Bird’s Hill Provincial Park Manitoba Canada May 2014 – May snowfall two days after the campground opened.
Canadians who want to live full time in their rigs have some special problems to take into account. These revolve around winter. While it is possible to live in a travel trailer year round, the quality of life would seem to be exceptionally harsh when the days consistently run to -40C (-40F) overnight and -30C (-22F) daytime. Therefore, the vast majority of us fulltimers choose to either go south into the USA for the coldest months or travel to southern British Columbia which rarely sees anything below -18C (0F). The other thing that Canadians must contend with is their individual province’s residency requirements. Requirements vary by province and have been subject to change recently, but one must be physically parked and present inside one’s province’s boundaries for an extended period of somewhere between five and six months (depending on the province) in order to maintain residency. It is necessary to retain a province of residency because that determines your taxation, vehicle registration and insurance. More important, Canada’s (in)famous health care system is administered on a province by province basis. If you don’t qualify for a province of residence, you don’t have health care and there is no alternate private system in Canada to access. The net result of this is that a Canadian who is living full time in a recreational rig will be spending early spring and late fall in Canada.
Most campgrounds in Canada open the May long weekend and close the Labor Day long weekend. This leaves a period of 3-6 weeks at each end of your required provincial stay without many choices in an open full service campground. This is often referred to as “the shoulder” season. It also means that when you are traveling north to Canada in the spring and south to the USA in the fall, or across the prairies to British Columbia, that you have to contend with regions that have few open campgrounds. How do you manage this?
Finishing out your residency requirements means a little planning. Option number one is to stay with relatives for a few weeks. We have done this. Our kids don’t mind putting up with us for a week or two. We arrive, park our rig in someone’s yard, run an extension cord from house to trailer and settle in. This is less than satisfactory because while we love our children and they love us, living together is a bit too much love, especially when we come in a package with a cat and two dogs. There are a few campsites in every region that specifically cater to the early and late traveling snowbird migration. They are set up to handle a late fall snow and are able to clear the campground early enough for the snowbird arrival. They have heated plumbing or have ways to offer water and dump after freeze up. Expect to pay more for that kind of extra service. Nor does finding such a place to stay solve the question of where to stop while traveling north and south after the regular camping season.
Once you have figured out where to stay and settled in you will need to consider your rig and freezing temperatures. The water systems of most travel trailers freeze up if temperatures are consistently below freezing. Some can handle overnight freezing but only as long as weather is above freezing during the daytime. If pipes and valves and holding tanks freeze up, they can burst and then on thawing leave you with a huge and messy repair bill. Also traveling with holding tanks full of ice wastes gas and makes mountain driving problematic. To counteract this, there are a variety of ways to conserve heat and prevent freeze up. The most important of these methods is to wrap the trailer in skirting and put a heat source underneath. Clearly, this is not possible if you are traveling. Many trailers also have heat sent into their floor subspace from the furnace but we have found this is not sufficient to keep the water system from freezing when traveling. The cold air running past the trailer while moving quickly reduces temperatures to ambient. We have found we must “winterize” the trailer for travel in early spring and late fall. Sometimes we are forced to winterize before we start traveling at the shoulder season campsite.
In the parlance of the RV dealership, “winterizing” means to shut off the water system by draining the water. To prevent any residual water from bursting the pipes as it turns to ice, the system is then flooded with antifreeze. The antifreeze used is not standard car antifreeze which also happens to be a deadly poison. Rather it is a specially designed antifreeze expressly designed for putting into drinking water systems. This antifreeze can then be safely removed in the spring by filling and flushing out the system and if there is a bit of residue left after the rinsing, it is so dilute as to not matter. Drinking water pipe antifreeze is available at most RV dealerships year round and seasonally at places like Walmart and Canadian Tire. The cost is about $1 a litre but it can vary a lot between stores and regions. You can have this done for you at the dealership but it is also really easy to do it yourself.
The first step is to shut off water flow to the hot heater and then drain the tank. The reason for the bypass is you can’t let your hot heater sit for any length of time with antifreeze in it. This may mean you will need to install a bypass valve. Most Canadian based RV dealerships do it as part of your purchase package with or without an extra charge. Once the hot water tank is isolated and draining, open the fresh water drain and remove as much of the fresh water in the tank as possible. I have found if I open the taps in my rig a lot of the water in the pipes drains back to the fresh water tank. I open all the fresh water taps first. I then remove the plug on the fresh water drain pipe and let it drain. Once the freshwater tank has drained, close the taps and the drain in the rig, and then add the antifreeze to the fresh water tank. The amount varies, but I have found 4 litres is enough for my rig. Turn on the pump and then systematically open the taps one at a time and run them until they run with the colour of the antifreeze. (My favourite brand is pink coloured but I have used blue stuff too.) Don’t forget the outside shower if you have one. The fresh water system is now out of service but safe from freezing. Grey and black water tanks are then protected by being drained and having more antifreeze poured in. I generally add two litres to each holding tank to start.
This leaves an immediate and obvious question. How to do you shower and relieve yourself? The answer is you don’t shower, at least not in your rig. My husband and I like (need) to shower daily so this can get highly problematic. I can go two days if I use baby wipes to freshen up. My husband heats a kettle of boiling water and uses a big bowl to sponge bathe. We also look for outside places with showers. Relatives and friends with stick houses are our first choice. Most people don’t mind if you stop in for a visit and a shower. Depending on how long you have been traveling, they may even politely insist you shower first while they fix coffee. Year round campgrounds, while few and far between, usually have working showers even if their water is off at the individual spigots. Another choice is locker rooms in sports facilities. It’s actually nice to stop at an indoor pool facility, have a swim and then shower in the locker room before continuing on your journey. Curling and hockey arenas are also a possibility. Truck drivers need to shower too, so many truck stops have pay showers for truckers and don’t mind an RV owner paying instead. Some laundromats also have pay showers. And, of course, one can always do without for longer than is comfortable.
Doing without is not going to work for relieving oneself. Therefore stuff will be going into your black water holding tank. Dealing with the black water tanks can also be problematic but is not impossible in cold weather. The label on the antifreeze container usually has a chart showing how much one can dilute the antifreeze before losing protection. It is therefore possible to roughly calculate how much fluid you can add and top up the tanks with more antifreeze at need. It has happened that we have not been able to dump our black water for days. The obvious solution is to put as little as possible into the holding tank and to take advantage of every potential dump site you encounter as you travel. Even so, we try to use outside washrooms as much as possible during the water off part of travel. In order to have water for the toilet we keep a 1 litre jug with a tight fitting lid in the sink expressly for rinsing down the toilet bowl at need. If it is time to add antifreeze, it rinses just as well as water.
Our black water tank can hold a week’s worth of waste under normal circumstances before needing a dump. We have always been able to find somewhere to dump the tank before it is full while traveling. It’s easier to find a place in the fall than in the spring. Many places that are open in late fall have shut off their water taps but because sewer drains are not under pressure, they have no qualms about dumping into their septic system after the fresh water is shut off. Some campgrounds do have an elaborate procedure of pumping out holding tanks at the end of the season. Adding your dump could cause freezing damage over winter or make them redo the entire procedure. These dumps usually have a locked cap on dump. Even so, if the fresh water is off, never dump in fall without asking first even if the cap is open. Dumping in spring is somewhat less problematic than dumping in fall. The ground will melt soon anyway so a dump into a holding system with no pressure is not normally an issue but do ask. The problem will be finding a place to dump that is open
Truck stops and gas stations with an RV dump site are usually open and functional year round. Also, in small towns there is often a public dump site at the local water treatment plant available year round. There are also on-line “sanidump” information websites that are helpful. In some states, dump sites are available at rest stops and some of these are open year round. When you can dump, do so and then refresh the antifreeze in the grey and black tanks. When you can’t dump, top up with additional antifreeze as required. I try to keep at least four litres of antifreeze on hand at all times.
Water for drinking and cooking is easier. We keep a 20 litre (5 gallon) jug of water with us. We use that for drinking, cooking and washing up dishes and ourselves. We keep dishwashing to a minimum and use an environmentally safe dish soap so, where feasible, dishwater can be dumped outside on the grass instead of into the grey water tank. During the day, while we travel, we always watch for a chance to refill our water jug. Gas stations are a good place. Stop in, fill up, pay for your gas and then ask if you can fill your water jug too. My husband has a funnel and a smaller jug that can be used in a sink too shallow for getting the big jug in. A lot of places have a deep sink for janitorial work that they will let you use. Other likely spots are the campground office at check in, the washroom at a tourist information centre or town office facility, and public washrooms of big stores. Restaurants are a possibility but they tend to be more likely to frown on a water fill up unless they deal with a lot of RV types. If we sense hesitation, we always offer to pay something or just thank the person and leave to look elsewhere. We have only been turned down outright once and even that one time we were politely directed to another nearby location instead. In an absolute extremity, we have simply purchased drinking water at a store.
Where to stop overnight is a tricky question in the off seasons. In general, it is always much easier to find a campground that is open in the late fall rather than finding one open in early spring. In late fall, many campgrounds stay open until enough snow falls to physically block campsites even if the fresh water is turned off due to freezing. They stay open most often to accommodate hunters. This is especially true of public campsites like state parks, town campsites, and fair grounds. We always have much better luck finding stopping places if we take the secondary routes off the interstates. We have also found that if the campground owner lives on site and the site is not yet snowed in, if you offer cash and assure them you only need power or even just parking space, they are quite happy to let you stay even though the campground is officially closed. We have also found late fall construction outside of the city means a construction crew that needs accommodation and therefore the local town campground is likely staying open late for them. Again, if you offer cash, you can usually stay with the construction crew. If all else fails, there is always a Walmart or other place to just park somewhere for the night. When we travel in late fall, we always have our eyes open for a likely stopping spot and we will stop early if something comes up and yet we are prepared to drive later if it doesn’t. Be super polite. Always offer cash in payment. Cash makes it easier for people to bend the rules about open and closing dates and look the other way. If they say no, just thank them anyway and move along to the next place.
Traveling in early spring is much more difficult. You are a lot less likely to be able to find a place without advance planning. The biggest problem is snow. The campgrounds will be full of snow and snow will block the access roads and make it impossible to get into the sites. Even if the roads are plowed, the sites normally are not. You must specifically look for campgrounds that offer “winter” camping or are open year round. Winter camping is generally a phenomena of state parks. It will consist of 1 to 5 campsites near a state park office where rangers have to be around in winter anyway and it is also easy for the person plowing out the access road to the ranger’s office to also plow out these few campsites. They generally do not have services except electricity if you are lucky. You can sometimes get water at the office but often not. There is hardly ever a dump site open. Still, it will be safe and usually cheap.
Most campsites do not turn off the power over the winter. More than once we have found a campsite is not officially open but the gate is not chained up and the road is accessible and we have pulled in anyway and parked and hooked up to electricity. I don’t recommend this with state parks because they tend to be real sticklers about the rules. However small towns are generally much more flexible. One trick with municipal and fairground campsites is to park and plug in and then walk to the municipal office and offer to pay. The person at the counter will likely act astonished and say the campground is closed. Reply with, “Oh really? We got settled in just fine and we only need electricity. Would it problem if we just stay put for the night since we’re already settled?” Usually, they let us stay and most don’t want the fee because it will just create paperwork.
Once we found ourselves really stuck. It was late. I was exhausted and we had already been turned away from six other places. We pulled into a fairground where a late fall cutting horse competition going on. The people running the competition had rented the entire facility. The fairground office initially turned us away because of that. It was late and I was so tired but the horses were gorgeous. I am also a big fan of real working cattle horses having once lived on a ranch and spent a fair bit of time in the saddle. I stood and watched the horses for a few minutes and chatted with a couple of the competitors. As it happened, I was also wearing a pair of well worn real cowboy boots because my years on the ranch had convinced me they really are the best thing on your feet. I asked who the competition organizer was and the friendly cowgirls I was chatting with took me over and introduced me. I explained our situation. She looked at my boots and smiled. She gave us permission to be part of their group for the night as long as we paid the fairground officials the same nominal fee all the other competitors did. That was very special because we set up next to the horse trailers and got to walk the barns and I got to talk horse again for a while. We also got to watch the competition in the morning before we had to leave.
Private all season campgrounds can be found in the north that stay open to accommodate skiers and snowmobilers. These are usually electricity only but have heated washrooms with showers or a heated outdoor tap for filling your big jug/water tank and a usable dump station. These winter full service campsite are often relatively expensive and few and far between (one to three per state) but they are well worth stopping at. We usually map such campgrounds well before we begin our trip and plan our route to stop at them.
It is far more likely that you will end up forced to boondock without services in the spring than in the fall. Talk to other snowbirds and get recommendations for good stopping places. Big stores like Walmarts, casinos and truck stops are likely places. It is also sometimes possible to find a campground which is not yet officially open but the owner is onsite cleaning up and getting ready for the season. Offer cash and ask to stay with the understanding you will not need the washrooms if they aren’t open yet, water if it not turned on and dumping if it is not working yet and they will be happy to help you out. Be prepared for the possibility that you may have to rent a hotel room for the night. It can actually be a real treat to stay overnight in a warm hotel room during a long trip north after going through a stretch with few shower facilities and a lot of cold weather.
Dress for cold. Avoid getting a chill. It’s weird how getting one good chill can make you feel miserable for days afterward. It is just not possible to keep a typical travel trailer with a propane furnace as warm and comfy as a house. Walking out to the washroom and sitting in the cold travel vehicle is a good way to get chilled. We use layers to stay comfortable. I wear long johns, a short sleeved undershirts, long sleeved warm shirt and then a fleece vest, a warm fleece jacket, and a coat with hat and mittens. I layer up or down as needed to stay warm without overheating.
Some of our coldest wettest and most miserable experiences have been in the late fall or early spring traveling by the calendar instead of by the season. Part of me dreads that shoulder season block when summer is over but we can’t head south yet. I also hate arriving home to snow and freezing rain before the geese get back. Still I must say that we have also had some of our best often unexpected times on these trips. It is wonderful to travel south and get to see the leaves turn in the fall over weeks instead of days. There is also a special thrill to having the daffodils come up again and again as you move north with the snow line. There is a special sense of appreciation when you get far enough south to be able to drain the anti-freeze, flush the system and finally shower in your own place again. We all have a tendency to take amenities for granted and shoulder travel wakes us up again. In the fall, the tourist season has passed and folks are more relaxed and more accommodating. In the spring, everyone feels good about the improvement in the weather so they happier and much more willing to be helpful. The minor inconveniences of the shoulder season are outweighed by the special satisfactions of traveling. If they weren’t we wouldn’t bother packing up and getting back on the road again.
A picture snapped by our son April 2013 when we stayed with him on our arrival back to Manitoba.