How To Store an RV in the Winter Without Doing Damage

Thanks for coming to learn about how to store an RV in winter. If you are new to RV life, or if you recently moved somewhere farther north, you need to know: when you have an RV or pop-up trailer, there are a few things that are REALLY important to do before winter comes. I will walk you through the whole process. I will also give a few helpful tips that will help you make your RV last longer, because who doesn’t want that?

So, how do you store an RV in the winter without doing damage? To keep your RV from being damaged, it is critical that you drain the water from all the pipes, fill them with RV antifreeze, cover the RV, and remove the batteries.

These four steps are the most important to keep your RV from receiving immediate damage, but there are also some other best practices for winterizing your RV once the frost comes. I will walk you through it all.

Most Important: Drain the Pipes!

I said it once and I will say it again: Drain your pipes! This is the most important step in winterizing your RV. As you know, water will expand when frozen, and if you leave the water in those pipes, they will crack open. This will cause tons of damage, and will require you to spend lots of time and money to fix. This is completely avoidable, so just drain your pipes.

To be extra safe, you can even fill your pipe system with some antifreeze. I do this every fall before the first freezes come. To be clear, this is NOT the same type of antifreeze you put into your car. This antifreeze will be clearly labeled “RV Antifreeze.” Yes, it is non-toxic, yes, normal people do this, and yes, you can probably get it where you live. (Walmart’s got it).

Before running any antifreeze into your system, you should put in the hot water tank bypass. This should have come with your RV, but if not, you should be able to find one on your own. Basically, this piece is a short stretch of tubing that you will connect to both the intake pipe of the hot water heater (cold pipe) and the output of the hot water heater (the hot pipe).

This will create a path for the antifreeze that will keep it from going into the hot water tank, and therefore will keep you from needing several extra gallons of antifreeze to get your pipes flushed with antifreeze. (This is why it is called the hot water tank bypass).

The hot water heater will have to be drained separately. Remember, BEFORE putting in ANY antifreeze, be sure to install the hot water tank bypass pipe. Once it is in its place, go ahead and drain the hot water heater’s tank. The procedure for doing so will vary with each RV, but in general, there is a simple valve you have to open and it will drain right out.

Also, this almost goes without saying, but be sure to empty the septic system too. You definitely don’t want those lines breaking.

To replace the water in your lines with antifreeze, all you have to do is put some antifreeze into your freshwater intake. Drain as much of your water tank as possible. For this step, it helps if the RV is parked on a slight slant in the direction that your water tank plug is facing.

Replace the plug, and dump in some antifreeze. You won’t need to fill your whole tank with antifreeze, you will need just enough to get the water pump to start sucking it up into the rest of your pipes.

Once the hot water bypass is put in its place and the water tank has antifreeze, turn on your water pump. Once the system is pressurized, run water through your sink, shower, and toilet one by one. Run water through everything else that uses water too.

Once there is pink coming out of your pipes, you know that the antifreeze has made it through the whole pipe to that point and has flushed out the water in that particular pipe. Make sure some antifreeze goes down every drain, too.

The practice of using antifreeze works great, and the best part is, you can still use the camper. Just without any running water, of course. You will have to bring jugs of water or something to use. But your pipes will be safe on all of those below-freezing adventures you are planning. (If you’ve never done below freezing camping, you are missing out!)

Once spring comes, and you are confident that no more hard freezes will come, you can go ahead and flush out the antifreeze with water. Fill up and rinse your water tank a few times, then run the water through every tap and water source until it is no longer pink (or blue, or whatever color your antifreeze liquid is). Once your water is running clear, you can remove the hot water tank bypass.

So altogether, the antifreeze method is pretty much what everyone does, and is a surefire way to save your pipes. Prep your RV for winter by using antifreeze.

The Second Most Important Thing: Worry About Your Battery

Have you ever taken out your phone on a very cold day, to take a picture or something, and noticed that the battery percentage had dropped after just a minute or two? Once away from the warmth of your body, the battery suffered the wrath of the cold.

Cold is not good for batteries. The electrical charge in batteries comes from the controlled reaction of two elements that are floating in a semi-liquid solution. Freezing a battery repeatedly, every single day, over the whole winter, is a surefire way to shorten its life. To prevent this, you have two options:

  1. Keep your RV plugged in all winter.
  2. Take out your RV’s batteries and put them into storage somewhere inside your house. This is the safest option.

If you are going to be storing your batteries inside, keep these things in mind: before putting them into storage, charge them fully. If they are low on water, fill them up (remember, only distilled water should go into the batteries). Check their charge every two months or so. If they are low on charge, charge them back up. Once it no longer freezes outside, you can connect them right back into their place in the RV.

Other Important Things

With those two things out of the way, let’s talk about some other practical things you are going to want to do to help your RV maintain it’s life and vigor.

Cover the Darn Thing

You are going to want to cover the trailer. If you have an extra space in the garage, in a friend’s garage, or feel like renting out a storage unit to park it there, then that would be most ideal. However, most people aren’t going to have that kind of space. (If it is a really large RV, that is not going to work anyway.) The next best thing to do is to cover it with a cover made especially for the purpose.

When looking for a cover, don’t just use a plastic cover. Never, never, NEVER cover an RV with a tarp. If the cover can’t breathe, you are opening yourself up to lots of problems with mold and mildew. Use a cover designed for your trailer.

Using a cover will help you avoid problems with dirt and UV rays. It will also keep the wind from ramming objects and debris directly into the RV.

Speaking of UV rays, they are bad. Having your RV exposed to sunlight is bad. The most vulnerable parts to worry about are your tires and your windshield wipers. The sunlight will cause the rubber to age much faster than normal. The best thing to do is get a cover that will cover your tires too. If your cover doesn’t, or you have gone against my advice and are using a tarp or plastic covering, then be sure to cover the tires separately.

You will be glad you did, because exposure to the sun is a very sure way to shorten the life of your tires. I personally have seen the cracking that comes when you don’t cover them, and trust me, that is a preventable problem (expense) that you want to just avoid.

So cover your RV. Wash and let it dry completely first. Also be sure to cover the tires and wiper blades. Don’t be lazy, cover ’em.

Move Your RV Every Once In A While

Just like anything else that sits all winter (think lawnmower, weed whacker, etc.) it is better to run the motor once in a while than to let it sit all winter with no movement. Turn it on, let it run a minute, and physically move it so that the tires don’t get an uneven shape.

You will probably not need to do this very often. Use your best judgment, but I would suggest something like every two months would be a good time interval to start up your RV and move it.

Take Some Weight Off of the Tires

The less weight that you have on the tires all winter, the better it is for your tires. Take out anything that can be removed and store it inside for the winter. Don’t just use it as an extra storage container all winter if you can at all help it.

Add Fuel Stabilizer/Biocide

Jumping from my last point, it is also not a good idea to let gas sit all winter in your motors. It will go bad. If your RV uses unleaded gasoline, adding some fuel stabilizer will keep the gas from going bad and will keep your engine starting more reliably. This stuff is cheap (we are talking less than $4), so go ahead and dump some in.

If you have a diesel engine (which is the large majority of RVs), you need to worry about a different problem, which is the growth of diesel-loving bacteria in the tank. If they are allowed to grow, they will produce a slimy film that can ruin everything. Avoid this like the plague! This is what fuel microbicide is used for. It will kill those types of bacteria and yeast. Add it to your diesel tank and let the engine run for a few minutes to bring it through the lines.

Diesel-loving bacteria is not as common a problem for those of us that live in cold places, but from what I hear, it can really happen if you live in a place that isn’t always frozen in the winter. If your RV will be sitting for a long time, regardless of the season, I wouldn’t mess around with such a potentially expensive issue. I would just put in some fuel mircobiocide.

Take Out the Food

To keep from attracting animals, such as mice, take out all of your perishable food from the RV. Also, take out anything else that could attract animals, such as trash. (on this note, I do not recommend putting mice killer in the RV. It is just not something I like having around spaces where my kids play and live. Also, if it does work, then you have dead mice decomposing in your RV over the winter, which is really fun).

Clean Everything

Clean everything really well. This will clean up extra food crumbs and help with the goal of keeping animals out. It will also help you RV to stay like new and fresh for the spring.

Prepare for Emergencies

For everything that I have said about taking all the food and items out of the RV, here is an exception you might want to consider: Your RV can act as the perfect emergency living space, and an escape pod you can use when faced with an emergency.

You never know when disaster will strike. The natural disasters we have witnessed, from Hurricane Katrina to the recent 7.0 earthquake that rocked Alaska, come completely unexpectedly. So many people are unprepared to handle the aftermath of these disasters, and that unpreparedness can cause crazy things to happen. After Hurricane Katrina, so many people were without food or water that things started to get crazy. So I am asking you to be a part of the solution, or in other words, to be prepared for the worst.

You can start by keeping some basic supplies in your RV. That way, when you need to leave town at a moment’s notice, you will be able to leave quickly and be in a better position to help friends and family during an emergency. Having an RV means that you have an instant portable shelter, which in and of itself is a great start to self-reliance after a disaster. Then there are just a few more things to consider.

Some basic things to keep in an RV over the winter, for purposes of preparedness, include the following: non perishable food, critical medicine for you and your family, warm clothes and blankets, rain gear, flashlights, lighters, fire starter, battery/crank/solar powered radio, etc. (As you can see, most of this stuff would be conveniently already inside your RV anyways, just from using it normally for camping. That is why this is the perfect escape pod!).

The next thing to do to keep your RV prepared for disaster is to keep your propane tanks full. If your tank is not full, instead of letting it sit all winter like that, just fill it up now. Worst case scenario, you just filled up your tank early, but at best, that extra fuel can become a huge lifesaver to your family. The same goes for the gas tank, I personally don’t see any reason not to keep it mostly full over the winter.

The government’s full recommendations about what to include in a 72-hour kit, as well as other items to consider in an emergency, can be found at ready.gov.

Time To Say Goodbye

So in conclusion, yes, it is a sad day when it’s time to put the RV away. But following these tips will help you get back up and running without a hitch come spring. (I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist the pun).

Related Questions:

It doesn’t freeze where I live. Do I still need to drain the pipes? That is a question that will be up to you, you should obviously use your best judgment, but I would definitely recommend using the fuel biocide and doing a good cleaning and covering. Don’t forget to cover the tires!

Should I use fuel stabilizer? It is not strictly necessary, but unleaded gasoline breaks down relatively quickly, and in the freezes, you don’t want water condensation building up and freezing. That could crack your fuel pipes. So I would just use it without thinking about it too much if you happen to live somewhere cold.

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