How to Build a Four-Season Airsteam

It’s been getting into the teens overnight, and everything but our tiny Airstream home is frozen solid. We’re definitely doing this snowbird thing all wrong.

It was always our intention to move South each Winter, but we haven’t managed that yet. Last year, we ended up overwintering in Maryland after returning for some family events, and stayed so we could finish up some renovations, adopt a new dog, and frankly, because moving is expensive and we didn’t have anywhere else we needed to be. This year, we have a baby on the way, so we’re here for the duration to be close to our midwives.

airstream-snow-forest.jpg

Building an Airstream for Winter Living

Factory Airstreams are not four season trailers. They do OK in the Summer (provided you have hookups or a generator to crank the A/C), and the Spring and Fall, but a cold Winter in a factory Airstream can be miserable. The aluminum ribs conduct heat straight through the walls. The furnace gobbles up tank after tank of propane even in relatively mild conditions, and in colder climates, struggles to keep your living space reasonably warm and your water tanks liquid. Once your tanks are frozen, you really are camping, since there’s no showers, no dishes, and no washing your hands. Any moisture in the air from cooking or breathing condenses on the cold walls, runs down to the floor, and can start mold growth.

If you’re re-building a trailer from the ground up, though, it doesn’t take much to build an Airstream that can be comfortable throughout the Winter. Here’s a list of our modifications that help keep us cozy throughout the colder months.

Some of the links in this article are "affiliate links," which allow a merchant to see who referred a customer to them.  If you decide to buy something based on our recommendation, it would be nice if you used the direct link from this page so we can earn a small commission for referring you (which doesn't cost you anything extra).

Insulation

airstream-belly-pan-insulation.jpg

We used rockwool insulation in our walls and in the belly pan, with reflectix against the outer skin over the upper half of our rig. I couldn’t tell you whether the reflectix makes any difference in the summer, but it certainly doesn’t hurt anything.

Whether you choose fiberglass, Rockwool, or spray foam in the walls won’t make a huge difference in R-value, since you only have an inch and a half or so to work with. What will make a big difference is making sure you install it properly. Convection is your enemy inside the walls and belly pan, so avoiding voids is critical. Spray foam is obviously your best bet for avoiding voids, but it has its downsides. I really like how rockwool made a nice tight assembly when I installed it. I also liked how I could buy it at the hardware store and it didn’t require the assistance of a professional.

airstream-insulation-rockwool-thermal-break.jpg

I’ve seen folks cut up pre-formed foam panels for their insulation, and I have to say, I’m not a fan. Pre-formed panels don’t fully fill the space in the wall. Air space around the panels allows air to flow inside of the wall, bypassing the insulation entirely. I suggest using either spray foam or batt insulation.

See our insulation product picks here, and see the wall insulation here and belly pan insulation here.

Thermal Breaks

An Airstream is constructed with an interior and exterior aluminum skin, held together with aluminum ribs. If the ribs are touching the skin on both sides, heat will conduct straight through the ribs, bypassing the insulation. This is also true of heat conducting from the wooden subfloor, through the frame, to the belly pan.

airstream-subfloor-thermal-break-insulation.jpg

Adding a thin layer of insulation somewhere in this assembly adds some resistance to the flow of heat through the walls and the floor, which improves the insulation performance of the assembly. I don’t have any numbers on it yet, but anecdotally it’s working very well for us, and I would recommend incorporating thermal breaks where you can in your renovation.

See how we installed thermal breaks between the ribs and interior skins here. See how we used reflectix on the underside of the subfloor to add a thermal break here.

Heat Sources

Most Airstreams come with a propane furnace installed. We pulled ours out and did not replace it. We have nothing against propane furnaces, except that they’re loud and consume tons of propane and a moderate amount of electricity. We just didn’t want to be dependent on propane for heating, and we needed that space for the dishwasher.

wood-stove-airstream-dogs-on-couch.jpg

For when we have hookups, we have two electric heaters. First, our Coleman Mach 8 Cub has the heat strip installed. It’s advertised only as a “chill chaser,” but it’s done a good job of keeping our Airstream warm until the weather gets into the teens (F) or below. As a supplemental heat source, and because we can’t run the heat strip without tripping a 15A outlet, we also carry a small 900/1500 watt countertop space heater.

For off-grid heating, supplemental heat, or (let’s be honest) any excuse we get to make a fire, we have a Hobbit wood stove installed with the RV/Bus flue kit from Tiny Wood Stove. The wood stove gives us a powerful, dry heat source that requires zero electricity, and is better to watch in the evenings than TV. We find that the Hobbit, which is about the same size as the Dwarf 4kW from Tiny Wood Stove, is a bit too much to burn without opening windows until the outside temp is well into the 50s (F). It really hits its stride below freezing, and we’re not sure we could live without it when it hits zero degrees.

See our Coleman Mach 8 Cub installation here.

See our wood stove installation here.

Dehumidification

Moist air in a small space is a problem during the Winter. No matter what you do, the windows and walls will be cold, and if the air is humid, water will condense on the walls and mold will grow. Even if you don’t use a catalytic heater or even cook inside your RV, the moisture you exhale can be enough to create a problem.

We don’t have space or electricity to spare for an electric dehumidifier, and as it turns out, we don’t need one. Dessicant dehumidifiers are available, but if you have a powerful, dry heat source like a wood stove, you have everything you need to dehumidify your rig.

When we see some condensation forming on our windows, we fire up the wood stove and crack open a roof vent above it. The wood stove gives us plenty of heat to spare, and the hot air escaping the top of our Airstream carries moisture with it. Running this way for an hour or so will clear up the condensation from the windows, and tells us it’s OK to close up the vent.

You don’t necessarily need a wood stove to dehumidify your space this way. Any sufficiently powerful dry heat source would work fine. As long as you have enough spare BTUs to lose some heat out the vent, and your heat source isn’t actively adding moisture to your air, you can dehumidify your rig in the Winter without any additional gear.

Water Tanks

One of the most important factors in building a four-season trailer is how to keep your water tanks liquid. If your fresh tank or plumbing freezes, you can’t shower, wash dishes, or wash your hands after the bathroom. If your waste tanks or hose freezes, you can’t dump them.

We use an Air Head composting toilet (similar to the Nature’s Head), so we don’t have a black tank to worry about. But we do have gray tanks and a fresh tank to worry about.

airstream-fresh-water-tank

I installed 12V heating pads on both the fresh water tank and the primary gray water tank, and added Reflectix insulation to both. The two secondary gray tanks are emptied and valved off in below freezing conditions, since they don’t have heaters.

We found out last Winter that the suction line off our fresh tank is also susceptible to freezing even though the tank is heated, so we added 12V pipe heater to the suction line coming off the fresh tank as well. That would have been easier to do before installing the tank, but I do still have access to the side plumbing on the tank through a hole in the floor under the kitchen cabinets.

We keep our gray waste valve closed when winter camping, and only dump intermittently when it gets full, even when we have a dump hookup. This allows the heater to function properly (there needs to be water in the tank when the heater is on or the coil could burn out), and keeps the water in the plumbing manifold and the dump hose from freezing.

RV-Fresh-Water-Return-Thermostat.jpg

Since heating pads would use up a good portion of our available solar energy off-grid, we wanted another option to keep our fresh water liquid for off-grid Winter camping. When I replaced the fresh water tank, I added a return line, which would allow me to dump hot water (from the PrecisionTemp RV-550 water heater) into my fresh tank. I hooked a cheap 12 volt thermostat with a longer sensor wire (dropped to the bottom of the tank through the fill tube) to a 12V solenoid valve to control the hot water dumping into my fresh tank. Using the thermostat, I’m able to heat my entire fresh water system (plumbing included) with propane, and only as much energy as the water pump needs to kick on periodically. (While I was at it, I added a momentary switch, which allows me to prime the hot water before I take a shower or run the dishwasher without wasting any water.)

Keeping Yourself Sane

The hardest part of living in an RV in the Winter is keeping yourself sane. Sure, it’s perfectly comfortable in our Airstream, but it’s still only about 180 square feet. We built our home with the idea that the outdoors would be part of our living space. When it’s 10 degrees, we don’t spend a lot of time outside.

How best to manage that? Well, we’re still learning. Going out as much as possible seems to be the thing to do. Anyone have thoughts? Leave a comment below.

Baby On Board!

Happy New Year! We’re very excited to announce a new addition to our family! Baby Greatley will be joining us in April.

baby-greatley-happy-new-year.jpg

We haven’t been blogging much since we’ve been busy (apparently), and there hasn’t been much general interest stuff going on with the renovation basically done. But in prepping for this new phase of our life, we expect to have some new things to share.

How will our space change to accommodate the new member of our family? Are we crazy to think we can do cloth diapers off-grid? Where will we fit the truckloads of plastic garbage that everyone seems to think babies need?

Stay tuned to find out!

Back Again

After Kentucky, we had a few things to take care of in Baltimore, so we headed back East.  Quick stop at the gas station to top up our tires.  A 12V powered air compressor is a must have for RV trips.

IMG_20171025_111803.jpg

Stopped at TCPC again on the way back, in time to catch the Fall colors.  Tennessee Cumberland Plateau Campground is a fantastic, well-maintained Airstream-only park with very reasonable visitor's rates, top-notch facilities, and beautiful hiking trails.  This is becoming our go-to stop when we're anywhere nearby.

IMG_20171027_092737.jpg
IMG_20171027_121017.jpg

Next stop, Cracker Barrel for the night.  Free parking and carry-out comfort food.  What's not to love?  It got pretty chilly overnight, but we were toasty by the fire.

IMG_20171029_172444.jpg

Next stop, Cracker Barrel number 2.  I just can't resist free parking and chicken fried steak.

IMG_20171029_181237.jpg

Back in Baltimore, I started work on a few finishing touches to the Airstream.  Upper cabinet doors.

Indicator lights for our outside light switches.  This should help keep us from accidentally leaving the outside lights on all night.

IMG_20171116_160428.jpg

And the bathroom floor.  We were originally planning wood flooring in the bathroom, but considering how often it gets wet, a little more tile seemed to be the way to go.  This adds a little more weight in the rear, which is not ideal.  But with the Airstream storage nearly complete, most things have a permanent place, so we should be able to avoid packing stuff in the shower when we're traveling.  It's probably about the same weight in the back as usual.

The big news this trip is that we adopted a new member of the family!  This is Bailey.  She's a treeing walker coonhound, and she's about a year and a half old.  We got her from Lonely Hearts Animal Rescue, the same place Leanne found Luna several years ago.  They specialize in finding homes for young mothers and their pups, and Bailey is a teen mom just like Luna.

IMG_20171217_152509.jpg

Looks like she'll fit right in.

IMG_20171225_140555.jpg

While overwintering in Maryland isn't ideal for the Airstream, we're prepared with a 15A hookup to the parents' house, so we can run a small space heater, and a pile of wood for our stove. The stove needs to be stoked every few hours, so the space heater is handy for when we're not home, or for overnight if we don't want to get up to keep the fire going all night.  When the temps drop to single digits, though, we are very grateful to have the stove, which has no problem keeping our home toasty.

IMG_20180104_103838.jpg
IMG_20180104_102817.jpg
IMG_20171231_205231.jpg

Kentucky Homestead

We'll be farm-sitting for a month in Kentucky.  There are two dozen chickens, about a dozen other poultry, six goats, six sheep, two horses, and 13 dogs including two rottweilers and a pit bull.  Our host agreed to have us early so that we could get acquainted with the farm routine and all of the animals.

IMG_20170827_191819.jpg

We're parked at the top of the hill with Chad the billy-goat.  You know the smell of goat cheese?  That's all him, baby.  He is pungent.  It turns out, if you separate the male goat from the female goat, her milk doesn't have any goaty flavor.  Chad's pen is right next to the lady goats, and he calls to them all day.

The sky is incredible here, and the weather has been beautiful.

These are Blondie and Madonna, the baby goats.

Ice has been sleeping mostly in the barn at the top of the hill, looking out for us while we sleep.

IMG_20170830_185905.jpg

Luna made friends with a neighbor dog, a gorgeous little friendly blue heeler.

IMG_20170903_193254.jpg
IMG_20170905_160422.jpg

Making pasta with eggs, fresh from the hen.

IMG_20170907_181559.jpg

We took a day trip into Nashville.

IMG_20170909_172651_1.jpg
IMG_20170909_150058.jpg
IMG_20170909_160930.jpg

Luna smelling the night air.

IMG_20170910_195105.jpg

Our solar is enough to keep up with our usage normally, unless we have more than two cloudy days in a row.  I had to resort to plugging the umbilical into the truck for a couple hours twice this trip.  We'll need more panels and a larger battery eventually, but in the meantime, we'll make do with what we have.  I don't feel the need to get a generator just yet.

IMG_20170913_102514.jpg

+5 amps through the umbilical.

Sunshine, finally.

IMG_20170915_110342.jpg

One of the frustrating things about where we're staying in Kentucky is that there are no recycling facilities.  We had to drive to a University the next county away to dispose of our recycling.  Everybody around here just throws it in the trash, but we can't bring ourselves to do that.

IMG_20170920_114651.jpg

Luna helping with dinner.

More dog friends.

IMG_20170929_180238.jpg
IMG_20170929_180937.jpg

More beautiful skies.

IMG_20171001_174311.jpg

Chicken tree.

IMG_20171001_184418.jpg
IMG_20171004_184150.jpg

Neighbors.

IMG_20171005_181002.jpg
IMG_20171007_181941.jpg

I just can't get over this sky.

IMG_20171005_181451.jpg
IMG_20171007_082648.jpg
IMG_20171014_091154.jpg
IMG_20171007_181138.jpg
IMG_20171018_171734.jpg

Movie night by the fire.

IMG_20171022_154603.jpg

More Kentucky sky.

IMG_20171023_175754.jpg
IMG_20171022_103059.jpg
IMG_20171022_150744.jpg
IMG_20171022_153731.jpg
IMG_20171024_080209_1.jpg

I made seed bombs with our worm castings, wild sunflower seeds, and queen anne's lace.  We'll toss them in some ditches on our way out of town.

IMG_20171025_101546.jpg

Saying goodbye to our loyal guard dog.

IMG_20171025_105023_1.jpg
IMG_20171025_104903.jpg

Nashville Bound and A Total Eclipse of the Sun

Back on the road, we're headed to Nashville where Leanne will be speaking at a conference.  We have a farm-sit set up in Southern Kentucky where we'll be getting a taste of homestead life, and have a free place to set up the Airstream.

But first, we need to get there.  Here we are, all packed up.

IMG_20170818_160713.jpg
IMG_20170818_164037.jpg

For anyone wondering, this seems to be the best way to secure the barn door while we're en route.  We have a latch to hold the door open or shut (helpful when you're not perfectly level), and we use two Velcro straps to secure each of the rollers.

IMG_20171025_101756.jpg

Packing things in the rear of the trailer isn't the best for stability, but the shower is really convenient to keep things from moving around.  With any luck, we'll have better homes for most of this stuff when we're done construction.

IMG_20170818_160749.jpg

We try very hard not to arrive anywhere after dark, but sometimes it happens.  One of Leanne's brother's friends was nice enough to offer us a place to park for the night.  It was a little nerve wracking getting situated, but here we are.

IMG_20170818_235254.jpg

It felt like we were driving through a jungle while we made our way to our spot in the dark.  But in the morning...

IMG_20170819_084250.jpg

Off-grid breakfast.  It's really handy that all of the appliances work perfectly without being plugged in.

IMG_20170819_091449.jpg

Back on the road, snapping pictures of other Airstreams at rest stops.

IMG_20170819_133637.jpg

We stopped at Cracker Barrel for the night.  Cracker Barrel usually has RV parking, and they allow you to stay overnight.  Chicken fried steak, a safe place to park, and biscuits and gravy in the morning.  It's a good deal.

And Cracker Barrel was kind enough to put on a show for us this time.  Fireworks at the stadium next door.

IMG_20170819_215146.jpg

Next up, Tennessee Cumberland Plateau Campground, TCPC.  This is an Airstream only park near Crossville, TN.  There's usually plenty of very reasonably priced guest spots, but we were lucky to snag one this week.  TCPC is in the zone of totality for the solar eclipse, and we're going to see it!

IMG_20170820_181725.jpg
IMG_20170822_211333.jpg

Luna seems to be enjoying her trip so far.

IMG_20170822_213204.jpg

TCPC is situated on 376 acres of land with walking trails, a lake, a clubhouse, and lots of mushrooms to forage.

IMG_20170823_180010.jpg

I may have overdone it on the chanterelles.  I tried to make chanterelle rissoto, and I think I ended up with rissoto chanterelles.

IMG_20170824_195652.jpg
IMG_20170821_103424.jpg

Also found this beauty.  Chicken mushroom.  Cut in strips and fried, the taste and texture is spot-on chicken.  Really amazing find.

IMG_20170824_210257.jpg

In fact, there is a whole tree of chicken mushrooms here that could feed a family of four for weeks.  Unfortunately, these are a little too far gone to use.  We'll have to check again next year.

IMG_20170825_101009.jpg

Also found a red ghost flower, Monitropa uniflora.  A rare variation of a threatened plant—what a cool find!  Ghost plant is supposedly a powerful medicinal herb, but since it's a threatened species, it should not be harvested.

IMG_20170823_135856.jpg

Point of interest, got to see the Jim Drier Memorial Light Pole.  Nice to see folks around here have a sense of humor.

IMG_20170826_104441.jpg

The entire camping loop is just beautiful and well-maintained.  Tons of trees, and not too close to neighbors.

IMG_20170825_103703.jpg

All set for the eclipse!

IMG_20170821_132551.jpg
IMG_20170821_131627.jpg

A couple days later, we hiked to a nearby waterfall.

IMG_20170824_171458.jpg

Now off to Kentucky.