this mod yet in my Wolfcreek 850. If I were to do it, I would leave the furnace intact and install the Wave 6 near the door in a non-permanent installation. I would have the propane feed go through the wall between the generator compartment and the small cubby underneath the dinette next to the main door.

  5. Mike, do you think my thermal pane windows will fail at some point being that I do so much offroading? If/when they do fail is there any kind of fix when they start to fog up? Thanks
    Nolan

    • Hi Nolan. Off-roading really isn't the issue. I believe it's more rough and rocky roads including wash board surfaces. Lot's of jarring. If you drive those a lot then they may ultimately fail. I'm told the cost to fix them is almost as high as the window themselves. Mike

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