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The Complete Newbie’s Guide To Refilling RV Propane Tanks

What’s the big deal? Getting propane is easy.” You’re right. It is easy. But when you’ve never done it before it’s a little daunting. I didn’t know, for example, that I should’ve pulled our rig right up to the propane refill station just like when you’re getting gas. Nope, I instead parked on the opposite end of the property, waaaaaay back in the truckers’ lot, and carried our two 30-pound tanks, one in each hand, the 1,000 feet or so to the refill station.

Poor, naive me, back in January 2023

Hello, Newbie!

If you’re reading this post, it’s probably safe to assume you’re brand new to RVing and are about to embark on your VERY FIRST propane refill expedition. How exciting! Of course, if you’ve never done this before, it can be a little intimidating. Almost everything you’ve never done before is at least a little intimidating, so don’t you worry about that. By the time you finish reading this article you’ll be waltzing into a propane refill station with more swagger than Justin Bieber accepting an MTV music award. (Just don’t overdo it, Mr. Fancypants. No one likes a showoff.)

What Kind Of Tanks Do You Have?

Okay, so first things first. There are two kinds of RV tanks out there: removable cylinders and fixed tanks. If you have a towable camper like us, then you most likely have removable cylinders. If you have a drivable motorhome, you might have a fixed tank. For the purposes of this article, it doesn’t really matter what you have except for one key difference: cylinders can be detached and transported to a refill station separately whereas fixed tanks cannot. The information below is written from our point of view as owners of a travel trailer with removable cylinders, so some details may not completely apply to the fixed tank crowd out there. Everything else should be the same no matter what kind of tanks you have.

How To Find Propane Refill Stations

The first time we needed to refill our propane tanks we didn’t even know where to go. Seems kinda silly in retrospect, but when you’re brand new to RV’ing there is soooo much to learn it’s really quite overwhelming. We bought our first trailer in March and didn’t burn through our initial batch of propane until deep into the fall when we were camping in freezing weather high up in the mountains of New Mexico. Since we started out in a warmer climate, propane was one of many things we consciously put out of our minds while we got up to speed with the ten thousand other things we needed to learn first. Our naiveté nearly got us into a bit of a pickle because running out of propane in the winter is no joke. Without it, not only will you be very uncomfortable, but your pipes could potentially freeze and break, causing expensive and inconvenient damage.

Turns out, propane refill stations are absolutely everywhere—we just never noticed because we weren’t looking. Had we so much as glanced around at any of the many of truck stops we go to on a regular basis, we would have seen that propane is almost as commonplace as diesel fuel. Love’s, Pilot/Flying J, TA Travel Centers/Petro, and countless smaller truck stop chains all sell bulk propane. Not every single location, mind you, but it’s at least as common as potholes on our nation’s highway system—drive long enough and you’re sure to hit one without even trying. If the “pothole strategy” doesn’t appeal to you, the bigger truck stop chains have websites and mobile apps that can help you pinpoint a location. You can also google propane refill near me for suggestions. Just bear in mind that depending on where you are, these results may or may not suit your needs. For example, when I ran this search from my home in suburbia, Texas, every hit was for a local U-Haul station that could never accommodate our 30 foot Airstream when it’s attached to our 20 foot truck. If I was willing and interested in removing the tanks from our Airstream and hauling them into one of these places, of course, they could refill them. But under most circumstances, we’d vastly prefer to pull our entire rig into a station. The only exception to this is when we’re camping in cold weather and are burning through propane faster than Cookie Monster plowing through a package of Oreos.

It’s also very common for RV parks to offer propane refilling services. On a recent trip through Albuquerque we stayed at High Desert RV Park, where they have a propane refilling station immediately adjacent to the parking area for guests who are checking in. Super convenient! Didn’t even have to move our rig. We registered, topped off our tanks, then drove to our assigned camp spot. Done! Not all parks make it quite this easy. Not all parks have propane in the first place. But when they do, it’s an extremely convenient way to get a refill without going even slightly out of your way.

The Propane Refill Process

Like I said earlier, anything—even terribly easy things—can be a little intimidating when you don’t know what you’re doing. Pulling your rig into a propane refilling station might be one of those things. It certainly was for us. And because we were so unsure of ourselves, we made a pretty silly mistake that first time. So allow me to save you from committing the same blunder.

The process for getting your RV propane tanks refilled isn’t altogether different from getting fuel for your vehicle. The main difference is that instead of pulling up to a pump and dispensing fuel yourself, you have to wait for an attendant to do that for you. Importantly, don’t park your rig in the trucker’s lot and then carry your propane tanks over by hand like I did! I mean, you can if you really want to, but it’s not necessary. I promise. Save your arm strength for something more useful, like raising a beer glass to cheers your spouse after arriving at your next beautiful destination.

Most propane refill stations are located along the perimeter of the consumer fueling area of a truck stop. Look for a sign that says—you guessed it!—PROPANE. Pull your rig alongside the curb, then go inside the store to fetch an attendant who can operate the propane dispenser. Be prepared to wait longer than you’d like. Once, when we were in a massive hurry, it took like twenty minutes before someone came out. Other times, someone has come out to help almost immediately. (Usually when had all the time in the world.) Note that depending on how the lot is laid out, you may have to park your rig in a way that isn’t exactly ideal. Here’s an example from a randomly selected Love’s in Kansas:

In this particular situation, the temptation will be to turn right as soon as you enter the lot. After all, that’s where the propane is! And while that certainly would work, you’d be setting yourself up for a hard left turn in order to get your rig parallel with the curb, leaving you with barely enough room to straighten out. In all likelihood you’d end up with the tail end of your RV offset from the curb by a pretty good clip. Worse, if anyone was parked the space marked by the “#2” in the picture, you might block them in. Not the best way to make new friends—especially if you have to wait a while for your buddy the service attendant to come out and play. A better approach here would be to follow the green line around the back of the consumer fuel pumps so that you end up with a reasonably long straight away to line up your rig along the curb. Even that’s not perfect because you might end up blocking the dump station marked by “#1”. But in the first situation you’re potentially blocking someone from leaving. In the second, you’re merely delaying someone else’s use of an amenity. Personally, I’d feel less guilty about the latter scenario.

This particular Love’s looks relatively small and therefore isn’t as likely to be a madhouse like some of the bigger, busier truck stops. For that reason, I wouldn’t be as concerned pulling in here without planning in advance. That said, it’s never a bad idea to look at google’s satellite and street view imagery of your planned stops before you begin your travel day. Knowing exactly what to expect when you arrive is incredibly helpful. It’s crazy to think about what it must have been like for new RV’ers back in the dark ages before these technologies were widely available.

Once you’ve parked and hailed an attendant, your next step is to disconnect your tanks, remove them from your rig, and set them near the refill station. The actual process of refilling them only takes a few minutes and then you’ll be on your way, wondering why you ever felt the need to google an article about how to do this. It’s so easy and obvious! (Now.)

The process is pretty much identical at RV parks, except the lack of vehicular congestion makes it much less stressful. Just find the refill station, pull up your rig, get an attendant from the office, pay, and you’re done. Easy peasy.

How Often Are Refills Needed?

I mentioned earlier that we took delivery of our Airstream toward the end of March 2022. In Texas, at that time of the year, winter is over like Elizabeth Holmes’ career and temperatures are consistently well above freezing. We traveled extensively during our first seven months of ownership, and yet our two 30 pound propane tanks lasted all the way through late October when we spent several weeks at 7,800 feet in the mountains of northern New Mexico. The freezing temperatures there taught us an important lesson about RV camping in the winter versus in the summer. In the winter, you run your furnace a lot—and running your furnace burns a lot of propane. So far, the only time we’ve ever detached our propane tanks and driven them somewhere to get refilled was on that trip. Had we stayed much longer, I’m quite sure I would have been running into town every two to three days in order to get additional refills.

Our experience aligns well with anecdotes I’ve read online from other RV travelers. Essentially, propane should last you quite a long time during warmer months but, man, watch out when winter rolls around! Of course, your experience may vary depending on the capacity of your tanks, how often you cook with propane, how much you use when you do cook, and whether or not you use you use your camper during the colder months.

That’s it!

Getting RV propane tanks refilled is about as easy as refueling a car. After you do it once, you’ll wonder why you ever thought it necessary to park way back in the trucker’s lot and carry your tanks all the way over to the refill station.

Er, wait. That was me, not you.

In conclusion, don’t be like me! Do it the easy way, the first time! 😆 😬 🤦

👋 Hey, Camper!

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