How Does Higher Elevation Affect RVing? Here’s What You Need To Know
Anyone who has lived above 5,000 feet in elevation tends to take higher altitudes for granted. However, for RVers who live at sea level and want to explore mountains in the 8,000 to 12,000 foot range, nothing should be taken for granted.
Did you know that for every 1,000 feet you go up in elevation, you lose about 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit? A balmy day at sea level can quickly turn to snowy skies if you head up to 10,000 feet. That’s really what the key to higher elevation is all about: expect the unexpected.
High altitude affects on the body
We’ll begin with what to expect on your own body (and what to do about it) when you head up high.
The first thing you will probably notice is that you will have more difficulty breathing or even walking around. This more adversely affects older adults. The best remedy for this is to take your time heading up from sea level. Don’t try to get from Los Angeles to the high Sierra passes in a few hours. Take your time and head up several thousand feet over the course of 2-3 days. This will allow your body to acclimatize over the course of several nights while sleeping.
Your body can be affected in other ways. Due to thinner air, you will need to drink more water and watch your alcohol and caffeine intake. Get the cassette toilet ready because you will most likely need to urinate more often. Don’t forget you will also be closer to the sun. Bring a good sun hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen as well.
Adjusting to altitude only takes a few days, but some people may not recover. Altitude stress can develop and includes nausea, headaches, and irritability. Much worse is Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS) which affects motor skills and can cause a fatal pulmonary and cerebral edema. This is more of a danger in locations that are over 14,000 feet, but if you feel lightheaded, dizzy, or are vomiting, immediately get in your RV and head down a few thousand feet until you feel better.
High altitude affects on gear
RV appliances, gear, and even cooking can also be affected by high altitude. It takes longer to boil water at higher elevations, and some fuels, such as butane, don’t burn as effectively. If you have a 3-way fridge in your rig, you may have to switch over to battery power or 110. Because of lower atmospheric pressure, fridge pilot lights may not ignite or fridges may lose power at elevations over 5,000 feet.
In addition to loss of oxygen, there will be a significant loss of heat at night in the mountains. These cold temps can freeze water lines and water tanks. If you are expecting nights to be in the 30s, you may want to empty both your fresh and gray tanks and bring some portable water containers inside.
If you depend on a generator for your RV power, these appliances will also suffer at elevations above 6,000 feet. Due to the lower oxygen density, they will have a more difficult time running and will run less efficiently. Some generators do come with high altitude kits that can be utilized if you plan on staying high up for a longer period of time.
How does a higher elevation affect your engine?
Whether you have a tow vehicle or are driving a Class A, B, or C RV, you may experience a sluggish engine at higher elevations. For every 3,000 feet you gain in altitude, your engine can typically lose about 10 percent of its rated output. Diesel engines tend to do better at altitude than gas powered engines.
Towing a trailer can also be more challenging on mountain roads. Many of these types of roads meander through tunnels, along steep grades, and can contain sharp hairpin turns. This puts more strain on your tow vehicle engine and can cause overheating, or worse, fire. While traveling around the Sierra Nevada mountains, I’ve seen several truck engines catch on fire while towing a heavy load. Be prepared with a fire extinguisher in both your tow vehicle and in your trailer.
Other high altitude concerns
Weather can be quite unpredictable at higher altitudes. Wind is stronger and summer thunderstorms can bring snow if the temperatures drop low enough. This is a double concern if you are driving in the mountains with steep winding roads.
Since cell service can be spotty in the mountains, be sure you pack a good weather radio or a set of 2-way radios with a NOAA channel and alarm in your rig. These will alert you of any major changes in barometric pressure or incoming storms. Make sure to also know what the local radio channel is for the National Weather Service. These can typically be found listed on blue road signs as you head into areas that tend to get inclement weather.
In addition to the weather radio, be sure to have a good RV-safe GPS and downloaded maps for the area you are traveling in. While planning your route on RV LIFE Trip Wizard, you can not only find campgrounds and points of interest along your route, but you can also get a better idea of the elevation changes as well.
Paper maps are always a good backup too. These maps will show alternate routes as well as elevations.
There is no need to avoid higher elevations and all the beautiful scenery that higher altitudes have to offer. In fact, because of their challenges, they are some of the most rewarding locations to visit…and contain a lot less people than coastal areas. Just be prepared to plan your trip a little more closely.
Typing addresses into a GPS screen can be frustrating, particularly if you have multiple stops planned throughout the day. Eliminate this frustration by using the RV LIFE GPS & Campgrounds app for your navigation. By accessing trips you have pre-planned using RV Trip Wizard, you’ll never need to enter an address again. Simply tap on your trip, choose the next destination, and hit Go, and the RV LIFE app will provide you with RV-safe driving directions.