Much like grizzly bears, most car campers go into hibernation in winter, and who can blame ‘em? Snow doesn’t exactly make for ideal driving conditions. That said, snow does make for idyllic landscapes, and it helps clear out crowds from national parks that are usually slammed spring through fall. Factor in skiing and snowboarding and it’s no surprise that winter is one of our favorite seasons to hit the road (it’s in the top four, easy).
While we’re constantly extolling the virtues of winter car camping, we understand that it’s an intimidating pursuit. If you’re overwhelmed by the prospect, it’s important to note that winter road trips get much more enjoyable when you’re relying on the right camping gear and emergency essentials. Below, we’ll dive into 12 basics that we like to keep in our car every time we embark on a winter road trip.
1. Warm Sleeping Bag
Not only is a warm sleeping bag mission-critical if you want to sleep comfortably in your vehicle during cold snaps, but it’s also an insurance policy should you get stranded in a blizzard or stuck in a snowbank. In fact, we like to road trip with a sleeping bag in the trunk even if we’re staying at a ski lodge or visiting friends, just in case.
How warm is warm enough? That depends on your location—road trippers in Wyoming have different needs from those in Hawaii, for instance. However, we like to err on the side of being over-prepared, and usually bring a 0-degree or -20-degree bag. You can always unzip your bag and cool off, but it’s much harder to crank up the heat.
Pro tip: We’re big fans of Mountain Hardwear’s Phantom series, which ranges from a relatively warm 30-degree bag down to a mind-boggling -40-degree bag.
2. Luno Air Mattress 2.0
We’re going to have to toot our own horn here: Luno Air Mattresses are perfect for winter car camping. Why? Well, you don’t have to set up a tent in a blizzard—just park, inflate your mattress, and catch some Z’s. Plus, your vehicle is essentially a metal box, and it can handle snow, rain, and wind better than even the most technical, cutting-edge, and expensive tents on the planet.
Pro Tip: If you’re camping in extremely frigid conditions, throw a fuzzy blanket between your sleeping bag and air mattress. This trick boosts insulation and provides extra warmth!
3. Survival Kit
A survival kit shouldn’t just be a winter road trip companion—it’s a good idea to have one in your vehicle year-round. As the old saying goes, it’s better to have it and not need it than need it and not have it.
While there are many different survival kits on the market, we stand by the Seventy2 from Uncharted Supply Co., which includes everything from the expected first aid kit to water filtration, fire starters, a shovel, a survival tent, multi-tool, and much more.
Pro tip: If you use anything in your survival kit, refill it ASAP before you forget. Same goes for you first aid kit.
4. Tire Chains
Chains are a pain in the butt, but they’re also a lifesaver on slick roads. While some winter road trippers will be content with four-wheel drive and solid snow tires, it’s never a bad idea to have chains as a backup plan.
5. Satellite Communication Device
If you’re driving on remote roads and gnarly mountain passes, cell service is far from guaranteed. And in a worst-case scenario like a car crash, mechanical failure, or catastrophic injury, comms are imperative. A satellite communicator like the Garmin InReach or the Bivy Stick is worth having on hand wherever you roam. At the very least, it provides your loved ones with peace of mind, as they’ll appreciate knowing that you’re able to communicate on the road.
A headlamp is another essential that we suggest keeping in your vehicle year-round. You don’t need to be on a remote adventure to need light—little tasks like cleaning your car, searching for lost keys, or slapping a PB & J together are much easier when you can see. We’ve been digging BioLite’s headlamps over the last few years—they’re low-profile, well-built, and easy to use.
Pro tip: Find a home for your headlamp in your vehicle and always leave it there. That way, if you need the headlamp and it’s pitch black, you’ll be able to find it easily. If you’re looking for the perfect stash spot for headlamps and other smaller, easy-to-misplace essentials, we highly recommend our Seat Back Organizers—they’re absolute game-changers for car campers and road trippers.
7. Fire Starters
There’s a fire starter in the Seventy2 survival kit we mentioned earlier, but fire is so key to winter survival that we’re including it again here. Stormproof matches are a smart play, as are these electric plasma lighters. Our advice? Get both.
8. Hand and Foot Warmers
On cold-weather road trips, hand and foot warmers may help you stay comfortable at camp. In more extreme situations, hand and foot warmers can help ward off frostbite. While traditional disposable options are a compact solution that you can pack and forget about, many winter campers turn to heated socks and heated gloves as alternatives.
9. Camp Stove and Fuel
A camp stove is key to winter camping for two reasons:
- Hot food and drink lift the spirits and warm the belly. Nothing like a piping hot mug of cocoa or steaming bowl of ramen to keep the stoke high when the temperatures drop.
- When you’re winter camping, melting snow is often your primary source of water.
We like Jetboil’s integrated canister stoves like the MiniMo for boiling water quickly—that’s all you need for hot drinks, dehydrated meals, and simple dishes like mac and cheese or ramen. However, if you’re melting snow, boiling water, and cooking for a large group, you’ll want a bigger system like the Jetboil Genesis.
10. Condensation Towel
Condensation can be a major thorn in your side when car camping in cold weather. Cracking a window or two is a popular technique to combat condensation, and while it will increase airflow, it might not completely eliminate the issue. To that end, we like to keep a towel on hand—these ones from Nomadix work wonders—to mop up any moisture.
Pro tip: The trick is to wipe down the windows at the first sign of condensation. It’s much easier to dry glass windows than sleeping bags and clothes.
11. Puffy Jackets—and Puffy Pants
Puffy jackets are the bee’s knees. We like to keep a lightweight puffy like the Rab Zero G in the car at all times. If you want to step it up even further, check out this insulated parka from Arc’Teryx—we’ve used it to camp in sub-zero temperatures with no problem.
While you probably already have a puffy or three in your winter wardrobe, do you have puffy pants? When we’re winter car camping, we basically live in a pair of puffy pants (we like the Mountain Hardwear Ghost Whisperer). The pants are built just like a standard puffy jacket, and they’re extraordinarily comfortable, cozy, and warm.12. Extra Gloves and Warm Socks
Don’t get cold feet when you’re winter camping. Seriously. It’s dangerous. Pack extra socks–we like these wool ones from Darn Tough–and gloves to keep your extremities warm when the temps get extreme.
Brave the Cold, Intelligently
Whether you want to camp in a ski resort parking lot, learn how to ice climb, or visit relatively empty national parks, we highly recommend you give winter car camping a try. And if you do, we hope that this article helps you pack smart and prepare accordingly. With a little logic, some groundwork, and the right gear, winter road trips and cold-weather car camping are a piece of cake.
Thanks for reading, and we’ll see you on the road.