Preparing your campervan and motorhome for winter
The best way to ensure the longevity of your campervan is to use it regularly. Sleepy van syndrome is a real thing; tyres go flat, the engine’s rubber belts and cambelts harden, batteries drain, water systems ice up, mould breeds and rodents nibble while your precious campervan sits idle in the cold.
Winter’s a great time to explore the country and take advantage of low campsite prices, but this isn’t always practical and, for many people, the end of October signals the end of the touring season. If this is you, then read on...
Take your campervan for a drive
Even if your campervan is in long-term storage over winter, it’s a good idea to take it for a run every couple of weeks. This means driving it, not just switching it on and letting it idle for 10 minutes, which can do more harm than good.
Ideally, take it for at least a 10-mile drive so that the engine reaches full operating temperature and it’s also important to drive it up to full revs on at least a couple of occasions. Low revs and high gears are not kind to diesel engines as it can stop them getting hot enough to burn off carbon deposits and increases the chances of getting diesel particulate filters and EGR valves gummed up.
If your cab heater isn’t blasting out hot air, the engine is not warm enough so drive it for longer and give it more revs.
Driving the vehicle also means that the tyres get rotated to prevent flat spots (more of which later) and it also stops engine drive belts and cambelts sitting in one position.
Protect your campervan against rodents
One of the trickiest issues to deal with over winter is what to do about little furry creatures that are looking for a place to escape chilly winter weather. Always check around your campervan to see if there is evidence of rodents. Favourite places for mice seem to be the engine bay (especially around the airbox inlet so it might be worth covering this with something – don’t forget to remove it later!) and along wiring runs. They often nibble the insulation off wiring so look for any debris on the ground.
There are many solutions – ranging from building moats around each tyre, to fabricating mesh cages to cover the underside of the engine, to all manner of ultrasonic noise-producing gadgets, traps and sprays. And, if you like them, cats are very effective, too!
Many panel van conversions have an automatic drain-down feature on the main fresh water and boiler system that activates at a preset temperature.
However, just in case this system doesn’t work (or it’s been modified by a previous owner – some people attach paperclips or cable ties to stop them triggering too early), it’s best to do a manual drain-down if you’re going to park the campervan up for any period of time, at any time of year.
Start by opening all your water taps in the shower, washroom basin and kitchen sink. Set all the mixer taps to the middle position (so both the hot water and cold water systems can drain) and leave them there. Switch off your water pump.
Open the valve on your waste water tank and drain the tank down (over a suitable drain point). Similarly, drain any remaining water out of your fresh water tank – some tanks have remote valves, some require you to unscrew an inspection hatch in the tap and unscrew a lower tap or bung.
This should get the bulk of the water out of the system but, to get the last few drops out, it’s worth going for a drive with the water taps open.
If this isn’t practical, you can also get drain-down kits (such as the Floë system) that allow you to use pressurised air (from an airline or compressor) to flush out any remaining water.
In the kitchen, if you have a water filter system, make sure you remove the cartridge as some have been known to freeze and crack.
If you’re lucky enough to have a wet heating system (such as Alde), check its antifreeze level.
Toilet system fluids don’t seem to suffer from freezing, so there’s no need to drain down the tanks.
If there are any other systems on the vehicle that hold fresh water, then these must be drained down, too.
Clean your campervan
Before you leave your campervan parked up for the winter, take the time to give it a thorough clean inside and make sure that all kitchen surfaces, including the fridge, are washed down with a mild bleach-based product.
Mould can form on the moisture of any drink or food residue, so it’s best to get everything spotless. The same goes for the washroom, of course.
Campervans must have venting around their rooflights, so they shouldn’t need to be left ajar to get good airflow around the vehicle. Some people favour heating the interior to prevent damp, but this is debatable as mould likes heat and moisture. If you do want to add a heater, only use a design that is safe to be left unattended, such as a low-voltage tube heater or an oil-filled model. But if you have drained down the vehicle’s water systems, freezing weather in itself should not cause any issues.
It's just a case of whether you like to keep the camper warm.
Keep batteries on charge
After water damage, probably the most common issue we hear about is that the leisure battery or vehicle battery has gone flat. To avoid this, keep the batteries on charge over winter.
Batteries have a natural drain and, if left connected to modern campervans (where they often power the radio backup, alarm and door locking systems), they will only provide juice for a few weeks at best.
Either keep your campervan plugged into the mains hook-up (check that this also charges the vehicle’s starting battery) or you can remove the batteries entirely and hook them up to a smart charger.
If you have no access to mains charging and the vehicle is outside, then it’s a good idea to add a solar panel. These don’t have to be permanently fitted and you can buy free-standing units, complete with a regulator, that can be simply bulldog-clipped onto battery terminals.
Make sure you always use a regulator with a solar panel and always buy the largest capacity unit you can – ideally at least 80W. Dashboard-mounted panels that plug into a cigarette lighter are not powerful enough and the short daylight hours and low light levels of winter mean that a solar panel will only be producing a fraction of its rated output (bigger is always better when it comes to solar).
If it isn’t possible to keep your batteries topped up and you do suffer a flat battery, then, in the case of the leisure battery, plug the vehicle into the mains hook-up and see if the battery recovers voltage. If it doesn’t, you may need to disconnect the leads to it and plug it into a smart charging device – we’ve had good results with Cartek smart charger units that can recover highly flattened batteries.
If your vehicle starter battery is flat and the engine is only cranking over feebly, do not attempt to start the vehicle. As battery voltage drops, the current increases and, rather counter-intuitively, you’re far more likely to blow fuses and cause damage by continuing to crank a flat battery.
Ideally, you want to unhook the battery leads and charge it up but, if this isn’t possible, then you may have to use a booster pack or jump-start it off another vehicle. Some people rev the donor vehicle’s engine while they’re jump-starting a campervan, but this doesn’t actually achieve anything as alternators have regulated outputs. The current in starting a modern diesel engine from cold is pretty massive so make sure you use the beefiest jump leads you can find.
Remove bedding and cushions from your campervan
Whether or not you use a dehumidifier, remove all your bedding from the campervan. If you have room, you might want to remove all the seat and bed bases, too. The key thing is to get the air to circulate around them to prevent any moisture forming underneath them, so prop them up to help the air circulate.
Empty your campervan fridge
Campervan fridges are particularly prone to mould growth when they’re not used so make sure you empty everything out of your fridge and carefully clean it from top to bottom using a specialist product.
Most fridge doors have a latch to allow air to circulate so use that, or wedge the door open to prevent it from closing. It’s also worth wedging open the icebox (or removing it on some of the newer models).
To reduce fridge odours, some people also like to place an opened box of baking soda in the fridge. These are reckoned to need replacing every three months or so.
Covers and dehumidifiers
Many motorhome storage facilities are not covered and it can be helpful to use a cover to protect the bodywork and tyres from UV degradation, bird mess and general atmospheric grime. There are various covers on the market, but the best ones use a soft inner cover to prevent damaging the bodywork when you’re fitting and removing the cover (and from rubbing in high winds).
You also need to ensure the cover is a breathable and vented design – the basic, fully waterproof nylon covers can damage the surface of paintwork, especially on glass-fibre surfaces. Equally, don’t use thick waterproof tarpaulins to cover your campervan (other than on the windscreen).
As covers tend to be a bit of a faff to attach, look for a design with a zipper for the door so that you don’t need to remove it if you need to get inside.
If your campervan is stored outside and you have access to a 240V socket it might be worth using a dehumidifier. These free-standing units work by removing the moisture from the air inside the campervan. They can be left running for long periods of time, but you do need to make sure that you empty their on-board water tanks (most have an automatic cut-out that triggers when they’re full) or, better still, securely attach a water drain hose to them.
These can empty into your sink or washroom shower tray, but it’s important that this hose is securely located. You don’t want to come back to find your dehumidifier hose has flooded the carpet.
You can also use unpowered devices – such as Unibond Aero 360 units (about £8) – to trap moisture. These don’t need mains power and can be placed around the interior.
If your campervan is not parked on level ground, park it so that no water can stand on any parts of the roof (use levelling blocks if you need to).
Campervan and motorhome tyre flat spotting
Before you park up, inflate your tyres to the maximum pressure detailed on the sidewall.
This helps prevent flat spots developing when parked in one position for extended periods. Flat spots are not obvious on a visual inspection – the tyre does not go egg-shaped! There are two types of flat spotting. Temporary flat spotting is felt as vibration. This normally disappears after a short driving distance as the tyres reach their operating temperature and regain their original shape.
Semi-permanent flat spotting happens after extended lay-ups and is made worse by exposure to high temperatures. Low tyre pressures and the heavy load of a larger campervan body can exaggerate this.
Typically, low-profile tyres suffer with flat spotting more than the higher-profile tyres fitted to most campers. So, pay attention if you’ve upgraded to 20in alloys. If driving a short distance doesn’t remove the vibration then tyre maker, Continental, suggests the following:
1 Check and adjust the tyre pressures and check tyres/wheels for any visual damage
2 Drive the vehicle more than 15 minutes for eight to 10 miles at 50mph (to get the tyres warmed up)
3 Immediately after driving, raise the vehicle completely off the ground to relieve the tyres from the load. Increase the tyre pressure to 4 bar and keep the vehicle in the air for at least four hours or overnight, if possible, to allow the tyres to cool
4 Reset the tyre pressures to the usual recommended values
5 If the vibration is still present prior to wheel balancing, then remove the tyre and exchange it for a new one
Fill the fuel tank
Diesel and petrol degrades with time and diesel, in particular, absorbs water over time. This water comes from condensation in the air and, while it won’t cause corrosion in the tank or the fuel lines (which are plastic), it can cause bacteria and algae to grow in the tank. The best way to reduce the diesel’s exposure to air is to have a full tank of fuel.
Fuel is generally fine if left for a few months over winter but, if you’re planning to leave a campervan parked up for six months or longer, then add a stabiliser to the fuel. Various brands are available and they’re designed to reduce the growth of bacteria and prevent sludge forming.
Check your checklist
If you have a poor memory, write a note on the dashboard to remind you to reset your tyre pressures, reconnect any battery isolators and unplug external chargers, solar panels and dehumidifiers before driving off!
If you’ve removed cushions, bedding or removable water tanks, it’s also worth noting this down. Some people keep a complete touring checklist, and there are all kinds of useful apps available, too.