The phrase “if it were easy, everyone would do it” applies to cold-weather car camping more than just about anything. If car camping in freezing temps were a breeze, icy backroads and snowy campgrounds would be swamped with car campers all winter long, just like they are in the summer. Fortunately for us, that’s not the case.
Winter car camping is one of our all-time favorite activities for a few reasons, namely because crowds are in short supply. And you know how a pair of reading glasses can make anyone look smarter? Snow has that same universal magic—it makes any landscape, even a Cracker Barrel parking lot, look breathtakingly beautiful. Factor in skiing, snowboarding, backcountry travel, and more, and it’s no surprise we’re happy to brave the snow.
Just because winter car camping isn’t easy, however, doesn’t mean it can’t get easier. This helpful article focuses on how to stay warm while cold-weather car camping. Below, we’ll dive into a few tried-and-true tips and our favorite pieces of gear.
Cold-Weather Car Camping Packing Tips
This isn’t a particularly sexy tip, but it’s an underrated one that you should consider before leaving the driveway. If you throw all of your gear willy-nilly into your trunk, you will likely have to re-pack and re-assess upon arrival at your campsite. And if it’s snowing or raining? You might as well have buckled into a log on Disney’s Splash Mountain because you’re gonna get soaked.
The solution is simple: pack intentionally. That’s admittedly generic advice, though, so here are a few more specific tips to keep in mind:
Always Separate and Secure Wet Gear When Winter Camping
The quickest way to get cold on a winter car camping trip? Getting wet. If you have wet skis or snowboards, scrape snow and ice off and store them outside your vehicle, ideally in a lockable rack. We like the Kuat Grip 6—it’s easy to use, looks good on any rig, and fits 6 pairs of skis or 4 snowboards.
Another smart storage solution is a cargo box. These are more versatile than ski racks, as you can load them up with climbing gear, boots, touring equipment, and more. Check out the Yakima Skybox 18 on that front.
Remember To Dry Wet Gear Whenever—and However—Possible
Storage is trickier for wet jackets, pants, snow boots, and the like. If you store wet apparel in a roof box, it will freeze solid overnight, and that’s no fun for anyone. We like to keep wet gear separate from dry gear by using tubs or crates and creating a “wet gear zone”—we’re partial to using the front passenger seat. Also, take advantage of any dry, warm moments you can:
Supercharge Your Winter Camping Setup with GearDryer
One of our favorite innovators in the gear space over the last few years has been GearDryer, a Utah-based company laser-focused on air-blasting your wet boots, gloves, and outdoor essentials. They make a badass 12-boot dryer we use at home, but we’re talking road trips right now. On that front, they make two pragmatic products that are worth checking out:
Always Check the Weather
This goes without saying, but always check the weather before a winter camping trip. If you’re barreling headlong into a blizzard, you want to prepare accordingly.
How To Layer Like a Pro
Layering in winter can seem complex, but a simple, three-step strategy works no matter the conditions.
1) Base Layer: Warm and comfortable against the skin, the best base layers help keep you warm by providing minor insulation. They also keep you dry by wicking sweat. We’re big fans of natural fibers, particularly merino wool, which is extremely warm for its weight, wicks well, and has inherent anti-odor properties.
Pro Tip: Pay attention to base layer fabric weights. Lighter fabrics, around 150 grams per square meter (gsm), are better for high-output activities like backcountry skiing or snowboarding in spring conditions. Heavier fabrics—250 gsm and higher—are ideal for winter camping in freezing conditions.
2) Midlayer: The bulk of your warmth in winter comes from your midlayer—or midlayers. “Midlayer” can refer to anything from an insulated jacket to fleeces and hoodies—essentially any insulating layer designed to be worn over a base layer and underneath a shell. This is the step in the layering equation where you have the most opportunity to fine-tune your kit to the temperatures at hand.
A few of our favorite midlayers:
Pro Tip: Pay attention to both fill power and fill weights when hunting for a puffy midlayer.
Fill power: If you want to nerd out on the science behind down fill power, this is a helpful resource from REI. However, all you really need to know is the higher the fill power, the higher the down quality. Higher fill power down is loftier, lighter, warmer, and, unsurprisingly, much more expensive. Fill power alone doesn’t determine midlayer warmth, as fill weight is also a critical component.
Fill weight: Fill weight is measured in grams or ounces and refers to the weight of the insulation used. More insulation generally means more warmth.
Long story short: If you’re a backcountry skier or ice climber, focus on those pricier, higher fill power options, so you can have a lightweight yet warm layer. If you’re just winter camping, you won’t mind heavier, less expensive options that are equally warm if not warmer.
3) Shells: If it’s cold and not precipitating, you may be comfortable in a base layer and midlayer when winter car camping. However, as soon as there’s precipitation in the forecast, a shell isn’t optional—it’s downright essential. Shells are jackets designed to armor you against the elements, whether that’s wind, snow, sleet, rain, you name it. Soft shells are breathable, making them superb for high-output activities in moderate weather, but if you’re camping in a downpour, a burly yet affordable hard rain shell like the Patagonia Torrentshell is a better pick. If you’re camping in snowy weather, we prefer a powder-prepped shell like the Arc’Teryx SV or Arc’Teryx Sabre.
Pro Tip: When shopping for shell jackets, two ratings help you gain a deeper understanding of jacket performance: waterproof and breathability ratings. You’ve likely seen these types of numbers while shell shopping: 20K/20K, 10K/10K, etc. If you want to dive into the science behind these numbers, feel free to nerd out here. However, all you need to know is that the first number is a waterproof rating, and the second number is a breathability rating. The higher those numbers are, the more waterproof and breathable the shell fabric. We pretty much avoid 5K/5K for winter sports. A 10K/10K shell might be fine for resort skiing, but we like a burlier 20K/20K shell when winter camping or exploring the backcountry.
Puffy Pants Are Your New Favorite Invention
This tip could’ve easily fit in the last layering section, but puffy pants are so rad and wildly underrated that they deserve a bigger shoutout. When you’re car camping in cold conditions, puffy pants can be the difference between having fun versus having frostbitten butt cheeks. We like Mountain Hardwear’s Ghost Whisperer. If you’re unfamiliar with puffy pants, these will change your life for the better.
Protect Your Extremities in Extreme Conditions
Unsurprisingly, warm gloves, socks, boots, and beanies are critical for winter camping. A couple of key things to keep in mind on this front:
Insulate Your Sleep Setup
There are two critical components to crafting a comfortable winter camping sleep setup: an insulated mattress and an insulated sleeping bag.
If you already own a Luno Air Mattress, the solution is easy: snag a cheap, closed-cell foam pad like the Therm-a-Rest RidgeRest and slip it underneath or on top of your air mattress. Another easy hack? Take a fuzzy or fleecy blanket from home and put it between your air mattress and sleeping bag. Note: this last hack doesn’t work with compressible, puffy comforters and down blankets, so keep that in mind.
As long as you have a good sleeping bag, you don’t need to be wrapped up in layers like the Michelin Man before heading to bed. For winter camping, we recommend a 0-degree bag, like the Mountain Hardwear Phantom, at a minimum. That said, we usually prefer a -20-degree bag, like the Therm-a-Rest Polar Ranger, which is currently on sale at time of writing.
Insulate Your Vehicle Windows
Saying glass insulates well is like claiming a non-EV Hummer gets good gas mileage—it’s just not happening. That’s why many homes in cold climates have double- or even triple-pane windows. Car campers, however, aren’t so lucky, and precious heat leaks out of car windows like sand through a sieve. Luckily, there are a couple of band-aids you can use to stop the bleeding.
How to Make Hot Water Your Friend
Hot water is the key ingredient to basically everything we consume while winter camping. For breakfast, that’s usually hot coffee and tea and oatmeal. For lunch and dinner, that’s everything from ramen to mac and cheese. We’re also big fans of dehydrated meals—they’re quick, easy, and filling. All of the above are a treat when camping in cold weather, and a Jetboil usually does the trick to boil water quickly. However, in extremely cold conditions or on expeditions, a liquid fuel stove is preferable.
Just like tea can warm the belly, hot water can warm your sleeping bag, too. Boil water before bed, pour the piping hot water into a Nalgene, and pop the Nalgene into your sleeping bag. This old winter camping trick cranks up the heat in your sleeping bag, and it’s especially welcome if you’re drying wet boot liners at your feet. Just be careful not to burn yourself—if it’s too hot, wrap the Nalgene in a beanie or base layer.
Pee Bottles, Seriously.
When you’re wrapped up in your sleeping bag, it’s warm and cozy in your trunk, and there’s a blizzard raging outside, the last thing you want to do is get up, go outside, and go pee. While the peeing part isn’t optional, getting up and going outside is. Invest in a pee bottle—one that’s easy to distinguish from your water bottle in the dark—and you’ll never have to venture into the cold at 3 AM ever again. Ladies, a pee funnel is a must-have tool (one that we suggest practicing with before you utilize it in your sleeping bag).
Winter Car Camping for the Win!
There you have it–tricks of the trade to keep you warm on cold-weather road trips, car camping missions, and ski trips this winter. If you’re looking for a worthy destination, check out our guide to car camping at ski resorts, where we touch on many of these same cold-weather camping principles, but also outline 10 resorts that allow car camping in their parking lots. Wherever you roam, we wish you safe travels–and deep powder.