Winter Can Be a Great Season to Explore National Parks

Don’t wait until summertime to explore these National Parks

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.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Pinnacles National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

El Morro National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Natural Bridges National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

White Sands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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
Organ Pipe National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Badlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

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.

Keep in mind that campground status can change depending on weather.

Worth Pondering…

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

Winter 2022-23: 10 Best Things to Do in America

While summer gets all the popular attention—sun, sand, sea, surf, and so on—it’s safe to say that winter is underrated

From fishing and camping to a taste bud tour, RVing with Rex reveals unique and unusual picks for the 10 best things to do in the US this winter. Your RV bucket list just got (a lot) longer.

The best things to do this winter include many hidden gems and unique experiences. You’ll find plenty of tried-and-trued staples too. But, as is my style at RVing with Rex, I tend to embrace under-the-radar spots as well as famous attractions. You’ll likely find things to do that you didn’t even know existed!

Believing the most authentic recommendations derive from personal experiences, the list highlights the places I’ve discovered and explored on one or more occasions. But, no matter where you plan to travel you’re bound to find something unique and fun to do this winter.

Daytona Beach © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

1. Cruise the Atlantic Coast of Florida

Location: Jacksonville to Key West, Florida

Stretching along Florida’s Atlantic Coast from Fernandina Beach to Key West is the iconic A1A highway. The famous route passes through historic towns like St. Augustine before making its way through hotspots like Daytona Beach and Fort Lauderdale. Then, stay a few days in Miami before continuing south on the Overseas Highway, a scenic 130-mile stretch of roadway connecting Key Largo to Key West in the Florida Keys.

Kennedy Space Center © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

2. Discover Outer Space at Kennedy Space Center

Location: Kennedy Space Center Complex, Merritt Island, Florida

Visiting Kennedy Space Center allows you to live out the dream of being an astronaut. You can see the space shuttle Atlantis, meet an astronaut, and watch a space movie in the IMAX movie theater. For true space travel enthusiasts, consider booking one of the add-on enhancements such as the Special Interest Bus Tour or the Astronaut Training Experience. 

Mount Dora © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

3. Wander through Mount Dora

Location: Mount Dora, Florida

Time slows down in this quaint Florida town filled with unique shops and delicious eateries.  Located approximately 45 minutes north of Disney World, Mount Dora is like a real-life Main Street U.S.A. This small town is known for its boutique stores and the downtown area is filled with eateries, tasty coffee, and ice cream shops. Cruise on Lake Dora, sip on a signature cocktail while enjoying the spectacular sunset, and slow down and take in the relaxing atmosphere. 

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

4. Feel the warm desert air in Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Location: Ajo, Arizona

The remote Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument is a gem tucked away in southern Arizona’s vast the Sonoran Desert. Thanks to its unique crossroads locale, the monument is home to a wide range of specialized plants and animals including its namesake. The park lies near Ajo, 43 miles south of Gila Bend on Interstate 8. This stretch of desert marks the northern range of the organ pipe cactus, a rare species in the U.S. With its multiple stems, the cactus resembles an old-fashioned pipe organ. There are 28 different species of cacti in the park ranging from the giant saguaro to the miniature pincushion.

>> Get more tips for visiting Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument

Goose Island State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

5. Fish and camp at Goose Island State Park

Location: Rockport-Fulton, Texas

Lapping water and Gulf breezes: We must be on the coast! Goose Island offers camping, fishing, and birding along St. Charles and Aransas bays. Camp, fish, hike, geocache, go boating and observe and take photos of wildlife, especially birds. Fish from shore, boat, or the 1,620-foot-long fishing pier. Choose from 44 campsites by the bay or 57 sites nestled under oak trees, all with water and electricity. Every camping loop has restrooms with showers. Be sure to visit the Big Tree which has been standing sentinel on the coast for centuries and has withstood several major hurricanes.

>> Get more tips for visiting Goose Island State Park

Savannah © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

6. Sample the South in Savannah’s Historic District

Location: Savannah, Georgia

Few US city centers match the charm and style of Savannah’s Historic District. Every corner reveals an 18th-century home somehow more picturesque than the last. The area is perfect for strolling aimlessly and stopping for treats (and shade) along the way. Wander down River Street to sample the famous southern pralines at Savannah’s Candy Kitchen or indulge in a Bourbon Pecan Pie martini at Jen’s & Friends. If you’re somehow still hungry, choose from over 100 eclectic restaurants. Then, burn it all off by dancing the night away in Savannah’s buzzing nightlife scene. 

>> Get more tips for visiting Savannah

Usery Mountain Regional Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

7. Experience the magic of the Sonoran Desert at Usery Mountain Regional Park

Location: Mesa, Arizona

Located on the Valley’s east side, this 3,648-acre park is located at the western end of the Goldfield Mountains adjacent to the Tonto National Forest. The park contains a large variety of plants and animals that call the lower Sonoran Desert home. Along with the most popular feature of the park, the Wind Cave Trail, water seeps from the roof of the alcove to support the hanging gardens of Rock Daisy.

Usery Mountain Regional Park offers a campground with 73 individual sites. Each site has a large parking area to accommodate up to a 45-foot RV with water and electrical hook-ups, a dump station, a picnic table, a barbecue grill, and a fire ring.

>> Get more tips for visiting Usery Mountain Regional Park

Bay St. Louis © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

8. Experience the quaint, seaside town of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi

Location: Bay St. Louis, Mississippi

It’s no secret that the farther west you travel along the Mississippi coast, the stronger you’ll hear the call of New Orleans. Once you hit the waterfront in Old Town Bay St. Louis, you might as well be in the French Quarter. Many locals here have New Orleans roots and this little burg is all about letting those bons temps rouler. Its artsy, funky, and quirky yet still peaceful and relaxing, with the unhurried, y’all-come-on-in attitude of a small Southern town: NOLA, meets Mayberry.

In 2010 Bay St. Louis was listed as one of the Top 10 Beach Communities in the U.S. by Coastal Living MagazineBudget Travel magazine named it one of the “Coolest Small Towns in America” in 2013 and Southern Living magazine named Bay St. Louis one of their 50 Best Places in the South in 2016.

>> Get more tips for visiting Bay St. Louis

Fairhope © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

9. Experience Southern Coastal Charm in Fairhope, Alabama

Location: Fairhope, Alabama

Wiry trees draped with Spanish moss frame pastel-painted bungalows in this small Alabama town. Fairhope is perched atop bluffs overlooking Mobile Bay. You can bike oak-lined sidewalks, watch watercolor sunsets, and browse inspiring shops including Page & Palette bookstore and other businesses in the town’s French Quarter near the water.

Explore the piers and meander the parks and beaches—if you’re lucky, you’ll witness the summer jubilee when sea creatures wash up on the beaches by the bucketful. Once you watch a sunset from the Tiki Bar at the American Legion Post 199, you’ll understand Fairhope nostalgia and wonder why anybody would want to live anywhere else.

Breaux Bridge © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

10. Discover the Crawfish Capital of the World

Location: Breaux Bridge, Louisiana

A tiny bayou town just a short hop from Lafayette, Breaux Bridge is not only the “Crawfish Capital of the World” per the Louisiana legislature but lays claim to having invented crawfish etouffee. It’s in the heart of Acadian Louisiana with all the fantastic food and music that entails. Cajun dancers have been two-stepping and waltzing around the beautiful old dance floor at La Poussiere since 1955. On Saturdays, Café des Amis serves a Zydeco breakfast with live music downtown.

Breaux Bridge is one cool little Louisiana town where locally-owned shops, Cajun eateries, French music, bayou country, and crawfish all come together. The walkable downtown hub is studded with antique shops, restaurants, and homey cafes. And if you love fishing and boating, you’ll be right at home thanks to the town’s quick access to Lake Martin. For art lovers on a budget, the Teche Center for the Arts has regularly scheduled workshops and musical programming that typically clock in under $10.

>> Get more tips for visiting Breaux Bridge

Worth Pondering…

Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.

—Anita Desai

How to Layer Clothes for Cold Weather Camping

Layering is of the utmost importance if you want to stay warm and dry while adventuring in the cold

For many RVers, camping is a three-season activity. They enjoy the mild weather that comes with spring and fall and bask in the warmth of summer. But when winter arrives they hole up indoors for three or four months to avoid the snow and cold temperatures.

While it is true that chilly conditions can make it hard to get motivated to go outdoors, using a proper layering system can make all the difference. Armed with the right outdoor apparel and knowing how to best utilize your gear, it is possible to embrace the winter weather and learn to love the cold. After all, who wants to spend three or more months inside when there is so much to see and do?

To ensure that your winter camping adventures are as warm and cozy as possible, I’ve put together this guide to effective wintertime layering, complete with everything you need to know to get started. Here is how to use a layering system to stay warm on your winter outdoor adventures.

Winter camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Why layer your clothing?

A clothing layering system is important to any camping trip and winter camping adventures.  Here are three key reasons why you should layer during your next wintertime expedition:

Enhanced warmth: When winter camping staying warm is essential. By layering your clothing you can trap in as much warmth as possible from your body heat to help you stay cozy in the cold.

Winter camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Improved comfort: Layering also helps you stay more comfortable while outside by giving you more control over your body temperature. Since layering allows you to easily remove clothing items, you can quickly adjust your clothing if you feel too hot or too cold.

More on winter camping: Winter RV Camping: What You Need to Know

Better adaptability to variable weather: A quality clothing layering system also sets you up for success in variable weather conditions. With your various layers, you can quickly adapt to unseasonably warm and rainy weather or particularly frigid and snowy temperatures in just a few minutes.

Winter camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Clothing layering basics

Wearing additional layers of clothing to stay warm in the winter isn’t a new idea. For centuries, people have been using everything from thick animal furs and heavy blankets to dense flannels and cozy sweaters to fend off the chill of winter. That approach isn’t without its merits, particularly if you’re staying inside a warm shelter.

But if you want to venture outdoors and be active during the colder months of the year, there is a better approach. The idea behind a layering system is to wear articles of clothing that create and trap heat close to the body while protecting you from wind and moisture. Using layers that work together, it is possible to go outside and enjoy your favorite activities even when the mercury takes a plunge and snow is falling from the sky.

Winter camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Modern outdoor apparel is designed to work as part of a layering system with each garment playing an essential role in the process. Wearing layers brings increased versatility, too, allowing you to remove or add items as weather conditions and activity levels change. This flexibility is the key to staying comfortable as it is just as important to avoid overheating as staying warm. With the right clothes, you’ll be ready to take on anything that Mother Nature throws at you.

In the next section, I’ll discuss the three different layers that make up a quality wintertime layering system.

Winter camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Base layers

Aptly named, base layers are the bottom or inner layers in your clothing system such as your t-shirt, long underwear, and even your hiking socks.

Every good layering system starts with the base layer. These are articles of clothing that sit closest to the skin playing a vital role in regulating temperature. Base layers keep your arms, legs, and core warm in cold conditions but are also highly breathable, quick-drying, and adept at wicking moisture away from the body. That means they allow hot air and perspiration to escape preventing the fabrics from becoming damp and potentially creating a dangerous situation such as an increased risk of hypothermia.

Winter camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Modern base layers are made from synthetic performance fabrics or natural merino wool. Those materials keep the wearer warm, dry, and comfortable even in extreme conditions. These tops and bottoms are available in various weights—or thicknesses—with thinner base layers used in cold but not frigid temperatures while thicker layers perform better as temperatures drop. The fabrics also tend to be antimicrobial which means they won’t collect a foul order after they’ve been worn a few times.

More on winter camping: Winter RV Camping Must-Have: Heated Water Hose

It is essential to avoid wearing clothes made of cotton on any outdoor excursion. While cotton is lightweight and comfortable it isn’t very breathable, absorbs moisture, and takes a long time to dry. When cotton gets wet it becomes a liability, potentially leading to hypothermia and frostbite. Because of this, you should leave your cotton apparel at home when setting out on an adventure.

Heated water hose for winter camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mid layers (the insulating layer)

While your base layers are all about wicking moisture, your mid-layers are designed to keep you warm. Indeed, mid-layers are your insulating layers so they’re your first line of defense against frigid temperatures.

The mid layers generate heat for the wearer. It does this in two ways; first, it is a thicker and heavier garment which means it is naturally warmer than the base layers found underneath. Secondly, it also can trap warm air as it escapes the breathable/wicking base fabrics creating pockets of warmth as a result.

The insulating layer can take several forms such as a fleece pullover, a hoodie, or a warm puffer jacket. Which one you choose to wear depends on the conditions. On a milder winter day, a lightweight fleece may provide all the warmth you need but a down jacket may be necessary when temperatures drop below freezing. For added versatility, you may even bring both.

Winter camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

These days, mid-layers are manufactured with one of three primary materials, each of which has its own advantages and disadvantages:

  • Fleece: Crafted out of polyester and other synthetic fibers, fleece is a type of manufactured insulation that can keep you warm when wet. Fleece is highly affordable and super durable, too, so it’s a popular choice in the mountains. But, it’s not very lightweight or packable which can be a concern for some hikers.
  • Down: Down is a type of natural insulation that’s made with the down plumes of geese and ducks. It’s considered to be the gold standard in insulation because of its superb warmth-to-weight ratio. However, it can’t keep you warm when wet and it’s quite expensive.
  • Synthetic: Designed to mimic down for a fraction of the price, synthetic insulation is made from spun polyester fibers. These fibers are highly affordable and can keep you warm when wet. But, they’re not as packable as down.

Buying a mid-layer is always a trade-off between warmth, packability, breathability, and price. As a result, no one mid-layer will work in all environments. If you’re winter camping in a dry locale, down might be ideal. Meanwhile, winter camping in damp places often requires synthetic mid-layers.

Winter camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The outer layer

The last part of the layering system is your outer layer. Sometimes called your shell layer, the outer layer of any winter camping clothing system is normally a rain jacket and a set of rain pants.

More on winter camping: The Ultimate Guide for Winter Camping

As the outermost layer in your clothing system, outer layers are specifically designed to protect you from rain and snow. These layers need to be completely waterproof particularly when camping in snowy environments.

Winter camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The vast majority of outer layers are made from similar materials. This includes nylon or polyester shell fabric and then a high-tech waterproof-breathable membrane. These membranes which often go by brand names like Gore-Tex or eVent are designed to allow sweat to escape while keeping rain and snow off your skin.

When shopping for outer layers for winter camping, the important thing to remember is that your rain pants and jackets need to fit over all of your warm layers. Otherwise, you won’t be able to stay warm and dry at the same time. So, you may need to get a jacket and a set of rain pants that are bigger than you’d normally buy for them to fit over your other layers.

Winter camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Mix and match layers

Now that I’ve defined each of the different layers and what they do, you’re ready to mix and match apparel as needed. Your base layers are the anchor for the system but you can add an insulating layer for additional warmth when needed and a shell jacket when the weather calls for it. A shell can even be used without an insulator if temperatures are warm but precipitation is falling.

The layering system also comes in handy for adjusting to changing activity levels. For example, when you first start a hike you may feel cold but once you get moving you begin to warm up. This allows you to shed a layer or two and remain dry and comfortable. Later, when you stop for a break pull on a fleece or down jacket for some added warmth until you get going again.

Winter camping © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Your layering system is all about temperature and moisture management which can fluctuate wildly throughout the day. But by wearing the proper clothing, you can quickly adapt to those changes while remaining safe and comfortable.

More on winter camping: Winter RV Camping Must-Have: Portable Space Heater

There you have it, the perfect layering system to keep you warm this winter. With these garments in your closet you can head outside confidently knowing that you’re ready to enjoy winter to its fullest.

Worth Pondering…

And finally winter with its bitin’, whinin’ wind, and all the land will be mantled with snow.

—Roy Bean