Under a Pile of Blankets: Cold Weather Car Camping

It goes without saying that you need long johns if you are going to sleep in a Jeep in cold weather. I have a lovely pair I bought in Lake Louise, Alberta, last fall. I sprung for the best: a merino wool base layer designed to lie next to the skin. They are soft and magnificently warm. Sometimes a base layer isn’t enough, but either way merino wool adds a note of warmth hard to get with other materials.

Last night it got down to single digits when I camped in Rocinante, my red Jeep, in the parking lot of a Wal-Mart in Carthage, Missouri, and I’d have to say my long johns are the one item I appreciated most. However, I have many other ways I deal with the cold. I’m a cold-weather backpacker and tent camper from way back, so camping in the truck is a breeze for me. The walls of the truck are, of course, better insulation than the nylon walls of a tent. They also keep me safer, since I usually travel alone now. The simple fact that the truck keeps me off the ground also keeps me warmer.

Do you let cold weather keep you from hitting the road for adventures in the winter? You don’t have to!

Tips for car camping in cold weather

Other than long johns, there are a few great tricks you can use to make cold-weather camping in a car or truck a little less biting.

  • Make sure you use the restroom before starting the bedding-down process.
  • Warm up the cabin before adjusting your bedding. I usually get it warm enough that I feel like I’m going to start sweating!
  • Take time to put everything in its place before you turn off the engine. It’s okay to let the engine idle—don’t panic or rush. If everything is not in its place, it will stress you out and could also compromise your safety. Cover the windows with windshield covers. If they have a black side, put the black side out to help warm the cabin when the sun comes up.
  • Make sure your doors are locked. Either leave your keys in the ignition where you know they will be if you need to drive away quickly, or place them in a secure position within arm’s reach of where you sleep. I like the second choice, because I feel safe knowing the panic button is nearby. If someone bothers me, I can use the car alarm as part of my get-em-to-go-away plan.
  • Turn the engine off right before you head back to bed, so you can preserve the warmth under the covers. Know exactly what you need to do to get yourself to bed, so you don’t lose time and warmth unnecessarily. If you allow your body to get cold, it can take a long time to get warm again using just body heat.
  • If you don’t have a professional sleeping bag designed for cold weather, it works well to layer blankets. Put the softest layer next to you, then a layer or two of high-loft or high-warmth blankets (fleece or wool or a thermal high-tech—I have all three), followed by a shell designed to keep in the heat (last night, I used my Eddie Bauer parka shell over the upper portion of my body—the thermal blanket also has a nylon shell).
  • Wear socks and a hat to avoid losing body heat through two of the spots on the body that lose the most heat. The hat should be soft and sleepable.
  • Know where your pants, shoes, coat, phone, keys and money are in case you have to leave the vehicle suddenly.
  • Put electronics and other delicate items under the covers with you to keep them from freezing. If they are too big to get under the covers, wrap them with a blanket and if possible place them near your covered body. A small bit of warmth will escape to take the edge off. I’ve toyed with the idea of using hand warmers to keep this kind of item a little warmer. If they are really valuable, you might consider a batter-operated warmer.
Cold-Weather Bedding for Campers

Ready for bed in single-digit weather! The blue blanket is a high-tech backpacker blanket with a high cold rating. Notice covers on the windows–for privacy AND to keep warmth in.

If you have large items in the car with you that can’t freeze, or if it’s really cold, you can set an alarm to wake up every few hours and idle the engine to rewarm the cabin. You also can do this if the cold wakes you up. I did this last night to prevent freezing my two large HP monitors. I’m taking them down to Texas so I can slam-dunk client writing projects while down there. I wrapped the monitors in a towel, cardboard (to protect the screens), and plastic wrap. I covered them with a thick wool/cotton blanket, then bungee corded them to the side of the Jeep.

Controlling your brain: The mental part of cold-weather camping

Whether or not you feel uncomfortable or panicky or vulnerable can be controlled by getting your head in a good place. First, be sure you take the right precautions to keep yourself warm and safe. Knowing you have done your due diligence will give you confidence.

I find that turning on some music (iPhone) and following a normal bedtime routine mentally bolsters me against what otherwise might feel like a pretty scary risk. My routine includes taking meds, eating a snack, playing solitaire on the iPad (before I stow it under the covers) and reading part of a novel. I sometimes text a friend to make a connection and assure that someone knows where I am. If I’m camping outside of phone range, I make sure I connect with someone while I’m still in range to let them know my plan.

Remember, you are not the first person to camp in the cold. It might seem a little crazy, but with a few well-thought-out precautions, you’ll feel comfortable. You’ll feel like you accomplished something. And you’ll enjoy telling people about it later. Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do it!

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