North America is blessed with some of the most stunning scenery on the planet, from the glaciated Cascades to the snow-capped Rockies to the granite Sierras.
Unfortunately, the RV industry is based in Elkhart, Indiana. Elevation above sea level: 748 feet. Closet mountains above 6,000 feet: 560 miles away, in distant Tennessee. The Rockies are even farther, more than 1,100 miles away.
Quite frankly, many RV components are not designed for operation at high altitudes. And most of the industry has turned a blind eye (and ear) to the complaints of travelers west of the Mississippi.
Let’s discuss some of the most common problems RV owners encounter at high altitudes.
Then, let’s talk about some options for how to fix any problems that show up!
Table of Contents
How High (Exactly) Is High Altitude?
For our purposes, high altitude is anything higher than about 5,000-6,000 feet above sea level. In mountaineering literature, high altitude is usually considered 8,000 feet and above.
It’s colder and drier at higher elevations. The temperature decreases about 5.4 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1,000 feet above sea level. Huge diurnal temperature swings are common, squeezing the moisture out of the cold, thin air.
Contrary to popular opinion, there isn’t really “less oxygen” in the air. Instead, the air pressure is lower. There’s literally less air! For instance, at 14,000 feet (the high point of many Rocky Mountain peaks), there’s only 43 percent oxygen available compared to sea level!
The good news is that almost the entire Eastern half of the country, save for a few isolated peaks, is shorter than 6,000 feet. No problems there!
The bad news is that much of the western third of the country, sandwiched between Sacramento and Denver, is over 6,000 feet. Even many of the valley “lowlands” of the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau are between 4,500 and 8,000 feet, juuuuust high enough to start seeing some problems.
1. De-Rate Your Propane-Powered Appliances
All propane-burning appliances will be less efficient at higher altitudes.
In fact, some may not work at all!
Let me begin by stating that this section may or may not apply to your water heater or furnace. Or stove or refrigerator.
Some RVers gallivant all over creation from Yellowstone to White Sands and never think twice about their appliances.
But other people start having problems the moment they reach a mile high.
Most manufacturers of propane-burning appliances like stoves, absorption refrigerators, water heaters, and furnaces say that above 4,500-6,000 feet, the appliance may not work or should be de-rated.
For instance, the manual for the Dometic water heater says that for every 1,000 feet of elevation above 4,500 feet, you should plan for a 4% BTU de-rating!
Water heaters will take longer to recover; fridges won’t get as cold; furnaces won’t burn as hot.
Here’s the problem: There’s less air available air at higher elevations. So the amount of propane being released is too much. It’s too rich a fuel-to-air mixture.
Common side effects include a strong fuel smell, snuffed-out flames, rough idling, and black soot.
The fix is to A) either increase the amount of available air or B) decrease the amount of propane.
There are three possible solutions.
- Change the fuel orifice size.
- Deliver more air to the combustion chamber.
- Reduce the LP manifold pressure.
Fair warning: Some of these solutions may not be recognized by your appliance manufacturer. You might void the warranty. If you mess up, you can seriously injure yourself. Consider yourself warned.
If you’re hoping for better advice from the appliance manufacturers, good luck. Most just tell you to run your appliances on AC electric power at high elevations. But if you’re boondocking, AC power probably isn’t an option.
A) Change Out the Orifice
Changing out the orifice simply means swapping out the part with a tiny hole that allows propane to feed the flame. It’s not too hard to swap out, but your appliance manufacturer will probably insist a trained technician do it.
High-altitude kits are available for many furnaces, fridges, and water heaters. Just search Google for “high altitude kit for [name your appliance].” Dyer’s RV carries a lot of them, for instance.
If your appliance doesn’t have a substitute orifice, either move on to another solution, or make friends with a machine shop. They’ll need to make an orifice usually 2-3 sizes smaller than the original (e.g. a #61 orifice to replace a #64 orifice).
B) Deliver More Air to the Combustion Chamber
Unfortunately, you have limited options for increased airflow, since combustion chambers for RV appliances aren’t closed or pressurized.
A few RV appliances, such as older-style Suburban water heaters, have adjustable air intake manifolds. But these are few and far between.
The important thing is to check your exhaust and intake vents! There shouldn’t be any dustballs, trash, gunk or wasp nets clunking up your vents. Keep them clean for better air ventilation!
You might have an air blockage in the strangest place, like a spider web in the propane lines.
If you’re still having problems getting your water or refrigerator to light or stay burning, try temporarily removing the vent cover or outside door. Again, that’s not kosher – but when you’re desperate, you’re desperate.
Some RVers have even tried – with some success – to install 12V computer fans to accelerate airflow. This can be dangerous, especially in extremely hot compartments, like behind an absorption fridge.
C) Reduce the Regulator Pressure
As all educated RVers know, RV propane appliances are designed to operate with 10-14 inches water column propane pressure.
For reference, that ain’t much! – about 0.4 psi.
Your regulator is in charge of controlling and reducing the high pressure within your propane tanks to the low pressure in your distribution manifold.
Most regulators are calibrated by the factory or your dealership to provide 11-12 inches of w.c. pressure. But if you’re camping at super high elevations, that may be too high a pressure!
Again, it’s not a kosher solution. But some RVers have found success reducing the manifold pressure to 10, 9, or even 8 inches of water column!
You can learn how to adjust your RV propane regulator pressure here (see video below). You’ll need a manometer and some patience!
Before you begin messing around with propane, of course, you should read Michael Huff’s article about RV propane safety.
Of course, what works for one appliance may not work for the rest of them. That’s the danger with this technique.
And, of course, you’ll have to re-adjust at lower altitudes.
2. Drive Slower, Tow Less!
Engines get less power at higher altitudes. The rule of thumb is roughly 3 percent less power per 1,000 feet elevation. Naturally aspirated engines tend to perform worse than forced induction engines, like Ford’s turbocharged EcoBoost series.
This means you’ll likely be driving slower at higher altitudes if you’re towing a heavy load.
Also, you’ll need to tow less in general! Ford says that your vehicle’s maximum towing capacity is reduced 2 percent for every 10,000 feet above sea level. At 9,000 feet, that’s almost 20 percent less than what you thought! If you thought you could tow 8,000 lbs, you’re now down to 6,400 lbs!
3. Don’t Turn on Laptops Above 10,000 Feet!
Many hard drive discs are designed to operate between sea level and 10,000 feet elevation.
“If computers with hard drives are used at elevations above 10,000 ft (3,048 meters), they may experience a high rate of hard drive failures.
“Most hard drives are not designed to operate at those altitudes …
“The root cause of the issue is that the read/write head of a hard disk drive floats on a thin cushion of air … At high altitude, the air is too thin to support the head and it might scratch and destroy the disk surface.”
It’s not just a Dell problem. Any computer with an unsealed HDD is at risk (most computers with a solid-state drive (SDD) are safe). Some manufacturers, like Lenovo, build Mil-SPEC tested laptops rated for up to 15,000 feet.
The solution? Use a laptop with a steady-state drive. Or at least back up your hard drive with a flash drive in case your computer crashes.
Thankfully, there aren’t very many RV campgrounds above 10,000 feet. But if you use your RV as a basecamp for exploring the alpine wilderness, be careful where you use your electronics.
4. Re-Jet Your Generator (Maybe)
Like your car, a generator will lose power and efficiency the higher you go. There’s no practical way to stop this, no matter what. As a rule, you will lose about 3 percent power for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain.
However, you can improve the efficiency and cleanliness of your generator by adjusting the fuel-air mixture. This can also reduce the risk of overheating.
For a carbureted engine, this normally means re-jetting. You can buy a high altitude kit for most portable generators, whether gasoline or diesel, Honda or Onan. These are pretty cheap, but they’re not practical to install and un-install for the occasional high-altitude excursion.
There is no one-size-fits-all jet. Most are compatible over a 3,000-5,000-ft range, with 1,000-ft of elevation overlap between jets.
Some brands of generators, such as Onan, often come with a manual adjustment knob. Adjusting the fuel-air ratio couldn’t be simpler – just turn the knob to enrich or lean the mixture!
If none of these options sound useful, just be sure to carry some extra spark plugs. Burning a rich mixture can quickly foul up your spark plugs, causing misfires.
5. Spend More Time In the Kitchen
You probably already know this, but water doesn’t always boil at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. As you climb, the boiling temperature decreases.
It’s a common myth that water takes longer to boil in the mountains. That’s not true – but it does take longer to cook because the water doesn’t get as hot!
At 8,000 feet, for instance, water will boil at 198 degrees, not 212. And it will never get any hotter than that.
You can learn more about high-altitude cooking at the USDA website.
6. Keep Yourself (And Pets) Safe at High Altitude
High altitude can have a severe effect on you, not just your RV. It takes time for your body to acclimate. Since air pressure decreases with higher elevation, you won’t inhale as much oxygen.
Some articles will scare you away with talk about HAPE and HACE, but these two conditions are rarely experienced by anyone outside of mountain climbers on peaks 14,000 feet and higher. As an RV traveler, you’re much more likely to suffer from AMS (Acute Mountain Sickness). Symptoms include nausea, dizziness, severe headaches, and pain. It’s no fun. It’s like the world’s worst hangover. But not deadly within hours.
And yes, your pets can be susceptible to AMS as well! They’ll get winded faster. Don’t allow your pets to over-exert themselves. Listen for the sound of a rattling cough, a sure sign of HAPE.
Thankfully, as an RV traveler, you’ll be slowly driving to higher elevations, giving your body time to acclimate. Severe sickness is unlikely. You’re more likely to deal with dry sinuses, sleep apnea, minor headaches, and labored breathing when walking around. Just give your body time.
The main treatment for AMS is to descend to a lower elevation. You can take OTC medications, like Ibuprofen, to treat side effects. Speak to your doctor about more potent medications like Diamox and dexamethasone, especially if you have trouble sleeping.
Unfortunately, time won’t help your RV acclimate. You’ll have to use some of the strategies in this article!
Lastly, I leave with you a word of peace.
There are millions of people every year who venture to the Rocky Mountains and never hear a complaint from their appliances.
You are probably one of those people.
But sometimes, you’re not.
And if that happens to you, I hope one of the tips in this article will help you stay warm and your food stay cold.