Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
RVing in the Texas winter storm of February 2021 may have seemed crazy. Residents said it was the coldest it had been in some parts for about 100 years. But we counted ourselves lucky to be in Galveston and in an RV.
Many friends and family members reached out when they saw the plight of Texas’ residents hit the national news. Reports of widespread power outages and frozen water pipes had them worried. We would often respond with, “We’re doing fine but feeling bad for the residents here.”
We left Michigan on January 1, 2021, assuming with reasonable certainty that we left Michigan’s winter weather behind. But then we saw snow on the beach along the Gulf of Mexico. And we watched temperatures plummet into the teens for several consecutive nights.
Once the electricity was shut off across huge swaths of Texas, people lost their heat. And then the pipes starting freezing. And the propane and gasoline availability became scarce. One waiter told us later that neighbors were asking him if he had a portable heater they could borrow. He said, “I told them I live in Galveston, Texas. I have portable air conditioners, not portable heaters!”
And that’s how living in an RV that we have set up to be self-contained for boondocking was how we managed to be better off than Texas residents in their houses. We often prefer to get away from established campgrounds, opting instead to dive into the woods somewhere. But to do that you need to address all your needs. They include everything from eating and drinking to staying warm and keeping clean.
Our 2008 Roadtrek 190 Popular has the capabilities we need to stay self-contained for at least a week. Thanks to those, here’s how we survived the 2021 Texas Winter Storm:
We can run our van on a 30-amp outlet. Once the Texas winter storm took out the electricity, that big black cord was useless. So we reverted to alternative methods of powering up our devices.
I should note that we never missed a beat with work through the entire storm. We often surprised colleagues by working regular hours during the entire week-long ordeal.
We have many ways to keep our phones and laptops charged and we took full advantage of them.
The van has an onboard generator — a 2,800 watt Cummins Onan that runs on gasoline from our van’s main tank. It’s a small generator by modern standards. Nevertheless, it allows us to keep the batteries in great shape. Plus, we can run an electric heater, our kitchen appliances, and more, albeit not all at once. Because it runs off the van’s tank, it means we have a very large supply of gasoline available. The generator burns very little gasoline per hour, so it lasts a long time.
We also have a 100-watt briefcase solar panel that we deploy to help keep our batteries going. Although, we didn’t use it during the Texas winter storm. It was the cloudiest we had seen Texas the entire time we were there and solar panels aren’t worth much during heavy cloud cover.
Besides the generator, we have many portable battery sources. We carry around numerous battery bricks — those portable devices that you can use to charge cell phones and Wi-Fi jetpacks on the go. In addition, we have a NinjaBatt portable battery station. That charges everything from cell phones to laptops to keep us going. When any of the battery sources got low, we could always plug them in while the generator was running to bring them back to full power and start the cycle over again.
The basic necessities of life include water and food, in that order. When the RV park lost electricity, they lost their water pumps. Then the city shut down the water supply as things started to warm up and busted water pipes around the city burst open. Once electricity and water pressure were restored, the temporary shutdown resulted in a boil water advisory for about 72 hours, as well.
We have relatively small fresh-water tanks in our van. Between the inboard and outboard tanks, plus the water heater, we can store 31 gallons. But the outside tank froze and then the pipes connecting the inside tank froze, too. So our onboard tanks were out of commission for a few days.
Because we boondock a lot and don’t always know when the next water source will be handy, we travel with numerous ways to store water inside the van. This includes two Smart Bottle containers. We also carry miscellaneous Camelback bottles and bladders for hiking and biking, along with miscellaneous smaller water bottles for various activities. (In all honesty, I have become addicted to always having water available regardless of what we’re doing, so the many different sized containers help me address that obsession.)
Plus, our neighbors in their gigantic toy-hauler fifth-wheel took pity on us. They handed over two 1-gallon jugs of bottled water they already had. (Thank you, Todd and Kim!)
Once the Texas winter storm passed, I discovered that our outboard water tank had a very tiny leak. I believe it was from when the water froze inside the tank and probably pushed on a sensor, breaking its seal. I used a left-over tube of sealant to make the repair quickly and easily.
If there is anything we dream about having while sitting in our van, it’s more pantry space and a much larger refrigerator for food. But we make due and found we had plenty of dry goods and fresh food to get us through the week without worry.
Our refrigerator is an older absorption model. But it’s a three-way unit, meaning it can run on electricity, battery, or propane. (We keep it running on a battery only when driving or making very short stops because that mode is a massive power drain on our batteries.) We were doing fine with propane and had no concerns about running the refrigerator for days on that mode because it sips that fuel like a fine brandy.
As for cooking, we used a combination of our built-in propane stove and, when the generator was running, our microwave and portable induction burner. Again, having options for fuel sources was great for surviving the power outage in relative comfort.
We have a propane furnace in the van. That keeps it plenty toasty as long as it has propane for the flame and power to run the fan. As I mentioned, propane wasn’t an issue. And as long as we ran the generator to charge the batteries during the day, they had plenty of capacity to run the furnace fan overnight. We tend to keep the van chilly when sleeping anyway since the furnace cycling on and off can wake us up. We just zip ourselves into our bed sack and toss on an extra blanket for warmth.
During the day, we used the small electric heater that we carried with us since we knew the first few days headed south would be in cold climates (and Texas gets chilly many nights in the winter!). It’s a 1,500-watt unit that can cook you in the van if you let it. The generator had no issues keeping it powered up.
Normally, heat isn’t a big issue when RVing because people tend to camp in warmer seasons or climates. But when the temperature plummeted in Galveston, we were thankful we had left Michigan during a cold season and had packed our winter gear for the first part of the trip. Who knew we’d need mittens to walk on the beach in February!
Because the electric and water were out of commission for several days, that meant we couldn’t use the park’s toilets or shower.
Again, our boondocking experience and provisions saved the day.
Our “bathroom” consists of a toilet inside an aisleway closet, and an aisle shower. Because we were winterized when we left Michigan, we still had half a gallon of RV antifreeze left, so we used that for flushing the toilet until it ran out. Then we resorted to using fresh water from our jugs. I figured the initial use of antifreeze would help the black tank from freezing up, and it did.
Not knowing how long we’d be without water, we limited our toilet flushing. Later, we flushed a lot of extra water into the tank to make dumping through our macerator easier.
We also weren’t taking showers. Instead, we used the no-rinse liquid soap we have come to rely upon when boondocking. And since we were battling freezing cold rather than extreme heat, it was easy to stretch the time between showers a bit longer.
An expensive week of boondocking
So, basically, we were paying to stay at an RV resort but had all the amenities of camping in the woods during the Texas winter storm. It was the most expensive week of boondocking ever! But it was nice to have the camaraderie and assistance of our neighbors. And putting all of our boondocking experience into action for an emergency showed us just how self-sufficient we can be.
I’m quite certain that the next time we suffer a power outage somewhere, our first thought will be to remember the Texas winter storm of ’21 and carry on!