Snowbound in Harmonie State Park

The first stop of our first major RV trip was in Harmonie State Park in southern Indiana, just in time for the 2004 Christmas holidays. It turned out to be an unexpected adventure full of lessons about RV camping in cold weather.

Lessons Learned


  • Even well insulated RV's will freeze in very cold weather.
  • A dually without four-wheel drive and winter tires is like a dull skate on ice.
  • A 9 gallon propane bottle (~40 lb) is consumed in about 2 days at zero degrees.
  • Before pulling into an RV slot, make sure the facilities work.
  • CB radios are great to have, especially in bad weather.
  • Carry a heavy towing strap or chain in case you get stuck.
  • Don't be in a hurry to your next destination; be prepared to sit out bad weather.
  • Make alternate plans in case you have to abandon the RV.

We planned on visiting family for Christmas and New Years before heading out to the West Coast. They were spread out from the middle of the country all the way to the East Coast, and Illinois was our first stop. Harmonie State Park was to be our home base from where we could visit family in nearby Illinois and Indiana towns.

This area of the country is known to receive some snow in the winter, but heavy snows are very rare. As we left Dallas, we were monitoring the weather and knew that a cold front was waiting for us. Fortunately, we encountered only a brief period of flurries while towing, otherwise the roads were clear. However, the temperature was dropping rapidly as we progressed northward.

The friendly folks at Harmonie gave us strange looks as we checked in. One of them asked what possessed us to camp in winter, especially with a major freeze heading our way. We explained that we are fulltimers and are here to see family for the holidays. They nodded kindly and told us we can pick any of their 199 RV campsites.

Our fifth wheel trailer and truck in Harmonie State Park after the snow storm.

Our fifth wheel trailer and truck in Harmonie State Park after the snow storm.

We drove through the park and found the choicest spot. As we started backing into this tricky corner slot, it occurred to us that it may be a good idea to make sure the facilities are working. Good thing we checked because the water faucet was completely dry. Same for the neighboring slots. It was about 20 degrees outside, so we assumed the pipes were all frozen or turned off. We called the office and they told us there were only two freeze-proof faucets in the park—so much for all those choices.

We found the freeze-proof faucets and set up camp. Water and 50 amp power was plentiful and a dump station was nearby. While it remained cold, the snow storm delayed another two days, during which we filled up both propane bottles, visited family, and did some sightseeing in New Harmony.

Predictions were coming in about the impending freeze expected to break precipitation and temperature records. Landra and I reminded ourselves that our King of the Road fifth wheel had the Arctic Pac insulation package, guaranteed to prevent pipe freezing down to zero degrees. Another feature that made us feel better about our situation was our electric fireplace. This was an accessory I would rather have done without, but it came with the trailer. It is an electric heater with a flame simulation—fun to watch and useful to supplement the furnace heat.

Overnight on December 22 the snow storm finally arrived. One could hardly call it a storm because there was barely any wind and it dropped the snow so quietly that we did not notice until morning. In the morning a gorgeous nine inch thick blanket of snow covered the park. Outside the wind was completely still and the temperature was hovering just above zero.

Sam: What kind of parents are you?

Sam: "What kind of parents are you?"

Sam's first walk that morning was a shock. His small body sunk in the snow and the look on his face made it clear that he blamed us for this predicament.

Even though the park was host to only three families, us and two others in cabins, the staff was out early in the morning clearing the roads with bulldozers. By 10 a.m. most of the snow from the main roads were removed and trucks were passing over it. We would have liked to spend Christmas with family, so we decided to pack enough things for a few nights and drive to Illinois, knowing that we could probably not return to the RV until after Christmas.

Our 4x2 Ford F-550 does a great job pulling the fifth wheel on dry pavement, but it slides easily on snow-covered roads. Still, we slowly managed to pass over the small hills in the park and drove about 25 miles toward I-64. As we came into CB range of the highway, reports of crashes and trucks in the ditch were increasing. We made it close enough to see the I-64 on-ramps, but decided it was not a good idea to continue.

Disappointed, we headed back to the park. On our way out the steeper grades were downhill, which we now had to climb. The steepest one we could climb about 90% before the rear wheels started spinning. Our only choice was to back down and try again, this time gaining more momentum. Even after gaining as much speed as we felt comfortable with, our truck would not take us to the top. Three of the park staff were heading in our direction and gave us a hand. Landra took the wheel and four of us pushed and bounced and lifted the rear of the truck to make it go. Attempts to move the 9,500 lb truck by hand accomplished little. Finally, some creative shoveling of snow and building up a ramp behind the wheels got us over the hill. Over the next few days the truck was stuck three more times to the point of needing assistance.

It was a good thing that we did not get on the interstate; that segment of I-64 was shut down for two days, littered with wrecked and stalled vehicles. It made national news as local rescue workers and the National Guard worked around the clock to save people from their freezing vehicles.

Back at the trailer we realized that we may have to spend a few days in the park. The propane bottles were mostly full, the RV brochures were correct about the pipes not freezing at zero degrees, plenty of electricity and water—not too much to be concerned about.

Then the second part of the storm arrived the following night. An additional five inches of snow lay on the ground in the morning. It was surprising to me how long it took to sweep fourteen inches of snow from the top of the trailer. But, I had nothing else to do and it was great exercise.

Picnic table and park under a fourteen inch blanket of snow.

Picnic table and park under a fourteen inch blanket of snow.

Overnight the temperature remained just below zero. Inside we set the furnace thermostat as low as it would go to preserve propane and slept in front of the electric fireplace to keep warm. In the morning the temperature started dropping and bottomed out at negative nine degrees. Now we were concerned about the trailer. The furnace emptied one 9 gallon bottle of propane in less than two days, even with the assistance of the electric fireplace. Inside the trailer the temperature was about fifty degrees and certainly much lower in the basement where the pipes were; tolerable, but certainly not my idea of pleasant RV camping.

The Arctic Pac insulation could no longer withstand the cold and by mid-morning the pipes in the trailer froze. To make things even more interesting, the pipes of the only open bathroom in the park also froze and burst, water seeping through the walls. The park staff had no choice but to shut it down. All we had left was the water from the frost-proof faucet and a very cold outhouse. It was looking like we'll be missing Christmas with family and spending it in primitive camping conditions.

A call came in soon after that from an in-law wanting to rescue us by way of a friend's four-wheel drive truck. We had no objection to being rescued at this point, even though it meant abandoning our home on wheels. The roads inside the park were hilly and had an ice covering. Not wanting our rescuer to get stuck, we concocted a plan where the three of us would hike out four miles to the main highway and the friend would pick us up there. Our quick pace kept us warm, even hot, in the sub-freezing temperatures and we reached the road in an hour and fifteen minutes. Our rescuer showed up as promised and we got to spend Christmas with family.

A few days later the roads were clear enough to attempt a trip back to the RV. We were anxious to re-fill the propane bottles and asses that damage caused by the frozen pipes. To our relief the pipes were thawed and sustained no damage. However, we noticed that our refrigerator and freezer were warm inside. All of the ice cream was melted and the rest of the food spoiled. From the control panel everything looked normal, but it refused to cool. It runs on AC power or propane, both of them in plenty supply. Finally I unplugged it from power to reset it and by evening it was cold as if nothing had happened. Apparently "rebooting" fixes more than ill computers. Later I talked with a couple of RV service guys, but no one has given me a satisfactory answer of why cold weather stopped the fridge.

I had been searching for tire chains before the snow started and finally found a set of traction control cables after the storm. The cables were needed because the park roads were still covered with snow and ice. With the help of the tire cables, we towed the trailer slowly out of the park and onto the dry highways. We set our destination for the East Coast, fervently hoping not to encounter any more snow.