Winter Camping 101: A Guide to Front Country Car Camping

If you want to embrace the cold and experience the outdoors in a totally new way, we’ve compiled a few winter camping tips to help you get started.

Editor’s Note: This is a guide for car camping in the front country, in an established campsite. Winter camping is extreme enough, without adding things like backcountry orienteering and avalanche safety to the list. Plus, it’s comforting to know that if it all goes bad, you can always pull the ripcord and drive to a Motel 6.

Check The Forecast

There’s a big difference between camping with snow on the ground and camping during an active blizzard. On a calm clear day, you can really enjoy yourself. But when the wind is howling and it’s dumping snow, everything is miserable. Don’t get caught unprepared, know the weather before you go.

Check Your Gear

Make sure your gear can handle the conditions. If the nighttime low is 5° Fahrenheit and your sleeping bag is only rated to 15 degrees, either this isn’t your weekend, or you need a different bag. Also, double, and triple check you have everything you need before you leave. Again, the stakes are high, and forgetting even a single item (e.g., gloves) can ruin your trip.

Check Your Expectations

Cold-weather camping is nothing like summer camping. In fact, it’s better to think about the whole thing like you’re going into outer space. While the environment is breathtakingly beautiful, it is also completely inhospitable. The car is your spaceship, and the sleeping bag is your space capsule. You can exist in warmth and safety inside these two places. Everything else is a spacewalk that requires proper attire.

Layer Up

We’ve all been told to dress in layers since elementary school, but that doesn’t mean you should throw on every piece of clothing in your closet. There’s a specific way to layer to maximize your warmth and comfort in a variety of conditions.

The base layer should consist of a long-sleeved shirt and a pair of long johns made from wool or synthetic material. This layer is responsible for keeping your body dry and should wick away any internal perspiration.

The mid-layer should be a jacket with either down or synthetic insulation. This layer is responsible for trapping your body heat and is the chief thing keeping you warm.

The outer layer should be a waterproof and windproof shell made from a three-layer synthetic fabric. This layer is responsible for repelling external water and precipitation while wicking internal moisture and perspiration out.

Cotton Kills

Avoid wearing anything made from cotton – including underwear. When wet, cotton loses all its thermal properties and takes an extremely long time to dry. Instead, opt for wool and synthetic materials, which perform much better when cold and wet.

Socks, Hats, and Gloves

These are critical items that complete the overall clothing “system”. Extremities are the first part of the body to get cold, so make sure you have them properly covered. Again, look for wool and synthetic material that will not degrade if they accidentally get wet. You can double layer gloves and socks but be careful they are not so tight as to restrict blood flow.

One Pot Meals

There’s absolutely no shame in taking a few shortcuts when it’s freezing cold outside. The fewer number of steps between you and a warm meal, the better.

Keep Hydrated

It is very easy to get dehydrated in cold, dry conditions. Make sure you’re drinking water throughout the day. We recommend drinking warm water or a light tea, which both hydrates and warms the body.

Whiskey Weather

Forget beer. If the temperature is below freezing, they’ll just explode anyways. Warm whiskey drinks are the way to go. If you’re looking for a little inspiration, we’ve got a recipe for a great Apple Maple Hot Toddy.

Extra Fuel

Everything takes longer to cook when it’s cold outside, especially when you’re trying to bring near-frozen water to a rolling boil, so make sure to pack extra fuel canisters.

Hot Water Bottle

At night, fill your water bottle with boiling water and put it inside your sleeping bag. Not only will this warm up your bag, but it will ensure you have some non-frozen water to use in the morning. (Make sure the cap is on securely!)

Tent

A specifically designed 4-season tent is ideal for severe winter conditions, but for more mild winter weather a quality 3-season tent can work just as well. A strong, self-supporting structure is a must, though. Deep snow and frozen ground make it difficult for tents that need to be staked in to stay up.

Be Selective

You’ll probably have your pick of the campground, so look for an ideal location. Someplace with good sunlight and buffered from the wind. Don’t set up under a tree, especially if you are making a fire. If there is snow in the branches, this virtually guarantees it all comes crashing down on your tent.

Build A Foundation

Pack down the snow with your feet before setting up your tent. If your tent is set up on soft snow, you can accidentally punch a hole through the bottom when you step inside.

Sleeping Bag

Your sleeping bag should be your happy place. So, whether it’s down, synthetic, or a mix, make sure your sleeping bag is rated 10 degrees lower than the lowest expected temperature. Don’t cut it too close to the rating, or you’ll have all night to lie awake and regret your decision.

Insulation From the Ground

It is critical that you insulate yourself from the snow-covered ground. An insulated sleeping pad with an R-rating of at least R4 is a good start but adding in a few yoga mats or blankets is a good idea as well.  (Do not use a regular air mattress. The air inside never warms up and it will drain your body heat all night long.)

Snack Early, Snack Often

With less effort than cooking a full meal, continually snacking throughout the day is a great way to keep warm. Eating a little bit here and there keeps your metabolism fired up.

Take A Hike

Winter camping is for active individuals. The best way to enjoy yourself is to keep moving throughout the day. Take a hike, go snowshoeing, have a snowball fight, go sledding. But whatever you do, keep the blood moving.

Conserve The Heat

After hiking for a while, you may start to get warm. Remove layers as needed to prevent yourself from sweating. But when you stop, immediately layer back up.

Skincare

While getting a tan might be the last thing on your mind, it’s important to wear sunscreen.  Sun glare off the snow can very quickly result in a sunburn. Bring ChapStick and hand lotion. Apply regularly to keep skin from cracking.

Ten Digit Warning Sign

Don’t ignore cold fingers and toes. These are the early warning signs that your body is losing heat faster than it is generating it. Address the issue immediately. Get another layer on, get moving, or throw another log on the fire.

To Build a Fire

A well-fed campfire can be a blessing on a cold winter’s night. Even if it isn’t putting off that much heat, the flickering light still offers a psychological feeling of warmth. Bring plenty of wood. The last log always comes sooner than you think.

Tent Time

After the sun goes down, dinner is over, and the last log has been thrown on the fire, you may look at your watch and discover it’s only 7:45 PM. At this point crawling into your sleeping bag is the only way to stay warm, but tent time doesn’t necessarily mean bedtime. Pack a deck of cards or a board game and move the party inside.

Don’t Hold It

Getting up to pee might be the absolute last thing you want to do when you’re wrapped up inside your sleeping bag, but it’s going to make you warmer. Your body prioritizes heating your torso, which is full of critical organs but also includes your very full bladder. It takes a lot of energy to keep all that liquid at a constant 98.6 F degree, so help your body out and break the seal.

Battery Life

Lithium-ion batteries will drain much faster in cold weather and will eventually stop working altogether if it gets cold enough. To extend your cell phone battery life, keep your device close to your person during the day, and at night bring it with you inside your sleeping bag.

Above all else, the most important thing required for winter camping is a positive attitude. Nothing warms the spirit like a bit of humor, nothing breaks the ice like some levity. Yes, it will be cold. Yes, it will be somewhat of a struggle. But for those sanguine individuals willing to brave the elements and put up with a little discomfort, there are spectacular rewards. Like being able to see Yosemite covered in snow, with hardly another person in the entire park.

Additional Resources:

  1. 8 Tips for Winter Car Camping – https://www.powder.com/stories/8-tips-for-winter-car-camping/
  2. Best Winter Car Camping Upgrades: How to Stay Warm and Comfortable – https://www.outsideonline.com/adventure-travel/advice/best-winter-car-camping-upgrades/
  3. Car Camping Guide: https://boondockorbust.com/your-most-epic-car-camping-guide/
  4. Expert Advice for Sleeping in Your Car During Winter Camping – https://thedyrt.com/magazine/lifestyle/winter-campers-expert-advice-sleep-car/
  5. Gear Essentials for Winter Car Camping – https://www.mensjournal.com/adventure/gear-essentials-for-winter-car-camping/
  6. How and Why to Car Camp in Cold Weather – https://lunolife.com/blogs/journal/how-and-why-to-car-camp-in-cold-weather
  7. How to Stay Warm Car Camping: Tips and Tricks – https://www.beyondthetent.com/how-to-stay-warm-car-camping/
  8. How to RV Comfortably in the Winter: https://howtowinterizeyourrv.com/how-to-rv-comfortably-in-the-winter/
  9. How to Stay Warm When Camping in Your Car – https://decideoutside.com/how-to-stay-warm-when-camping-in-your-car/
  10. The Uptrack: How to Camp in Your Car in Winter – https://bluebirdbackcountry.com/the-uptrack-how-to-camp-in-your-car-in-winter/
  11. Winter Car Camping: How to Stay Warm and Comfortable – https://thecamperlifestyle.com/winter-car-camping/
  12. Winter Car Camping Essentials: What You Need to Know – https://thecamperlifestyle.com/winter-car-camping-essentials/
  13. Winter Car Camping: Tips and Tricks – https://gohikevirginia.com/winter-car-camping/
  14. Winter Car Camping Tips: How to Stay Warm and Comfortable – https://webelongoutside.com/2022/04/winter-car-camping-tips/

Featured Image Credit: Todd Nappen / flickr

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