Estimated reading time: 13 minutes
When the chilly winds start blowing and leaves crunch underfoot, we seasoned RV owners know it’s time to prepare for winter. Winterizing a camper isn’t just another task; it’s a ritual of sorts. Through the years, I’ve learned a thing or two, and the peace of mind knowing my RV is safe from freezing temperatures and unforeseen damages is priceless. This guide on how to winterize a camper is a blend of my own hard-earned experience and some tried-and-true methods. Let’s help you button up your RV snugly so that it weathers the cold like a champ!
Table of Contents
- Why is it Important to Winterize Your Camper?
- What Do You Need to Winterize a Camper?
- 1. Winterize the water system in your camper
- 2. Protect the interior of your camper for the winter
- 3. Protect the exterior of your camper from winter
- 4. Final steps for closing your camper
- Common mistakes made while winterizing a camper
- Frequent questions about winterizing a camper
Why is it Important to Winterize Your Camper?
Winterizing your camper isn’t just about keeping it in good condition; it’s about safeguarding your investment. A camper is not just a vehicle; it’s a home on wheels. Cold temperatures can wreak havoc on the plumbing, batteries, and various components if not properly protected. Additionally, neglecting to winterize can lead to costly repairs come springtime. I’ve heard a few heartbreaking tales of fellow RV enthusiasts who skipped the process only to find their home-on-wheels with cracked pipes and damaged interiors.
What Do You Need to Winterize a Camper?
Every task needs the right tools, and winterizing your camper is no different. Here’s a simple checklist to get you started:
- Non-toxic RV antifreeze: To keep your water lines from freezing, 3-4 gallons.
- A basic toolset: For tightening and opening various components.
- Towels and rags: For cleaning up any spills.
- Bounce Dryer sheets: To keep away the pests, at least 180 or more sheets
- Expanding foam: To fill in the spaces around pipes and keep out rodents
- Plastic bin with a lid: For storing liquids over the winter
- Blow-out plug (optional): To remove water from your water lines, prior to pumping through the antifreeze.
- Water pump converter kit (optional): Helpful for pulling in antifreeze, only needed if your fresh water pump doesn’t already have one.
- Camper cover (optional): To keep the elements off your camper and keep it clean underneath
1. Winterize the water system in your camper
This next set of steps needs to be done in the correct order or you will damage your camper and hurt yourself. To be safe wear gloves and eye protection.
Start with the water heater
- Turn off the water heater. If it’s both gas and electric, make sure both are turned off.
- Run out all the hot water from the system by turning on the hot water and letting it run until it runs cool. The longer you wait, the shorter time it will take for it to run out the hot water.
- Bypass the hot water heater. You will need access to the back of the hot water heater. If you can find it on the outside of the camper, you can figure out which panel to take the screws out of and get access. There are typically two handles or knobs that both need to be turned. TIP: the handle usually matches the flow of water, and you want the water to flow through the short bypass line instead of into and out of the water heater itself.
- Drain the hot water heater. Remove the drain plug from the water heater on the outside of the camper. It could be metal or plastic depending on the model, and it is a hexagonal shape. Be careful! If the water is still hot it will burn you. Leave the plug out and in the water heater, closing the door once draining is complete so the plug doesn’t get lost. Some campers have an anode rod, this is good to replace every 1-2 years.
Drain the water system
- Turn off and disconnect the street water. You won’t need any more water from here on out.
- Drain the low points under the camper. You should be able to find short water lines with caps under the camper at the lowest point of the water system. There will at least be a red one and a blue one for hot and cold.
- Blow out the water lines (OPTIONAL). Open all faucets and low point drains. Connect the blow-out adapter to the street water inlet, and an air compressor to the blow out adapter. Put less than 35 PSI air pressure through the lines until the water is out. Turn off the air compressor and disconnect the blow-out valve.
- Drain the fresh water tank. Depending on your model, there will be a handle that will dump the contents of the tank, or a third low point (usually white) to drain out the water.
Pump the antifreeze
- Prepare to pump the antifreeze. Depending on your camper, you’ll be using one of the following methods:
- Water pump bypass (best). Turn the bypass on the fresh water pump, put the hose into the jug of antifreeze, and turn on the water pump. If you want to use this method and you do not have a bypass, you’ll need to install the bypass kit first.
- Manual winterizing pump (next best). Hook up to the pump to the fresh water inlet, and put the hose into the jug of antifreeze.
- Worst: Put antifreeze into the fresh water tank and use built-in pump. This is the least favorable option, but could be your only option in some cases if you’re unable to install a bypass, can’t get a manual pump (or a friend to help), and it’s about to freeze.
Put the antifreeze through the water lines
- Open each faucet and pump in the antifreeze. Open the faucet all the way, doing hot and cold separately, until pink runs out to let you know it’s coming through. Close the faucet. Repeat for each faucet, shower, toilet, outside sink, outside shower, etc.
- Pour antifreeze into all the drains and traps. This will prevent freezing of drains and any residual water in the waste tanks.
- Protect your washer (optional). If you have a washer in your camper, you can protect it from freezing the same as anything else by getting some antifreeze into the lines and drains. Start the washer to get the antifreeze through the lines then drain it to put it in the drain.
- Turn off the water pump and / or disconnect the manual pump.
- Empty the black and grey tanks. Remove any residual fluid in the tanks as a precaution for freezing.
2. Protect the interior of your camper for the winter
Having the exterior of your camper protected and water system safely winterized are first steps. However, there are 3 things that can attack your camper in the winter:
- Mold and mildew. Moisture held captive especially late Fall and early Spring with fluctuating temperatures are putting your camper at risk for mold and mildew. Remove as much moisture as possible from the camper before closing it for the winter.
- Critters (mice, chipmunks, or others). Winter is harsh, and while you’re home nice and warm, critters are looking for a place to live. They prefer places with insulation, food and water. If they can find shelter, they will bring their own food.
- Damage from freezing liquids. Liquids that are likely to freeze should be removed to the camper so they don’t burst and make a mess. Ever worse they could cause permanent damage to the camper.
Camper interior winterizing checklist
- Shut down the refrigerator / freezer. Remove all the perishables and pack them into a cooler with ice. Turn off the refrigerator and freezer. If you’re not able to turn off the refrigerator, you can pull out the fuse or power off the breaker in the power panel. Use a towel to absorb any water from the melting ice. Once the freezer is completely thawed, then thoroughly wipe down the inside of the refrigerator with disinfectant wipes to prevent any mold from growing. Use something to prop the doors open to allow them to air out.
- Remove all bedding from beds and couches. Take it out of the camper to wash. You can place pillows in cabinets that have no other access so critters can’t get in, thus protecting them.
- Remove liquids that can freeze. Put all liquids that could freeze into the plastic bin to remove from the camper. It will make it easier to store them at home in a non-freezing location, and to find them and bring them back in the Spring.
- Wipe down all sinks and counters. Use an antibacterial cleaner if possible to prevent mold growth.
- Clean all toilets thoroughly. These are notorious for growing mildew over the winter.
- Put down dryer sheets anywhere you don’t want mice. Mice will make a happy home in your camper. Even if you do a good job of foaming in step 3 however, they still will make it in sometimes. Make it an uncomfortable stay by putting down dryer sheets, they do NOT like these at all.
3. Protect the exterior of your camper from winter
Protecting the exterior of your camper is as vital as the interior. After all, the exterior bears the brunt of the cold. You need to remember that snow, ice and water will pool on top of your camper in the winter. This is a much bigger ask of your roof that an occasional rainstorm, so it needs to be watertight and rock solid.
- Clean thoroughly: Remove dirt, debris, and any residue. If it’s not too cold already, consider washing and rinsing the sides of your camper with an extended scrub brush, RV soap and water in a bucket. Dawn dish soap works as well.
- Inspect the roof and seals: Check for cracks and seal them to prevent water infiltration. Then, if you spot a hole or leak, repair it before covering.
- Fill in any gaps: Use the expanding foam to block any spaces around pipes or underneath your camper. If you can fit a finger by the pipe, a mouse can get in.
- Cover your RV: Use a quality RV cover to protect against snow, rain, and UV damage.
4. Final steps for closing your camper
Now that you’ve protected your water system, protected the interior and exterior, it’s time for some final steps. I don’t do all of these myself but a lot of people do, so I’m marking some of them as optional.
- Unplug your camper from power. Shut off the breaker on the pole before unplugging the cord from the outlet. If your cord permits, disconnect it from the RV side and close the little door that protects the outlet. Store the cord securely, thieves are known to steal these cords because they are very expensive.
- Disconnect your battery. This will protect from any drain over the winter. I tend to disconnect only the positive terminal.
- Drain fresh water hose before storage. Remove the water from the hose to prevent cracking during freezing.
- Remove your battery for storage. Many people will actually remove their battery from the camper (not applicable for driving RVs), and take it home for storage in a warmer environment. If you do take it home, make sure you DO NOT store it on cement floor or directly on the ground – this will kill your battery permanently.
- Turn off all propane. Turn off all propane tanks, because you won’t be around to hear the propane alarm if it does go off. Accumulation of propane in the camper creates risk of explosion.
- Close all windows and roof hatches. Confirm all windows are closed tight and locked.
- Retract your slide-outs. Don’t risk leaving these out during the winter, because melting snow will surely get under the gasket for the slide-out and come into the camper causing damage. You’re always better off pulling them in even if you have covers.
Common mistakes made while winterizing a camper
Not using non-toxic antifreeze. Regular antifreeze can damage your system.
- Forgetting to bypass the water heater. This will waste 5-6 gallons of antifreeze. Also, it takes a long time to get the antifreeze out of the water heater which makes for foamy showers in the Spring due to antifreeze being mixed into the water.
- Forgetting too drain the water heater. This is a tragic mistake. Leaving water in the tank followed by a deep freeze will cause the tank to crank and the water heater will need replacement.
- Neglecting to check seals. Broken seals around doors and slide-outs can let moisture in, leading to mold.
Frequent questions about winterizing a camper
A lot of my neighbors at the campground ask me about winterizing their camper. I’m always happy to help them get their camper ready for winter, but I insist on teaching them to be self-sufficient. I’ve compiled a number of questions that I answer below and will continue to update as more questions are asked.
Yes, you can! You will need an adapter that allows you to hook up an external air compressor to your lines and blow them out. This is how a lot of RV shops will winterize the water system. I’ve provided detailed instructions above.
Yes! You essentially need to get the antifreeze to go everywhere there is water in the camper – all the water lines, the drains, and even the lines used to drain the water lines. I’ve provided detailed instructions above.
Winterizing your own camper can be a daunting task but if you follow all the steps thoroughly, you can get through it. If you’re unsure of yourself you can always ask a fellow camper how to do it the first time. This guide is meant to help new campers with the task. If you’re absolutely unsure, bring your camper to a local RV center or make an appointment for someone to come out and do the winterizing. Don’t wait too long though – otherwise your RV could be damaged at the first hard freeze.
It’s similar, but where most small pop up campers don’t have a water system, there is no water system to winterize. Do remember to remove bedding and places mice like to snuggle. Lock down the top nice and tight so no critters can get in over the winter.
You don’t really need a kit per se, if you can get all the components on your own. The top of this article provides a shopping list, and you can choose the items you need. At a minimum you’ll need non-toxic RV antifreeze and Bounce dryer sheets.
If you have a fresh water pump in your camper, it should already have a bypass with a hose where you can suck in the RV antifreeze to the lines. This is way easier than using a manual camper winterizing pump. If you don’t have the bypass, you can either install one, or if you’re not so technically inclined, buy a camper winterizing pump online, at Walmart or your local RV store.
Camper winterizing fluid is actually non-toxic RV antifreeze. You typically need 3-4 gallons, and it doesn’t go bad so if you buy extra you’ll have some for next year. Make sure you buy the non-toxic stuff or it could be dangerous for you, your family and your pets.
Check with your local campground, they might offer a service. You can you a local RV store but you will pay more for the service. Be weary of people you don’t know doing this service. Only use reputable providers or you could end up with serious damage.
Learning to winterize a camper the right way will save you tons of heartache in the Spring. Investing the time and effort now, and using the right tools, will pay off in the long run. Don’t make common mistakes, and use this article as a checklist and cautionary tale. If you have suggestions to improve this article, drop us a line!