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Some Lessons Can Only Be Learned From a Disastrous Winter Road Trip

Sometimes the best-laid plans—like a powder-packed RV trip in the dead of winter—get a hard reality check. This is one of those times.

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The whole RV ski trip thing was my big idea, and initially it seemed like a good one: Rent a motorhome—ideally an Airstream—and ramble around Western Canada on an extended ski safari with the husband. Bring the dog.

I imagined us rolling through the height of winter in a smart and cozy cabin on wheels, following the snow to the foot of our favorite ski lifts, where we would overnight mere steps from fresh tracks. In the morning, we’d sip our pour-over coffee feeling rested and relaxed while avalanche bombs popped, then saunter to first chair while day trippers hurried into the parking lot. We’d ski our faces off, loop back to the rig to walk the dog, then ski some more. Afterward, we’d après-ski in camp chairs while sizzling something savory on a fantasy Hibachi and throwing snowballs for Mutt Head to retrieve. No wifi or cell signal? No problem. We’d read books. Play backgammon. Reconnect. We’d have a blast.

It turns out that no RV companies in Western Canada rent Airstreams. In winter, they rent Class C motorhomes (the boxy kind built atop truck chassis) that have been “winterized”—which means they’ve been drained of fluids. This includes wastewater tanks, which are decommissioned for the season. Not ideal. 

Just one Canadian company rents “winter-ready” motorhomes, with hot and cold running water, heat tracers around fluid tanks and winter insulation in the living quarters—but that company forbids dogs. Also: No actual snow tires. Definitely no four-wheel drive. And nothing about the undertaking is cheap.

We went for it anyway. Eight ski destinations, 1,675 miles, 21 days. We packed a preposterous amount of gear and food, drifted that beast over mountain passes in heavy snowstorms, and looped around British Columbia from Vancouver to Revelstoke, Kicking Horse, Fernie, Red, Whitewater, Keefer Lake Catskiing, Silver Star, and Apex. Cool ski towns, great mountains, powder galore.

But a 28-foot rental RV is no custom-built, Instagram-ready rig with ski boot slots by the front door and every detail just so. It’s more like a quirky boat cabin designed for petite people who miraculously track no snow inside, don’t mind dangling their smartphones from ceiling-mounted charging ports, really are fine with no internet connectivity, and enjoy driving long distances while sitting stiffly upright like mannequins.

The whole endeavor requires a lot of logistics (and fuels). To keep the fluid tanks from freezing, the motor or generator must always be running, unless the rig is plugged in. But few ski areas have winter hook-ups. Many also limit RV stays to one or two nights, or banish them to satellite lots. And then there are the snowplow drivers who spin diesel-fueled donuts inches from the motorhome’s thin bedroom walls from 4 a.m. to dawn.

Somewhere between Revelstoke and Apex we figured it all out. Lesson one: Always park on the ski area lot’s perimeter, with the master bedroom backed against a snowbank. Lesson two: Bring slippers with waterproof soles. Lesson three: Latch the refrigerator door firmly before navigating switchbacks in a snowstorm. And finally: February on the Powder Highway is no place for camp chairs and Hibachis, but it is ideal for day after day of mountain fun with the one you love. The whole thing would have been less expensive, less complicated, and more furry if we had driven our own pickup and stayed in mid-range, dog-friendly hotels, but this much is certain: We skied our faces off. And we did have a blast.

Susan Reifer Ryan admits that while RV travel with the husband was trying at times, no marriages were irreparably harmed during the production of this essay.

Originally published in the January/February 2019 double issue of SKI Magazine.