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Mastering the Art of Winter Car Camping

There’s no doubt that winter car camping comes with a few more challenges than your average trip. But the beauty and calm that you’ll experience in a winter wonderland is unmatched.

With a little bit of preparation and the right knowledge, anyone can thrive in the cold. And have the opportunity to wake up to silent, white mornings like nothing you’ve ever seen.

So read on for everything you could ever need to know to master the art of winter car camping!

Woman traveller enjoy coffee time on back storage of car with scenery view of the mountain and mist morning in background

Preparing Your Car

Insulation

First and foremost, you need to make sure your car has the right insulation to keep you warm at night. Starting with the windows.

Without a good insulator on your windows to keep the cold out and the heat in, an overnight trip in your car can become dangerous. Before you leave, be sure to measure and cut out insulation strips that you can tape over your windows.

Good, warm blankets are another important insulator. The walls and seats in your car will get really cold at night. To the point where it will feel like you’re sleeping on ice. You need a barrier between you and the car to stop that cold from seeping through.

Suppose you can separate where you sleep from the two front seats, even better! That way the extra cold that the windshield lets in can’t get to you as easily.

Storage

During snowy winter car camping trips, it’s nearly impossible to stay dry while enjoying the day. Whether you’re out on the hill or just out for a walk, snow will soak into your stuff.

You may not feel that wetness during the day, but it will get a lot worse at night. That’s why it’s really important to have a separate storage area for your wet things.

rooftop cargo carrier is best for equipment since it makes it impossible for the wet gear to soak into anything else or drip onto you. But it also makes it hard for your stuff to dry. Throwing in a few hot water bottles will help, but it’s not perfect.

For wet clothes, it’s better to keep them in a wet bag with some rice. You want something small enough to fit in your sleeping bag with you overnight so they can dry. You can also throw in a bounce sheet to keep things smelling fresh!

Sleeping Area

When winter car camping, it’s best to have a car with seats that can fold down to create a flat sleeping area in the back.

You’ll also need to bring a mattress or sleeping pad of some sort. If you can get an insulated sleeping pad, even better! This will improve that barrier between you and the car that the blanket is already helping to make.

To stay even warmer, insert a blanket or a piece of that window insulator between you and your mattress pad!

Sleeping Bag

If you’re winter car camping with another person and are sharing body heat, a duvet and blankets might be enough to keep you warm. But in extreme colds, and when you’re on your own, you need a good sleeping bag.

In general, sleeping bags are divided into either the summer, three-season, or winter temperature categories. But the sleeping bags that land in the winter category are still made for a range of climates.

You should only ever go winter car camping with a sleeping bag that can withstand at least temperatures as low as 0º Farrenheit. You also want it to be shaped in the mummy style since this is the only shape specifically designed to keep sleepers warm in cold conditions.


Planning Your Trip

winter car camping

Weather

Knowing the weather you’ll be dealing with is a must for any camping trip. But it’s even more important on a winter car camping trip.

Never underestimate how intensely the temperature can drop at night. Or how quickly short winter days can slip past you.

At the beginning of your trip, when you’re still getting a feel for your routine, it’s best to have an alarm to remind you when sunset is approaching. That way, you’ll never have to sit in a cold car, unprepared for nightfall.

Location

It’s common to make the roadside your campsite during a winter car camping trip. On snowy nights, always check the plow schedules and routes before you pick your spot.

Sometimes, they’re impossible to avoid, like if a big storm rolls by during the night or if it’s a small town and there’s nowhere else to go.

But even if you have to wake up in the middle of the night to move your car or spend a little extra time driving to the right spot, it’s better than having to dig yourself out of a snow bank when you wake up.


What Clothes to Bring

A group of friends sets up a cozy campfire in the woods, sharing stories and roasting marshmallows during a winter camping trip. Generative Ai.

Base Layers

As the piece of clothing closest to your body, the base layer has a very important job. That’s why you shouldn’t just choose something thin that can fit under your other layers. You need shirts and pants that can effectively wick your sweat.

Wet clothing is one of the most dangerous things to have during a winter car camping trip. The cold that wetness holds will sit right up against your skin, making it almost impossible to keep yourself warm.

Only base layers made from merino woolpolyester, or nylon that are specifically designed to dry quickly and hug the body should be brought camping.

Middle Layers

When it comes to mid-layers for the upper body, there’s a wide range of possible options. During a winter car camping trip, it’s best to have multiple pieces along that range at your disposal because mid-layers are the biggest part of what will keep you warm.

Unless you have the most technical option on the market, like the Arceteryx Atom, you’ll want at least a turtleneck and a hoodie on you. Preferably of different thicknesses so that you can wear both if needed.

In terms of middle layers for your bottom half, a good pair of midweight fleece pants is a great option. You don’t want it to be too bulky, but you need it to be able to keep you warm. That’s why fleece or wool are good materials to look for.

Outer Layers

The outer layer’s main job is to protect from rain and wind. Unless you are planning a trip to the Arctic or another extreme climate, you shouldn’t need a full-on winter jacket on top of all your other layers of clothing.

You just need a good shell to keep the brunt of the elements off you. And if you’re planning lots of winter activities, you don’t want anything too long.

Something made out of GORE-TEX, like the Beta AR, is always a good choice. That way, you can trust it to be completely waterproof. A treated shell, like the Rainier, is also a good option. But the waterproofing won’t last as long as GORE-TEX will.

Pajamas

Sleeping bags are not the easiest things to clean, which is why it’s best to always wear long pajamas to sleep. Anything that will reduce the amount of sweat that seeps into your sleeping bag and damages the materials is a plus.

But during a winter car camping trip, you may have to go a step further. Even the best sleeping bags need a little help keeping you warm.

Always keep your mid-layers close to your sleeping bag at night. That way, it’s an easy reach to slip them on when the warmth in your car starts to lose to the cold at night.

Your Extremities

Your hands, feet, and head get colder a lot faster than any other part of your body. That’s why it’s even more important to have the right layers and protection for them.

Every winter car camping packing list should include two layers of gloves, two layers of socks, and two layers of hats.

A thinner running glove underneath your winter mittens allows you to slip off the bully pair and gain some dexterity without losing all the warmth that you’ve built up. And a sweat-wicking sock underneath your warm, bulky pair is necessary for fighting that dangerous, frostbiting wetness.

Lastly, a skull cap that can fit under your helmet or even a larger winter beanie ensures the most important part of your body is always kept warm!


Preparing for Bed

Outdoor camping photo. tent in the middle of nature, beautiful landscape. natural, protected area. image created with ai

Always PreHeat the Car

Before climbing into bed, turn your car heaters on and let the inside warm up as much as possible. This, paired with your blanket and window insulation, will create a pocket of warmth that should last most of the night.

Plus, while your car heats up, you can finish your nightly routine and the rest of your bedtime preparations.

Just be sure to keep an eye on how long you’ve left your car running. You don’t want to risk draining the battery. To be safe, a good rule is to fully start your car every 10 to 15 minutes and to keep it running for at least five minutes.

If your battery ever does completely die, know that it takes 30 minutes for your car to fully recharge it after being jump-started.

Hot Water Bottles

Whether you just pour boiling water in your normal bottle or get a real hot water bladder, the extra bit of warmth at night will be a game-changer!

But if you do plan to use a normal water bottle, be sure to check that it can withstand the heat of the boiling water. A bottle that’s made from high-quality plastic, like a Nalgene, or one that’s made from stainless steel, like a Swell, is best.

A real bladder will keep the warmth the longest. It’s also more comfortable and usually comes with a soft, cozy sleeve.

Pee Bottles

In extreme colds, it’s not worth it to let any warm air escape your sleeping area by getting out to pee.

The idea of peeing in a bottle may seem crazy. But winter car camping is no joke, and sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

The task is definitely easier for men than it is for women, but there are things you can buy to help. If you only plan to use it for winter car camping, getting a funnel-like cap for the pee bottle is a good option. There are also more versatile products that can fit inside your pants if you also want to be able to pee standing up.


Safety Consideration

Woman in a camper sipping coffee

How Cold is Too Cold?

Depending on how long you are exposed to the elements, hypothermia becomes a possibility at any temperature between 30º and even 50º Farrenheit.

That’s why all winter car camping comes with its dangers. And it’s really important that you know when those dangers are too great.

Most experts agree that you should never sleep in your car if the outside temperature is -32º Farrenheit or below. No matter what setup you have or how good your clothes are.

It’s also not easy to predict when the temperature is going to drop like that. So, you should always have a backup plan. Somewhere nearby, with heating, mapped out for you to stay in emergencies.

Emergency Kits

Every winter car camper should have certain emergency kits and items in their vehicle at all times. First and foremost, tire chains that will fit on your snow tires in case of severely icy weather are a must.

You’ll also want to make sure that your first aid kit includes hand warmers among the normal bandages, antiseptic wipes, and so on.

Lastly, your car repair kit should include duct tape, extra insulation, and other tools that you could use to replace any damaged insulation throughout the vehicle.

Heaters

Packing a portable car heater is an easy and effective way to survive those really tough nights during your winter car camping trip.

Heaters also require air circulation. Otherwise, the carbon monoxide that it lets off could be incredibly dangerous.

If you do have a heater, always crack a window during the night. The heater should still do a pretty effective job of keeping the place warm, and the window will keep you out of danger.

Condensation

All that heat stored inside your car will build up a lot of condensation. Both on you and everything else inside the vehicle.

That’s why it’s a good idea to pack a dehumidifier with you on your winter car camping trip.


Wrapping Up the Art of Winter Car Camping

With these tips and tricks for mastering the art of winter car camping, you’ll learn to love the cold, and all the amazing sights winter has to offer!

And if you’re looking for more information on what to pack, check out this guide to Layering 101!