If you’ve ever experienced the thrill of winter camping, there’s a good chance that you’re already hooked. 

After all, you’ll get more out of your investment if you use the RV or travel trailer for all four seasons, rather than just during the warmer months. Here are some tips on how to prevent pipes from freezing in cold weather.

Why Does It Matter If The Pipes Freeze?

No matter where you are, it’s in your best interests to keep the water flowing freely through those pipes. In the short term, you won’t be able to use the water or water hookups in your camper. Since one of the many perks of RV travel is the access to running water, this is a definite letdown.

More disturbingly, frozen pipes can contribute to costly repairs down the road. When water freezes, it expands, meaning that the ice can cause damage to the pipes and water tanks. To avoid these issues, take the proper steps to winterize your RV before taking it out in freezing temperatures.

How Long Does It Have To Be Below Freezing For RV Pipes To Freeze?

It will only take about 24 hours of below-freezing temperatures (lower than 32 degrees Fahrenheit) for the pipes to freeze in your RV. Since the average trip lasts a great deal longer than that, you should definitely take action ahead of time.

If the underbelly of the RV is enclosed or heated, the pipes might remain usable for a while longer. Likewise, if the RV has good insulation, the ice will take longer to set in. Any steps you can take to protect the pipes will pay for themselves in spades later on.

How Can I Keep My Black RV Tank From Freezing?

First, take a look at where your holding tanks are located. If they’re above floor level, then you won’t have to worry as much about freezing because the heat from the furnace will stave off the cold. On the other hand, if the tanks are in the underbelly, they’ll freeze much faster.

In either case, there’s a non-toxic antifreeze that’s made specifically for RVs. You’ll be able to tell it apart from the toxic kind by its color, which is typically pink rather than bright green.

Completely empty your black water tank and close the dump valve. Pour two quarts of non-toxic antifreeze down the toilet. How much antifreeze you need will depend on the size of the tank, so add a quart or so more if necessary. You’ll also need to add more as the tank slowly fills up again since the waste material will eventually dilute the antifreeze.

If you have a gray water tank, be sure to cover your bases by dumping the same amount of antifreeze down the sink or shower drain. Try not to let the tanks fill more than halfway before emptying them and repeating the process as outlined above.

How Can I Keep My Fresh Water Tank From Freezing?

When it comes to protecting your fresh water tank, you have a few options.

First of all, check the location, as you did for the black water tank. For tanks that are located above floor level, wrap a drum or heater blanket around the exterior to give it extra protection. Holding tank heating pads are another option, but bear in mind that you’ll need either a DC current or a 120V outlet in order to power one of these. Heating pads with strong adhesive can also be used for tanks that are set into the underbelly of the RV.

Another option is to winterize your holding tanks as if you were putting the RV into storage for the winter. If you’ve taken this step, you can still use the RV during the colder months. You’ll just have to bring along plenty of drinking water, and use the bathroom facilities at campgrounds and rest areas whenever possible. It will be challenging, but you won’t have to worry about your tanks freezing during RV winter camping.

At What Temperature Will Pipes Freeze Without Heat?

Because temperatures can vary greatly from location to location—even within the same state—it can be difficult to tell when you’re approaching the danger zone. However, it’s important to remember that when the RV pipes are exposed to the elements without any heat or insulation, they’ll begin to freeze at temperatures of 20 degrees Fahrenheit. Anyone who’s planning on RV winter camping should take whatever precautions are available to avoid this from occurring.

Can An RV Freeze In One Night?

While it only takes 24 hours of continuous low temperatures for the RV pipes to freeze, you probably don’t have to worry about them freezing overnight. That’s because the weather will usually warm up slightly during the day, meaning that the below-freezing temps will last just a few hours. It will take longer than that for the water in your tanks to freeze completely, so the occasional use of the facilities will help to offset the risk as well.

What else can you do to prevent pipes from freezing while boondocking? First of all, you can check the weather reports, particularly the hourly forecasts. These will tell you approximately what time the freezing temperatures will begin and how long they’re expected to last.

You can also keep the inside of the RV as warm as possible. Open the cabinet doors beneath the sink to allow warm air to circulate around the pipes. Keep the bathroom door open as well.

Because running water doesn’t freeze, keep the faucets running on a slow trickle. Don’t overdo it—you don’t want to empty your fresh water tank any more than necessary. This is a trick that many people use in their homes as well.

Tips For Unfreezing Pipes

If all else fails and your pipes freeze anyway, turn up the heat and open any cabinets and drawers to help get the water flowing again. You can also use space heaters or blow dryers, if necessary. The process could take as long as 12 hours, so be patient. Don’t be tempted to turn on your water pump—it won’t work, and you may cause more damage to the machinery.

Once you’ve thawed the pipes, check for any drips that would indicate leaks. These could be located underneath the RV, behind the paneling, and in storage spaces. If you don’t find any, have the camper subjected to a professional inspection upon your return home.

About RV Heat Tape

Those of you who are planning on staying in your designated campsite for awhile would do well to consider investing in some heat tape.

The name is somewhat misleading—heat tape is actually a long cable that can read ambient temperatures to determine whether any extra insulation is necessary. When temperatures drop, a strong current flows between the conductors, thereby delivering a boost of heat to the surrounding area. Conversely, when the weather gets warmer, the current flow will slack off, thereby saving the energy for when it’s needed.

Heat tape requires an electrical hookup, and is sold in most hardware stores. When it’s wrapped around pipes in a household setting, it will help to prevent them from freezing. The best way to use it in an RV is to apply the tape to the water and sewer hoses, running it in a parallel line.

Cable lengths can vary a great deal, so take a look at your RV’s water and sewer systems before purchasing a coil of heat tape. 

Final Thoughts

Frozen pipes are no fun, and they’ll diminish the overall lifespan of your RV if they’re a common occurrence.

Fortunately, you’re reading this guide, which means you’re already invested in taking the proper steps to prevent this. We strongly recommend the RV heat tape, but any of the tips listed above will help you protect your pipes for the adventures that lie ahead.