Car Camping is one of the easiest and cheapest ways to spend a night outdoors. However, as the colder temperatures set in, car camping trips require more preparation. Some of the best ways to stay warm car camping in winter include gear you likely already own!
Sometimes a few cold nights in the great outdoors is just what you need. Whether you’re deciding on winter car camping trips to National Parks or you just want to get outdoors close to home.
In this guide, I will share some of the best ways to stay warm car camping from gear to clothes: from simple tips to a little more DIY this winter. Follow along with these 18 ways to stay warm car camping and you might just find some inspiration for your next car camping adventure!
While you can absolutely tent camp in the winter, consider your car the best four-season tent! It can hold up to snowy conditions and you can build it out for extra warmth and insulation.
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How to Stay Warm Car Camping in Winter
Car camping in winter takes some additional preparation in the colder months. If you’re planning on car camping in winter, always have a backup plan if it is too cold or you find yourself unprepared for the cold weather conditions.
While this list is a good starting point for how to stay warm car camping in winter, you should always check the weather conditions, make sure you have the proper safety items, and feel confident navigating the different conditions.
In your car, you should keep an emergency blanket, first aid kit, shovel, tire chains, and fire starters. You want to make sure you’re prepared in the unfortunate event of an emergency and winter car camping can pose inherent risks. Car camp in winter with caution!
Gear to Stay Warm Car Camping
Most of the gear that you will bring with you on your car-camping trip will be the same when you’re winter car camping. Here is some gear that you should bring that will help minimize heat loss and maximize extra warmth in colder temperatures.
1. Wool Blanket
A wool blanket is the perfect piece of gear to add to your warm car camping setup. The thick material traps body heat. Layering a wool blanket on top of a synthetic or down sleeping bag or blanket is a surefire way to stay warm car camping in winter.
If you’re sleeping on an air mattress with a low R-value, you can also add a wool blanket between you and the mattress. This will stop the cold air in the mattress from cooling you down at night.
A fleece blanket would also work well, but I find that wool blankets are a better natural insulator for keeping you warm.
2. Hand Warmers
If your hands or feet get cold easily, consider packing a bag of hand or foot warmers with you when you go car camping. The small packets can fit into your mittens, coat pockets, or socks.
When I was car camping in Arches in December 2022, I used hand warmers non-stop. It was also so cold that the food I cooked would immediately freeze as soon as I turned off the burner.
3. Sleeping Bag Liner
Regardless of whether you’re sleeping with a sleeping bag or not, a fleece sleeping bag liner is one of my favorite ways to stay warm when car camping. The fleece liner keeps you snug and warm under the covers. When combined with a sleeping bag, it can add 30 degrees of warmth! If you find that your body temperature runs low, I cannot recommend the sleeping bag liner enough for winter car camping.
In the summer, I will backpack with just a sleeping bag liner.
4. Insulated Sleeping Pad
When it comes to staying warm during winter car camping, the R-value of your sleeping pad or air mattress matters. Sleeping pads with an R-value of 5 or more are considered all-season sleeping pads and will keep you warm. If the R-value is low, your sleeping pad will feel like you’re sleeping on an ice block.
Add a z-lite pad underneath your sleeping pad or air mattress for additional insulation.
5. Winter Sleeping Bag
A winter sleeping bag is going to keep you the warmest and will also serve a dual purpose if you find yourself becoming an all-season backpacker. Aim for a sleeping bag with a temperature rating of 15 or below. I use the Sea to Summit Ascent 0 which has a relaxed toe box but keeps me toasty. A good sleeping bag does wonders for keeping you warm. It is a good idea to test them out before sleeping in extremely cold winter temperatures.
If you already have a sleeping bag that you love, add a sleeping bag liner!
6. Portable Heater
A portable propane heater can warm up your space quickly and efficiently. You will need to be wary of carbon monoxide poisoning, so I would only recommend this option if you are in a large space that is well-ventilated.
7. Electric Blanket
If you run really cold and have access to a portable power station or battery, an electric blanket is a great addition to your warm car camping set-up. They have a low energy output so you don’t need to worry about them draining the battery of your portable power station, especially if you’re only car camping a couple nights.
If you don’t want to run the electric blanket overnight, consider using it right before bed to warm you up! Remember it is easier to stay warm when car camping than it is to warm up car camping.
8. Portable Power Station
A portable power station would be useful with an electric blanket, but another thing to consider is that cold weather drains batteries quickly. Whether it is your phone battery or camera battery, you’ll find yourself needing to recharge them more frequently in freezing temperatures. This is something to consider.
A portable power station is not a necessity to stay warm when car camping in winter, but it is a handy piece of gear to have with you.
A good combination of all of the above will have you set to stay warm when car camping in winter. While not all of them are a necessity, I would suggest a winter-rated sleeping bag and wool blanket be on the top of your list for gear.
Clothes to Keep You Warm Car Camping
What you wear while winter car camping can make a significant difference in how warm you stay at night. Here are some suggestions for clothes to pack to stay warm car camping this winter. Always wear dry clothes. I know this sounds like a no-brainer, but even the smallest amount of sweat can significantly decrease your body temperature.
When winter car camping, always have separate day clothes and sleep clothes.
9. Merino Wool Base Layers
Merino Wool base Layers are going to keep you warm while you sleep and also wick away any moisture or sweat. Cotton layers tend to cool your body down and hold on to moisture, which can become dangerous in cold weather. Merino Wool long underwear is a great way to stay warm in cold temperatures and there are tons of options.
If you’re doing any activity in them, consider swapping them out before bed for a new pair to ensure that the set you wear to sleep in is dry. The merino wool is going to hold onto your body heat so you stay warm car camping.
9. Mountaineering Wool Socks
If you’ve never worn a pair of wool mountaineering socks, you’re in for a treat. These are the coziest and warmest socks on the market.
Just like the base layers, you want to make sure they are completely dry. Have a separate pair just for sleeping in if you plan on wearing the socks around camp or during activities throughout the day.
As much as you want to stay insulated, you also don’t want to burrow into your sleeping bag or blankets. A build-up of condensation will leave your gear wet and cold. If your face is going to be cold at night, wear a Merino wool buff over your mouth and nose.
This will trap heat without causing condensation build-up.
You lose significant body heat from the top of your head. Even if you are using a sleeping bag with a hood, a beanie is going to do the best job of keeping your head warm. A warm hat will be useful whether you’re car camping or not.
12. Puffy Jacket
If you have a warm sleeping bag and blankets, you likely will not need to sleep with a puffy. However, my best stay warm car camping hack is to put your puffy jacket at the bottom of your sleeping bag. This way your body heat warms it up overnight and you can throw on a warm jacket the next morning!
While it is hard to do, it is easier to stay warm than warm up. If you’re spending some time outside before bed, I highly recommend throwing your sleeping layers in your jacket to warm them up before sleeping.
DIY Warm Car Camping Tips/Hacks
The following list of ways to stay warm car camping this winter is a healthy mix of camping hacks and DIY projects to keep you toasty.
13. Hot Drinks
14. Hot Water Bottle
This hack works for car camping and winter backpacking, too! Boil some water and add it to a Nalgene water bottle. The water will stay hot for a long time and you can put it in your sleeping bag to keep you warm. The hot water bottle will cool off over time without getting cold.
Plus if you’re car camping in the extreme cold, this will keep your water from freezing overnight.
15. Reflectix Window Covers
This DIY warm car camping hack will require the most amount of effort. Purchase a large roll of Reflectix and cut it into panels slightly larger than the size of your window. At night you can shove the panels into your windows and that will help to trap the heat in your car!
This is a great hack if you’re car camping this winter in below-freezing temperatures.
16. Window Cracked
When you trap all of your body heat inside your car, condensation can build up on the inside of your car windows. If you’re car camping in temperatures above freezing, you can leave your windows slightly cracked to allow for airflow which reduces condensation.
Condensation could cause your blankets or clothes to become wet and would in-turn significantly decrease your body temperature.
17. Run the Car
Prior to going to sleep for the night, the easiest way to stay warm car camping is to run the car just before bed. After you’ve changed into your merino wool base layers and brushed your teeth for the night, run the car to increase the temperature.
This will not only warm you up, but it will also warm up your blankets!
Use your car heater sparingly and never run your car if your exhaust is buried in snow. Carry a shovel with you in case you need to dig yourself out.
Share your other DIY hacks in the comments!
Cold weather should not keep you from car camping this winter, but you do need to be prepared! Stay warm car camping this winter by bringing the right gear, wearing the correct clothes, and trying some different DIY projects and hacks.
Winter Car Camping Tips
Here is a short list of tips to keep in mind when car camping this winter season:
- It is easier to stay warm than it is to warm up.
- Avoid condensation build-up at all costs!
- Eat a calorie-rich meal before sleeping
- Choose a suitable campsite that is accessible with your vehicle in snowy conditions
- Put on dry layers for sleeping
- Have a backup plan!
Pack It Up
Winter car camping takes some extra planning and gear, but enjoying some cold fresh air is always worth it.
To stay warm car camping, figure out what gear and clothes works best for your before doing a full send into winter conditions. It is important to test your gear and the best way to do that is close to home.
Spend a night car camping at a local state park or even a nearby parking lot to make sure you and your vehicle are prepared for winter conditions.
Otherwise, have a blast enjoying nature at its quietest and coziest.
Happy car camping, Outdoor Bestie!