Winter car camping is incredibly rewarding, but it’s also important to recognize the risks. When temperatures drop and precipitation hits the forecast, hazards arise both on the road and at the campsite. However, with the right attitude, knowledge, preparation, and gear, cold-weather road trips and winter car camping can become second nature. To help you conquer the cold, we’ve outlined five common hazards that you should expect this winter–as well as hacks to avoid or overcome them.
Hazard #1: Icy Roads
After the abominable snowman, icy roads are public enemy number one for winter road trippers and car campers. And while white snow and ice are visible (assuming you have functioning headlights, more on that below), black ice is an oft-invisible specter lurking where you least expect it. Regardless of what type of ice you’re dealing with, there’s nothing scarier than hitting a slick patch, losing traction, and spinning off the road or into oncoming traffic. Here are a few tips to help you keep the rubber on the road.
Hacks for Driving on Icy Roads
Accept That Not All Vehicles Are Ready For Icy Roads
While some 2WD drivers are comfortable gunning it into a blizzard with chains, we prefer to save snowy and icy routes for rigs with 4WD or AWD. If you do go on a winter road trip with a 2WD vehicle, don’t wait to spin out before you throw on chains
4WD Isn’t A Cure-All
Many drivers feel that 4WD is a magic bullet for icy roads, but that’s simply not the case. Without proper winter tires, traction is just a pipe dream. Our advice? Don’t skimp on winter tires! If you’re overwhelmed by the options available, we’re big fans of Nokian’s non-studded and studded winter tires. If you have 4WD but don’t have snow tires, invest in a solid set of chains.
Drive–and Brake–Slow and Smooth
On icy roads, it’s a smart idea to ease off the gas and drive slower than you normally would. When it’s time to brake, give yourself plenty of space between vehicles. Also, don’t slam the brakes–sudden braking ups your chances of spinning out of control. In the same vein, avoid abrupt cranking on the steering wheel or punching the gas, too. Instead, focus on smooth, precise steering, braking, and accelerating.
Practice, Practice, Practice
Practice might mean booking a driving course at a winter driving school like this one from Bridgestone, or it might mean finding an empty parking lot and getting familiar with braking and steering on ice. Getting reps in, as long as you’re in a controlled, safe environment, isn’t a bad idea.
If you do hit ice and spin out, a standard response is to panic, over-correct with the steering wheel, and slam the brakes. According to Autoblog, that’s precisely the wrong thing to do: “The natural reaction is to brake. Don't do that. Keep your feet off the pedals and steer into the skid until the car slows enough for you to regain control. If your car is front-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, gently pressing the accelerator can help straighten you out.”
Hazard #2: Precipitation and Low Visibility
Driving in a whiteout blizzard is extremely hazardous, and not just because of icy roads. Low visibility makes it easier to crash into other vehicles, guard rails, trees, you name it. Plus, it’s hard to tell where the road meets the shoulder, making skidding off the road more likely. A little vehicle upkeep will help you maintain visibility even when there’s heavy precipitation. And of course, a little research before you hit the road can help you avoid precipitation entirely.
Hacks for Better Visibility and Dodging Storms
Check, Clean, Replace, and Upgrade Your Headlights
Ice and other hazards are much easier to deal with if you can see them coming. Snow, slush, and ice can easily cover your headlights–if your beams aren’t as strong as they usually are, pull over to a safe spot and clean your headlights. If your stock headlights aren’t cutting it, consider upgrading to more powerful bulbs.
Windshield Prep and Snow Removal
Before you hit the road, check that your windshield wipers are functioning and wiper fluid is topped off. Use a scraper to clear snow and ice off your windshield. Clear snow from the roof of your car, too, as it can avalanche in transit and momentarily blind you or the car behind you.
Use Maps and Forecasting Apps to Circumvent or Avoid Bad Weather
While most of the hacks in this guide will help you deal with bad weather, there’s nothing safer than avoiding bad weather altogether. Mitigate your risk by using mapping apps to search for alternate routes, highway webcams to check roads, and forecasting apps to navigate weather windows.
Hazard #3: Closed Campgrounds and Unplowed Roads and Pull-Outs
Many campgrounds aren’t open in the winter months. It’s demoralizing to show up to a campground only to find a locked gate and several feet of snow. Similarly, many pull-outs or dirt roads that are go-to car camping zones in summer aren’t accessible in the winter due to snow levels. Again, a little pre-trip planning goes a long way–here are a few hacks to help you find a place to park and prep your car camp setup for winter.
Hacks for Finding Campgrounds in Winter, Digging Out Your Rig, and Ditching the Tent
Research Campgrounds & Roads
Do your research ahead of time, and be sure to check campground websites. Is it open? Ranger Google is your friend.
Have a Backup Plan
Use an app–we like iOverlandr–to look for potential campsites near your destination. Oftentimes, a plowed parking lot will be your best bet, so don’t discount Walmart or Cracker Barrel.
Have An Enclosed Camping Setup
Pitching a tent isn’t exactly inconspicuous, and if you’re going to spend the night in a Walmart parking lot, tents aren’t even allowed. With a Luno air mattress, you have an enclosed camping setup that’s allowed in aforementioned lots. And, in a pinch, you can stealth camp in residential areas and urban zones, too.
Visit Ski Resorts
Many ski resorts allow overnight parking in designated lots. Unlike closed campgrounds, ski resort parking lots are plowed frequently. Also, nothing beats waking up steps away from the chairlift. Sound like fun? Check out our Guide to Car Camping at Ski Resorts.
Bring a Shovel, Traction, and Maybe Even A Rope
Getting stuck in an unplowed pull-out or parking lot is an occupational hazard for the winter wanderer. Come prepared with a shovel at the minimum. Traction mats are another smart addition to your winter road trip kit. A tow rope, too, can be a welcome tool, especially if you’re caravanning with a friend or two.
Hazard #4: Frozen Water Supply
One of the main hazards winter campers face, especially at higher altitudes, is dehydration. And even if you do bring plenty of water, jugs and bottles can freeze overnight, making it difficult to have so much as a sip come daybreak. Here are a few of our favorite hacks to make sure we’re well-hydrated while winter car camping.
Hacks to Keep Water From Freezing While Winter Camping
Use Insulated Jugs and Bottles
The best way to minimize chances of freezing your water supply is to insulate your water bottle or use an insulated jug. Insulated drink dispensers are handy, too, especially because the lid pops open completely, making it easier to crack any ice layer that forms overnight.
Hot Water Bottle Trick
A common winter camping hack (one of our absolute favorites) is to fill a Nalgene with boiling water. Then, you can use it as a hot water bottle to keep your sleeping bag toasty. This technique has an additional benefit: it ensures that at least some water won’t freeze overnight, which helps facilitate melting snow in the morning.
Melting snow is a go-to hydration hack for winter campers, namely because you have an unlimited water source so long as you have fuel, a functioning stove, and access to snow. The trick with melting snow is to be patient: just fire up your camp stove, pour an inch or so of water into a pot, and slowly add scoops of clean, fresh powder as it melts.
- Pro tips:
- Starting with water is key. Don’t dump snow straight into an empty pot, as your pot will burn.
- Don’t forget to boil collected water for purification purposes.
Find Flowing Water
Even in high-alpine environments, it’s possible to find creeks and rivers that aren’t completely frozen. And if your water supply is freezing overnight, flowing water can be a literal lifesaver. However, be careful as you collect water, as slipping into an ice-cold stream is a surefire way to ruin a trip–or worse. Again, don’t forget to boil or treat collected water as needed.
Hazard #5: Condensation
If condensation had a dating profile, it’d say something like, “Enjoys small spaces, body heat, warm breath, and cold temperatures.” Unsurprisingly, condensation is every winter car camper’s nemesis. In most cases, condensation is more annoying than dangerous, but in extreme instances condensation can be a serious hazard and a contributing cause of hypothermia. While there’s no way to completely win the war against condensation while winter camping, a few smart hacks can help you win battle after battle.
Hacks for Coping with Condensation While Winter Car Camping
Cover Your Windows
Line your windows with pre-cut or DIY window shades to keep moisture from building up on the cold glass. This hack also helps keep your vehicle warmer, as windows leak precious heat
Have a Utility Towel Handy At All Times
We keep a “utility towel”–we like these ones from Nomadix–on hand whenever we’re winter car camping. You can use the towel to clean up condensation from the windows before it spreads to clothes, sleeping bags, and other gear.
Store Skis and Snowboards Outside
Lock skis and boards to roof racks or inside cargo boxes to keep unwanted snow from building up inside your vehicle.
Crack a Window or Two
It seems counter-intuitive to crack a window when winter car camping–who wants to let cold air in? Nonetheless, airflow can help minimize the formation of condensation in the first place, and we’d rather be a little chilly than soaking wet. Cracking multiple windows will further help circulate air and minimize condensation build-up.
Every Problem Has a Solution
These hazards and hacks are by no means an exhaustive list. Problems will always arise on the road–that challenge is partly what keeps us all coming back trip after trip. That said, as we’ve pointed out for each of the hazards listed above, every problem has a solution (or two). And if you keep a level head and prepare properly, winter road-tripping will be so rewarding that you won’t be counting down the months ‘til summer
Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you on the road,
The Luno Crew
PS. Looking for more cold-weather camping tips? Check out this recent in-depth article on winter car camping here–it includes 54 tips, tricks, and gear recommendations to help you stay warm and stoked wherever you roam.