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If you want to learn how to clean the outside of your camper trailer, it’ll take a little elbow grease and some knowledge about exterior RV parts. But is cleaning an RV’s exterior complicated enough to fill a full-length article? How hard can it be to put some soap in a bucket and wash your camper at home?
It’s really not hard at all. But, if you want to properly clean your RV so that it lasts longer, maybe the dishwashing liquid in a bucket approach isn’t the best way to go.
How to Clean the Outside of Your Camper Trailer
Understanding your RV’s construction is the first step. There can be seven different types of materials (or more!) that make up the exterior of an RV including, rubber, aluminum, chrome, glass, fiberglass, plastic, and steel. And, each of these materials requires different cleaners, soaps, waxes, conditioners, and protectants.
But can’t you just take your camper attached to your tow vehicle through the car wash? Probably not as it most likely won’t fit. Most car washes aren’t big enough to handle RVs. You might find a commercial truck wash, but it will likely supply only water and a hose. You’ll provide cleaning products and a lot of elbow grease.
Thanks to the nuances of cleaning a camper trailer properly, we have plenty of tips to fill a full-length article. We want to help you get your RV as clean as possible as fast as possible without risking damage.
So, read on, and hopefully, you’ll find some useful tips for how to clean the outside of a camper trailer or motorhome.
What Do I Use to Clean the Outside of My Camper Trailer?
At the basic level, the best cleaning agents you can use are water and elbow grease. You might be surprised how effective these two ingredients are! But it’s helpful to have a few other cleaning supplies on hand. Here’s what we suggest:
- Microfiber cloth
- Soft and stiff bristle brushes
- A pole attachment for tall campers (optional)
- A garden hose with a pressurized spray nozzle
- Lawn sprayer
- Cleaning agents of your choice (read on for our recommendations)
- Wax, sealers, or protectants of your choice
These basic cleaning supplies should be enough to get the job done!
What’s the Best Cleaning Agent for a Fiberglass Camper?
At the basic level, the best cleaning agents you can use are water and elbow grease. You might be surprised how much gunk will come off when you use a garden hose with a spray nozzle. You can use a microfiber cloth or bristle brushes to scrub at more stubborn stains.
However, water won’t remove everything. Sometimes, you need a good cleaning agent to remove the toughest streaks and spots. We’ll discuss their use in detail as the article goes on, but here’s a quick list of the cleaning agents we recommend when you go to clean the outside of your camper trailer.
- Bug and tar remover
- Methyl ethyl ketone (MEK)
- Fiberglass wax
- Rubber roof cleaners
- Roof conditioner
- RV aluminum and metal restoring spray
- Tire and rubber rejuvenator
- Glass cleaner and/or polish
- Window sealant/ Rain repellant
- Headlight polishing kit
- UV sealant
- Mild dish detergent
- Decal protectant
You likely won’t need all of these products, and the types of products you use will depend on what your camper is made of. Read on to learn more about how to apply this list of cleaning agents appropriately as needed.
How to Clean an RV Roof
This is one of the few times in life when you get to start at the top! To start cleaning the roof, the first thing you need to know is what type of roof you have and how to best clean it.
Why start at the top? Because those black streaks that stain the sides of your RV are from dirt that accumulates on your roof. If you clean the sides before you clean the roof, dirt will run down, and you’ll have to clean the sides all over again!
And cleaning your roof more often may help prevent stubborn black streaks that stain the sides and take significant effort to scrub off!
As we discuss the different ways to clean a camper roof, we’ll break it down by the materials used in construction. What your RV roof is made of influences the way you clean it. Let’s take a look!
How to Clean a Fiberglass RV Roof
Fiberglass RVs have a protective layer of polyurethane called “gel coat” that protects the surface and proffers a glossy shine. Dirt, oxidation, sap, bugs, and UV exposure make your RV appear dull and dirty over time. To clean your fiberglass roof, follow these steps.
- Broom sweep the roof if needed. Then apply fiberglass-formulated bug and tar remover to any areas affected by bugs, tree sap, or streaks from roof oxidation.
- Wash the fiberglass with a sponge using a solution of 1 cup liquid laundry detergent and 1 gallon warm water. Rinse off the soap with a garden hose. Allow the surface to dry naturally.
- Use a product called MEK and wipe down the fiberglass with it to remove grease and oils. Start at the top and work down the sides. Methyl ethyl ketone (MEK) can be purchased online or at a large home improvement store, RV supply store, or any paint store that carries solvents.
- Apply a fiberglass wax by following the manufacturer’s instructions. The wax will fill any microscopic pitting in the gel coat and restore its glossy surface.
RVers sometimes use acetone rather than MEK because it’s not as strong. Use great caution when using these products and follow all manufacturer’s instructions. Remember that you must wax your fiberglass after using these products.
How to Clean a Rubber RV Roof
When you look for rubber roof cleaners, learn the type of rubber roof you have. The two roof types are EPDM (Ethylene Propylene Diene Monomer), or a TPO (Thermal Poly Olefin).
There are different opinions when it comes to cleaning and protecting rubber roofs. But for both EPDM and TPO rubber roofs, the care and maintenance instructions have the following warning:
“DO NOT use cleaners or conditioners containing petroleum solvents, harsh abrasives, or citric-based cleaners. You may cause irreparable damage to your roof.”
So if that wasn’t clear, don’t use any cleaners that are citrus or petroleum-based, and you should be ok.
Also, EPDM rubber roofs shed a bit due to ultraviolet sun rays. This shedding can make white streaks down the side of your RV. However, if the shedding rubber mixes with dirt, it manifests as a black streak down the side of your RV.
TPO rubber roofs don’t shed, but you should consider applying a roof conditioner after cleaning either roof.
You should also clean your rubber roof four or five times a year. For either type of rubber roof, you can use mild laundry detergent or purchase a cleaner for your specific type of rubber roof, which is what I recommend. Apply it with a long-handled scrub brush and then rinse thoroughly.
Since you’ll be on the roof, you might want to check out our article called Can I Walk On My RV Roof? where we provide great tips about how and where to walk on your RV roof.
RELATED READING: Check out our article called 9 Easy Tips for Cleaning Your RV Rubber Roof for some more detailed information.
How to Clean the Sides of a Camper Trailer
RVs are built with three types of exteriors: metal, painted metal, and fiberglass. Metal sides are more common on older RVs and trailers, as well as certain brands today. They’re typically aluminum or stainless steel. Metal sides are best washed first to remove the majority of grime and grit, then cleaned with non-abrasive cleaners and soft-bristled brushes and mitts. After cleaning your metal sides, wax the exterior but don’t wax over the decals.
To clean the sides of a fiberglass RV, fill a bucket with water and the appropriate amount of laundry detergent. For fiberglass, the best solution is a wash-and-wax product that both cleans your RV and protects it for the future. I like to use a long-handle brush, a large sponge, and a still bristle short-handle brush for removing the tougher stains.
After I wash one side, I look for all the stains that didn’t wash off. I find that a stiff brush works best on tar, bugs, and black streaks. Then, I go back over it again with the wash. I’ll do one side at a time, starting with the top and working my way down.
Again, a final rinse ensures removal of all soap. If you’re washing a motorhome or larger fifth wheel, a fiberglass pole and soft brush make it easier to get those “hard-to-reach” places. I use the same method for cleaning fiberglass or aluminum sides.
How Do I Remove Stains from the Side of My Camper?
When you’re dealing with really stubborn stains, you might need more than a stiff brush to get your camper sides squeaky clean.
There are many opinions about the best way to remove these stubborn stains, but we have a simple formula to offer in 4 steps:
Step 1: Use your preferred cleaning agent and mix it with water in a 20-gallon lawn sprayer. Some recommended products include hydrogen peroxide, denatured alcohol, Kaboom, Oxy Clean White Revive or other effective stain removers. (Be sure to test the product of choice on an inconspicuous part of your RV siding first to make sure it doesn’t damage your siding.)
Step 2: Spray the cleaner/water mixer over all the streaks on your camper and allow it to sit for at least 5-10 minutes.
Step 3. Use a garden hose with a pressurized spray nozzle to rinse off the cleaner. If the stain won’t budge, use a soft cloth or bristle brush to scrub the streak and rinse again.
Step 4. Repeat if necessary, and consider increasing the time you let the cleaning agent sit by about 5 minutes this time. You might also scrub with a cloth or brush before rinsing.
If this doesn’t work, consider using a Magic Eraser or a stronger cleaning agent to get the job done. But this is a tried and true method that’s been used time and time again to remove those pesky streaks and restore your camper to its former glory.
Window, Door, and Storage Compartment Seals
Every window, door, and slide in an RV has some sort of gasket or flexible rubber seal. These rubber pieces are designed to be flexible to protect the RV from wind and rain. Keeping these parts clean helps preserve them and keep them soft and flexible, meaning fewer leaks and longer lasting seals. Once a seal becomes dry and loses its flexibility, it must be replaced, which can be expensive.
Silicone-based cleaners help keep your rubber seals from drying out. The best way to apply the silicone is to spray it onto a rag and wipe it onto the rubber seals. If you want to go the extra mile, tape around the seals to avoid getting the silicone on the window glass or on the paint (although I rarely see anyone go to those lengths).
How to Clean Tires, Rims, and Wheels
The two types of wheels found most frequently on RVs are polished or coated aluminum with polished aluminum being the most common. Since polished aluminum wheels have no coating on them, they’re more susceptible to oxidation over time. As a matter of fact, there’s really no way to avoid it. Unless you have the expensive option of coated wheels, the polished aluminum wheels on your RV will become dull and fade eventually.
You can restore the shine in one simple step with McKee’s RV Aluminum & Metal Restoring Spray. It’s the easiest way to clean your wheels. After you wash your wheels just spray it on and rinse it off. You don’t have to scrub with this stuff.
Brown tires are all too familiar, especially when you’ve used caustic degreasers or never used a protective tire gel. In this case, you could use a product called McKee’s 37 Tire & Rubber Rejuvenator. It removes browning and grease from tires and restores the dark black color.
When tires are made they have antiozonants, rubber conditioners, and UV absorbers built into the rubber to help keep the tire flexible. The wrong cleaner will actually cause these protectants to leach out of the tire, resulting in browning, discoloration, and eventually cracking. McKee’s 37 Tire & Rubber Rejuvenator is non-caustic, non-acidic, and it won’t harm your tires!
The Best Way to Clean Glass on Your Camper
If you have a drivable motorhome the windshield is your window to the world while you’re driving. And once you set up camp in any type of RV, clean windows make any view more vivid and enjoyable. The trick is to get clean, streak-free windows without damaging the rubber seals around the windows or the windshield wipers.
Most glass cleaners contain ammonia and alcohol, which are great for cutting through grease and dirt, but they cause rubber and vinyl to dry out. So, your rubber windshield wipers and seals around your windows will dry out much quicker than normal. And if you have tinted windows ammonia will remove the tinting from the windows.
So, it’s best to find glass cleaning products that are ammonia-free and tint-safe like Stoner Invisible Glass, BLACKFIRE Glass Cleaner, Wolfgang Perfekt Vision Glass Cleaner, McKee’s 37 Krystal Vision Glass Cleaner, and Mothers ReVision Glass + Surface Cleaner. Stoner and Wolfgang even make a cleaning tool that you can screw onto an extension pole to more easily clean your windshield. Just follow the manufacturers cleaning instructions for a gorgeous view.
Sometimes, even after you clean your glass windows, water spots or a cloudy film just won’t come off. If this happens you may need to polish your glass. A quality glass polish like Wolfgang Perfekt Vision Glass Polish will remove water spots and cloudiness to restore perfect clarity to your windows. Try polishing the glass by hand first, and if that doesn’t work, you can use a polisher at a low speed with very little pressure. When the polish starts to dry, buff the residue away with a microfiber towel.
Once you’ve cleaned your windows, it’s time to add a window sealant and rain repellent. The sealant will prevent future spots and cloudiness from forming, and the repellent will cause rain to bead up and run off the glass.
RainX is ok to use but a much better product is Pinnacle GlassCoat Window Sealant with Rain Repellent. You should also apply it directly to your windshield wipers to keep the rubber soft and subtle too. Re-apply the windshield sealant and rain repellent whenever you wash your windows.
Another way to keep your windshield clean is to add a washer fluid additive. The typical washer fluid available at your local gas station consists of nothing but water and alcohol.
In fact, alcohol is just used to keep the washer fluid from freezing, not for its cleaning ability. It doesn’t clean well and it can leave a haze on the windshield. Several companies have created washer fluid additives like Pinnacle GlassWork Windshield Washer Booster, for example, that create a slicker washer fluid that cleans much better without streaking.
If you use a good sealant and water repellent, it will keep your windows cleaner and make cleaning them in the future faster and easier. And, the rubber seals and windshield wipers will last longer too.
How to Clean Plastic on the Outside of Your Camper
Most camper trailers have plastic somewhere on the exterior. Light covers, roof vents, and AC covers are all made of plastic. If you have a drivable RV, you have plastic headlight covers too. Plastic is pretty easy to clean and all you need is soapy water and a soft bristled brush. Some plastic parts like light covers could retain water spots, and you can prevent that by drying the plastic right after you wash it.
Plastic headlight covers can become cloudy or yellow over time. They’re made from polycarbonate plastic, just like my reading glasses and sunglasses too. Polycarbonate is perfect for these applications because it’s hard to break. But this plastic is vulnerable to the sun’s rays so it’s made with a protective UV film. But over time it loses the protective film which allows the plastic to oxidize and become cloudy or yellow.
There are many many articles about how to repair cloudy headlight covers using everything from brake fluid to toothpaste. I’ve tried a bunch of DIY products and a few headlight cover cleaning kits too, but none of them work very well.
There’s some improvement, but not much, and it doesn’t last. The best way to clean oxidized headlight covers is to sand, polish, wax, and apply a new UV protective film to them. I’ve done it myself, and it works. Here are the five steps to properly restore your headlight covers.
- Clean the headlight covers with dishwashing soap and water. Then dry them and tape off the area around the headlight covers.
- Wet sand the headlights with 1000 grit sandpaper in a horizontal direction for 5-10 minutes. Then wet sand with 2000 grit in a diagonal direction for 5-10 minutes. Then wet sand with the 3000 grit in the opposite diagonal direction for another 5-10 minutes. Keep the sandpaper wet the whole time.
- Now Polish your headlights with a good polycarbonate plastic polish like the Novus 3 part polish kit. Just follow the manufacturer’s instructions and take your time.
- Next, use a good auto wax and wax the headlight covers. Use a small circular motion and wax on/wax off.
- Finally, apply a UV sealant to your headlight covers. If you skip this step, you’ve wasted all the effort you put in so far because UV is what damages the headlight covers in the first place. And because you just sanded off the UV protectant layer, you have to apply more. Wolfgang has a great line of products and their UV sealant is top notch.
How to Clean RV Awnings
There are different types of awnings on the outside of a camper, and they each have different purposes. For example, window awnings provide shade and keep rain away from your RV windows while slide-out awnings protect the slide-out roof from debris and water. Then there are patio awnings, which provide shade and cover when you want to sit outside and enjoy the outdoors. The most important part of your awning is the fabric, and it’s usually one of two types: acrylic or vinyl.
To clean your awning, mix a mild dish detergent like Dawn dish soap and water in a bucket. Use a long-handled brush with soft bristles, and gently apply the soap mix to the top of the awning ONLY. Remember, do NOT start scrubbing yet.
Then roll up the awning and let it sit for 30 minutes. This will allow the soap to break down the dirt and penetrate through to the bottom of the fabric without breaking down the waterproofing underneath. After 30 minutes, extend the awning out fully, and thoroughly rinse both sides, being careful not to blast the fabric with the water. If the awning is clean, allow it to dry before rolling it back up to the stowed position.
If, however, you see there are still some stains on the awning, mix 1/2 cup of bleach with dawn detergent and about 3 gallons of water. Gently scrub just the stained areas. Let it sit for 5 minutes before rinsing. If the stain is still there, repeat once or twice.
RELATED READING: Check out our article called Homemade RV Awning Cleaner for a great way to make a DIY Awning cleaner and save a few bucks too!
What About Using a Professional RV Cleaning Service?
Since water is expensive, most RV parks won’t let you use their water to clean your RV. In fact, some RV parks recommend using a commercial cleaning company to wash your RV because they’re so convenient, and they don’t need to use the campground’s water. They can come right to your site and wash your RV using their own water, or they can wash your rig with water free cleaners.
Most of these services charge by the foot and offer different levels of RV cleaning or detailing. Just be sure to ask what products they use for the various materials on your camper trailer or motorhome to be sure you’re paying for a quality job that won’t inadvertently cause damage.
RELATED READING: Check out our article called Is Mobile RV Washing and Detailing Worth the Cost? before you hire someone to wash and detail your rig.
6 Related Questions to How to Clean the Outside of My Camper Trailer
1. Can I Use a Pressure Washer to Clean My Camper Trailer?
I’ve seen articles that say it’s ok to wash your RV with a pressure washer, but I don’t think it’s wise. First of all, overly high water pressure will cause significant damage. You can inadvertently remove decals, caulk, or even paint when pressure washing. Any areas that are sealed with products like silicone or other flexible materials can be damaged and compromised by using a pressure washer. And, pressure washers can force water into joints, and seals, thereby forcing water behind the walls, which could lead to water damage.
Just use a garden hose, a brush, and some elbow grease, and that should be all you need to properly clean your RV. If you choose to use a pressure washer just be careful and use a low-pressure setting. You should also avoid spraying any rubber seals or windows directly with a pressure washer.
RELATED READING: Check out our article called Is Pressure Washing an RV Safe? before you try pressure washing your RV!
2. How Can I Keep My RV Decals from Peeling?
Most decals found on RVs are made from vinyl. And two things are awful for vinyl–UV rays and petroleum-based products. There are two things you can do to protect the decals on your RV.
1) Reduce the amount of time your RV is in the sun by covering it when not in use, and 2) use a product called 303 Aerospace Protectant on your decals before waxing. Wax contains some petroleum, and the 303 Aerospace Protectant forms a barrier to prevent the wax from breaking down the decals.
3. Should I Wax My Camper?
Yes, you should wax your RV twice a year, once in the spring and once in the fall. Waxing your camper will prevent dirt and dust buildup as well as moisture.
However, as we learned from the question above, defend your decals before you wax your RV. And use a good quality wax on your RV.
4. How Do I Get My Camper White Again?
Renewing the bright white siding on your camper is more of a marathon than a sprint. You’ll need a combination of cleaning agents to get the job done, but the most important factor is elbow grease. Figure out which reviving agents work for your siding and use them regularly for best results.
You should be cleaning your camper a few times per year to keep it looking white and clean. If you’re dealing with serious yellowing or heavy stains, try white-revive prodcuts like Oxy Clean White Revive mixed with water. Hydrogen peroxide, Zep Wet-Look Floor Polish, ammonia-based cleaners (don’t mix with bleach!!), denatured alcohol, and other cleaning agents can help revitalize an old-looking camper.
Then, it’s your job to keep up the maintenance and prevent it from yellowing and staining in the future.
5. Can You Use Magic Eraser to Clean the Outside of Your Camper?
You’ll have a hard time finding a magic eraser big enough to clean the entire outside of your camper, but it’s a great option for smaller spots and streaks! A Magic Eraser is a delicately abrasive foam sponge that seems to magically remove stubborn spots. The key ingredient is malamine, a chemical compound that’s rich in nitrogen.
Magic Erasers are typically gentle, but you’ll want to spot test it before trying it on larger areas of your camper to make sure it won’t scratch.
Additionally, magic erasers won’t work on all streaks, especially thick tar or mud streaks. They’re best used for stains, and they’re pretty effective! But a long-present stain might not budge, even for this “magical” cleaning element.
5. Can I Wash My RV with Dawn Dish Soap?
It depends on what your RV is made of and a few other factors. You can likely wash parts of your RV (such as headlights and RV awnings), but you probably shouldn’t use it as the primary cleaning agent for your camper.
We wrote an article about it called Can I Wash My RV with Dawn Dish Soap? Just click the link to check it out!
Do you have any comments about cleaning the exterior of your camper trailer or motorhome? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below.
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