Skip to Content

WARNING: RVing in High Elevation Comes With Challenges

Heading up to a high elevation in an RV can be daunting, even deadly. However, it isn’t just your physical health that’s at stake. It’s your mechanics as well.

So how can you prepare your body and rig to travel above the clouds safely?

Today, we’re exploring the many effects elevation has on RVs and the devices they depend on to function properly.

Let’s fly!

What’s the Big Deal About Higher Elevation?

The farther you are above sea level, the higher your elevation. And with increased altitude comes decreased air pressure, meaning gas particles like oxygen are more spaced out. That’s why it’s harder to breathe when you’re up high in the mountains. In fact, each breath at sea level provides 40% more oxygen than the same breath at 12,000 feet. 

Altitude sickness typically occurs in folks who aren’t acclimated to these changes. Symptoms range from headache and nausea to lung damage and can lead to severe neurological disorders. 

But the human body is incredible and adjusts to these changes by making more red blood cells to carry what little oxygen is available. It just needs time to kick into gear. So if you’re planning a major ascent, give yourself plenty of time to acclimate.

DIVE DEEP: Dangerous Mountain Pass May Ruin Your Camping Trip

Anything above 8,000 feet, or 2,400 meters, is considered high elevation. Once you hit 26,000 feet, you enter what mountaineers call the “death zone.” This is where bodily functions begin to shut down. 

The effects of elevation extend beyond our physical bodies. RVs feel the strain of these changes as well. 

Elevation Issues with RV Appliances

Since higher elevation causes temperatures to drop, water lines and tanks can freeze, causing significant issues. Proper insulation can help, but there’s no guarantee that it’ll solve the problem.

Another consequence of thinner air has to do with combustion. Appliances that run on propane may fail because the density of particles in the air isn’t sufficient for proper ignition. This means refrigerators might fail, and water heaters may be unreliable. 

Because an imbalance between propane and air causes the problem, one solution is to de-rate your propane tank. This means lowering the amount of gas available to the appliance. Device and manufacturer instructions vary, so check your manual before tinkering with anything.

Not all propane-powered instruments will fail at high elevations, but most will be affected to some degree. It just depends on your altitude and the amount of time you spend there. 


Health Problems at High Altitudes

High elevation can do a number on your physical health. Because the air is thinner, your lungs and heart must work harder to get oxygen into your bloodstream. Headaches and nausea are a sign your body is struggling.

More severe cases can lead to Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS). This usually isn’t an issue below 8,000 feet, but it can be deadly. Ultimately, your heart and brain can swell at dangerous rates.

It takes time for the human body to adjust to high elevation. So if you’re used to hanging out around sea level, you’ll want to take a few days to make your way into the mountains.

If you’re planning a trip to a higher altitude than you’re accustomed to, give yourself plenty of time to acclimate. Don’t assume you can or should drive to the top of a mountain in one or two days. 

And remember, pets can be affected by altitude, just like people. So watch your furry friends closely and give them time to adjust. 

If You’re Up for It: 11 Best Hiking Trails in Colorado

Elevation and RV Generators

Many RVers rely on their generator for essential power supply, but they can konk out at higher elevations. Also, much like propane-powered appliances, the engines can suffer from thinner air. In general, expect to lose about three percent of your power for every 1,000 feet you gain. 

Diesel generators are less affected by altitude changes but aren’t entirely immune. Many manufacturers make kits specifically to prepare engines for higher elevations, so it’s a good idea to research these if you plan to head uphill. 

If you choose to adjust your generator for higher elevation, be sure to reset it when you come back down. Forgetting this step can cause irreparable damage.

RV Engine Trouble?

Whether in a motorhome or a travel trailer, your engine works hard to haul you and your gear. But an RV’s engine is under even more stress at higher elevation. 

Just like generators, vehicle engines lose power in thinner air. Diesel and fuel-injected motors perform better than standard gasoline models, but they can all fail if pushed hard enough.

Do yourself a favor, and be aware of the weight of your load, especially if you’re heading into the mountains. Pulling extra pounds can stress your engine to the breaking point. And if a fire erupts, your vehicle could be totaled. It can even put your life at risk. 

Altitude May Impact RV Electronics 

Laptop computers also feel the burn at high elevations. Components like hard drives weren’t built for such conditions. They can freeze and become completely inoperable above 10,000 feet. Unlike pressurized airplane cabins, your RV can’t compensate for altitude changes. 

Shutting down your computer entirely, rather than putting it in sleep mode, can help avoid significant damage. If you use it at high elevation, ensure only necessary applications are running. 

Printers are also affected in the mountains. Cheap, generic ink cartridges can leak, but pricier, name-brand versions usually don’t. However, we wouldn’t risk it if you don’t have to.

Cooking Times May Vary 

You may have noticed that your cookie dough wrapper has separate instructions for baking at high elevations. That’s because water’s boiling point is lower at altitude.

Interestingly, it can take longer to cook food on a stovetop, but microwaved foods will need less time. Meats tend to dry out more quickly, and baked goods can expand. 

It all boils down to what you’re making and how you’re cooking it. Research before setting off to a higher elevation so you know what to expect. 

Are High-Elevation Destinations Worth It?

On a day-to-day basis, you probably don’t think much about atmospheric pressure. But drastic elevation changes can wreak havoc on your body, RV, and some of the rig’s equipment. Knowing how to calibrate your engine and allowing your body time to adjust can make all the difference when it comes to increasing your altitude.

Don’t miss out on some of the country’s most beautiful landscapes to avoid these inconveniences. As long as you plan accordingly, they’re worth the extra effort!

Discover the Best Free Camping Across the USA

To be honest with you, we hate paying for camping. There are so many free campsites in America (with complete privacy).

You should give it a try!

As a matter of fact, these free campsites are yours. Every time you pay federal taxes, you’re contributing to these lands.

Become a FREE CAMPING INSIDER and join the 100,000 campers who love to score the best site! 

We’ll send you the 50 Best Free Campsites in the USA (one per state). Access the list by submitting your email below: