Experienced Winter Campers Share how car camping can be surprisingly comfortable.
Car camping generally refers to the practice of driving to a campground and setting up a tent. It’s called car camping because you have access to your car and you don’t have to carry everything you need in a backpack. But what about actually camping in your car?
With proper insight and planning, sleeping in your car can be a great way to get outside and wake up at the trailhead, the crag, or the slopes — even in the winter months. You don’t have to worry about a tent, a tarp, or snow and wind.
Top Tips for Sleeping in Your Car While Camping
The Dyrt campers prompted a helpful discussion in our Facebook Campfire group with lots of tips for sleeping in your car during the winter. We’ve included their insight below, along with some of our own.
(Are you part of The Facebook Campfire yet? There are great conversations going on over there — join us!)
1. Don’t Underestimate Your Bedding
“We winter camp in Indiana. Just have a good sleeping bag rated for winter temps and be sure to have an insulating sleeping pad under you.” — The Dyrt camper Dwayne Caldwell
There’s a reason this is tip #1. Bedding is basic; it’s car camping 101. But too many people overlook the basics when camping in their car. A car can protect you from the wind and snow, but it can still get as cold as a tent in the middle of the night. A warm-rated sleeping bag can make all the difference.
Remember, you don’t have to obsess over size and weight when you’re sleeping in your car. If you can fit it, bring it! (Within reason, of course.) We recommend packing a minimum of a 0º sleeping bag along with secondary layers in case of extreme cold.
2. One Wool Blanket Goes a Long Way
Ever hear the phrase, “Cotton kills”? Cotton traps moisture and can freeze, making it a potentially dangerous material to be wearing or sleeping under in the cold. Wool, on the other hand, is a natural insulator. Sleeping on top of a wool blanket can protect you from cold coming up from the floor, and wearing wool is of course a great way to stay cozy. To avoid the itch, we recommend also adding merino wool long underwear to your car camping kit.
3. Cheap, Quick Insulation With Sunshades
“Some good advice from skiers who overnight in their vehicles for early starts was reflective insulation. You can cut it to size — in addition to your insulated mattress and sleeping bag, it helps maintain heat.” — The Dyrt camper Shelly S.
Experienced vanlifers and road trippers all swear by a windshield sunshade. It’s a reflective, insulating material that’s sold to fit your windows. It also helps to keep the early morning light from waking you up at the crack of down.
4. Re-Use Boiled Water for Heat
Fill water bottles with hot water, wrap them in a towel, and stick them in your sleeping bag to keep it toasty.
5. Be EXTREMELY CAREFUL if you use a propane powered heater
“Mr Heater! You can screw onto classic camping stove propane tank or for longer burn time, bring your grill’s propane tank. We have a monitor in the van to detect any leaks.” — The Dyrt camper Roxzanne F.
A propane heater like the Little Buddy Heater can be great for heating small spaces like a car. But propane heaters remove oxygen from the air as they run; you absolutely must crack a window if you’re running one. The Little Buddy comes with an Oxygen Depletion Sensor with automatic shut-off, but it’s still best practice to only use the heater before you fall asleep.
6. Resist the Temptation to Use Your Car’s Lights
Don’t rely on the lights in your car to see. Keeping them on can drain the battery. Instead, bring a lantern, hang a headlamp, or string up some twinkle lights for extra cozy #campvibes.
7. Moisture is Coming; Crack a Window
It might seem counterintuitive to open a window with all that cold air out there. But moisture will collect in your car otherwise. A tiny crack will keep the moisture out, and keep you warmer.
8. Call Ahead or Call a Friend
“Check to see what facilities the park has open. Up in Maine, they close a lot of the buildings.” — The Dyrt camper Julie S.
If you’re staying at a designated park and/or campground, call ahead to make sure there are openings or that the grounds are even open. When established campgrounds are closed, you can always park on U.S. Forest Service roads, as long as you aren’t blocking traffic. If you don’t have Forest roads nearby, always have a backup: a friend’s driveway or a Wal Mart parking lot are solid backups.
9. New? Test it Out First
If you’re car camping during the winter for the first time, don’t venture deep into the backcountry. Instead, do a test run close to home, or close to civilization that offers cheap lodging options, should you decide to bail in the middle of the night.
Please remember to exercise your own judgement and caution when pursuing activities like sleeping in your car — especially in inclement weather. Use of any advice offered on the internet is done at your own risk.
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