An Off-Grid Airstream Winter

I’ve lived through eight Methow winters over the years but last fall, after drilling a water well on my land and installing a much larger solar array and battery bank, I decided to try out my first winter completely off-grid. I joked that it would guarantee the coldest winter the Methow Valley had seen in years. 

I certainly wasn’t wrong! 

During much of December and January, temperatures stayed below freezing, dipping dangerously close to -15°F for over a week. Then a storm on January 5th dumped 20” of snow—as much as 30″ in some areas—in a single night, leaving me comedically digging my way out of my Airstream.

I always have a knack for good adventure and this past winter certainly didn’t disappoint! Somehow though, despite losing my mattress and hot water heater due to a little freeze explosion (more on that below), I managed to survive. Now that it’s spring I suppose I can officially claim victory!

After spending a harsh winter in a 19’ Airstream while using a portable outdoor toilet you’d think I’d cry uncle on off-grid living. In fact, I feel more resolved than ever, especially in the face of the peanut gallery who has given me no shortage of opinions about how impractical and foolish it is to live off-grid. It’s a good thing I’ve never really listened much to what other people have to say.

There’s something inherently rewarding, intimate, and enjoyable about living more in-tune with Mother Nature. Experiencing both her beauty and harshness makes you truly appreciate every moment and particularly the ones in between. While I absolutely love winter, I have a new appreciation for the milder, warmer temperatures of spring, but also for things like hot running water and indoor bathrooms! 

I’m pretty grateful I was able to spend the winter before last in my Bambi at Pine Near RV park in Winthrop. Even though the winter of 2020-2021 was fairly mild and I was hooked up to full power and utilities, I gained one winter of RV living experience that paid off immensely this season.

I could write a whole blog post about my battery system and how I kept it insulated and heated this winter, so I’ll follow up with a part two on that. In the meantime, here are some fun stories from an off-grid Airstream winter. 

Turkey pans and buckets.

One of the toughest challenges of winter RV living is keeping septic tanks and dump valves from freezing. During the winter of 2020 my tanks never froze but I still spent too many hours with a hairdryer under my Airstream unthawing dump valves despite them being wrapped in heat tape. Let’s just say an hour of that is an hour too much!

Since I don’t yet have septic installed on my property—that’s coming shortly—I decided to shut down my RV tanks this winter. I dumped my tanks, poured RV antifreeze down them, and called it good. 

So how did I make it work?

I have an outdoor portable toilet on my property that is serviced by the local septic company every two weeks so it became my winter throne. I found turkey pans that fit inside my Airstream sinks and caught my gray water, poured it into a bucket, and dumped it into my portable toilet each day. 

Whenever I was in town I took advantage of the coin-op showers at Washworks. Especially in winter, it’s nice to take a 10 minute or longer hot shower and not worry about the limits of a small 6-gallon Airstream hot water tank or the possible headache of frozen tanks and valves.

So yes, I had a few moments where I had to go outside and use the toilet in -10°F temps and wondered what in the heck I was thinking. I do admit though that there’s something strangely invigorating about stepping out into the cold of winter. I had unexpected opportunities to enjoy some beautifully clear starry nights, a snowy landscape illuminated by the moon, and equally beautiful sunrises I might not have experienced otherwise. I also learned to appreciate a nice hot shower!

Here are some of the beautiful scenes I chanced into seeing, simply because I had to go outside to use the bathroom, which included a brilliant display of Northern Lights at the end of March. Not technically winter, but hey, certainly worth including!

Although it sounds a little crazy, the simplicity of shutting down my entire septic system was more than worth the slight inconvenience. This winter I never spent a minute with a hairdryer under my RV and I never worried about a frozen septic system. It was brilliant!

The big freeze and bang.

I used my hot water heater successfully without freezing the previous mild winter, so I thought I could get away with it again this winter. I was wrong. Late in December we went through 8-9 days of really cold temperatures with single-digit highs and double-digit overnight lows. My poor little onboard propane furnace was out of its league so I had to bust out the portable Mr Buddy heater for help. The incredibly cold temperatures did make for some pretty beautiful frozen fractal art on my Airstream windows.

By the time I considered draining my hot water heater it was already too late. It, along with my hot water lines, had been frozen solid for weeks. Somehow my fresh water tank avoided freezing, no doubt thanks to my ducted Airstream furnace. But one night while sleeping I was scared awake by a loud bang from the rear of the Airstream. I knew it probably wasn’t good but I couldn’t locate any sign of trouble. 

A few weeks later when temperatures warmed to nearly 40, I lost water pressure while using my kitchen sink, a tell-tale sign of a water leak somewhere. I spent the evening twisted into a pretzel under the mattress of my 19’ Airstream, suspecting the water heater had cracked in the extreme cold. I was right. Luckily not much water leaked since it was still mostly frozen. I cleaned up the mess, realizing that even when temperatures warmed in spring, I’d have no running hot water until I could replace the water heater. Sigh.

To add insult to injury, about a month later I started having sinus issues, headaches, and sore throats. I kept noticing condensation issues around my bed and finally pulled up the mattress to investigate. A whole corner of the bed platform and mattress were covered in mold. Ugh!

Turns out some water from the water heater had leaked into a storage compartment under the bed and under a rubber mat, which caused the condensation and mold. I cleaned up the mess, ran an air purifier for a few days, and immediately felt better. Unfortunately my mattress was toast along with my hot water heater. I have a portable memory foam bed I use in my truck that is now my temporary bed until the Airstream gets towed in for repairs at the end of the month. It’ll feel amazing to soon be able to take a hot shower in the Airstream again!

A comedic amount of snow.

Probably the funniest adventure this winter was the ridiculously huge snowfall we received in January, some places receiving over 30”! More amazing than how much snow fell was just how fast it fell. At 11pm the evening before I peeked outside and the storm was just starting. I went to bed, curious what I’d see in the morning. 

At 5am I was scared awake by an alarm. Groggy and still asleep, I realized it was my carbon monoxide detector. Shit! I jumped up, ran to the door, and as I pushed it open found snow piled nearly over the top of my windows and front door. Doh!

The snow was as light and fluffy as it gets so I was able to easily push my front door open while digging around it. I put on my headlamp, stepped outside, and found myself literally swimming in snow.

“What is happening!?” I thought, still half asleep.

Hudson jumped outside and instantly disappeared. I almost broke a rib laughing so hard. It was then I realized my windows were nearly covered and the furnace vent most certainly was too. I spent the next hour wading through deep snow, shoveling out the Airstream, making a makeshift cover for the furnace vent, and then finding and shoveling out my solar panels. Since my panels are only temporarily located, they’re on the ground until I mount them higher in a more permanent location. Yes, I knew this might cause some extra winter shoveling, but I sure wasn’t expecting this much shoveling! 

The little Honda Rancher and snowplow I bought last year was out of its league with this snow event. I’m forever grateful for fantastic neighbors who brought their tractor over to help clear snow. I shoveled for what seemed like two days, then a strong wind storm came through and reburied everything. Again, I had great neighbors whose friends brought over heavy construction equipment and spent several hours digging their way through our severely wind drifted roads. I’ve always said the best thing about the Methow is the community and how we help each other out. This winter was certainly proof of that!

Would I do it again?

Despite all the snow, icy temperatures, shoveling, and the loss of both my mattress and hot water heater, this winter was somehow one of the most fun I’ve had in a long time. Yes, it had its challenges for sure, but my solar array and battery bank kept me powered all winter and I barely logged eight hours on my gas generator. Even during several days of fog inversions, I had enough light coming through my panels to keep my battery bank breaking even or barely discharging. Kind of amazing if you ask me!

The Airskirts I bought for the Airstream helped keep me insulated, as did the ridiculous amount of snow, though I’m certain I still set a record for propane use this past winter. All in all, I’m happy to have more or less survived this adventurous winter of off-grid Airstream living.

Still one of my favorite and funniest moments of this past winter.

Now for the million dollar question: would I do it again?

I’d say a resounding “hell yes” to more winters off-grid and I’m completely invested in staying on my path. That being said, I rather hope this is my last winter spent in a tiny 19′ Airstream!

Here are some more scenes from a beautiful off-grid Methow winter. Happy spring!