Top Tips for Staying Warm While Car Camping in Winter

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As the winter months roll in and temperatures drop, the idea of sleeping in your car might seem a little daunting. As much as I love cold weather when car camping, when temps drop below freezing, it can be a little tough to stay warm. However, with some practical tips and a bit of preparation, turning your vehicle into a warm and snug haven is absolutely possible. 

In this blog post, I’ll share effective strategies on how to stay warm when car camping during chilly nights, ensuring a comfortable and restful sleep even when the winter weather is at its coldest. Whether you’re embarking on a car camping road trip or finding yourself in need of a temporary shelter, read on for valuable insights on staying warm when car camping in winter

Car Camping At A Glance

While some people define car camping as sleeping in a tent next to your car, in this post, we define car camping as sleeping inside a car. Sleeping inside a car protects you from bad weather conditions and intense wind chill and is one of the best ways to help you stay warm when car camping in cold temperatures. A quality sleeping bag, a fleece liner, a wool beanie, wool socks, and the right base layers are some of the most important things to keep you warm while car camping in cold conditions.

Above is a roundup of the best gear for cold-weather car camping. I’ve linked everything using my Amazon affiliate links. If you purchase an item through the link, I may earn a small commission at no extra cost to you. I appreciate your support!

Pile on Extra Layers 

Ff you’re wondering how to stay warm when car camping, make layering your best friend. Start with a reliable base layer, preferably made of Merino wool, which retains warmth well. As you start layering, opt for materials that are not only warm but also breathable to help regulate your body temperature during the night.

Pay special attention to extremities like your head and feet to prevent heat loss. You’ll definitely need a warm hat to prevent heat from escaping through your head, a common source of body heat loss. Likewise, invest in high-quality, thick socks to keep your feet nice and toasty. Wear a wool beanie that covers the ears or fleece ear warmers if your ears get cold quickly.

Consider adding a wool blanket and extra socks to your sleep system for more warmth during chilly nights. When it comes to winter car camping, I always recommend overdoing it on the layers rather than not being warm enough-you can always take something off!

Use Hand Warmers 

Another great way to overcome the chill during car camping is to use hand warmers. Hand warmers are portable, easy to use, and provide a welcome boost of warmth in colder conditions. My hands get cold very easily, so I’ve never regretted bringing some hand warmers for super cold nights! 

It’s a good idea to bring disposable hand warmers that activate upon exposure to air. These compact packets are designed to fit easily into your pockets or gloves, ensuring a steady heat supply for your hands. Simply activate them, place them in your pockets or inside your mittens or socks, and experience instant warmth- they last for hours! 

For an eco-friendly option, consider rechargeable hand warmers that you can use repeatedly. These types of hand warmers often come with adjustable heat settings, so you can customize the level of warmth based on how cold it is- you’ll just have to keep them warm and find a comfortable spot for them in your sleeping bag. 

Invest in a Warm Sleeping Bag 

A warm sleeping bag is the bare minimum for staying warm during winter car camping. Your sleeping bag will make a significant difference in keeping you warm throughout the night. 

The best option for good insulation is a down-filled sleeping bag. Down feathers are known for their exceptional warmth-to-weight ratio, providing fantastic heat retention without adding unnecessary bulk. Down-filled bags are compressible, making them easy to pack and transport. They are very practical for car camping adventures.

Pay attention to sleeping bag temperature ratings, which indicate the lowest temperature at which the bag is designed to keep you comfortable. Choose a sleeping bag with a rating that aligns with the expected nighttime temperatures during your camping trip. 

Remember that it’s probably a good idea to choose a sleeping bag with a lower temperature rating than the expected conditions. As a gauge, I usually go 10 degrees colder than I need, as some winter sleeping bags don’t keep you as warm as they say. Also, pay attention to the shape of the sleeping bag; mummy-style bags with a tapered design are known for better heat retention.

Amazon affiliate links to all products are below.

Wool Beanie | Wool Base Layers | Insulated Mattress | Cold Weather Sleeping Bag | Fleece Sleeping Bag Liner | Wool Blanket | Hand Warmers | Portable Indoor Heater

Use a Sleeping Bag Liner

Sleeping bag liners are typically made from materials like silk, cotton, or fleece, and they are great for adding warmth to your sleeping bag without adding much weight or bulk. Cotton liners are soft and breathable, while fleece liners offer more warmth. Silk liners are best for warmer weather since they don’t add much warmth.

A sleeping bag liner can add a few degrees of warmth to your sleeping setup in cooler temperatures. The liner traps additional heat in colder conditions, contributing to a more comfortable night’s sleep. For warmer nights, you can use the liner on its own for a lighter bedding option. I opt for my liner alone when it’s 50 degrees Fahrenheit or warmer. 

In addition to the added insulation, one of the best parts of using a sleeping bag liner is that it helps to keep your sleeping bag clean. The liner is essentially a barrier between you and the interior of the sleeping bag, preventing body oils, dirt, and sweat from accumulating. This not only maintains the hygiene of your sleeping bag but also extends its lifespan.

Use a Solid Sleeping Mattress

Bedding, blankets, and sleeping bags matter during cold-weather camping, but your mattress is probably even more crucial. You’ll have two main mattress options for car camping – sleeping pads or air mattresses.

Insulated sleeping pads are designed to help you stay comfortable while also providing thermal insulation from the cold ground. Look for cushions with insulation created from foam or synthetic materials. These pads often have varying thickness levels, so choose one that suits your preference and the expected temperature conditions. Factor in the pad’s R-value, which indicates its thermal resistance — the higher the R-value, the better the insulation.

Air mattresses are another comfortable option for car camping. While they don’t provide as much insulation as insulated sleeping pads, they’ll still give you a soft and cushioned surface. Choose an air mattress with additional foam pads underneath, making it a bit more insulated. Whichever type of mattress you choose, make sure it is compatible with your car’s space and can be inflated and deflated easily with a pump.

Build Up Your Bedding

Bedding is the most important element when staying warm while car camping on chilly nights! In additional to a good sleeping bag, consider a wool blanket. Wool has excellent insulation properties, trapping heat and providing a cozy layer to keep you warm. 

Opt for blankets made from materials like fleece or down –  they offer excellent warmth without adding excessive weight. Feel free to add extra blankets under or over your sleeping bag, depending on how cold it is, and how warm your sleeping bag is.

You can’t go wrong with an electric blanket during extremely cold temperatures. Some heated blankets are battery operated and can be powered using your car’s battery or a portable power source such as a Jackery. These blankets often come with adjustable heat settings, allowing you to tailor the warmth to your preference. Just make sure to check the necessary power requirements so you can use it on the go and not drain your car’s battery.

As you invest in your car camping bedding, don’t forget to prioritize both comfort and functionality. You’ll want your blankets to be easy to pack and transport so they don’t take up too much space in your car!

Use the Hot Water Bottle Trick 

While a hot water bottle is a temporary solution, it can help you warm up quickly so that you can fall asleep more easily when it is cold.

You’ll start by boiling water and carefully pouring it into a heat-resistant water bottle. Use a bottle with a secure and tight-fitting lid to prevent any leaks.

Ensure that the lid is tightly secured to prevent hot water from escaping. Double-check the seal to avoid any unwanted spills inside your sleeping bag.

Place the hot water bottle at the bottom of your sleeping bag, which will help the warmth to circulate around your feet, a typical area where heat loss occurs. I’m usually never cold enough to use this trick when sleeping in my car, but it works well for outdoor winter camping. 

Add Insulation to Windows

When camping in colder weather, adding insulation to your vehicle’s windows can trap heat and create a more comfortable interior. Insulated window covers are an excellent solution to minimize heat loss and maintain a warmer environment inside your car.

Invest in material specifically designed for insulation. These covers are typically made from reflective mylar or thermal fabrics that trap and reflect heat. Place them over the windows of your car, covering them entirely to create a barrier against the cold outside air.

Insulated window covers trap heat generated inside your car, preventing heat from escaping through the windows, often a significant source of heat loss. The reflectiveness of these covers also retains warmth within the vehicle by bouncing heat back into the interior.

Don’t forget to cover your front windshield – this is a crucial area where heat can escape. By insulating the front windshield, you’ll prevent cold air from entering to maintain a warmer temperature inside your car. 

Portable Heaters

Although I do not recommend portable heaters in a small car camping setup, electric or propane heaters are an option for some setups. You can run an electric or propane heater if you have the space and access to a power source, like a portable battery or an electrical hookup at a campsite. You’ll have no trouble sleeping when you have a steady source of warmth all night, but if you are sleeping inside your car, there are plenty of safety precautions you need to think about when using a portable heater.

Many consider propane heaters to be the safer option, however with combustion heaters, it is best not to use them in small spaces and without natural air flow. You risk carbon monoxide poisoning and fire if using these heaters in small spaces.

If you do opt for a portable heater, make sure it is made for camping and has safety features like an automatic shut-off should it fall over to ensure nothing will catch fire during the night. Keep the heater a safe distance away from you, on a flat surface and only use fire-resistant materials and bedding while you sleep.

Some car camping setups will not accommodate electric space heaters or propane heaters. I never use one because I do not feel comfortable running a portable heater while I sleep, and have never been cold enough to feel I need one.

Regardless of whichever heating method you choose, maintaining fresh air circulation is crucial for safety. Crack a window or vent to allow a constant supply of fresh air. This is especially important when using a propane heater to prevent possible carbon monoxide poisoning. However, if you have to crack a window to use a heater during a freezing cold night, it might not be worth using the heater in the first place.

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Using some of these tips and having a solid sleeping plan will help you get a good night’s sleep on your next winter car camping trip. The most important thing to stay warm while car camping is to avoid crazy cold temperatures and plan overnight stops in areas that allow for a backup plan, just in case you need a plan B….a hotel.

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Sam wearing backpack and hat walking through town.

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