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 also helps clear out crowds from national parks that are usually slammed from 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 20 essentials 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 warm up.
Not sure what sleeping bag to get? Here are two tried-and-true Mountain Hardwear options:
- Our Performance Pick: 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. These bags are warm and lightweight, meaning you can also use them for backpacking, ski-touring, mountaineering, and other wintry adventures.
- Our Budget Pick: One of many benefits of car camping is that weight doesn’t matter. After all, you’re not carrying gear on your back, you’re packing it in the trunk. If you’re looking for a cheap, warm sleeping bag and don’t care about weight, Mountain Hardwear has you covered there, too, with the affordable Bozeman sleeping bag series.
2. Luno Car 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, toss our comfy Memory Foam Topper on top of your air mattress. Not only does this ¾-inch-thick topper boost insulation and provide extra warmth, but it also cranks up the comfort!
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 these well-thought-out offerings from Uncharted Supply Co. Uncharted sells kits in different sizes at a variety of price points, but most include essentials like first aid supplies, water filtration systems, fire starters, multi-tools, and much, much more.
Pro tip: If you use anything in your survival kit, refill it ASAP before you forget. Same goes for your 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 or catastrophic injury, comms are imperative. A satellite communicator like the Garmin InReach Mini 2 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. After all, it’s amazing how 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 Seatback Organizers—they’re absolute game-changers for car campers and road trippers.
7. Fire Starters
Fire starters come standard in the Uncharted Supply Co. survival kits we mentioned earlier, but fire is so key to winter survival that we’re including it again here. If you’re building your own survival kit from scratch, 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, they can help ward off frostbite. While traditional disposable options are a compact solution that you can pack and forget about, many frequent 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.
4 Camp Stoves For Every Adventure:
- For quick, on-the-go boiling: 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.
- For bigger crews and melting snow: If melting snow, boiling water, and cooking for a large group, you’ll want a bigger system like the Jetboil Genesis.
- For extreme cold and far-flung adventures: When temperatures plummet well below freezing, many experienced adventurers trade out canister-fuel stoves for liquid-fuel stoves, like the world-famous MSR WhisperLite and rugged XGK. Not only are liquid-fuel stoves more reliable in sub-freezing temps, but they’re also easier to fix in the field if something does go wrong.
10. Dehydrated Meals (And Snacks)
Now that you’ve got that stove dialed, how about something to cook in it? While survival kits often come with some semblance of food, that grub is often low in taste, high in calories. Translation? Useful in a pinch, but hardly appetizing.
Our advice? Spice up your winter road trip kit with some delicious dehydrated meals like those from Good To Go. These quick-and-easy dishes have a long shelf life, and they can be a trip-saver–or a literal lifesaver, for that matter.
Pro tip: Don’t forget to pack snacks. According to studies conducted by the experts at Luno Laboratories, 63% of road trip arguments start due to hanger.
11. 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.
12. 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.
13. 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.
Summer isn’t the only season for shades. Winter drivers in particular benefit from adding a pair of high-quality sunglasses to their road trip arsenal, as snow and ice are notoriously reflective and can cause blinding glare.
Pro Tip: Get a pair of shades that never leave the car–ever. If they’re not perched on your nose while you’re driving, they’re on the dash or stashed in a sunglasses holder. Of course, it’s totally fine to have one pair of sunglasses for both driving and adventuring, but they’re undeniably more likely to get damaged or lost as soon as you take them out of the car.
15. Heated Blankets and Butt Warmers
In the event of an emergency–say your car dies at a remote trailhead–a heated blanket or seat pad can be a huge help. And the rest of the time? They’re just really freaking awesome. We love using these options from Ignik whether we’re driving up to the mountains or hanging out in the ski resort parking lot after a day on the hill.
16. Portable Power
Power is tough to manage in cold weather, but it gets much easier when you bring a portable solution like these heavy-duty Power Stations from BioLite. Looking for a smaller, less expensive option? We’re also big fans of these Power Banks from Goal Zero–they’re petite, powerful, travel-friendly, and easy to use.
4 Luno Essentials To Keep Your Car Organized In The Winter
Getting the gear you need for a road trip is one thing–keeping it organized is another. As diehard road trippers and car campers, we know firsthand that a messy car can make even the most scenic road trip a source of stress. Below, you’ll find four organizational tools we’ve developed to help you keep your rig tidy and liveable–and your mind stress-free–on the road.
1. Cargo Hammock
Our Cargo Hammock is a year-round car-camping favorite, as it turns unused ceiling space into expansive, easy-to-organize storage space. However, it’s especially helpful in winter when you’re dealing with wet gear. With a 60-pound capacity, this storage solution is perfect for hanging wet ski jackets, sweaty base layers, sopping socks, you name it.
2. Seatback Organizer 2.0
The Seatback Organizer 2.0 is another car-camping essential that we like to keep in the rig year round. We call it a “nightstand for car campers,” since it attaches to the back of the front seats and provides compartmentalized, smart storage that’s easily accessible from the comfort of your Luno Air Mattress. There are so many rad features (water bottle holder, light-diffusing headlamp compartment, removable storage pouch, etc.), it’s honestly hard to pick a favorite.
3. Mesh Gear Duffel
One common mistake car campers make in winter is storing damp gear or garb in air-tight bins and boxes. Unless you’re trying to ferment your ski gear, wetsuit, or fishing waders until the odor reaches particularly offensive levels, that’s a big no-no. We like to stash damp gear in our heavy-duty Mesh Gear Duffel–it’s durable, utilitarian, and doesn’t turn wet gear into a science experiment.
4. 50L Gear Tote
This collapsible, hard-wearing Gear Tote is perfect for everything from hauling groceries to organizing ski gear. Best of all, it’s crafted from upcycled Luno Air Mattresses, so it’s not just good for your pack job, it’s good for the planet, too.
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.
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