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Winter Camping Tips: How to Prepare Your Vehicle

A winter car camper keeps warm in a pile of blankets.

For people devoted to the great outdoors, winter doesn’t need to put an end to the camping season. While tents usually come to mind when we think of camping, cars can also be used as shelter as long as you take certain precautions and note these winter camping tips focused on the season’s unique challenge: the cold.

The Chill of the NightWinter Camping Tips: How to Prepare Your Vehicle

It’s important to understand that it can be very tough to stay warm during winter nights, and you may not be comfortable through the night. Your goal is to make the cold as livable as possible, and you’ll want to adjust your expectations accordingly. There are options for adding heat, and we’ll get to those, but they do have associated costs, both financially and in terms of safety. Ultimately, you’ll need to make sure you’re not sleeping in a place where the night temperatures could get low enough to be dangerous if your technology fails you.

Next, focus on insulation. You can cut foam panels with a high insulation value to cover the windows, but allow a little room for air circulation at the top. Invest in a quality sleeping bag and sleeping pad or an army of warm blankets. If you’re not wearing them already, pile your clothes for the next day around you to keep them warm as well. On that subject, be sure to layer up. The more layers you have, the more you can adjust as needed, and don’t forget hats, socks, gloves and scarves.

It’s also a good idea to sleep with your water bottle near you so it doesn’t freeze — hydration is important too!

Packing Heat

Before you turn your car off for the night, blast your heater until the interior is super warm, but watch out for sweat, as it can freeze. Once the cabin is warm enough, immediately kill the engine and don’t open the doors until morning so you can make the heat last. If you use any of your car’s electrical accessories without the engine running, you will drain your battery, so avoid that if possible. Do not leave your car running as a heat source. Carbon monoxide from the exhaust can collect near and inside the car, leading to a dangerous situation.

If you need extra heat at night, you can invest in a separate heater. Electric heaters will require a power source, so consider adding an external battery pack so you don’t accidentally kill your battery. Always leave a window cracked for fresh air, as your oxygen levels can deplete. Invest in a battery-powered carbon monoxide detector to be safe. Finally, be prepared for condensation — this will frost up the inside of your windows once the temperature drops again. Wipe down windows with a towel when possible to prevent having a wet interior.

Keeping Your Ride in Top Shape

Make sure you’re ready for an unexpected breakdown with a winter roadside emergency kit. Your starting and charging systems will need to be up to snuff and not showing any signs of potential failure. Battery and alternator health are key. Just in case, bring jumper cables or a full charging pack if you’re going to be somewhere remote. To keep all of your electronic gadgets charged, consider a charger that runs on solar energy or one that can be re-charged as your car drives. As always, ensure that you’ve got enough gas to get back to town.

Above all, have a plan, check it twice and don’t get in over your head. This can be a rewarding experience, but it presents real risks as well, so always take the safety-first approach and remember these winter camping tips the next time you want to get away.

Check out all the alternator and starter products available on NAPA Online, or trust one of our 17,000 NAPA AutoCare locations for routine maintenance and repairs. For more information on readying your car for winter, chat with a knowledgeable expert at your local NAPA AUTO PARTS store.

Photos courtesy of Blair Lampe.

Blair Lampe View All

Blair Lampe is a New York-based professional mechanic, blogger, theater technician, and speechwriter.  In her downtime she enjoys backpacking wherever her boots will carry her, rock climbing, experimental theatre, a crisp rosé , and showering love on her 2001 Sierra truck.

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