Who says winter car camping isn’t fun!?  Probably me, in the past. But the truth is, camping in the winter doesn’t have to suck.  Having the appropriate gear can make ALL the difference.  And it doesn’t have to cost a fortune, either.  So have a read, you might find yourself craving some wintery adventures!  

Vehicle set up and having the proper gear can make ALL the difference in winter car camping

The Winter Car Camping Set-Up

Assuming you are able to create a space in your vehicle for a mattress or sleeping mat, the next step is to set it up specifically for winter camping. Here are some must-haves for car camping in the winter.

Insulated Windows

Using some sort of insulation (i.e. Reflectix) placed inside the vehicle’s windows will help keep cold air out and keep warm air in.  This will help create a more “livable” environment in the winter.  There is a magnitude of DIY options to create your own insulation for vehicle windows. However, if you desire an easy set-up and finances aren’t a problem, there are options to buy pre-made window covers for this purpose. A little Google searching will help to determine which option works better for you, practically and financially. 

Remember, even with insulation in the windows, condensation will collect and possibly freeze on the inside of the windows. This is more of an annoyance than anything. Keeping a window or two cracked open should solve that issue.

Sleeping Mats

One way to ensure you stay warm at night is to get a sleeping mat made for cold temperatures.  Some have down feathers in them as a form of insulation, while others use materials to reflect heat back to you and keep cold air at bay. I personally use the Exped Downlite Mat, which is filled with down feathers to put an effective barrier between me and the cold surfaces I sleep on.  It is also very compact and lightweight, making it perfect for those “minimalist” trips. 

Warm blankets or sleeping bags

The location where you want to camp in the winter will determine what kind of blankets or sleeping bags you will need.  If you like to car camp in -25 C, you’ll want a VERY warm sleeping bag, possibly with a few extra blankets.  However, if the climate is mild, around 0 C, you’ll be able to get away with a sleeping bag with less insulation.  Always know what kind of environment you are signing up to camp in, and ensure your sleeping bag is rated for at least that cold, if not for colder temperatures.

A sleeping bag is a good way to contain your heat as opposed to blankets.  Mummy sleeping bags have a hood that can snug up quite well around your face, making sure heat stays trapped and your head is covered – the place where warmth likes to escape the most!  Keep in mind that even if you do use a sleeping bag, it’s a good idea to pack extra blankets in case you still feel a little chilled.

First Aid/Emergency Kit

Having a first aid and emergency kit is essential for camping in general, but especially winter camping.  These kits should include matches or lighters, candles, first aid supplies, emergency warming (thermal) blankets, firestarter, a shovel, jumper cables, tow ropes, extra flashlights/headlamps, and hand warmers.  These are just examples of some of the emergency supplies you will want in your vehicle before heading out in frigid temperatures!  Ensure you do your research prior to leaving for your winter experience and purchase the necessary equipment needed.  


Having bins to put your belongings in will keep things organized throughout the trip. Depending on the vehicle, you may need to place some belongings outside overnight to make room for the bed. Bins will keep things dry and clean.  

Layer technique is crucial to staying warm while participating in winter activities as well as in winter car camping

The Winter Car Camping Clothing Situation

Layers, layers, and more layers.  Knowledge on how to properly layer in cold weather will go a long way to staying toasty warm throughout the night.  Start with a moisture-wicking base layer, and then continue on with some warm mid-layers, topped off by shell to protect from the elements. MEC has an amazing article on the how-tos of layering  https://www.mec.ca/en/explore/clothing-layers . Don’t forget your toques, mitts, scarves, and super warm socks. 

Merino wool is a great product to ensure moisture wicks away from the body and keeps even the coldest of heads, hands, and feet warm (and it is naturally antimicrobial!).  There are also synthetic or synthetic mixed with merino wool options available. Testing out different fabrics will help to decide what works best for you.

The Winter Car Camping Food Situation

The great thing about camping in the winter is that you have a natural fridge!  However, not all things are meant to be frozen.  It can make a hangry person want to jump in the car and get to the nearest coffee shop for a hot latte and warm breakfast.  Planning ahead and prepping food will take a little more brainpower in the winter, but will keep the hungriest campers happy. 

My experience is, when it’s -25 C, don’t bring eggs.  They freeze and turn into some form of goop that is not meant to be consumed.  Dried goods are a good way to go: soups, pasta (which, hello high carb food, always keeping that body warm!), oatmeal, toast, etc. 

If you don’t want something to freeze, leaving it in the front of the vehicle can keep it from freezing, as your body heat will keep things a little warmer than outside.  Always remember to store your food somewhere where wildlife cannot get into it.

Ensure you pack wood for a fire, a camping stove, and enough fuel to cook the food you bring.  Cold coffee in the morning just doesn’t cut it.  If you’re somewhere that allows fires, it is an excellent way to stay warm and even cook your food on it if needed.

Taking in the sights at the Weeping Wall on the Icefields Hwy, Alberta on a winter camping expedition.

Enjoy the Scenery

Being prepared is the key to a great winter camping experience. Knowing your limits and equipping yourself with the necessary supplies needed to camp safely is crucial for winter camping.  There will likely be mistakes at some point in the trip.  But, they will be stories and experiences that will be laughed about at another time.

Camping in the winter will provide an opportunity to enjoy beautiful scenery without crowds of people. There’s just something about waking up to crisp, frosty air and sitting around a fire, drinking hot cocoa, and taking in the snow-laden mountains and frozen lakes. 

See you out there!