Can you sleep in your car during winter camping?

Sleeping in your car during winter can be a fun and fascinating experience. Being out there in the wild, isolated from the outside world, amongst the snow, with your favorite book or music is at times what you crave for.

Your car is definitely cozier & comfortable yet less windy than a tent. But for overnight camping, you need to turn your car into a warm and comfy place to sleep. For the newbie campers, sleeping in your car during the freezing cold of the night might not be an easy task.

So, can you sleep in your car during winter camping? Yes. To comfortably sleep in your car during camping in winter, you will insulate the windows with reflective shades and a fleecy layer to retain heat and avoid condensation. Select a suitable sleeping bag, a closed-cell sleeping foam, and perhaps an electric blanket. You can also use an electric portable heater.

When I decided to hit the road for my first winter trip, I was thrilled. “How hard can it be,” I thought about sleeping in the car overnight. But, a few hours into the cold, freezing night, I realized it is not a picnic in the park. I overlooked quite a few things that I later fixed to enjoy my winter nights in the car better.

In this article, I am going to discuss the challenges of sleeping in your car during winter camping and what you can do to make things comfy and cozy.

Sleeping in your car during winter camping – challanges

Compared to a tent, sleeping in a car overnight might seem easy to most people. For the most part, it is but it also come with its own unique challenges. Below are a few difficulties you might face during car camping:

Finding a parking spot: If you are going to use an established campsite and want to sleep in your car, that’s totally fine, but you might not be able to sleep in places like public parking or unestablished sites. Check with your local authorities if they allow parking and sleeping in a car overnight. Some people park anywhere and call it “stealth camping,” but they always risk getting fined by the authorities.

Winter proofing your car: Your car is great for sealing out the air, but it might still become an icicle during the night. The main body is made of metal which is a great conductor of heat, and the glasses are also not so great in stopping the cold from getting in.

Making room to sleep: This is one of the major concerns if you don’t have the right kind of car. You need at least 7 feet long space to sleep comfortably. My first winter camping in a car, I used my Suzuki Jimny jeep because the terrain demanded it. I was very uncomfortable sleeping on an inclined front seat (Jimny is notoriously small with not enough leg room even but is a monster off-roader)

Snowing on the car: You might winterproof the inside of the car to make it cozy but if you are parking in an open space, you might wake up buried in a thick layer of ice above and on sides of your car.

Safety: Although safety is not an exclusive challenge to car camping, with a car, you can camp anywhere, and that makes things a little complicated. If you don’t park in a safe place, you might not be able to sleep with peace of mind.

With these challenges in mind, let’s look at how we can make our winter camping in car more comfortable, peaceful and enjoyable.

car winter camping

How to sleep in your car during winter camping?

#1 Find a suitable parking spot

First off, you cannot park and sleep everywhere. Most public places restrict overnight parking and sleeping in your vehicle (though, some people do it and call it ‘stealth camping’ but I would not recommend it.

Before you park your car look for a suitable area. Ideally it should check the following basic criteria.

  • The place is not restricted by city or state authorities. For example, you cannot park and sleep in a public parking area like an airport or bus station.
  • The place is safe. Ask around from the locals if it is safe to park overnight and sleep in the car. Some areas are notorious for break-ins and robberies.
  • If the weather is prone to snow overnight, find a sheltered place to park your RV. Avoid trees as you can risk fallen branches damaging your car.
  • If your parking area has a power source, that is a plus. You can use the power to use a portable heater inside the car.

Once you find a suitable spot, its time to prepare your car for overnight camping/sleeping.

#2 Insulate your windows

The first step in preparing the car to sleep is to insulate your windows. Unlike insulating your tent, your car doesn’t need much effort.

You first need to know that your car is not completely sealed and insulated. Glass is a good conductor of heat and cold, which is why your windows need insulation.

Even if you completely close all the window glasses, still a considerable amount of heat will be passing through them. Sealing the windows completely has its own problems. If your windows are completely sealed, You might experience condensation and perspiration, which further cools down your body and will make you feel cold afterward.

If you leave your windows slightly open to avoid condensation, you risk cold breeze coming in and dropping your cabin temperature during the night.

The best and the cheapest solution to insulate car windows is to use reflective sunshades to retain heat attached to a layer of felt that can absorb condensation.

Reflective sunshades are designed with reflective sheets that prevent the heat inside the car cabin from escaping. You can find standardized reflective sunshades on Amazon or you can make your own custom sizes/shape using Reflectix – a household winterproofing material available online as well as in any hardware store.

To avoid condensation, you will have to use woolen felt along with the reflective shades. You can find a woolen felt on Amazon (link) or from your nearest hardware store. Using velcro adhesive tape, stick the felt on the backside of the reflective shade and put the combined shade on all your windows.

I have found a helpful video on how to make your own reflective window insulators.

#2 Prepare the backseat to sleep

Preparing the backseat to sleep is more like preparing your bed before jumping onto it and passing out. If you want to make most of your winter car camping, I suggest you flatten your rear seats or remove them before the trip, so you have the optimum space to camp.

Usually, campers take their RV, SUV, or sprinter to camp because they are made to withstand the weather and their trunks are great for overnight car camping.

So, once you have the space and a flat surface, you are all clear to set up your bed.

Now, the best thing about car camping is that you do not need to worry about your backpack weight. You can pack all that you need. To sleep well, pack all your favorites; inflatable pillows, memory foam or sleeping pad, electric blankets, and a down sleeping bag.

Let me tell you why you need each.

Sleeping bag: Sleeping is literally the most important gear for camping in cars as heat loss during the night can make the car chilly-cold. Make sure you get a sleeping bag that has a temperature rating of 0-degree or below. The sleeping bag I’d recommend for car camping would be the Therm-a-rest Oberon. It is super comfortable & warm and is designed to toast up your feet instantly. You can buy it from their official website or find it here on Amazon.

Sleeping pad or memory foam: This may sound useless as you already have a sleeping bag, but a sleeping pad or memory foam isn’t just for comfort. When the trunk gets super cold, the foam provides an additional layer of insulation beneath you. Also, closed-cell foam pads have a reputation for retaining heat that keeps you warm. Added comfort is a plus.

Electric Blanket: This is optional and depends upon the temperature you are camping in. But, electric blankets can do wonders in car camping. These blankets have heating wires inside their layers which keeps you warm. The good thing about these blankets is, they only require 10-12 volts to operate. You can either use a portable power system (like this one) or plug it into your car socket while your engine is on.

Inflatable Pillows: To be honest, I personally can’t sleep with inflatable pillows. If you have the space to carry a real pillow, go with it. Inflatable pillows are good only if you want to save your packing space and weight. They are not as comfortable as an actual pillow. If you are going for one, I would recommend the Therm-a-rest inflatable pillows and Klymit Luxe Pillows . Both are great. They are not only small and inflatable, but they also have a fabric covering that provides a feeling of real pillows to some extent.

#3 Keep yourself inside layers of cloth

Layering is the part you cannot avoid or overlook while winter camping in a car. When dangers like hypothermia and frostbite are just one mistake away.

The idea of layering is all about trapping your existing body heat inside the base layers and adding insulating layers to keep it trapped for the night.

sleeping inside car using sleeping bag

For maximum cold protection, you should dress in three layers.

  • Bottom thermal layer: Avoid cotton and go for synthetic fabric like polypropylene blend to maximize wicking (absorb perspiration). Synthetic long john’s shirts and pajamas are among the most popular base layers in winter campers.
  • Middle warm layer: Wool or fleece provides the maximum warmth.
  • Top Protective layer: Although you don’t need this while sleeping but if you are going out in the middle of the night to pee, put on a waterproof top layer.

#4 Use portable car heater

You cannot use an open flame heater in your car. All the heaters that burn fuel are dangerous to use in cars, be they candle or gas heaters. Another danger associated with gas heaters is carbon monoxide intoxication due to the complete insulation of the windows.

The best way to warm up your car is to use an electric car heater. After insulating the car, turn on the heater for 20-25 minutes or wait until the trunk is toasty warm, then turn it off as you wouldn’t want to exhaust the fuel overnight.

Your car is already insulated, so the heat will be trapped inside, but don’t shy away from turning it on again if you need warmth. The only problem with the car heater is that you need to turn your engine on and keep it running for some time to get warm air (all car heaters use heat from the engine coolant).

You can also use small portable car heaters and defoggers if you don’t want to turn on your car engine for the car heater to work. These heaters are compact, easy to use, and do not require any external power source as they work by plugging in the car charger. They are not extremely effective as they only use 12-volts of power but can make you feel comfortable at night.

For alternate heating methods, you can read my detailed blog on heating your tent in winter. Most of the methods can also be applied to your car.

#5 Light up your camp with a camping lantern

Imagine being bored inside the insulated car where you cannot even see the outside. If I were you, I’d keep my favorite books beside me to help me get through the insomniac nights. But how will you read them?

In most cars, there are lights present somewhere at the top. But, these lights are so dim that you can barely see anything. Also, if you keep them running long enough, you might end up with a dead ignition in the morning.

That’s why it’s a good idea to keep a rechargeable or battery-powered lantern with you while going camping. You can recharge it at home and anywhere on your way where you can find wall power (or if it’s battery-powered, you can buy AAA batteries from any highway store)

For this, I would suggest Princeton Tec Helix rechargeable lights. They are not only dimmable but can be used for 18 hours after one full charge. And no need to worry about the charging as it can be charged in your car by the car charger. You can also use USB string lights and stick them to the roof of your car.

Sleeping in your car during winter camping – Summary

Here is a summary of what we discussed to make your winter car camping experience more enjoyable, safe and comfortable.

  • Make sure you select the right parking spot. It shouldn’t be restricted or illegal to park overnight.
  • Winter-proof your car windows with reflective sheets and a felt layer.
  • Make comfortable bedding in the back with your sleeping pad, sleeping bag, and thermal blanket.
  • Dress up in warm 3-layered clothes to avoid cold.
  • Heat up your cabin with an electric heater or use your car heater.
  • Light up your cabin with an overhead rechargeable lamp or lantern.

Once you take care of the basic things, you can comfortably camp in your car anywhere you would like despite extreme cold of the winter camping.