Winter Car Camping Essentials: Everything You Need To Prepare
Our winter camping guide has all you need to know about cold weather gear, cosy footwear, and how to stay warm.
Winter car camping is a special kind of trip. It gives you a base of operations for sledding, hiking, snowshoeing, or simply enjoying nature at your campsite. But winter camping trips require preparation to maximize fun and minimize cold toes. Learn everything you need to know with our guide to car camping essentials.
HOW TO PICK THE RIGHT WINTER CAMPING GEAR
Bringing the right gear is essential when camping — and that goes double for winter camping. Compared to standard, three-season camping gear, winter gear is built to withstand the season’s hazards: intense cold, wind, freezing temperatures, and more. In general, you’ll want equipment that’s warm, waterproof, and resistant to freezing.
A good winter backpack is a somewhat specialized piece of gear. They’re designed to carry more weight and strongly emphasize pockets, allowing you to access gear quickly while wearing gloves. For longer treks in snowy terrains, make sure to look for one built to carry equipment with sharp points like, snowshoes.
SLEEPING BAG AND PAD
The most essential swap for staying warm in your tent while winter camping is upgrading to a cold-weather sleeping bag. Their temperature ratings go as low as minus 50 degrees Fahrenheit, though most campers will be comfortable in a bag rated for zero degrees. A good guideline is to choose a bag that’s rated at least 10 degrees Fahrenheit lower than expected camping temperatures. Pair it with a light sleeping pad, and you’ll stay warm and cosy all night.
Traditional canister stoves likely won’t cut it in colder temps and higher altitudes unless they’re designed with pressure regulators. You’re better safe than sorry (and hungry) so opt for a liquid fuel stove. They’re a bit heavier than canister stoves, but their consistency in cold weather and eco-friendliness make them the clear choice for winter camping.
Winter tents (technically four-season tents) are not a piece of gear you can skimp on. Simply put, a three-season tent just won’t work in winter weather, strong winds and low temperatures. Depending on your camping style and needs, there are a wide variety of winter tents, ranging from basic all-around performers to light mountaineering tents and heavy-duty basecamps. Whichever you choose, make sure to choose one with either aluminum (and designed for cold weather) or carbon-composite poles.
SLED, SNOWSHOES, AND MORE
Up for a winter adventure? Sleds and snowshoes are great additions to a winter camping kit that enable exploring snowy environs in different ways.
Inflatable snow tubes work best in deep, light snow, while plastic saucers and toboggans are versatile in bumpier terrain. Most sled models come with a tow rope to make it easy to carry back up the hill and handles to help steer your thrilling descent.
Snowshoes are essential and pairs range from affordable options meant for flat surfaces to premium, rugged snowshoes for mountaineering, so it pays to know the details of your planned trip before investing. A longer snowshoe will be necessary for walking on fresh, powdery snow, while shorter pairs are suitable for hard, compact snow.
Cozy enough for indoors. Rugged enough for outdoors. Slip in to Teva ReEmber Terrain in Black and Gold Flame.
HOW TO CHOOSE WINTER CAMPING CLOTHING AND FOOTWEAR
For base and mid-layers, look for lightweight synthetic or fleece clothing. Your outer layers, especially your pants and jacket, need to be waterproof. For materials, GoreTex and other synthetics are the way to go.
LAYERING YOUR CLOTHES
There are three layers: base, middle, and outer.
The base layer is essentially the underwear layer. It provides some warmth while also wicking the sweat off your skin. Here, synthetics work just as well as natural fibers like merino wool. Cotton should be avoided because it absorbs water and doesn’t dry quickly.
The middle layer’s job is to insulate and keep you warm. A down-insulated jacket is the gold standard for warmth, but a fleece jacket will work just fine if the weather is mild. Fleece is also excellent for bottom layers.
The outer layer is the one that protects you from wind, water and snow, and is probably the single most important layer for winter camping. The top of the line choice is a waterproof, breathable top and bottom shell. Top shells can be either very light or heavier and insulated, while heavier options like snow pants are more typical for bottom shells.
HATS AND GLOVES
Hats and gloves are straightforward but essential. For hats, you’ll want something that covers your ears, like a beanie. Beyond that, the style of hat is up to you and can be a cool accessory to have fun with.
Your gloves should be waterproof. Avoid mittens because the dexterity gloves provide is essential for all the gear you’ll be handling. Go for down insulated gloves if it’s going to be particularly cold. Touch screen compatible gloves tend to be lighter weight.
SUNGLASSES AND GOGGLES
Sunglasses and goggles are important for protecting your eyes from wind, snow, water and, in rare cases, snow blindness. Your standard pair of sunglasses should be fine for mild conditions, and goggles are better for snowy and stormy conditions. In either case, make sure your pair provides UV protection and has an anti-fog coating.
Teva Geotrecca hiking boots provide waterproof protection with a rugged sole for variety of terrain.
SOCKS AND FOOTWEAR
Socks are another piece of the base layer, keeping your feet warm and dry while wicking away sweat. A calf-high midweight sock is a great all-around choice. Look for a pair made with some merino wool. There are also full-on waterproof socks, which are ideal in very wet conditions.
Tailor your boots to planned activities and the terrain. A good winter hiking boot is waterproof, warm and is compatible with most snowshoes and microspikes. The Teva Grandview GTX hiking boot and Teva Geotrecca hiking boot provide waterproof protection with a rugged sole for a variety of terrain and are compatible with most crampons for venturing out onto maintained trails with light snowfall.
The joy of pulling off your boots at the end of the day is hard to beat. Post-hike footwear or camping slippers keep your feet warm and comfy for hanging out at camp or staying cozy in your tent. The Teva ReEmber and Teva ReEmber Terrain are perfect examples.
The ultimate post-adventure companion: Teva ReEmber Terrain in Black and Gold Flame.
HOW TO FIND CAR CAMPING SITES
Car camping is a great way to enjoy the outdoors for a long weekend or extended break. The fun part is finding a place in nature where it’s legal to camp and during the winter, there are special factors to consider.
MAKE A RESERVATION AND PREP FOR PARKING FEES
Some car camping spots require reservations and charge fees, even some that are free will require a permit. Be sure to make a reservation if needed and be prepared with extra cash to pay onsite fees.
CONSIDER ROAD CONDITIONS
Make sure your car can drive to your selected campsite. You don’t want to pick a site, pack up your car, and find that you can’t safely drive the roads. Keep an eye on road conditions and stay safe.
HOW COLD IS TOO COLD FOR YOUR CAR?
This question depends on your car. A car or truck doubles as a tent but don’t go any lower than the temperature rating on your sleeping bag. You can sleep comfortably down to around zero degrees in an insulated cargo van with just a mattress and comforter. Heated RVs and campers are comfortable in basically any weather.
HAVE A BACK-UP PLAN
Make sure to have a backup plan. Temperatures at night can get very cold very quickly, even if the weather forecast says otherwise. Locate a nearby hotel that’s open late, so you have a place to stay if the weather gets too cold. Bring plenty of warm layers, a space blanket, and a full tank of gas if you need to run the car’s heater for a few minutes.
HOW TO STAY WARM AND COMFORTABLE SLEEPING IN YOUR CAR
Even with the right gear, staying warm in your car requires some preparation. Here are a few tips for your first night.
Most cars aren’t insulated, but there are a few DIY methods to make your vehicle a bit warmer. Using blankets as makeshift curtains prevents cool air from coming in through the cracks and that should be all you need for just one night in the car. For longer trips, insulating materials like foam and Reflectix work very well.
THROW IN A MATTRESS
Mattresses work well in large SUVs or vans while sleeping pads (which you should already have!) fit in most small cars. Small car owners can also take a memory foam mattress topper and cut it down to size.
HEAT UP THE CAR BEFORE FALLING ASLEEP
Before you go to bed, crank up your car’s heater to get things warm. Eat dinner, brush your teeth, or read a book while things warm up. And make sure to turn the car off before you turn in for the night.
CRACK A WINDOW
It sounds counterintuitive to leave a window open, but the car will get stuffy and uncomfortable otherwise. Just a tiny opening is enough to keep the air flowing and keep moisture out.
HOW TO MAKE CAMP IN THE SNOW AND STAY WARM IN YOUR TENT
Making camp in the snow is very different from typical three-season camping. The process requires more care and is incredibly important for safety. You’ll need to spend some time scoping out a good spot. Here’s how to do it.
FIND A FLAT SPOT AWAY FROM HAZARDS
A good winter campsite is flat and away from any hazards, like falling trees. Always camp on the snow itself or bare ground and avoid vegetation. Pack down any loose snow by walking on it with snowshoes to avoid uncomfortable sleeping.
FIND WIND PROTECTION
Camping near (but not next to, under or on) a hill or large group of trees can provide natural wind protection. You can also make your own wind protection by building a snow wall. If all else fails, dig out the snow on your campsite a few feet.
KNOW WHERE THE SUN WILL RISE
If possible, pick a spot that’s exposed to the sunrise. That will help you warm up faster in the morning and add to your morning zen.
HOW TO KEEP YOUR TENT WARM WHILE SLEEPING
Just like your car, tents aren’t insulated. But unlike a car, it’s pretty difficult to add insulation to a tent, so you’ll need a ready-for-any-temp sleeping bag and sleeping pad. Bring a bag that’s rated 10 degrees lower than the temperatures you expect. Use two sleeping pads: a foam pad on the bottom with a self-inflating pad on top.
HOW TO CHOOSE FOOD AND DRINK THAT’LL KEEP YOU WARM DURING COLD WEATHER
Hiking in cold, snowy weather uses a lot of energy. You’ll need high-calorie food and lots of water to keep your energy up and your body warm. Look for easy-to-store, cook, and clean-up options.
MEAL PLAN HOT, QUICK FOODS
Hot, simple meals are the best choice for breakfast and dinner. Look for one-pot options that are quick to cook and easy to clean up; you don’t want to be stuck cleaning dishes in the cold.
KEEP LUNCH BREAKS SHORT AND SNACKS ON HAND
Lunch is a little different if you plan to be spending the day away on the trail and away from camp. Stick to high-calorie meals like sandwiches and protein bars. Keep your lunch breaks short, stopping to eat for a long time allows your body to cool down. Better yet, keep easy-to-eat snacks on hand and munch on the move.
Drinking cold water isn’t all that appealing when you’re trekking through the snow, but you need to stay hydrated. Sip on water throughout the day. Make sure to use a water bottle since the tubes in larger water reservoirs tend to freeze. Making tea or soup at camp and storing it in a thermos is another good way to keep your body hydrated and warm.
STORE FOOD SECURELY
Just like three-season camping, there are plenty of animals active in the winter that would be happy to snack on your food given a chance. Keep your food stored securely in a backpack or hang it from a tree with a rope and stuff sack. On the campsite or in the car, keep food in a cooler to prevent perishables like meat and eggs from going bad.
HOW TO STAY SAFE AND PREVENT INJURIES
Cold weather can be hazardous. Along with standard first-aid practices, winter campers need to know the risks of hypothermia and frostbite.
KNOW THE SIGNS OF HYPOTHERMIA
Hypothermia occurs when your body loses heat faster than it is produced, typically after prolonged exposure to cold temperatures. Classic signs of hypothermia include shivering, exhaustion, drowsiness and more extreme signs such as memory loss, slurred speech and confusion.
If a person’s temperature is below 95 degrees, get medical attention immediately. If that’s not possible, get them to a warm place, and remove any wet clothing. Warm their core with an electric blanket or skin-to-skin contact while covered with loose layers of blankets. Once their body temperature has risen, keep the person dry and wrapped in a warm blanket, including their head and neck. Get them medical attention as soon as possible.
KNOW THE SIGNS OF FROSTBITE
Frostbite is caused by freezing. It typically shows up in the extremities like the fingers, toes, nose, ears, chin and cheeks. Visible signs of frostbite include redness and patches of white or grayish-yellow in the skin. Pain and numbness can also indicate frostbite, as well as any skin that feels too firm or waxy.
If you notice signs of frostbite, get immediate medical assistance and look for signs of hypothermia. Hypothermia is a more serious condition that takes precedence over frostbite, whether emergency services are immediately available or not.
If immediate medical assistance isn’t available, and the person is not showing signs of hypothermia, get the person into a warm place. If frostbite is visible on the feet or toes, avoid walking if possible—that increases the risk of permanent damage. Put the affected areas in warm (not hot!) water. If warm water isn’t available, use body heat. Heat lamps, stoves or the like are more likely to burn than help.
KEEP AN EYE ON YOUR FRIENDS
Make sure you keep an eye on your friends throughout your trip. Any medical emergency is going to be much more difficult to deal with when you’re out in the snow. Paying attention can save lives.
YOUR COLD WEATHER CAR AND TENT CAMPING CHECKLIST
Winter camping takes a lot of preparation. There’s a lot to remember and many steps you’ll need to check and double-check. But the payoff — whether it’s an easy walk from the car to the trail or a backcountry adventure — is worth it.