Embrace the Chill: A Guide to Winter Car Camping

Winter Car Camping

Winter is not a time to hibernate; it’s a time to embrace the chill and embark on an adventure. For the explorer in you, winter car camping offers an opportunity to experience the wilderness in a way few people ever do. Whether you’re a backcountry skier, snowshoer, or simply someone who loves the tranquility of a snow-covered landscape, car camping in winter is an experience worth trying. Here’s your comprehensive guide to making the most of this unique adventure.

Know Your Limits: How Cold is Too Cold?

Winter car camping is an exhilarating experience, but it also requires careful consideration of the temperatures you’ll be facing. Knowing how cold is too cold is vital to ensure a safe and enjoyable adventure. Here’s a detailed guide to help you understand your limits:

Understanding Temperature Ratings

Most experts agree that an outside temperature below -30°F is too cold to sleep in your car. But in reality, temperatures lower than 32°F can involve some level of danger. Hypothermia can occur anywhere between 30 and 50°F with prolonged exposure, especially if you get wet.

Assessing Your Gear

Your safety and comfort depend largely on your particular gear and vehicle. Campers and RVs often have the most insulation and may include a safe propane or electric heater. A well-insulated cargo van without a heater may stay comfortable down to 0°F.

If you’re car camping in a regular vehicle without a heater, consider the temperature rating of your sleeping bag. For example, a 0°F sleeping bag will keep you comfortable down to that temperature, while a 15°F sleeping bag will be suitable down to 15°F.

Consider the Wind Chill

Wind chill can significantly lower the perceived temperature, making it feel much colder than the actual air temperature. Always check the wind chill factor when planning your winter car camping trip, and prepare accordingly.

Moisture and Hypothermia

Moisture can be a silent enemy when it comes to staying warm. Wet clothing or bedding can quickly sap your body heat, leading to hypothermia. Always ensure that your gear is dry, and avoid sweating by layering your clothing appropriately.

Personal Tolerance to Cold

Everyone’s tolerance to cold is different. Some may feel comfortable in temperatures that others find unbearable. Knowing your own limits and listening to your body is essential. If you start to feel too cold, it’s time to take action to warm up or seek shelter.

Emergency Preparedness

Always have a backup plan in case the temperatures drop unexpectedly or you find yourself in a situation where you’re too cold. Know the signs of hypothermia, have a plan for warming up quickly, and know where you can go for shelter if needed.

Setting Up Your Winter Camp

Setting up your winter camp is a crucial part of the winter car camping experience. It’s not just about finding a spot to park; it’s about creating a comfortable and safe environment that allows you to fully enjoy the winter wilderness. Here’s a detailed guide to help you set up your winter camp:

Pick the Right Sleeping Spot

Legal Considerations

Before you settle in for the night, make sure your parking location legally allows overnight camping. Many parking lots and trailheads have restrictions, so always check local regulations.

Terrain and Accessibility

Park on flat ground to ensure comfort while you sleep. Consider whether your spot will still be accessible in the morning, especially if there’s a chance of snowfall or freezing overnight. Avoid parking on roads that might get plowed or where you might get blocked in.

Think of Your Car Like a Tent

Your car is your shelter, but it requires some adjustments to make it suitable for winter camping.


Though your car will protect you from the wind and moisture, you’ll need to add insulation to stay warm. Use reflective sunshades, custom-fit Reflectix, or other insulating materials on your windows to retain heat.


Consider sleeping with a cracked window, especially if you’re camping in a humid area. A small crack allows airflow and prevents condensation, which can lead to freezing inside the car.

Set Up Your Bed Properly

Creating a warm and comfortable sleeping area is essential for a good night’s sleep.


Start with cushioned material on the floor of the car to prevent the metal from leaching heat. An insulated sleeping pad or thick memory foam mattress works well.

Sleeping Bag and Blankets

Choose a sleeping bag rated for sub-freezing temperatures and add wool blankets for extra warmth. Place blankets both above and below your body for optimal insulation.

Food and Hydration

Keep snacks and water accessible inside the car. Eating a small snack before bed can help maintain body temperature, and staying hydrated is essential in cold weather.

Safety Precautions

Never Sleep with Your Car Running

Run the car heater before bedtime, but never fall asleep with it on. Be aware of the risks of harmful emissions.

Emergency Plan

Have a backup plan and know the signs of hypothermia. If you wake up feeling too cold, drowsy, or confused, take immediate action to warm up.

Personalizing Your Space

Make your car feel like home by adding personal touches like pillows, fairy lights, or favorite books. Creating a cozy environment enhances the overall experience.

Stay Safe and Enjoy Winter Car Camping

Winter car camping is an adventure that offers unparalleled access to the beauty of the winter wilderness. However, it also comes with unique challenges and risks. Here’s a comprehensive guide to help you stay safe and enjoy your winter car camping experience to the fullest:

Dress for Success

Choose the Right Pajamas

Wear loose wool pajamas, socks, a wool hat, and even gloves. Avoid cotton, as it retains moisture. Your clothing should keep you warm and dry.


Layering is key to managing body temperature. Start with moisture-wicking base layers and add insulating layers as needed. Always have extra dry clothing available.

Insulate Your Car Windows

Glass won’t keep the heat in on its own. Use insulated/reflective sunshades or custom-cut Reflectix for your windshield and windows. Proper insulation can significantly increase heat retention inside the car.

Never Sleep with Your Car Running

Preheat Before Sleep

Run the car heater for 10 minutes before you turn in for the night, but then turn off the car. This will help you start the night warm.

Avoid Continuous Heating

Throughout the night, you may turn the car on and off intermittently to run the heater, but do not fall asleep with the heat on. This poses a risk of breathing harmful emissions.

Consider Sleeping with a Cracked Window

A fully enclosed car can lead to condensation and freezing. If you’re winter camping in a humid area, crack a window just enough to allow airflow. This helps in keeping the insulating layers dry.

Store Wet Gear Outside if Possible

Keep moisture out of the car by storing wet gear like snowy skis or boots outside or drying them off as much as possible before putting them in your car.

Utilize Hand and Toe Warmers

Hand and toe warmers, like HotHands Hand and Toe Warmers, can be a lifesaver. They stay hot for up to 10 hours, helping your extremities stay warm.

Eat and Hydrate Before Bed

Eating a small snack and going to the bathroom before bed helps keep your body temperature stable. Keep snacks and water within reach inside the car.

Have a Backup Plan

Recognize Hypothermia Signs

Know the signs of hypothermia, such as shivering, shallow breathing, confusion, and difficulty moving. If you experience these symptoms, warm up immediately.

Emergency Shelter

Establish a backup plan for shelter if it becomes too cold. Know where you can go, such as a nearby motel or home, and have a clear plan in place.

Respect Nature and Leave No Trace

Follow Leave No Trace principles by packing out all trash, minimizing campfire impact, and respecting wildlife and other campers.

Winter Car Camping Essentials

Winter car camping is an extraordinary way to experience the beauty of the season, but it requires specific gear and supplies to ensure safety, comfort, and enjoyment. Here’s a comprehensive list of winter car camping essentials:

Shelter and Sleeping

Insulated Sleeping Pad or Memory Foam Mattress

A thick, insulated sleeping pad or memory foam mattress provides a barrier between you and the cold car floor, offering comfort and heat retention.

Sub-Freezing Rated Sleeping Bag

Choose a sleeping bag rated for the lowest temperatures you expect to encounter. Consider adding a sleeping bag liner for extra warmth.

Wool Blankets

Wool is a natural insulator that doesn’t trap moisture, making it ideal for keeping you warm and dry.


Moisture-Wicking Base Layers

Choose base layers made of wool or synthetic materials that wick moisture away from your body.

Insulating Mid-Layers

Fleece or down jackets provide excellent insulation to keep you warm.

Waterproof and Windproof Outer Layers

Protect yourself from wind, snow, and rain with waterproof and windproof jackets and pants.


Don’t forget warm socks, gloves, a hat, and a scarf to protect your extremities.

Food and Cooking

Portable Stove or Grill

A portable stove or grill allows you to cook hot meals, essential for staying warm.

Insulated Food Containers

Keep your food warm with insulated containers.

Easy-to-Prepare Meals

Pack meals that are simple to prepare and provide high energy, like pasta, stews, or oatmeal.


Insulated Water Bottles

Keep your liquids from freezing with insulated water bottles.

Water Purification System

If you plan to source water from nature, have a reliable water purification system.

Safety and Navigation

First Aid Kit

A well-stocked first aid kit is essential for handling minor injuries or emergencies.

Maps and Compass or GPS

Even if you plan to stay near your car, having navigation tools is wise in case you decide to explore.

Emergency Whistle and Signal Mirror

These can be vital for signaling for help if needed.

Lighting and Power

Headlamp and Spare Batteries

A headlamp leaves your hands free for tasks and is essential for navigating in the dark.

Portable Charger

Keep your devices charged with a portable charger, especially if you plan to use them for navigation or communication.

Extras for Comfort and Enjoyment

Camp Chairs and Table

For lounging outside your car, consider collapsible chairs and a table.

Books, Games, or Music

Bring entertainment to enjoy during the long winter nights.


Capture the stunning winter landscapes with a good camera.

Conclusion: Embrace the Adventure of Car Camping in Winter

Winter car camping is more than just a way to spend a night; it’s an adventure that offers a unique perspective on nature. With proper preparation and the right gear, you can enjoy the beauty of winter from the comfort of your car. So pack up, head out, and embrace the chill. The wilderness is waiting.