There are a few reasons why people would choose to stay in their car for a camping trip. It may be because they want to save money, they don’t have anywhere else to go, or they are trying to survive. All campers need to be ready for all of these scenarios. As a close friend once said to me: “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.”
Staying warm in your car while camping is one of those situations where planning ahead of time is the most helpful thing for you. There are products you can buy (portable heaters, candles), DIY projects you can practice, materials to keep handy (space blankets, gloves), and having an overall prepared mindset for whatever you might come up against.
- Safety Talk
- Choosing a Season and Region to Car Camp
- Free Tools for Staying Warm in Your Car
- Helpful Products To Keep You Warm
- Car Camping in the Cold FAQ
- What to Always Keep in your Car For An Emergency (and for car camping in the cold)
- Where – Where Camping in your Car is Legal, Best Spots, Safety
- Conclusion – Things to Keep In Mind
The discussion scope of this article will lean towards the worst-case scenario: being stuck in freezing weather in an area far away from “civilization”. It is much better to over-prepare for a situation and have more than you need than to under prepare and realize you need something you don’t have. In this article, we will exhaust all elements potentially helpful to the reader.
The Leave No Trace Principles ask that car campers do their best to stay away from parking on any green surface and for campers to do their best to park in designated areas. We will talk more about the best (and legal) places to park when car camping later on.
Carbon Monoxide (CO) is probably the most important safety concern that potential car campers need to think about. All sources of heat that produce through composition produce the odorless and poisonous gas, CO. If you are planning on using any sort of heating system in the close-corners environment of your car, make sure you open a window slightly on either side of your car. This will not only allow more oxygen to enter the car and keep you safe, but it will also level out the amount of moisture in the car, which will make your experience much more comfortable.
Related to CO is the tailpipe, where most of the dangerous gas will escape when properly functioning. When you are in cold and snowy weather, take extra precautions to make sure the tailpipe is not blocked and that it has ample space to clear out all the CO escaping the car when you have the engine running and the heat on.
I have written an entire article on the ability of bears to break into car windows with ease, so make sure to reference that article if you are going to be camping in an area with a healthy bear population (the coolest places usually have bears anyways). Although you probably don’t have to worry about other animals getting into your car, be sure to research potential threats if you get stranded in a spotty environment.
I have advised that you keep a window slightly cracked open in most situations in order to promote oxygen circulation and moisture control, so keeping your food securely packed away and out of sight will save you a good amount of grief. Kahlia, a friend of mine who is another writer for this website, wrote an article about 13 Tips & Tricks for Keeping Food in Your Car While Camping, which will be very helpful for your research as well.
Lastly, it is important to remember to be aware of potential thieves that might be lurking around. Keeping all materials of value well hidden is a great first step, as well as thinking about covering up your windows. This will not only protect against thieves, but it will also provide some helpful insulation for added warmth.
I will now discuss the importance of considering what season and region of North America you plan on camping in.
Choosing a Season and Region to Car Camp
As obvious as it sounds, the easiest way to stay warm while car camping is by picking the right location.
This map from NASA represents the changes in “Land Surface Temperature” in the North American continent from January 2018. This map helps us to understand that places that are cold are getting colder, and places that are hot are getting hotter. The bluest part of the map represents an average temperature decrease (not counting wind chill) of somewhere around 15 C or 5 F, and the reddest part represents a positive change of about 15 C from the previous 10 years of record-keeping.
Picking where exactly you are planning on camping, and when you want to be there are extremely important questions to consider. Winter camping in most of the eastern and northern US needs to be handled with caution, especially given the fact, given the evidence displayed in this map, that these areas are getting even colder than they were in the past.
Consider carefully this annual change in climate as well as the day-to-day change in weather reports for the location you are planning on going. Climate is defined as the long term weather patterns found in a particular area, while the weather is the day to day changes in precipitation and temperature. Both of these ideas need to be considered when choosing your next camping location for your safety and comfort.
Another thing I have learned to be considerate of is altitude change. My friends and I went on a camping trip to Alberta, Canada to Banff National Park. We looked up the weather of Banff, the city, and it seemed perfect for what we had planned. 55 degrees and low chance of precipitation. But what happened was that our trailhead was 2,000 feet above the city of Banff and there was about knee-deep snow at the beginning of the proposed trailhead. It was also windy and 20 degrees cooler. The good thing is that I learned how to survive in freezing conditions and how to keep all of my toes safe, and hopefully what I learned will be passed on to smarter individuals such as yourself!
So please, for your own sake, make sure you talk to a park ranger about your plans and discuss the weather before you travel out to the location.
Free Tools for Staying Warm in Your Car
Before we get further about specifics into the best ways to keep warm in your car while camping, here is a shortlist of free, popular ways you can do by yourself to get started.
Bring a Dog or Two
Do you remember that one scene in Star Wars where Luke has to kill and cut open his Tauntaun to survive the cold weather? Or where Hugh Glass (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) in The Revenant had to sleep inside a horse? Turns out it’s pretty effective. You can replicate this by bringing Man’s-Best-Friend and sleeping comfortably by them in the car. No need do what Luke had to do, though; you’re too prepared for that because you read this article!
Height in Car
I learned this trick from a website called “WeeksOutdoors” (the article can be found here). We all know from our high school science classes that hot air rises, so try to build a platform or use a cot to raise yourself as high up in your car as possible to get as much warmth as possible.
Boil some water and put them into tightly closed water bottles. You can place them under your blankets and sleeping bag to quickly heat up yourself. You can put this water in a regular plastic bottle as opposed to a vacuum-sealed heat resistant water bottle, which will not allow heat to pass through effectively. The plastic might warp and twist a bit, but it will not explode or melt.
I’ve done an article about how to use rocks to heat up your shoes and socks when they get wet (found here), but you can also do this to heat up your car! Place a few rocks on the side of a fire, use tongs to pull them out and place them on top of a few other cold rocks on your car floor where they will not be touching anything else in your car. This is an extremely easy and effective way of heating up your car in a pinch.
Helpful Products To Keep You Warm
As opposed to the items listed above, these are the items that are most likely not in your possession and would need to be bought before you plan on going on an adventure into cold and wintery areas. These don’t need to be in your car year-round but should be seriously considered as you prepare to go to leave. I will be sourcing products from my own personal use as well as from the highest product ratings on Amazon.
Here at Car Camping Tips have written a few different articles about using heaters in enclosed areas. Here is an article about if it is safe to use a heater in a tent, and here is an article about if it is safe to use something called a catalytic heater (this sort of heater burns propane).
Overall, you should use a catalytic heater in your car if you have to use one because they do not create as much carbon monoxide, (always crack a window in case there is a malfunction with the heater) and they should not be used when you are sleeping. Using an electric heater is not the best option for car campers because of the use of the car’s battery to charge the heater, but fear not; there are many other options available to you!
Just to reiterate, any gas-powered heating source (including catalytic heaters) present risk. Always ensure you have ventilation, and don’t use them while sleeping. If you need to use them, turn them on for a few minutes to warm up as needed only.
Space Blankets: These are wonderfully small and cheap blankets that work great for car campers and hikers alike. I used a few of these “Mylar Thermal Blankets” when I was hiking in the Canadian Rockies this last summer, and I swear that having these wrapped around my feet at the end of a long and cold hike without the proper footwear saved my toes from freezing off. They are known to be able to retain 90% of the user’s body heat, protecting against hypothermia and shock. I got this product off Amazon for a nice price.
These are more widely understood as helpful for any event from marathons to hiking trips, from tailgating the next football game to surviving in the brutal North. I keep this Amazon product in my car all the time just in case I need them for the great price of 40 pairs for about $23. These are most helpful to use with warming your hands and feet when you are hiking through the sleep or at the end of the night when you need an extra source of heat.
Electric Blanket: This is an interesting one that I hadn’t thought about until I started to research the subject, and it seems that products such as this on Amazon are widely used for winter car camping. What I would suggest is to use this to heat up your sleeping area as you are driving to your destination and charge it up right before you go to sleep and then unplug it when you want to go to sleep. Most products will stay toasty for a good amount of time and it won’t drain your battery if you unplug it after charging for a half-hour or so.
Reflective Foam Insulation
Reflective Foam Insulation: Since you don’t need too much of this material to cover your windows, I would suggest getting this at your local hardware store and cutting it to size for your front and even side windows. This product is able to reflect up to 97% of the heat in your car from escaping outside, so this will radically heat up your car, even to the point of making it a mini-oven system. Taking all of these items with you, especially this foam, will give you a restful and comfortable rest in your car during the harshest of wintery nights.
Car Camping in the Cold FAQ
Here is a list of Frequently Asked Questions that I have found in the course of researching this topic. This should be a useful resource for you as you consider the many important details that come up when preparing for going camping in your car in a colder location.
How Cold is Too Cold for Sleeping in Your Car?
I have lived in Michigan for my entire life. I have traveled to Canada for dozens of camping trips with and without a tent, so I have some ability to speak to what is simply too cold to car camp in. I would conclude that anything less than -30 degrees would be unwise. Wind chill can make this factor change by a good amount of degrees, but either way, you should probably not allow yourself to be caught in this sort of cold weather; and if you do, you will have the supplies to last you through the late night because you have read this guide through and through.
Which is Warmer: A Tent or A Car?
The short and correct answer is a car. You are higher off the ground which is good for three reasons: you are not losing body heat to the ground, you are not going to risk getting wet from the rain and snow outside, and hot air rises (so the closer to the ceiling of your car the better). This is also considering that it is probably too cold to set up your tent outside, you don’t have all the gear you needed, your tent isn’t rated for the cold weather you are experiencing, you don’t have a good sleeping bag, etc. Unless you are 100% prepared and ready to face the winter weather of the place you are camping, staying in your car is the best bet.
Now, say you have a tent and a car. It is an option to use both, and I would choose this option. Stay in your car and crack the windows down just a bit, and then you can set up your tent in front of all open windows in order to keep them from losing heat too rapidly. This paired with using insulated foam for your front window will give the best amount of “heat-keep”. Here’s a comparison between using a car and a tent:
|Elements||Off Ground||Supplies||Options to Heat|
Car Heater (Briefly)
|Tent||Exposed to |
Fire if possible,
|Both||Protected||✔||Combo of |
|Same as “Car”|
Can a Candle Heat a Car?
I have searched for many hours trying to get a straight answer on this one, and while I had hoped this was actually a helpful way to heat up an enclosed space in an emergency situation, it truly does not seem too helpful. I suppose that it is up to the reader to try this out for him or herself, but remember a few things before trying this idea out:
- Candles do not give out a good amount of heat energy. They give out about 80 BTUs per hour, as opposed to a propane heater which is able to give out about 12,000 BTUs.
- Burning an open flame in a closed area is never truly a good idea, especially when you have flammable items all around you, and you might fall asleep when these are being used, so that would be no fun.
- The emission of CO2 inside of a closed area is not good for anyone breathing nearby (this is another reason why it is a must to have windows open).
Should I Run The Heat In My Car?
Briefly, but do not rely on this. Here are a few reasons for staying away from using your heat more than briefly:
- Turning on the engine and using your heat will drain a fully gassed up vehicle within 5 hours (depending on the size of the fuel tank and the efficiency of the engine).
- If there is anything blocking your exhaust pipe, such as snow, there is the possibility that you will die of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- From constantly heating and cooling your engine by using heat and then turning off the heat you run the risk of freezing your engine.
How to Insulate your Car
There are multiple ways to counteract losing heat from inside your car. Generating heat inside your car means nothing if you cannot keep it there. Here are a few tips to keep much-needed heat where it needs to be.
- Cover the outside of your car with your tent to provide a good outside layer from the elements.
- With a shovel cover the tent around your car with snow. Believe it or not, snow is an amazing insulator. Think about how bears and other animals survive the winter when they hibernate. This is because snow is composed of a good amount of air trapped in the snow crystals, and since this air cannot move heat transfer is minimized. Just make sure to give the exhaust pipe and its surrounding area a wide berth.
- Cover your front and side windows with reflection insulation foam from the inside of your car.
- Apply a layer of space blankets around the windows, making sure to allow some spaces to be open so that a good amount of air can escape to prevent condensation buildup and create a healthy airflow. You should also wrap yourself in a space blanket as well, especially your feet.
What to Always Keep in your Car For An Emergency (and for car camping in the cold)
This is meant to be a list of items that are most likely easy for you to find around your house already and won’t cost you any extra money. These are all extremely helpful to have for yourself and your passengers in your car all year round in order to be ready for any situation that may arise.
- Gloves: You can’t set up the rest of the materials and strategies listed in this guide without warm and functioning hands, so bring a couple of gloves with you. I would suggest a slimmer, athletic pair of gloves to do work that requires more precise handling, and then bulkier gloves you can wear over them for extra protection.
- Hats: We lose somewhere between 10-20% of our body heat through our uncovered heads (contrary to an old US military figure of around 45% or above). Bringing a few knit hats for you and your passengers is an extremely helpful way of keeping warm.
- Socks: These can double as effective gloves or be used when you have wet socks to really help warm up your toes.
- Flashlight: This is an obvious choice for any car owner in general, especially for a car camper because you want to be able to find what you are looking for fast when you are spending the night in your car in the middle of winter.
- Extra Batteries: These are helpful for you to keep your other items and products working well. What’s the use of bringing all of these helpful tools if you can’t power them? Keep a plastic bag full of duplicates of each of the types of batteries your items use and always keep them in a safe place.
- Wool Blankets: These are great blankets when they are kept dry, and because you are staying in your car you should be dry and extremely warm with a few of these kept in your car year-round.
- Extra Packed Food: To keep your heat and energy up it is important to have a supply of carb-loaded food to last you through the long, cold nights you might have to be ready for when car camping. Your body is doing its best in conserving energy when trying to keep more, so give yourself a fighting chance and bring some extra snacks around.
- Headlamp/Lanterns: These are a bit handier than flashlights because you don’t have to take up one hand holding a headlamp, so you are given the option to work on prepping the inside and outside of your car for the night with more ease and comfort. You truly can’t go wrong with getting a nice headlamp on Amazon, but just be sure to bring with you extra batteries.
- Candles: You could create a handy collection of small, tin candles and waterproof matches inside of a small tin container. You could pull these out as a secondary heat source in an emergency, using a few candles at a time inside of the container to concentrate the heat further so that it is more effective at heating your car.
Where – Where Camping in your Car is Legal, Best Spots, Safety
Sleeping in your car is a good option for those that don’t want to spend the extra money it takes to get the more expensive items involved in camping, such as a tent, proper sleeping bags, a cot, etc. As for whether it is legal or not to sleep in your car, there are three things you need to consider:
- Where are you planning to stay?
- Are you willing to pay, or not willing to pay?
- How uncomfortable are you willing to be?
The US has hundreds of designated campgrounds for tent, car, and RV camping. These types of campgrounds usually have some sort of area with a fire pit, water sources, bathrooms, a picnic table, and even electricity. These are sometimes called “back-in” sites.
An extra pro tip: Dispersed Camping is camping done outside a campground where you can live out of your own car or backpack for up to a bit more than two weeks. This sort of camping comes with no human amenities, like restrooms, water sources, trash collection, etc. This is also known as Primitive Camping and guess what: IT’S FREE.
Consider checking the DMV website and this FindLaw website to look up the specific vehicle codes for each state and even for specific cities that might have other laws against car camping. These are laws in place to “protect” the city against homelessness, so even if a city says not to car camp, there might be exceptions for car campers in National Forests, Parks, etc.
Also, consider calling a local park ranger of the area you are planning to visit or check out regulations on the US Forest Service website. Trust me, you do not want to be in a situation where you tell the locals what you plan on doing and they look at you like you are crazy (this happened to me and my friends when we set out for a backpacking trip in Banff National Park in Alberta in May. Not realizing that there was still knee-deep snow in the icy mountains of the Canadian Rockies, we were surprised to see that the locals were seriously concerned with our physical, and mental, health).
State parks and city campgrounds vary in their rules about sleeping in your car. In fact, in some Texas State Parks, there are specific rules against it–many popular parks in fact will have rangers going from site to site to ensure compliance with rules. Call before planning a trip at an established campground if you don’t want to bring a tent.
As a last resort, large department stores (Walmart, Publix, Meijer, etc.) and some churches with big parking lots don’t mind having someone stay in their car in the lot overnight. It would be courteous to consider buying something from the store the next morning. There are rumors of Walmart in particular cracking down on this, though. If you want to stay on the safe side, you can always ask the store manager before settling in.
Just remember the saying I just made up: Go ahead and stay in the Lot… but not a lot.
Conclusion – Things to Keep In Mind
As a closing thought, here is a list of the most important things to remember when you are planning on camping in your car in a cold area overnight. Each of these bullet points can be found in the article above in the same order that they appear here.
- It is much better to over-prepare for a situation and have more than you need than to under prepare and realize you need something you don’t have.
- Crack your windows open so that there is no possibility of CO2 poisoning and there is no condensation buildup.
- Carefully consider when and where you plan to travel to. Avoid extremely cold areas that could have flash snow-storms at a moment’s notice, and be sure to contact local park rangers about the conditions at said location.
- Car Camping is a wonderful idea because there are so many places you can go to do it and it is extremely cheap to do so!
- There are many ways to keep yourself warm in the car, such as insulation, having a warm dog or person next to you, being higher up in the car, using hot rocks to warm your sleeping area, or using boiled water in bottles to heat up your sleeping bag.
- You should always keep a collection of gloves, socks, and hats in your car for multiple people, as well as a flashlight, extra batteries, wool blankets, and extra food.
- Before going on a trip to a place where the temperature is in the negatives or single-digit positives, be sure to gear up with products such as portable heaters, space blankets, hand and feet warmers, reflective foam insulation, a headlamp or two, and extra candles.
- Anything below -30 degrees is unwise to sleep in and should not be attempted.
- A car is warmer than a tent, but a car with a tent is warmer than both.
- A candle is not useful to heat a car, but it is a wonderful way to find comfort.
- You should not rely on running the heat in your car, because being warm at night but stranded in the morning with a gasless car is not helpful.
- If necessary, insulate your car with reflective foam, space blankets, a tent, and snow, while allowing for air to pass through a cracked window.