High-Altitude RVing – Beat the Heat

 High-Altitude RVing – Beat the Heat

Here’s the view from our campsite at Maggie Gulch, 9800 feet up in the Colorado Rockies.

It's that time of year again when summer heat makes outdoor activities an ordeal. As a son of the south, I have been reconciled to five months of 90 degree temperatures and 90% humidity every year, but even up north it gets hot during the dog days.  Since I retired and started full-timing, though, my summer locations have been much more agreeable – and scenic. Let me show you some of the spots I hit when the temperature rises, and some peculiarities of high-altitude RV operation.

We got bored sitting in the flatlands in May, so we went up the road from Durango to Coal Bank Pass – 10,640 feet. No camping up here yet, apparently.

Two years ago we went up into the Rockies as summer arrived. We had spent the spring in New Mexico, and as Memorial Day approached we were near Farmington, NM, waiting for the snow to melt and the mountains to open up. A trip up the Million Dollar Highway (US 550) into the Colorado high country showed us that the highest altitudes were indeed too snowy, but that Haviland Lake at 8100 feet was thawed out and very nice.  So after the holiday crowds dispersed, we packed up and moved on up the mountain.

Haviland Lake - Sharon works on her spiritual development in an ideal setting.
Haviland Lake – Sharon works on her spiritual development in an ideal setting. Spring climbs the slope opposite, making progress daily, and eagles snag trout out of the lake.

You have seen Haviland Lake before on every calendar those poor working folks hang in their cubicle as they slave away in dreary office buildings.  It's a National Forest campground with electric and water, and online reservations for maybe half the spots. We spent about a week and a half there getting acclimated, and in that short time the elevations above us underwent a remarkable transformation. Feet of snow melted away, and we followed the hummingbirds up to the Silverton, CO area in mid-June.

Here's the view from our campsite at Maggie Gulch, 9800 feet up in the Colorado Rockies.
Here's the view from our campsite at Maggie Gulch, 9800 feet up in the Colorado Rockies.

Our first stop was one of my top ten boondocking locations – Mineral Creek dispersed camping in the San Juan National Forest. We were now at 9600 feet, and the weather was ideal, particularly for high summer. Highs struggled to get above 70, and it was 40s at night. The weather and scenery was a vivid contrast to my previous 50 odd summers down with the alligators and possums.  After we maxed out our 14 days with the Forest Service, we just moved over to the other side of Silverton, which is BLM land (Bureau of Land Management, another Federal agency) to Maggie Gulch at 9800 feet, and reset the 14 day clock.

Anything with yeast or baking powder rises like it's on steroids up this high. My grandma would be proud.
Anything with yeast or baking powder rises like it's on steroids when you're up this high. Look at those puppies! My grandma would be proud.

There are advantages to being up where the air pressure is 70% of normal – my biscuits were things of beauty. I promptly sent photos to all my family who had disparaged my cooking to show them that I was indeed a skillful baker.  All our potato chip bags had exploded as we climbed up to this altitude, and fortunately the low humidity kept them from going stale.  The down side is that water boils 20 degrees cooler, so potatoes took forever to cook.  We just gave up on cooking rice, plus the coffee was a bit weak.

Look for the yellow label to find the altitude adjustment.
Look for the yellow label to find the altitude adjustment.

RV appliance operation is also affected by altitude. My Onan generator had a hard time warming up and running smoothly until I remembered the altitude adjustment on it, which solved the problem. Pull the generator access cover and look for a black plastic set screw cap with a line on  it pointing to a 0-10,000 foot scale.  Rotating the set screw clockwise until the line in the black plastic cap corresponds to your altitude will make your generator a lot happier. Engine generators, of course, don't have this problem, and are even more efficient at high altitude.  The idle fuel consumption on my 6.0 liter Chevy motor went down from .58 to .42 gallons per hour.

My modification of the venturi on the water heater with tape. WARNING: not for the inexperienced.
My modification of the venturi on the water heater with tape. WARNING: not for the inexperienced.

My propane hot water heater also got emphysema at 9800 feet- the flame kept popping and going out, with much relighting and lean-burn smells. In desperation, I put a piece of tape on the venturi and got it to stay lit long enough to heat shower water. Unless you know what heater flames are supposed to look and smell like at various mixtures, though, I would not recommend this procedure. Sooting up your combustion chamber is a fire hazard, and RVs burn like dry grass. You can heat water on the propane stovetop just fine in a pot. Turn the water heater off if it starts acting funny, and leave it off if you aren't monitoring it. I do.

Beartooth Plateau, looking down on the snow fields ;-)
Beartooth Plateau, looking down on the snow fields.

Other high-altitude summer refugias I have utilized include Idaho, the Gunnison drainage, and the Cascades.  Right now I am up on the Beartooth Plateau at 10,164 feet while the west suffers from a record heat wave.  It might get up to 70 today here, but I doubt it.   Because we ascend gradually and stop for a week or so on our way up through successively higher altitudes, we don't suffer any adverse altitude sickness consequences, other than shortness of breath with sustained exertion. I was avoiding sustained exertion out of laziness anyway, so it's not a big deal.

Some poor bear must have thought he's found the mother lode of coolers - it was only our cargo carrier
Some poor bear must have thought he'd found the mother of all coolers – it was only our cargo carrier.

One other possible downside of high-altitude camping is that you aren't the only species up here. Bears will almost always be found at altitude in the summer. Practice keeping a clean camp and secure your vehicle, especially at night.  We never take any food outside the vehicle when we're in bear country, and have never had a problem, although we have had *ahem* visitors. And they were most inconsiderate visitors – they didn't wash their hands or anything.

Fourteeners as far as the eye can see - Engineer Pass, CO
Fourteeners as far as the eye can see – Engineer Pass, CO

So that's our experience – if you're fulltiming or just hot, head for the mountains and enjoy a break from the oppressive summer weather.  That's where we'll be until sometime after Labor Day.  Come on up and join us – there are plenty of mountaintops to go around.



"campskunk" is a blissfully retired former public servant who has left the challenges of how to run the government to younger and less cynical hands, and wanders the continent in his Roadtrek Class B RV with his wife and cat. In addition to his work in the public sector, he has also at various times been a mechanic and delivery driver, skills which come in handy in his new role. Because his former job involved the forensic evaluation and sometimes the subsequent detention of some not-so-nice people, he uses the name campskunk instead of his legal name on the Internet. His was not the type of job where customer service feedback would be welcome.


  • That weather must be wonderful … Thanks for sharing!

  • More great tips Dr Campskunk! Keep up the great work, we’re counting on you. Bigfoot Dave

  • I would love that weather. Husband Bill, not so much! He likes warmth and sunshine. But I will try this out sometime. BUCKET LIST!

  • Could you pass the biscuits, please? YUM!

  • Campskunk
    Wanted to see Beartooth Pass on way to Alaska in May but it was closed due to snow. I’ll be by that way again about July 23rd. In Victoria,BC at the moment and cool but sunny here. Have any suggestions for boondocking around Astoria, Oregon I’ll be there in a few days Bill 05C190P

    • bill: i pretty much blew by the northern Oregon coast because i was there in August and it was infested with tourists. we day camped at Manzanita and went inland to a nice state forest park to spend the night – Nehalem Falls i think it was. i boondocked across the bridge at Quinault Casino, north of Ocean Shores, WA, which was nice. it’s just a huge parking lot in the dunes overlooking the ocean. water and a dump are at the state park immediately south of the casino.

  • Those biscuits look amazing, Campskunk! Would love to spend some time exploring the Beartooth mtns. When I was there yrs ago, I knew there were bears, but didn’t take it seriously …. Now I’m older & wiser – traded in that pup tent for a RT 🙂

  • Campskunk, if you stay in a national forest like Lake Haviland and you boondock, do you still need reservations? Or can you just drive in, pay the entrance fee and stay?!

    • Lake Haviland is a developed campground with designated numbered campsites, electrical hookups, water, dumpsters, etc., and you can make reservations there. http://www.recreation.gov/recreationalAreaDetails.do?contractCode=NRSO&facilityId=235724&agencyCode=70903

      the boondocking is just picking a spot in a national forest where it’s OK to camp in what they call “dispersed camping”. go by the ranger station or look online at the forest service websites for maps that show you where it’s legal. the Motor Vehicle Use Map they have online or give you at the ranger station will have this information.

  • I haven’t tried it yet, but, in addition to the bisquits rising energetically, it’s my understanding that inflated mattresses also respond energetically to high altitudes (lower pressure). Accordingly, if/when we travel to high altitude locations, my plan is to deflate our bed matress so it won’t spontaneously overinflate.

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