Winter Living in an Airstream at 9000’

an airstream, deep in the snow

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The term “snowbird” has always been a bit of a misnomer in my mind.

It’s a term given to folks who live in their traditional homes, typically in places with names like Wisconsin or Michigan, during the summer months, but then pack up the RV and head south, almost exclusively to Florida or Arizona, come snowfall. They’re not birds living in the snow, as the name suggests, but instead they’re a mass migration southward. Heatbirds just doesn’t have the same ring, though.

Having lived in various RVs or vans over the course of twelve years now, we have ourselves dodged the snow successfully for a decade. Indeed, when I first set out to live the RV life in 2008, avoiding the bitter bone shattering chill of Western Pennsylvania was, if not paramount to the decision, a highly inviting perk. We spent year after year skirting the seasons in an attempt to still feel autumn’s crisp and arrive early for spring’s most wildflowery of displays, but at some point we’d head south.

Until 2018, when we decided to spend a couple of years living lakeside in the San Juan Mountains of Southwestern Colorado. We would do so not just for the short summer, lasting about a month last year, but year-round. The lake was situated at 8900’ in elevation. And we decided to live in our vintage 1976 Airstream.

a woman with a beer in her hand sitting in a canoe on a lake at sunset
Not the worst setup, in the short summer.

We had no idea if we’d be able to make it through the entire winter or not. But, we had a plan to renovate the old girl and this would include the installation of a small wood stove. Other than that, though, no major steps were taken to insulate it beyond what you’d find in your standard RV off the dealership lot. No Reflectix hidden between the two micro-thin aluminum walls, just 3” of that fluffy pink insulation you can nab at Home Depot. And then, it was wintertime.

December floated on by, we took up snowboarding again, now as a family of five, built fires in our wood stove every morning, let them die the day long and then restoked come evening’s dark. Playing in the snow, whether making snowballs or snowmen, riding the chairlift or riding safely assured in the 4Runner we bought for the occasion, was fun. It was new, and different from what many of our kids had ever experienced.

January rolled around, and we were still good, though frightfully unprepared with wood. A Good Samaritan neighbor hooked us up just long enough for one of my son’s and I to procure more of the burnable fuel, enough pinyon and juniper to last the winter. And then it was February.

various pieces of firewood, stacked
Firewoods.

Now, when I say we lived there “year-round” I do mean that. But, we’re travelers at heart, and for my two youngest boys, by birth. So we still take trips. Two weeks here, six there. And then back to the homestead. So when February rolled around, that we took a monthlong excursion to Florida—to see the in-laws—was not an escape from the cold, but a longly preplanned adventure. If we were escaping anything, it was the stationary life.

When we returned in March? Some 200” had fallen, and a solid six feet of that remained. We lived in snow tunnels, leading from the Airstream door, back around to the satellite dish, the only type of Internet available in this particular part of these mountains. Another avenue led one to the woodpile, tardes but now resting beneath a massive snow mound. Another forked, off to our car in one direction, off to a large shed with a loft we’d built for our teenage son to call his own private suite. Our van, away from all tunnels, became engulfed in snow, struggling to fight back the weight of its shadier position’s solid 8’ of topping.

an Airstream travel trailer, deep in the snow
Deep.

Still, March and April were easy. When the snow finally began to melt significantly in May, we rejoiced. Only to watch feet more fall yet again. The snow lasted until June.

Spring didn’t really show up until early July. By September, the leaves had begun changing. Summer nights were a cool 40°.

Which leads us to today, where here we are once again, halfway through our second February, living in considerably less snow than last year, but still windows deep as far as the Airstream is concerned.

So, how do we do it? Is it downright miserable? How cold does it actually get? What did we learn so far, from it all? And most importantly, when we hit the road again this summer, a new baby on the way for this next chapter in the book of our adventures, will we ever return?

Staying Warm

First and foremost, our wood stove has been the key difference between struggling to keep our teeth from chattering and living in a sauna.

We probably would have done well with a tiny wood stove, like the Dwarf series sold by the company of the literal name, Tiny Wood Stove. Those heat 500 square feet or less depending on model. Our Airstream, a 31’ model but which actually clocks in at 27’ x 7’, with 6.5’ rounded ceilings, is just under 190 square feet.

But due to them unfortunately being out of stock when we were ready to install ours, we went instead with a “Squirrel Sides” small wood stove by a company named Morsoe. Specifically, we got their 1410 model, the smallest available.

Aesthetically, I love it. I mean it’s so damn cute you want to hug it. But it’s hot as cast iron with a fire in it, so I don’t. It’s incredibly simple design, full frontal window and the Abert’s squirrel emblazoned on each side make it a perfect fit for our little family of minimalist nature loving fire watchers.

a Morsoe squirrel sides wood stove
The Squirrel Sides.

In the other hand, it’s meant to heat closer to 1000 square feet. So we essentially have ten times the power we need. Tim the Toolman would be proud.

The stove is located near the front door, in the kitchen. The entire front area of the trailer gets piping hot. The bedroom, divided partially by a bathroom taking up half the width of the Airstream, stays cooler. Should we close the bathroom door entirely, despite having open space above and below the door, that small room will go frigid.

Maintenance is easy. Pull the tray from the bottom to empty the ash once every day or two. Clean the chimney pipe annually. Sweep up the ashes that inevitably escape now and then when you open the door to add more wood.

Wood is the problem. If you purchase wood from an unknown stranger, you never know what you’ll get. Some folks are honest, they sell you good, hot burning wood that’s been left to dry for a year or more. Other folks will dump a load of wet, pitchy, knotty stuff on you. Either way, it costs around $220 / cord, “split, stacked and delivered.” I’ve yet to see a wood guy stack anything, but a cord will last us two months, which is far cheaper than the cost to heat the Airstream with electric. If we had the time to keep the fire going as our singular source of heat all day long, we’d save $100 per month off a $225 heating bill. If we had a smart thermostat connected to an electric baseboard, I suspect we’d save a Jackson more per month.

Getting the wood into the proper size to fit into the Squirrel Sides is another matter, and the sole reason I don’t completely regret not going with a true tiny wood stove. We can fit thin 14” logs, diagonally, in our stove. If you buy wood, that’s a problem, because even if you find a guy who will bring you fourteeners, that means they’ll actually be between 13” – 16”. If it’s bigger than 14”, suddenly you have an inch or two to chop off, a difficult task should you ever try to do such a thing with a chainsaw. If I had a circular saw with gusto, the process would be simpler. Instead, we chop anything longer than 14” but shorter than 18” into kindling. And grow frustrated at times with the puzzlemanship required to get those 14.1” logs in diagonally more than two at a time. Keeping the fire going is an every 15 minutes or so affair, though once it’s blazing, all that’s required is to add another log or two.

Which is okay. I like doing things with my life. Especially things that make my family feel all warm and fuzzy, literally, inside and out.

The way to go though, without a doubt, is to source your own wood. We’ve cut exactly one snag down (a snag being a standing, but absolutely dead, tree.) most of our wood comes from already fallen logs we find in the national forests that surround us for countless miles. Gamble oak is the gold mine. It burns long and hot. It’s beautiful, if that matters. And it rarely grows to more than four or five inches in diameter. But it grows long enough that a single 8’ branch / trunk can be chainsawed into 10 – 16 short pieces, ready to go into the small firebox of our Squirrel Sides like king of the logs and burn considerably longer than the 15 minutes most pine, fir and aspen will buy you. When you find and cut your own wood, you can make it any size you want. Ideal.

an eight year old chops wood
Teaching ’em young. Though he really needs to remember to spread those legs apart!

A permit to cut two cords in our San Juan National Forest here runs $20. A couple gallons of gas, some chainsaw oil (for both the gas mix and chain itself), the cost of the chainsaw (our Stihl cost $149), and the ability to sharpen your own chain with a simple file are also in the mix. If you look at the chainsaw as an investment stretched out over say five years, we could get more than enough wood for a winter for around $80. Plus the many hours it does take to find, chop and transport wood. But that’s quality time with my boys, which I consider “being alive” and infinitely more valuable than saving $120 by having junk wood dropped off in my driveway.

I spend every morning waking up with my two youngest sons, who sleep a few feet away from where the wood stove sits, and we chat away the ten to thirty minutes it takes me to get the fire going well enough to just add logs. That’s a precious time for me, before mom wakes up, before school and work. It’s a clip of every day I get with just, but both, of the young men I’ve been watching grow ever so slightly more toward adulthood.

Secondary to the wood stove, we have a Delonghi oil heater. It’s basically a tall electric space heater that heats up oil in its coils. It looks a bit like an old radiator, and keeps the temperature above (most nights) freezing all night long, after the fire has died and we’re all fast asleep. It also keeps it around 60° when we’re out and about, no fire cooking, most days, when the temperature is between 16° and 30° outside. This is all Fahrenheit, by the by.

Finally, sleeping bags. The boys are rated for 30°. The youngest typically climbs back into bed with us most nights, claiming he’s cold. His slightly older brother sleeps all night long, like a champ. I expect mama’s snuggles have more to do with the crawling into bed anyway…

Preventing the Airstream from Freezing

Firstly, we have frozen, our pipes anyway. The first year especially, we froze up the sewer pipe. Pipes beneath the shower froze a few times. This year, our black sewer pipe froze (we have a separate pipe for black and grey water, if that means anything to you.)

To help with this, we primarily did four things.

The first was heat tape. I’ve done some calculations and, while it’s hard to know exactly, I estimate the heat tape wrapped around our internal pipes and a heated external hose cost us $25 per month. And those pipes simply don’t freeze anymore.

Next was insulating pipe wrap, for the external parts of the sewer pipes. These work okay, but our toilet still freezes up once a month. I dump boiling water down there and the problem is solved. Which is a stinky job. But we can flush again, so a must do. Too much of our toilet’s (the “black water” referenced above) sewer pipe is exposed, something I should fix if I ever feel like ripping the belly off of the Airstream again.

Third, as soon as any couple of feet drop, we shovel it all up around and against the Airstream. The underneath becomes a cave and that stays right around 32°, instead of succumbing to whatever the actual outside temperature is. Flowing water at 32° has a harder time freezing as quickly as we can send hot urine down the tubes. The Airstream will melt this snow, both from internal heat seeping out (should have done the Reflectix!) and the sun’s rays loving the aluminum mirror. There’s always an abundance of snow to replace that which melts though. Before the snow comes, when it’s still in the teens or below at night, things are a little tougher.

Finally, we don’t let our sinks drip. This is a classic suggestion RVers give to one another, and in some short term situations it may work. But if you let water drip long enough, and it’s cold enough, it’ll just slowly freeze until you have a wholly frozen rounder of a pipe. I know this for a fact, fool me twice shame on me. So, we don’t do this anymore.

How Cold Does it Get?

It’s usually somewhere between 33° and 40° when I wake up, somewhere in the 7 o’clock hour.

It’s typically 55° within twenty minutes of starting the fire.

The stove will crank the place up to 75° as morning comes on full force, and even into the dark of evening. We often crack windows to balance the heat. Again, we could have gone with a smaller stove. I don’t mind sauna living though, and treasure my spot right next to the fire, on the floor.

Two or three hours after the last person tends to the fire at night, all useful coals have diminished and the stove isn’t putting out much heat. We begin our descent to the mid-30s again and life repeats.

What I’d Add

I plan to install a 30” baseboard heater, with a smart thermostat. This way, the heater can just turn on and keep the place at whatever temperature we set. I’d prefer to wake up to 45° every morning than 35°, the difference is astounding. I hope this will save us money in the long run, since it’ll cost me two days work and around $300 to install.

I also want to put in-floor heating in the bathroom, also with a smart thermostat. I’m looking at Myso, if you’re interested. I’m hoping to place about a 4.5 square foot piece of in-floor heated matting beneath some ceramic tile, which should be ample to keep the bathroom rivaling the stove as far as sauna situation status. Maybe it’ll even radiate downward and help with that black sewer pipe.

Both of those, mind you, would require 30 amp service at least, so we’re not boondocking up here. But we don’t plan to move or travel in the Airstream ever again anyway.

I wish I’d have taken the time to get Reflectix in as well. A shortage of the stuff and a tight schedule kept us from putting it in initially, when the walls were off. It’s now be impossible to get it in correctly without tearing everything back apart. Bummer.

Was it Just Miserable?

Far from it. Snowboarding is immensely fun. We are a family who loves to be together, and we very much are. Sometimes that gets to be a bit much. When we live and travel in a vehicle, the entire outdoors is our home. Plenty of elbow room. In the Airstream, especially on windy or overcast days, 189 square feet is impossibly smaller.

Luckily, Colorado is almost always a bluebird day. And our exact location gets nearly no wind. Add the right amount of layers, and staying active via sled, shovel or ax, and life is downright beautiful outside. An easily managed cold, not that bone brittling nonsense in the much more humid eastern states where my lady and I grew up.

a family walks up a snowy hill on a sunny day
Life could certainly be worse.

Cloudless skies also mean that, if there’s any amount of moon, reflected off the blanket of snow surrounding us, we can stand outside in faux daylight even as the nights start ringing our doorbell come 4:45pm. The sun sets early in the mountains.

Watching magpies and squirrels search for wintertime goodies, investigating animal tracks in the snow, and the general satisfaction of feeling like a badass help the months move along as well.

Will we Return?

It’s hard to say. We did this because our oldest son wanted to attend high school for his junior and senior year (as opposed to being homeschooled.)

He’s graduating in May and off to the Navy or a road trip or to bum around Pittsburgh, he hasn’t fully decided yet.

So there’s nothing keeping us here. It’s been fun living through all of the seasons in one location, but it’s a big world and we have much more to see.

We plan to make it an AirBNB this summer. One day we believe we’ll build a cabin. “One day” I’d like to drive a motorcycle from China to Portugal, too, though. So we’ll see which happens first, I guess.

In any event, we see it as a place we can return should we want, or need, a break from traveling. A place our kids and their kids can have to visit or live. Or a retirement plan if our own adult lives take a turn for broke.

It’s another chapter in our life and one we can’t be sure as to whether was a one hit wonder or a Marvel sequence of hits, again and again. For now though, I need to get this fire going and the driveway shoveled.end of article