Sweeet Boondocking & Cool R-Values -> Handy Insulation for RVers

Our brand new, mucho-sweeeet boondocking spot

After 2 wonderful weeks in McDowell Mountain Park we stocked our liquor cabinet, loaded up the fridge and got ready to roam far-far-away back into the boonies where many would say we ruffians belong. Thanks to the folks on the forums at rv.net we managed to scope out yet another sweeeeeet spot on free BLM land just west of Yuma, AZ. We’ve got a view of the mountains, unlimited desert landscape and not a single neighbour in sight. I have to admit I’m starting to love winter desert boondocking.

Those may be nice, warm colors but it’s gonna be a chilly night!

But our first order of business (after tilting the solar panels & having an appropriate sundowner cocktail) was to think about insulation. Those of you following the blog may remember our freezing boondocking experience just over a month ago in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. One of the things we bemoaned during that trip was our complete and total lack of proper insulation for the rig.
It’s not quite as cold down here in Yuma, but night-time temps have been dropping to right about freezing. Our rig, although equipped with dual-pane windows, is not really a 4-season performer and we get quite of bit of chilly air coming in especially through those pesky windows. So, with plenty of time on our hands and no-one to laugh at what we’re doing this was the perfect spot to geek out a solution.

Mathematically it all starts with R-values. Now thermodynamically heat is always on the move and can enter (and escape) a space via 3 basic methods; convection, conduction and radiation. RVs conveniently provide all 3 escape methods (e.g. conduction through walls, convection through the air, radiation through windows etc.) and it can get a little complicated thinking about all of them at once.

Thankfully there’s an approximate short-cut and that’s to look at thermal resistance. Thermal resistance is basically a measure of how well a given object resists heat flow and it’s summed up in a handy formula and a single number by R-value. In layman’s terms the higher an object’s R-value the more it insulates against heat-loss. R-values are standard listing on most insulation materials that you buy so you can kinda tell up-front how well it’s going to work (it gets more complicated when you layer different materials together incl. air-gaps, but the basic idea is there).

Having been educated as a Materials Scientist this kind of stuff get me pretty excited especially when you start looking at the weird and wonderful materials that haven’t yet made it into standard life. For example, Aerogels are super-light, super low-density structures that provide the highest R-values (>10) of any single material in existence. Check out this epically cool 1-min Aerogel vs Flamethrower battle here:

I have dreams of wrapping the entire RV in silica aerogel and lighting it up like a neon-blue alien spaceship, but unfortunately the stuff is pretty brittle and only really made in small quantities. However new flexible “blanket-like” composites are being made which will one day provide super-light insulation for everything from shoes to buildings. Once those price comes down we’re there, baby!

Reflectix roll-> made sure you buy the double-bubble version

The next best solution, for the average RVer, are regular insulators such as Reflectix, foam, bubble-wrap or Polartec. Our biggest heat-loss problem in the rig is currently our windows so we went with . Our biggest heat-loss problem in the rig is currently our windows so we went with double-bubble 5/16” thick Reflectix (R-value 1-4 depending on whether you install with an air-gap). It not only helps with conductive heat-loss, but is also shiny (reflective) and so acts as a radiant barrier too.

Yours truly cuts out the front windshield insulator

We needed one 4-foot wide, 50-feet long roll (BP48050) for ~$90 to make enough covers for all our windows (Note/ 4-foot is as wide as they make it in one piece -> the websites selling 6-foot or 8-foot versions are simply using two strips taped together so don’t get suckered into buying them).

A perfect door fit

For the front it was a simple case of cutting to shape using the Magna Shade windshield shade that we bought earlier this summer as a base pattern. Since our front window is actually ~5-foot tall we had to join two pieces using aluminum tape…easy, peasy. For the other openings I cut pieces to approx. size and then squeezed them into the windows, marked the outline with a pen and cut to a perfect fit.

And our first night with the insulation? MUCH, MUCH warmer. Rather than an almost-constant cycling of the furnace, we only had a few cycles during the night despite very similar temps. Pretty cool or rather pretty hot, either way you look at it. And all for only ~$90 too….

Other sealing/insulating ideas:

1/ Windows – Look at Shrink Insulator Film or try cheap and easy Bubble Wrap.
2/ Vents – Buy those nifty vent cusions for ~$10. We use them all the time and they’re super-easy to inset & take out (e.g. when you need to cook).
3/ Openings – Any openings from the outside into the rig (e.g. gas lines) can be sealed with self-expanding foam or rubber.

Got any good tips of your own?

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We LOooVE Comments, So Please Do

  1. Shirlene says

    You guys are soooo coooool or should I say so warm. I am really enjoying all your tips and experiences. My partner and I are expecting to be joining you out on the road in a few years, still have a lot to do, sell everything and blah blah blah, but we have a firm plan and the best part will be shopping for a “Beast”. Taking a hint from you, no so large of a beast..what would you recommend for two people and 1 cat.

    • libertatemamo says

      Sorry I didn’t reply to this one. It’s actually a really tough question to answer since everyone has a different opinion of what is the “best” coach. I actually tried to answer this queston in an on-line interview some time ago on the net, so what I’ll probably do is send you there:
      See about 1/3 way down.
      Not much help I know, but hopefully it helps a little!

  2. jil mohr says

    I am assuming you use those things only at night…if not and you use them all the time (not driving) I would become very claustrophobic….

    however I think it is similar to what we have only we have made them into roll-up shades using them (the reflective stuff you bought…I am not a techie:)) in between fabric…

    • libertatemamo says

      We only use them at night. They’re easy to take off and store flat under our bed for when we don’t need them.

  3. Bob Nuttmann says

    Some coaches have more insulation and require less heat or cooling. When we bought ours a big selling point was r20 roof. So we don’t seem to have much problem staying warm in winter or cool in summer. The other big deal for heat is a diesel furnace. We have one of those and it works well with little fuel.

    Our last coach was a wonderful 26′ old GMC. It have very old and very ineffective insullation. I tried one of the cat propane heater like you have suggested, but that was like a fireplace for me. Seemed like more heat went out the open vent than was kept in the rig. Finally just wore Patagonia stuff when we were going to be in cold weather.

    • libertatemamo says

      What a nice roof! It’s true that some of the older rigs simply had better construction, plus more and more newer rigs are coming out with better insulation (4-season) which make any kind of weather (hot or cold) easier to handle. We kinda wish our rig had better insulation, but for now these cheap internal mods are our best option.

      Oh and I DO love those diesel heating systems. We caravaned with a couple who had Aquahot in their rig and we were insanely jealous. It’s a super-neat feature.

  4. says

    You learn something new every day, I didn’t know that there was an actual chart for how well various materials worked as insulation. I’ve always wondered, how much of a difference do RV skirts make for insulating? I’ve seen them before, but I don’t know anyone personally who owns one to ask.

    • libertatemamo says

      With stuff like skirting it gets a little more complicated to figure out exactly how much it insulates because you’ve lots of different kinds of skirts plus you’ve got “extra” things underneath the skirt like air pockets, heat from the bottom of the RV etc. which are different for each rig. So you can’t get an exact number. But there’s no doubt that skirts help for really cold-weather camping. Not something we’d consider for the type of spots we go to, but if we were winter camping for extended periods in snow we’d look at it for sure.

  5. says

    Interesting stuff! Like Jil, I think I’d feel a little claustrophobic. :(
    Are you planning to get a propane heater of some kind? Not only does it run without electricity, you don’t have to listen to your furnace cycle on and off (no matter how few times it happens). No furnace noise with a catalytic or blue flame heater, and ours has a psuedo-thermostat to turn itself off and on. One of my favorite boondocking thingymajigs.

    • libertatemamo says

      We have a portable propane heater (Mr.Buddy) that we’ve used for the past year and that I mention in most of our boondocking “how to” posts. Not the most fancy option, and you DO need to practice safe and proper ventillation (we always have thro-flow of air in the RV and never sleep with it), but it’s worked great for our needs.

  6. Funk says

    GREAT ADVICE!! You have just made my Queen (wife) take a relaxing deep breath. Will becoming Fulltimers in 2013 and that is something she’s freaking about. I told her we will camp in the drive to get some experience. lol But thanks very much. We care Tweet and email followers of you.


    • libertatemamo says

      Congrats on the upcoming fulltiming! I think “practice camping” at home is a great way to break in a rig and get any mechanical bugs out of it. We spent ~2 months living in the rig in our home town before we took off. Learnt alot in that time, got alot of “new rig” issues fixed and gave us the time to figure out our storage.

      As for insulation, like Bob mentioned you can buy rigs with better insulation and that’s something worth looking at when you’re shopping around. Some older rigs were well constructed plus there are lots of new “4-season” rigs on the market. And there are cheap/easy ways to improve insulation after-market (like we do)

    • libertatemamo says

      You know I was JUST looking at that stuff yesterday. The technology and case studies definitely look compelling. I can’t see why it wouldn’t make sense on an RV! They even have a clear-coat version which (I’m thinking) you could use to replace or overlap the clearcoat on the rig. I’ve got to look a bit more into it, but this seems like it could be a viable solution.

  7. says

    West of Yuma……if you are around Ogilby road you can always warm up with a trip to the Holtville Hotspring. The historic mining town of Tumco is a great place for a walk. We were in that area last winter. Ogilby is a nice place to get away from it all! We are in the southeast this year and enjoying this part of the country. Enjoy your blog – thanks!

    • libertatemamo says

      THANK YOU so much for the additional tips. We ARE in fact right on Ogilby Road and really enjoying the area. We’ve actually been enjoying it so much that we’ve been too lazy to go sightseeing! Just googled your tips and they are both GREAT recommendations. We may not make them this time around, but I’m going to file them for future visits.

  8. says

    great tip for keeping the heat in at night!!..looks like a lovely spot to boondock..love the fact that there is no neighbours!!
    peace and quiet..perfection!!!

  9. jil mohr says

    I should also mention that there are actual “blinds” that have better R ratings then what might have come with the rig i.e. day night shades…so as those need replacing you can get those…that is what we have done….with bottom up top down shades (even they differ depending on which ones you get)

    • libertatemamo says

      Very true Jil. We’ve been dreaming about the MCD shades for about 2 years now and I know they’d provide more insulation than the cheap ones we have in the RV at the moment. Also, those old-fashioned honeycomb shades get good insulation value.

  10. Sheila says

    We used the same stuff while giving our newly purchased 5th wheel a shakedown in Prescott AZ a month ago. We were at a full-service RV park, but we disconnected the city water after filling up our freshwater tank. (We’re definitely not boondockers). We knew it was going to be below freezing at least the first night, and the quilted aluminum worked well. We had more than enough to cut pieces for all the windows in the 5th wheel and enough left over to construct some pretty fancy outside pipe covers back home in Tucson during a recent hard-freeze snap. It’s a good product.

  11. Sheila says

    About the quilted aluminum foil stuff, I forgot to mention that we used it first in our original shakedown of the 5th wheel. It was probably 6 weeks before Prescott, and we camped at Catalina State Park. It was very hot during the day, and my husband bought the roll at a nearby Home Depot. We cut a piece to fit the big back window, which was getting a lot of sun. It made quite a difference in the inside ambiance, but we did take it down in the late afternoon.

    • libertatemamo says

      Good point Sheila. The Reflectix has the advantage of (also) being a radiant barrier so it can help significantly in hot-weather temps too. It really is a neat little product. We take it down during the daytime here in winter, but I can see how we might be using it during the day in summer esp. for that big front window.

  12. says

    Not long ago I was in a very cold climate (not by choice) and I even resorted to putting QUILTS up on all the windows !! lol

    I did the insides of all closets and cupboards in my Class C with the product you are talking about and now have a big roll to do with the new rig. Ever notice (when in colder climates) that when you open closet/cupboards doors it is COLD in there. This stuff really helped with that.

  13. Lew says

    Great stuff! I’m curious how you attach the Reflectix to the windows after it’s been cut to size. Do you use some kind of a fastener like Velcro or is the Reflectix cut a tad oversized and mooched into the opening?

    • libertatemamo says

      For most of the windows I’ve just cut it a tad bigger and then “tuck” it for a tight fit into the window. It holds up really well that way. There’s one window (front drivers-side) with screens on it that I’ve decided I need to use Velcro on.

    • libertatemamo says

      Hehe…well of course the purist would say that hookups gon’t get the weather any warmer, they just give you more options for heating up. But I totally know what you mean LOL It’s nice to have that electric sometimes :)

  14. Lacy says

    We live in the south and I originally got this stuff to keep the heat OUT. It works great in the summer for us – makes a huge difference!

  15. Lee says

    How do you handle condensation, or is that a problem in the “monster”?
    Does it show up between the Reflectix and the the window?
    Thank you Nina.

    • libertatemamo says

      We do see condensation when we’re in humid areas, less so in the desert. The best way to deal with it is a good dehumidifier, but that’s not really practical when we’re boondocking. Thankfully it’s very dry where we are now (and most of our winter boondocking spots).

    • libertatemamo says

      Mine actually squishes into place and the interior frame of the window holds it there. I cut the insulation slightly larger than the window frame specifically for this purpose (a tight fit).



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