Sleeping in a car during the winter can be both fun or miserable, depending on how well you plan ahead.
You see, car camping in winter months has different obstacles to overcome than the summer months do. The main one being the extreme cold, and preparing ahead of time for every single possible contingency that might occur.
The below 21+ tips for car camping in winter months don’t all need to be used to have a successful winter car camping trip. Instead, choose the ones that best fit your needs and budget. The overall goal no matter which tips you do end up using though is to stay safe and warm so you can get a good nights sleep and enjoy your entire trip.
So without further ado, let’s get into the list (which is in no particular order of importance)!
How to Stay Warm in a Car Overnight
1. Using reflective foam insulation to insulate your car. There are two main issues when it comes to keeping your car warm: generating enough heat, and keeping that heat inside as long as possible. Using foam insulation and fitting it for your car windows hugely solves the second issue.
By using reflective foam insulation (that you can get at any home improvement store), you can cut them out to fit your cars windows and easily store them until it comes time to go car camping. This is both a fairly cheap way on how to insulate your car for winter and also a way to have some privacy and stealthiness.
To do this right, there are 5 simple steps to follow:
- Buy some reflective foam insulation that’s 1-2 inches thick at a local home improvement store
- Cut them out to fit each of your cars windows (it’s important to cut them just right so they will fit perfectly in your windows when you are ready to use them)
- Tape the edges to keep it nice and clean
- Paint the outer side black and keep the inside reflective (this keeps you discreet while reflecting heat back into the car)
- Store them until you are ready to use. When you use them, they should fit nice and snug in your windows without any other modifications
2. Invest in a good winter sleeping bag and foam mattress. This tip to get a really good sleeping bag is probably a top priority if you really want to stay warm in your car in the winter. In addition to having a really good winter sleeping bag designed for the temperatures you’ll be up against, getting a foam mattress will give you great insulation below you.
There are many options out there for sleeping bags and camping mattress options, so it’s best to find which is right for you. The best tip for a sleeping mattress in the case of very cold temperature is to avoid any air mattress, it’ll steal more heat from you than a foam one will.
3. Layers layers layers! A great line of defense can start with what you wear when you go to bed. I know it might be comfy to strip down, but it might not be a smart thing to do when it’s negative 10 degrees outside. It’s probably in your best interest to layer up on both your upper and lower body. In addition, hats, gloves, and socks are a must if you want to retain as much heat as possible.
4. Bring extra wool blankets. If things end up colder than expected, it’s always a great idea to have extra blankets around. These extra blankets are great for not only putting over you, but also act as a great insulator below you in tandem with a good foam mattress pad.
5. Use a portable car heater. Bringing along a portable winter car camping heater can be an effective way to take the edge off of the cold temperature. There are a few different types of heaters you can go with, some that run from your cigarette lighter to ones that run on propane.
Since cars are such confined in space, it’s very important to make sure you have some things set in place to ensure you don’t get co2 poisoning while you sleep.
For starters, when you run a heater inside your car that outputs co2, it is important to have a window open for ventilation. On top of that, a portable carbon monoxide detector can go a long way in making sure you are in safe conditions at all times. If you don’t want to go out and buy an entirely separate carbon monoxide detector, some heaters have low oxygen sensors which will make the heater turn off automatically.
In addition to all of these precautions, I personally wouldn’t recommend running this type of heater while sleeping in a car all night – it really isn’t worth the risk. Instead, it’s great for right before bed and as soon as you wake up to get the car warm quickly.
6. Heat up rocks or bricks with a fire outside before going to bed. Alternatively, if you don’t have a heater – you can always make a fire, heat up some rocks or bricks, and place them inside the car. If you do end up doing this though, make sure the rocks or bricks aren’t touching the floor of your car. Instead, put rocks below them and limit the surface area they touch so more heat gets transferred to the air. This is a great and virtually free way to get some heat in your car that will last for a couple hours.
7. Run your car heater right before sleeping. When we car camp, we have the luxury of being able to use all of the amenities the car itself offers. This includes the heating system your car has. It’s a great idea, in conjunction with other heating tips to keep the car heated for longer, to blast your cars heating system right before you hit the sack. Do it until you can barely stand it to retain warmth as long as possible.
8. Don’t forget a window scraper. Sleeping in a car all night will cause some moisture build up on the inside of your car. The build up will really depend on how much ventilation you had overnight with your opened windows. In the case where your windows do get condensation on them, expect them to freeze over. It’s going to take way too long for your car to heat up and melt all of your windows to be able to safely see out, so speed up the process and make sure you have a window scraper (or even a towel) to get the ice off from inside your windows in the morning!
And of course, the outside might have some build up that will need taking care of too (especially if it snowed).
9. Choosing a good location to park. If you have a choice, trying being strategic where you park. Since it’s recommended to have the windows open slightly to let air through, an area that is really windy will suck the heat right out of your car. Try to park in an area that is protected by the wind, such as the side of a building or next to a hill or trees if you are in the wilderness.
It’s also clever to park in a spot that will get the earliest sun exposure so you’re car starts to heat up in the morning as soon as possible.
10. The higher you are in the car, the better. Sadly, heat won’t stay on the floor of your car – it rises! Building a platform or bringing a cot to sleep on will get you that much closer to the ceiling of your car, where the most heat goes to.
11. Bring sufficient ways to charge your electronics. The cold not only effects our bodies, but it also can effect your batteries and make them lose their charge faster. A good portable solar charger can be the perfect solution for charging all of your electronics while you sleep without draining your car battery.
Tip: Bring your electronics into your sleeping bag with you to keep them warm so they don’t get damaged by the cold and frost build up they’d be exposed to outside of your sleeping bag.
12. Have a way to dry your clothes. It’s pretty agreeable to say that wet clothes are no fun. And since it’s cold out while we are car camping in the winter, it’s going to take a long time for things to dry out. Utilizing things like boot heaters to dry out your shoes can be an effective way to get wet shoes dry overnight.
If you don’t have any other way to dry out your clothes and shoes though, using a hot car engine to dry out your clothing can be the next best option if you’ve got nothing else.
13. Put hand warmers in your sleeping bag. Hand and foot warmers aren’t a super sustainable and sufficient heat source for extremely cold temperatures, but if your trip is only for a couple nights then bringing some warmers along to place inside the bottom your sleeping bag at night will be an easy way to keep your feet from freezing off.
14. Add boiling water to bottles for inside your sleeping bag. Let’s say you don’t have any hand warmers, what then? Well, if you can get a fire started and have extra bottles: boil up some water, put them into the bottles, and place them under your blankets.
Tip: Bring along a good insulated bottle to have some hot water available as soon as you wake up too!
15. Use a car electric blanket. It’s up for debate on whether or not it’s recommended to fall asleep with a car electric blanket on or not, but it’s surely an effective way to heat up your entire body with an even heat source.
Staying on the safe side, using it up until you sleep is a safe bet. And if you do end up waking up in the middle of the night, turning it on until you are warmed back up is always a viable option.
16. Keep your car window cracked. I know what you’re thinking, “keep my window open while it’s -10?!” – but hear me out.
Keeping your car window cracked open, even in the winter, can keep too much moisture from building up. This moisture will not only build up on your windows, but if there is enough – it will start to build up on everything else. The last thing you want is your sleeping bag to be covered in ice when you wake up.
Tip: They also have portable car dehumidifiers (the times we live in are great), which will seriously aid in preventing moisture build up (which will freeze and be no fun to get off).
17. Save money and buy winter gear during the summer. Plan ahead and try to buy your winter gear in the summer to get some better deals. The savings you will get aren’t crazy good, but they can be worth buying before winter comes if you are lucky enough to think about your future winter car camping trips ahead of time!
18. Preparing your car for the cold temperatures. At the top of priorities, it’s important to make sure your car will be fit to drive after a cold night. The worst thing possible to happen is you get stuck in the middle of nowhere when it’s cold out and only have 2-days worth of supplies.
Start thinking about having extras of every part that is more prone to fail in the cold. Think of things like an extra car battery and spark plugs.
Additionally, having extra gas, jumper cables, and a spare tire can be a life saver in the event of a failure. Also winter grade oil, windshield washer formulated for the cold, and winter tires will help even more to keep your car on the road.
Tip: I personally have never used one, but an engine blanket might be a good idea if your car doesn’t do well in the cold or it’s planned to be very cold when you go on your car camping trip. It’s the only literal way on how to keep your car warm overnight.
19. If something in your setup has failed, wake up every few hours to reheat cabin. Let’s say all of your sources of heat failed. You can’t make a fire, you have no car heater, no hand warmers, nothing.
Your next best bet is to wake up every few hours (or whenever your body wakes you up from being so cold), warm up your car, and blast the heat like mentioned earlier in tip 7. Sure, you won’t get a perfect night of sleep, but it will at least enable you to enjoy a couple hours of sleep which is a lot better than none.
20. Be ready for the morning. It’s a high possibility for snowfall on your winter car camping trip and so we have to plan ahead for that. Prepare yourself to deal with the possibility to be stuck in snow, which will require a decent shovel and kitty litter to gain traction. Not only that, but your door locks could get frozen, the car might not start, etc. Hopefully though if you plan for all of this, you will know what to do in any possible scenario to get out of it safely.
21. Test your setup. Please, please, please – test your setup before going out to the middle of nowhere and sleeping in a car during the winter. It’s just a bad idea not to test your winter car camping setup without testing it close to home first, where you can easily go inside and be safe if things go wrong. One night should be enough to find the flaws in your setup, which you can then go back and fix before going out on an official outing.
A few extra tips
- Keep water bottles upside down so the bottom freezes first
- Use wooden utensils in the morning, they don’t get as cold as metal ones do and will help keep your food warmer
- Never sleep fully enclosed in your sleeping bag. Condensation can build up, acting like a sealant, and can prevent fresh air from coming in
- Bring a pee bottle! Making your body keep your pee warm will only steal from its ability to keep you warm (plus, it’s uncomfortable not to pee!)
A mixture of all these tips will really ensure you have a much warmer, and safer, car camping trip during cold temperatures. And it really can’t be emphasized enough on how important it is to test your setup before heading out far from home.
But with all of these tips, we must be missing some! Maybe you’ve came up with a unique little hack for car camping in the winter or have seen some other tip we didn’t mention; we’d love to hear about it. Feel free to comment down below your favorite winter car camping tip to stay cozy in your car while it’s cold.