Camping amongst the icicles and fresh snow sounds terribly romantic. But when faced with the reality of cold weather camping, you may find your bubble quickly bursting.
Camping in your car can be cold and miserable if you don’t know what you’re doing, but everyone has to start somewhere!
If you don’t have any experience with cold-weather car camping but are desperate to get out into the great outdoors this winter, read on!
This article will give you the essential packing checklist that you need to stay safe, comfortable, and warm on your next winter car camping trip.
Winter Car Camping Essentials Checklist
1. Warm Layers
It goes without saying that you will need to dress in plenty of warm layers. If you’re not sure what to wear, imagine that you will be going tent camping.
Though your car will protect you from the elements better than a tent, it won’t be much warmer in your vehicle by the middle of the night!
A good warm outfit includes thermal base layers, fleece or wool mid-layers, and waterproof outer layers. For a good balance between quality and value, we recommend that you pick up some Carhartt Base Layers.
These machine-washable polyester-wool blends wick away sweat, prevent body odor, and are easy to move in. Carhartt offers thermal clothing for both women and men, and the apparel comes in a range of thicknesses.
2. Sleeping Bag
A good sleeping bag is a must for car camping in the winter. You could consider taking several blankets instead, but these will obviously take up a lot more space.
You want something suitable for the temperatures in which you will be sleeping, so make sure the climate and the recommended temperature on your sleeping bag match up.
A mummy sleeping bag is particularly good for winter camping because it can be secured around your head, which prevents cold air from entering at the top.
The Coleman mummy sleeping bag is suitable for temperatures as low as 0 degrees Fahrenheit (-17.7 degrees centigrade). It is long enough for people up to 6 feet 2 inches tall, but if you are a lot shorter than this, it’s a good idea to tie the bag at the bottom.
If you want the sleeping bag to last for years, you should keep it in the compression sack only on camping trips. At home, keep it in a large bag or pillowcase.
3. Reflective Heat Mat
In addition to a comfortable air mattress, you should pack a reflective heat mat to prevent heat loss through the floor. The mat can be placed under your main mattress or directly underneath your body, depending on which mat you choose.
The Aneil Aluminum Foil Mat is a great choice for car camping. It’s affordable and lightweight, packing up small though still large enough for 1-2 people.
We recommend that you place this mat underneath your main sleeping mattress. It is probably too light-duty to use in a tent, but it’s perfect for a winter car camping trip.
4. Head Torch
It’s not just the cold you need to prepare for. Daylight hours are much shorter in the wintertime, so you will need to bring torches to light up your car in the evening.
Head torches are great because they don’t take up too much space or power, and they are hands-free.
I use my head torch to read and to walk back to the car in the evening after a long hike. Make sure you bring spare batteries.
I recommend that you turn one of the batteries the wrong way round while transitting, so that the lamp can’t accidentally be switched on in your bag, thus draining the batteries of power.
When it comes to head torches, a simple and affordable choice like the rechargeable Energizer headlamp is just as good as any. It will give you visibility up to 85 meters in the dark, has five modes to conserve power, and offers up to 35 hours of continual light between recharges.
5. Camping Lantern
Head torches are really useful, but they can also blind your partner if you’re trying to play a card game or eat together! It’s a nice idea to bring a little camping lantern too, especially as night falls so quickly in the wintertime.
The Internova Monster is a rechargeable LED camping lantern, designed with hurricanes in mind. This model is one of the most rugged camping lanterns; it will survive the knocks and jolts that one can expect on the road.
We love that it is rechargeable and bright, providing five continuous hours between each charge-up. If you’re going camping for one night and don’t want to keep buying batteries, this is a great choice.
If you’re going to set off on a longer trip, you might prefer Eveready LED camping lanterns. These give 16 hours of continual light and come in a pack of 2, but they are battery powered rather than rechargeable.
They also have a magnetic base and small hook with which you can hang them up. This makes them ideal for lighting a small space.
6. Hot Water Bottle
I never go camping without my hot water bottle. If you’re camping by yourself, it makes a big difference in terms of the heat in your sleeping bag.
Plus, if you’re camping with a partner under blankets, it is much better for your relationship if you don’t stick your cold feet on them!
If you are camping in a car, you probably need to be careful with how much water you use. With this in mind, you can use the same water from the hot water bottle each night.
The 2-pack of simple Steadmax hot water bottles will do the trick. Made of natural rubber, these hot water bottles should not be used by someone with a latex allergy. If you get an injury whilst hiking, you can also fill these hot water bottles with ice or snow and use them as a cold compress on any swellings.
Another option is to boil water, then pour it into a Nalgene Water Bottle, which you will then place in a sock so that it’s not too hot to the touch. You can use it as a hot water bottle, then in the morning, you will have some water that you can drink, which you have already boiled.
This is particularly good for times when you are already boiling water for safety or if you want to pack as light as possible.
7. Water Boiler
If you’re camping in your car in the winter, you can either bring a regular kettle or cigarette lighter kettle, or boil water on the gas. The gas option is the quickest and most energy-effective, but it can mean that you will have to go outside into the cold to do it.
The regular kettle uses a lot of energy but could be suitable if you have a powerful leisure battery. The cigarette lighter kettle is a good option for long-distance driving, but it can take up to 40 minutes for the water to get hot enough for a cup of tea.
The Jet Boil SUMO pot is a compact and lightweight gas water boiler that heats up to 1.8 liters of water in an impressive 4 minutes. The design limits gas wastage, and the protected flame is also much safer for use in confined spaces.
The Jet Boil is the option I recommend for car camping in the winter, as it is easy to use and lightweight, and it doesn't rely on electricity.
If you’re looking for a compact kettle to plug into a leisure battery, an ultrathin silicone kettle could be the answer. Made with food-grade silicone and with the capacity to boil in 3 minutes, this is a portable and effective kettle.
However, if you don’t have an adequate power system, it would not be suitable for car camping.
We think that the Uniox model is the best cigarette lighter kettle on the market right now. It boils water in around 15 minutes, and it uses far less energy than a conventional kettle.
However, cigarette lighter kettles are not normally as reliable as gas or mains kettles, which you may want to bear in mind.
8. Condensation Rags
In my opinion, the worst thing about winter car camping is the condensation that inevitably builds up inside your vehicle. Bring lots of old rags to wipe up any condensation in the morning. Also, be sure to crack open a window overnight.
You can also get some charcoal bags to help prevent condensation from building up in the first place.
Charcoal bags are brilliant for absorbing moisture and bad smells. They are normally used at home, in fridges or laundry baskets, but they are also great for use in an RV or camping car.
They won’t eliminate moisture completely, but they are a helpful addition to cracking open a window and will make the experience more pleasant for you.
9. Battery-Powered Electric Blanket
If you struggle with the cold, you should consider purchasing a battery-powered electric blanket. They are more effective for people who are sleeping under blankets rather than in a sleeping bag.
However, there’s no reason why you can’t lay it beneath your sleeping bag to help keep you warm too.
Good-quality electric heated blankets are not the cheapest buy, especially when they are run by batteries rather than mains electricity.
However, if you’re going to be camping regularly in the wintertime, you will be so grateful for a decent heated blanket like the Eddie Bauer model.
Powered by a rechargeable lithium battery, the blanket is also machine-washable! You will get about 4 hours of heat out of it per charge, so it’s perfect to put on a few minutes before you get into bed. Then you can turn it off when you are nice and toasty.
10. Winter Boots
Warm and waterproof boots are among the most important things to bring on a winter camping trip!
I recommend bringing a “backup” pair of old boots in case your main pair gets wet. There is nothing more miserable than pulling your wet shoes back onto cold feet!
I’ve always found Columbia Snow Boots to be of good value and very comfortable. Women can check out the Ice Maiden Snow Boot, which has 200g of insulation and slip-resistant soles. The men’s boots look quite different, but they use the same technology.
The Columbia snow boots come higher up your leg than normal hiking boots, which protects you from deep snow and cold puddles.
11. Toilet Supplies
Sorry to mention it, but you have to think about going to the toilet when you are car camping. If you don’t have access to a public toilet, you probably won’t have space for a camping potty in a car.
It’s fine to go for a pee in the bushes, but you should bury your ‘business’ at least 6 inches deep, and far away from paths and water sources. Things like toilet paper, tampons, and wipes must be packed out and disposed of properly.
When the ground is frozen, it’s harder to dig a hole, so you should bring a good shovel.
As you are camping in the winter, you may as well bring a decent folding shovel because then you can also use it to dig your wheels out of any snow if you get stuck.
The Rhino shovel is a military-style tool, which can also be used as a pickax or saw. It comes with a lifetime guarantee, so you know you’re in good hands!
For us ladies, going for a pee exposes a lot more skin. If you’re in the middle of a snowstorm, the last thing you want to do is pull down your pants. With that in mind, you can consider getting a ‘shewee’.
I won’t go into too many embarrassing details, but it allows you to go for a pee whilst still keeping your pants and underpants on. They used to be seen as pretty far out, but in 2023 most camping girls either have one or know what they are.
12. Heat-Keeping Socks
Moving on to something far more boring, I never go winter camping without my heat-holding socks, as they are really effective. I use them in bed rather than while hiking because otherwise my feet get too hot.
Heat Holders is by far the best brand of thermal sock I have come across in my outdoor adventures. The socks use breathable thermal yarn, with an impressive tog rating of 2.34, and they feel super soft and cozy against your skin.
13. Power Pack
Batteries run out much more quickly in the cold weather, which could be dangerous if you need to call for help. With this in mind, I recommend that you bring along an emergency battery charger, which you should store in a sock to prevent it from getting too cold and breaking.
You can also consider a more powerful power bank for charging up any power-intensive devices. Experience has taught me that small solar-powered power banks are pretty unreliable.
A bigger solar system and battery can be great for camping, but when it comes to a portable power bank, you’re better off with a mains rechargeable POWERADD charger. Try to save it for emergencies if you can.
If you’re looking for something more powerful, the Jackery Power Station comes highly recommended.
A big power bank like this is obviously more expensive, but it can be used to charge up your devices and power any appliances that come in at less than 200w. This is a great option for film lovers who want to watch movies on their laptops whilst they’re camping.
14. Emergency Supplies
While you should always bring emergency supplies with you when camping, this holds especially true in the cold weather. Such supplies include a first aid kit, an emergency blanket, and some energy-rich gels or bars.
When you wrap an Emergency Space Blanket around yourself, it keeps up to 90% of your body heat in. In an emergency, you can wrap yourself inside it before getting in your sleeping bag, though you will wake up wet with condensation and sweat.
This isn’t hygienic or comfortable, but it can prevent you from getting hypothermia in an extreme situation.
Always bring a decent first aid kit camping with you. In fact, I keep one in my car at all times, whether I will be sleeping in it or not. Familiarize yourself with it before you’re actually in an emergency situation.
That way, you’ll know exactly what you’ve got and how to use it.
In addition to emergency supplies for yourself, think about getting snow chains for your car. They will be so helpful if you get stuck in a snowdrift, though I suggest that you practice putting them on your vehicle at least once before your trip.
15. Calorie-Rich Food
If you’re car camping in cold weather, you need to keep up your energy and morale. Nothing does this better than delicious and calorie-rich food! Bring plenty of sweet treats, as well as wholesome expedition food.
Freeze-dried meals are getting better and better, and there are countless brands that you can try.
Expedition Foods is a well-known brand whose macaroni and cheese packs an impressive 1005 calories. If you are going to be snowshoeing or skiing all day, this is a good way to get the calories you need with limited cooking supplies.
How Can I Camp in My Car in the Winter?
Cold weather car camping is not for everyone, and that’s OK. Just remember that you’ve got nothing to prove. The idea is to have fun! If you really don’t like being cold, then there is nothing wrong with reserving car camping for the summertime.
If you haven’t tried car camping in cold weather before, I recommend that you try it out close to home for your first night. If it turns out that you forgot anything essential, you can just turn back and put it down to experience!
Preparation Is Key for a Successful Trip
It takes some time to work out how to best prepare for winter car camping.
However, if you are all in on it this winter, check out this article in which we give you 15 helpful tips to make the experience as safe and comfortable as possible. We also talk about how to insulate your car for winter camping.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you run out of oxygen sleeping in a car?
Yes, you could run out of oxygen while sleeping in a car. To ensure that you have enough oxygen and to reduce condensation, make sure to crack a window before you sleep in your vehicle. If you have an RV or camping vehicle with air vents installed, you don’t need to worry about running out of oxygen.
Is it colder to sleep in a car or a tent?
It is normally colder to sleep in a tent than in a car, especially considering that a car will provide better shelter from the wind and rain. That being said, cars are not completely sealed, so you will probably find car camping to be very cold in the winter, too.
Do I need to get a sleeping bag for my dog?
If you will be cold weather camping with your dog, it’s very important to get them a reflective mat to go underneath their bed. You can also get special dog sleeping bags or tie a knot at the end of an old one you don’t use.
Camping in the winter is not for the faint-hearted. However, so long as you prepare in advance and bring along the right equipment, there’s no reason why you can’t have a wonderful car camping trip in the cold months.
We hope that you found this article helpful, and we wish you many safe and happy camping adventures in your vehicle!
Are there any winter car camping essentials that we missed? Let us know down in the comments.
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About the author
Rachel is a freelance adventure writer and founder of Highly Sensitive Nomad. When she isn’t writing, she can be found wild camping in the mountains and swimming in the lakes of Europe.