Yes, you can happily boondock at 21 below!

We just hit the road after a long weekend boondocking in our Roadtrek eTrek in the wilderness of northeast Minnesota, spending the weekend in it miles from civilization when the overnight temperature dropped to -21F/-29C.

Call us Ice Station eTrek.

Those frigid temperatures in the woods were the ambient, real temperature. But we had a very stiff northwestern wind that not only swirled up snow drifts all around s but made for wind chill readings of -50F/-45C.

icestationetrekWe could not have been more comfortable. Seriously. Inside, the Webasto heater cranked out a constant 60-70 degrees of comfort. We dropped it down at night for sleeping and raised it during the day when we were going in and out of the Roadtrek a lot.

We were up in Minnesota as a communications volunteer for the John Beargrease Sled Dog Marathon, a 400 mile route from Duluth to the Canadian border. I'm an amateur radio operator and I was stationed at a spot where the musher's trail crosses County Road 8 north east of the tiny, remote hamlet of Finland, about 85 miles into the gruelling race and smack dab in the middle of absolutely nowhere.

I'll have a full report and video on the gorgeous country, the race itself and the sheer adventure of it all later this week.

But many have asked how it all went and how the Roadtrek handled it.

minus21

First, Jennifer and I are agreed that we are hooked on winter camping. The snow was so beautiful, three feet thick off the trail. At night, the stars were so bright and close that they made you gasp. We heard wolf howls as we spent a lonely night out there Sunday and Monday morning, a hundred yards from us, a big black wolf – the Alpha Male of the pack according to one of the other volunteers we met – twice showed himself as curiosity drew him close to us.

We were dressed properly for cold weather. That's the secret of course, and we limited our time outside to no more than half hour stretches when we weren't helping keep track of the passing mushers. Tai, our double-coated Norwegian Elkhound, thought he had died and gone to heaven, though he was noticeable spooked by the wolf. I took him out early Monday morning and he stopped, sniffed the air and had the hackles on his neck raised. I didn't know why at the time but Michelle, who later joined us at the crossing, said dogs typically are very spooked by wolves. “Sometimes a sled dog team will stop and lie right down when wolves are around,” she said. She's a musher herself, from Minneapolis, and said the same black wolf, along with a female, were seen last year, too.

As to the Roadtrek eTrek, except for one minor glitch due to the cold, we couldn't be more pleased.

On the advice of locals, I used a blend of the normal #2 diesel fuel with the hotter burning #1 to handle the extreme cold. I used about a 60% #1 blend. Some stations let you mix it yourself from adjacent pumps, others up here sell it blended 50-50. Either way, the #1 helps prevent diesel gelling, which can shut down an engine that starts up after having been sitting all night in the cold.

towrtBut… all was not without incident. When I went to start it this morning – it got down to -23F here last night with a -55F wind chill – the engine turned over but did not catch. The starter battery seemed low and it cranked very slowly. I called a local garage that works on diesel and Greg, the owner, came to the motel with a huge tow truck. It took him all but five minutes to hitch the Roadtrek up and haul it to his warm garage where he got a rapid charger on the battery and thawed out the engine a bit.

“The cold just sapped the battery to where it had trouble cranking and the oil got pretty stiff with that severe cold we had last night, ” said Mike, the mechanic who worked on it. “It just needed to be warmed up a bit.”

We were on the road by noon.

Other than that, the Roadtrek performed flawlessly. I have become a huge fan of the Sprinter chassis and Mercedes engine. The vehicle handles well on ice and snow. And I've already raved about the Webasto heater Roadtrek has. Mine has been running continuously since Friday. It's now Monday morning and we are in Ironwood, MI, in the Upper Peninsula. We stayed in a hotel last night so we could shower. The heater stayed on all night.

The heater runs on diesel from the engine. Based on our use, I would say that four days of running it has not used any more than two gallons of fuel.

The only downside I can think of about this is you can't use running water – the Roadtrek is winterized. You can use the toilet…just flush it with RV antifreeze. Ad finding room for the extra clothing – parkas, boots, hats, gloves, insulated bibs, etc. – can also be challenging.

I realize the cold and winter camping is not for everyone. That's okay. That's why God made Florida and the southwest.

But Jennifer and I are still healthy and we absolutely love the outdoors and the wilderness. And seeing this country in the winter, covered with a pristine blanket of snow, is soul-soothing.

In fact, Jennifer thinks it was one of the top most enjoyable boondocking.

 




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  • Gary Hennes

    Hey, Mike – was any of my GoPro video at the Start any good? My apologies if not – I’m used to using a view finder! I slept on the floor up at Finland Checkpoint ’til about midnight SUN when the 1st team arrived; he ultimately won the 150 (Bib 134 – Ross Fraboni, and his Team Mate, Josh Compton was 2nd.)
    I headed home after Ross finished his Rest Time + differential at 5:48 am MON. Myra was starting to feel lousy. Car wouldn’t heat up going downhill on MN 1 with heater fan blowing and -21F outside!
    Sorry to hear about your experience in Ironwood. I’d have that chassis battery checked when you get home – should have started even at those temps.

  • Jim Temple

    Mike, you can make just about any type of RV’ing sound fun, even in sub-zero temps, but I would prefer to head south for my winters when the day comes and I can retire and afford to do so. Glad you had a good time. Look forward to a video.

  • dan

    I love the outdoors during the winter. I hit -21 in Kansas camping at a little lake in Butler county. It was a shock but I didn’t have heat inside and slept in a double sleeping bag. Not too bad!

    I am planning to get out and camp/sleep out during the next couple days here in the thumb and expect that all will work out well.

    Nice article and thanks for all the writing….bee well;peace…..dan

  • Maureen

    Certainly glad you didn’t take my advice to stay home…sounds to have been a wonderful experience. Thanks for the info.

  • Dean

    No block heater setup for Roadtrek? Can the diesel heater mentioned be used as a block heater? In the conditions described a block heater make have avoided a service call.

    • Mark Handler

      Or could a regular engine block heater be hooked up? The E-Trek has so much battery power that it can run the A/C for several hours. Would an engine block heater use less energy and be used along with the Webasto heater?

  • Bob J.

    Suggestion Mike. Get a chassis battery charger installed that piggybacks off your coach battery charging system.
    Trik L Start is one option. I’ve installed a Battery Tender that’s plugged into my microwave outlet.
    Works like a charm. Your ETrek should handle this easily….

  • Jim Diepenbruck

    I was worried when I saw the pic of your baby on the hook of that giant wrecker. So glad it was a quick and simple fix. Your description of the cold thick oil reminded me of farmers who would place a bucket of hot charcoal under the crankcase of their diesel tractors during frigid temperatures.

    Looking forward to hearing more stories about this adventure.

    • Gary Hennes

      My Dad used to do that – ’51 Ford flathead V8.

  • LOL; ” Ice Station eTrek”
    In memory of Ice Station Zebra…a great movie from back in the day!

  • Karsten Askeland

    I’m surprised that you do not have the BATTERY BOOST switch on the Roadtrek? I have one on the ERA and had to use it once. Worked like a charm.

    I do want to look into one of the Trik L Start chassis chargers or something similar for the REAL cold weather.

    Glad to hear that you and Jennifer are enjoying the winter camping/travel experience. I LOVE it. Get to see the country in a whole different perspective.

  • Marty

    I had a similar experience this winter with my 190V. This Spring I will be relocating the engine battery indoors in the storage area under the rear passenger seat so it will stay at room temperature while boondocking.

    • Gary Hennes

      Be careful with that – batteries vent a small amount of gas. That’s why they are located in a compartment vented to the outside.

  • Bill Sprague

    Mike,

    Is there a low voltage battery warmer you could run off of your rigs power grid?

    Bill

    • Bill Sprague

      Or even better: does Webasto make an engine or battery warmer. You’re running the heater anyway. Is they a way to vent some heat into the battery compartment?

      Sorry for thinking out loud.

      Bill

  • Hi Mike, having grown up in the lake effect snow belt of Lake Michigan, I understand why some people love it. But one of the reasons we choose to not drive in it is seldom mentioned. The salt that is used on the roads eats up body metal, and requires constant washing off, which with any kind of high-top vehicle is another problem, because nothing short of a truck washing facility can accommodate them. Self-serve high pressure hoses just leave icicles and are no fun in freezing weather. How do you fight the salt problem?

  • Jim Hawkings

    We had a somewhat similar extreme cold experience a couple of years ago in late March while driving from Whitehorse, Yukon to Vancouver BC. Our first night out was just north of Watson Lake, YT. The temperature went down to -30 C. We have a2011 Roadtrek RS Adventurous with a prototoype Alde liquid propane- powered heating system in it. Our installation included a heat exchanger which can transfer engine heat to the RV heating system. It can also work in reverse to pre- heat the engine from the RV heater via a separate circulation pump installed in the engine cooling system. We had our RV heater running all night but only turned on the engine pre-heater in the morning when we got up. We left it on for about an hour (maybe a bit less?) and tried to start the engine, but got basically no response from the starter. This made for a bit of an adventure involving AAA (BCAA in our neighborhood) and the local towing company from Watson Lake. About 5 hours later, with the vehicle in a warm garage in Watson Lake, our problem was finally diagnosed as a blown starter fuse. Still not sure exactly how this happened….there was a bit of misadventure trying to jump start the vehicle etc. etc. But the good news is that a new fuse put us back on the road by the end of the day. The next night in Fort Nelson it only went down to -20 C and I ran the engine-pre heater for a good hour or so ….and double checked the engine coolant temperature by turning on the ignition switch before I tried to start the engine. This time all was good.

    So we learned three things from these two nights in the cold: 1) when it is that cold you might want to park somewhere where help is fairly close at hand, i.e. in a town if possible. 2) if you are pre-heating your engine make sure it’s actually warm before you try to start it, because you may only get a couple of tries before the cold battery runs out of juice. And 3) it it’s really nice to have some gadget (we have a Scangauge) to tell you the exact engine/coolant temperature.

    Another thing that might improve the cold weather starting is to somehow insulate the battery compartment under the driver’s feet (in a Sprinter) so that it picks up a bit of heat from the inside of the (heated) vehicle during the night.