While many car campers balk at the first sign of snow, we’re big fans of cold-weather car camping. But before we school you on nine helpful cold-weather car camping hacks, here are a few reasons to give a fall or winter road trip a crack.
Why Cold-Weather Car Camping? Four Reasons to Camp in Your Car in Fall or Winter
1. Say Ciao to Crowds
After Labor Day weekend, the throngs of summer immediately start to thin. Popular outdoor recreation destinations—from national parks and monuments to surf breaks, climbing crags, and mountain towns—are generally less crowded once the mercury plummets. And you know what’s awesome about fewer crowds? More parking for your home away from home.
2. Your Very Own Leaf-Peeping Launchpad
Fall is inarguably the most striking time of year in the mountains—don’t @ us about wildflowers—and car camping gives you a front-row seat to nature’s most impressive fireworks show. Granted, it’s a bit late for a leaf-peeping road trip this year, but that doesn’t mean you can’t start scheming for next September and October.
3. Ski-In, Ski-Out Lodging at a Fraction of the Cost
A surprising number of ski resorts allow overnight camping. Among them:
- Crystal Mountain Resort and Steven’s Pass in Washington
- Mt. Bachelor in Oregon
- Whitefish in Montana
- Wolf Creek in Colorado
Oftentimes, resorts will charge an overnight fee, but it’s always drastically cheaper than booking a comparably positioned ski-in, ski-out condo.
4. Mobility to Chase Snow and Swell
Booking a ski or surf vacation months in advance is always a crapshoot. You’re blocking off the calendar, crossing your fingers, and praying that your planned vacation lines up with a favorable forecast. On the other hand, car camping allows you to call an audible and switch up your itinerary. Colorado’s bone dry? Utah just got dumped on—let’s go. The Oregon coast is blown-out? Time to explore the more sheltered waves of northern Washington.
Nine Tips for Car Camping in Cold Weather
Car camping in cold temperatures, gnarly weather, and severe snow is a daunting prospect for anyone, especially for first-timers. Here are a few tips and tricks to keep you warm, dry, safe, and stoked on your next cold-weather adventure.
1. Make Sure Your Car is Well-Maintained and Ready for Snow
Breakdowns are especially brutal mid-winter. Just like you want your skis or boards waxed and tuned up before you hit the slopes, make sure your vehicle is in tip-top shape before you hit the road. If snow is in the forecast, 4WD and snow tires or chains are a must.
2. Dial-in Your Mattress Setup
Luno Air Mattresses are thick, cushy, and make car camping much more comfortable. In sub-freezing temperatures, though, we like to throw a hard-foam insulating pad—like a cheap Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest or Z-Lite—underneath or on top of the Luno. This extra insulation makes your Luno much more versatile for four-season use.
3. Invest in Winter-Ready Sleeping Bags and Clothing
The 30 or 40-degree sleeping bag you use in summer won’t be sufficient mid-winter. Instead, opt for a plush, lofty 0, -10, -15, or even -20-degree bag. Additionally, smart car campers avoid cotton clothes and layer appropriately with merino base layers, insulated jackets, and puffy pants to stay warm.
4. Insulate Your Car Windows for Winter Camping
There’s a reason why cabins in cold climates sport double- or even triple-pane windows: glass leaks heat like a sieve! The best way to get your car ready for winter camping is by insulating the windows. Use newspaper to trace the shape of each window, trim proportionate panels out of Reflectix, and use magnets or tape to hold the panels in place. The reflective foil will trap your body heat inside the vehicle and keep windows from leeching precious warmth.
To increase the cold-weather utility of these panels, cover the exterior of each panel with black fabric or tape—this will absorb solar heat and warm up your vehicle on sunny mornings. You can flip the panels in the summer—so Reflectix is facing out and black is facing in—to keep your car cooler.
5. Plows Don’t Care About Your Epic Parking Spot
Before you park for the night, be on the lookout for signs regarding plow schedules. You don’t want to get a ticket, get plowed in, or get woken up by a cranky cop or peeved plow driver.
6. Heat Things Up (Responsibly)
There are a few ways to heat your car when car camping in the winter. The easiest is to turn up the heat en route to your campsite. Blasting warm air while you’re driving isn’t a permanent solution, of course. Still, it will allow you to get comfortably situated in your warm sleeping bag before your whip turns into a refrigerator.
Our favorite method to stay warm while sleeping in a chilly car? Boil water before bed (we like using a Jetboil), pour it into a Nalgene, and tuck the bottle between your legs or feet while you sleep. That warmth will last for hours, and in the morning, you’ll have a water bottle that isn’t frozen solid.
You can also employ a Little Buddy Propane Heater. These portable powerhouses pack a punch when heating a small space like a Subaru Forester or Toyota Land Cruiser. However, you must use a heater responsibly. Here are a few tips:
- Crack a window. You must have oxygen flowing into the car while operating a heater. Additionally, propane heaters put out wet heat, and cracking a window helps with the inevitable condensation—more on that below.
- Don’t fall asleep with the heater blasting. The last thing you want is to kick or bump the heater and light your beloved adventure rig on fire. We built Luno Mattresses to withstand sharp objects like pine needles and puppy paws, but they aren’t impervious to 3,800 BTUs of direct heat.
- Invest in portable carbon monoxide and smoke alarms—this is a no-brainer if you’re using a propane heater in such a tiny space.
7. Condensation is a Vibe Killer
It’s easy to stay warm while sleeping in your vehicle in cold weather, but it’s much trickier to stay dry. A propane heater might sound like a brilliant way to dry off your wet gear, but again, propane gives off wet heat. A Little Buddy or the like won’t dry your gear; it will just warm it up.
Cracking a window can help combat condensation, as can installing a fan in the roof of your truck camper shell. This last option isn’t practical for those of us who car camp in SUVs or crossovers, but dehumidifiers designed for boats and RVs are a quick-and-easy hack. It also pays to have a sponge or rag on hand to wipe down surfaces as needed.
8. Be Smart About Your Wet Gear
If you’re storing skis and boards inside your car, scrape them off as much as possible beforehand and stash them in a spot that won’t get your clothes or bedding wet. If you don’t have a designated gear stash spot in your vehicle, store snowy skis and boards outside on a ski rack, in a roof box, or hidden beneath your vehicle. If you’re storing gear outside, scrape skis and boards before going to bed to save yourself a chore in the morning.
Hang up wet outerwear—don’t just bunch it up. Use clothes hangers and the built-in hooks or handles in your vehicle’s ceiling. You can even use those handles to rig a mini clothesline. That said, you may have a hard time thoroughly drying your kit overnight, so it’s never a bad idea to bring a second set of outerwear.
To dry ski and snowboard boots overnight, we suggest you boil water, pour it into half-liter Nalgenes, and then tuck the Nalgenes into your boot liners. Another option is to remove your liners and tuck them into the bottom of your sleeping bag. We do this with gloves, goggles, long underwear, and beanies as well. Sleeping with wet gear inside your sleeping bag isn’t ideal, but you’ll be stoked to have warm, dry gear in the morning—especially if you’ve ever had to slip a foot into a ski boot that’s frozen solid overnight.
9. Pee Bottles are Your New Favorite Piece of Outdoor Gear
Last but not least, get yourself a pee bottle. After lighting your vehicle on fire, the last thing you want to do is leave the warmth of your sleeping bag to take a leak in the middle of the night. Make sure your pee bottle or jar is wide-mouthed, leakproof, and easily distinguished from your water bottle—the latter goes without saying. Ladies, a pee jar is much easier to operate with a pee funnel. If you’ve never used a pee funnel, we suggest you practice before using it in your sleeping bag.
Ready to go?
Follow these tips, and car camping in cold weather will become second nature. With a little preparation, you can turn your car, truck, or van into a winter-ready adventure rig. Enjoy the snow, travel safe, and stay tuned to the Luno Journal for more car camping hacks down the road.