Even the best preparations and the most insulated RV may not be enough to survive harsh winter conditions. Anything can happen and anyone hell-bent to visit a remote destination in cold weather will do well to follow a few common sense winter RV camping guidelines.
Why go RVing to National Parks in winter?
Summer is by far the best and easiest time to learn how to go RVing to National Park Service (NPS) sites. Whether you travel in a motorhome coach or a teardrop trailer, as long as you pack a little food, adequate water, and your favorite creature comforts, even the most novice RVers have everything needed for a successful visit. But all this easy camping comes at a cost—less campsite availability, crowded facilities and trails, road traffic, and an ongoing din of humanity.
Winter RVing to national parks is an entirely different experience. Visitors brave enough to set up camp during colder days and even chillier nights are treated to an authentic experience with scarce crowds, more wildlife, and maximum solitude. It’s worth the effort but just don’t go in with that same laid-back approach you might take during summer. Winter RV camping in national parks requires more prep work and common sense—especially when heading to isolated destinations without cellular coverage.
During any given winter, about 38 NPS sites have campgrounds that stay open for off-season RV camping. If you think you’re up to the challenge of winter RV camping in national parks, here’s what you need to know to make the most of the experience.
The dos and don’ts of winter RV camping in National Parks
It doesn’t matter what type of RV you drive, the same basic winter camping rules apply to anyone heading to a NPS destination.
DO keep an eye on the weather: Having a roof over your head at night can give you a false sense of security when you’re RV camping. Our cozy homes on wheels make it easy to forget that chilly weather is about more than wearing bulky layers of clothing. Winter storms and cold winter weather generates a host of problems specific to RVs like frozen plumbing lines and bitter cold blowing through slide-out openings.
Even if you are lucky enough to have an electrical hookup at a campground, cold-weather RV challenges still happen. Don’t go into a national park RV destination without keeping a close tab on the short and long-term forecast. And if your camping destination lacks internet, take a daily walk to find the latest forecast posted at the entrance kiosk. Don’t let the weather surprise you and be ready for anything.
DON’T expect camping conveniences: Many national parks with winter RV camping technically are open but that doesn’t mean the usual camper services will be available. In most cases, essential facilities like RV dump stations, bathrooms, water spigots, and campsite utility hookups (where available) get shut off before the first hard freeze. Conveniences like camp stores and even gas stations may also be closed. Amenities like visitor centers and laundromats are likely to be shut down too. Come with all the food and provisions you need and check the park’s website to see what’s open before heading out.
DO arrive with camping essentials and working RV systems: Don’t leave home without allowing enough time to conduct a thorough check on your rig such as checking your RV propane levels and fuel reserves. Verify that your solar electric power system and generator work as expected and get your RV engine fully inspected and ready to roll on good tires. That way if sudden, severe weather moves in and you need to depart, your RV has everything it takes to roll away without issues.
DON’T forget to bring cold-weather RVing gear: The downside of cold-weather RVing in national parks is the need to carry bulky items to keep you and your RV warm. The upside is that if ominous weather is on the horizon, you’ll be ready for anything. Essential cold-weather RVing gear includes things like:
- Pre-cut squares of Reflectix foil insulation to keep cold air from seeping through windows, ceiling vents, and other drafty areas
- Heated water hose (or water hose heat tape or a length of foam insulation hose to wrap around your water hose and prevent freezing)
- Full tank of fresh water in case hookups are shut off for the season
- Adequate battery jump system strong enough to start your RV
- Cold-weather clothing and footwear for you and your dog if you travel with one
Don’t let all of this preparation scare you. Cold weather camping in national parks can be a blast if you’re fully prepared. Create a thorough RV travel plan filled with contingencies for alternative places to camp, fuel up, and find groceries. Let people know where you are headed and when you’ll return. Do all that and you’ll be well-prepared for anything that might happen.
National Parks open for winter RV camping
Searching for the best winter RV camping national park destination with cold, sometimes snowy weather? Here’s an abbreviated list of national parks with at least one campground open for winter RV camping.
Note that in several of the following parks (Big Bend, Pinnacles, and Organ Pipe Cactus, for example) you can expect warmer weather and will not require the above cold weather preparation.
- New River Gorge National Park and Preserve, West Virginia
- Badlands National Park, South Dakota
- Theodore Roosevelt National Park, North Dakota
- Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina
- Arches National Park, Utah
- Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah
- Canyonlands National Park, Utah
- Capitol Reef National Park, Utah
- El Morro National Monument, New Mexico
- Big Bend National Park, Texas
- Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
- Canyon de Chelley National Monument, Arizona
- Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument, Arizona
- Hovenweep National Monument, Utah
- Natural Bridges National Park, Utah
- Zion National Park, Utah
- Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park, California
- Pinnacles National Park, California
Keep in mind that campground status can change depending on weather.
Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.
—Henry David Thoreau, Walden