I am a big fan of making myself as comfortable as possible when car camping. Coming in for winter, it means you will need to upgrade some of your most important things to stay warm. With just a few smart purchases, you can be in the market year round. And in these colder months, it means being able to experience some of the most popular spots in the country without the crowds (like these national parks and hiking trails). Here are some of my favorite winter car camping upgrades.
Montbell Down Hugger 800 ($ 569)
(Photo: Courtesy Montbell)
A proper winter sleeping bag is the most important piece of equipment you need for cold weather camping. Look for a bag that is at least 15 to 20 degrees colder than the lowest temperature you can expect. I use this incredibly convenient, zero degree bag from Montbell. It does the trick for all of my winter camping in the west when I’m not sleeping in a motorhome with a heater. The brand’s super spiral stretch system might sound a little unconventional, but it really works to keep the down insulation closer to your body during the night, avoiding gaps and cold spots.
Pendleton Wyeth Trail blanket ($ 269)
(Photo: Courtesy Pendleton)
You should always have a blanket or extra sleeping bag in your car during the winter months in case you get stuck somewhere. I like having a warehouse blanket in my truck, like Pendleton’s Wyeth Trail Blanket. It’s made of an incredibly soft blend of wool and cotton that’s thick enough to keep you warm in an emergency and will look great in your home during the warmer months. I’ve also found it to be stain resistant and easy to clean, which is a big plus for road trips and winter camping. The best thing about it: Because it’s wool, it continues to insulate even if it gets wet.
Exped MegaMat Max 15 Duo sleeping pad ($ 429)
(Photo: Courtesy Exped)
If you are using a summer sleeping mat, you will need to upgrade to a mat with a higher R value, a measure of insulation performance. This luxurious pad from Exped is incredibly comfortable and has one of the highest R values of any pad I’ve found at 10.6. That’s more than enough insulation for freezing temperatures. If you’re looking to spend less money, I recommend Klymit’s Insulated Static V Luxe ($ 120) with one R value of five and kept me warm when winter camping in the backcountry.
Gerber folding spade ($ 62)
(Photo: Courtesy Gerber)
I always have this little folding shovel in my truck, but it’s especially comforting to have in the colder months in case I need to dig myself or someone else out of a snow bank. It’s small and light enough to fit in the trunk of any vehicle, but tough enough to dig properly.
Trac Grabber Tire Traction Device (from 59 USD)
(Photo: Courtesy of TracGrabber)
These traction devices got me out of some difficult situations in the snow. They’re cheaper and take up less space than chains or rescue chains, are easy to mount on your tire, and adapt well to other terrain such as sand or mud.
Hestra Army leather patrol gloves ($ 140)
(Photo: Courtesy of Hestra)
When camping in winter I always have at least two pairs of gloves with me, regardless of whether I go to a ski hut in the backcountry or to car camping in the desert. One is always Hestra’s extremely comfortable and warm Army Leather Patrol Gloves. I don’t take any chances with cold hands, especially when I cook dinner in the evening or pack things up early in the morning.
MSR WhisperLite stove $ 90
(Photo: Courtesy of MSR)
If you’ve ever tried cooking on your typical canister backpack stove when it’s very cold outside, you have likely struggled to light it up. This is because the gas in these fuel canisters tends to gel as the mercury drops, making them difficult to use and sometimes completely unusable. For lower temperatures you will need a good liquid fuel stove like MSR’s WhisperLite. It’s a time-honored classic that won’t let you down no matter how cold it gets.
Stanley Insulated 2-Gallon Water Jug ($ 50)
(Photo: Courtesy Stanley)
I’ve been using this insulated water jug for several years and it’s always one of my most underrated pieces of equipment. The one-handed operation makes it really easy to fill bottles with gloves on, it never spills and because it’s insulated, your water won’t freeze. It’s easy to miss the fact that there is plenty of water on a winter camping trip when the drier air makes it important to stay as hydrated as you would in summer.
Bonus Splurge: Planar 2D-12V Portable Diesel Air Heater ($ 1,685)
(Photo: Courtesy Planar)
OK, this is an expensive upgrade that may not be for everyone but will have to hold out with me for a second. If you are serious about cold weather camping, nothing will make your experience more comfortable than a heater. Planar makes small, high-quality diesel heaters that many vanlife people install permanently in their mobile homes. (I built one into my teardrop trailer.) But they also make this portable device that you can use anywhere you sleep, be it in your car, tent, or trailer.
Yes it is expensive but because it has exhausted it is safe to use all night. There are cheaper alternatives that can chill the air before bed, like a Mr. Buddy propane heater (starts at $ 114), but they pump carbon monoxide into the air you breathe and shouldn’t be used all overnight . Propane heaters are also notorious for generating a lot of condensation, while diesel versions give off dry heat and work well at high altitudes. And those tiny 12 volt space heaters? I’ve tried them and they don’t do much other than drain your car’s battery.
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Main photo: Mumemories / iStock
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