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I’m a big fan of being as comfortable as possible when you’re car camping. Come winter, that means upgrading a few of your essentials to stay warm. With just a few smart purchases, you can get out there all year long. And in these colder months, it means being able to experience some of the country’s most popular places without the crowds (like these national parks and trails). Here are some of my favorite winter car camping upgrades.
Montbell Down Hugger 800 ($569)
A proper winter sleeping bag is the most important piece of gear you’ll need for cold-weather camping. Look for a bag that’s rated at least 15 to 20 degrees colder than the lowest temperature you expect to encounter. I use this incredibly comfortable zero-degree bag from Montbell. It does the trick for all my winter camping out west when I’m not sleeping in a camper with a heater. The brand’s super spiral stretch system may sound gimmicky, but it really works to keep the down insulation closer to your body as you move throughout the night, which helps eliminate gaps and cold spots.
Pendleton Wyeth Trail Blanket ($269)
You should have a blanket or extra sleeping bag in your car anytime you’re traveling during the winter months in case you get stuck somewhere. I like to keep a camp blanket in my truck, like Pendleton’s Wyeth Trail Blanket. It’s made from an incredibly soft wool and cotton blend that’s thick enough to keep you warm in an emergency and looks great in your house during the warmer months. I’ve also found that it resists stains and cleans up easily, which is a major plus for road trips and winter camping. The best part: because it’s wool, it continues to insulate even if it gets wet.
Exped MegaMat Max 15 Duo Sleeping Pad ($429)
If you’re using a summer sleeping pad, you’ll need to upgrade to a pad with a higher R-value, a measure of insulating power. This luxurious pad from Exped is incredibly comfortable and, at 10.6, has one of the highest R-values of any pad I’ve found. That’s more than enough insulation for below-freezing temperatures. If you’re looking to spend less money, I recommend Klymit’s Insulated Static V Luxe ($120), which has an R-value of five and has kept me warm while winter camping in the backcountry.
Gerber Folding Spade ($62)
I keep this small folding shovel in my truck at all times, but it’s especially reassuring to have it during 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 yet sturdy enough to do some real digging.
Trac Grabber Tire Traction Device (from $59)
These traction devices have gotten me out of a few tricky situations in the snow. They’re cheaper and take up less space than chains or recovery tracks, easy to install on your tires, and adapt well to other terrain, such as sand or mud.
Hestra Army Leather Patrol Gloves ($140)
I always have at least two pairs of gloves with me while winter camping, whether I’m headed to a backcountry ski hut or car camping in the desert. One is always Hestra’s supremely comfortable and warm Army Leather Patrol Gloves. I don’t like taking chances with cold hands, especially when I’m cooking dinner at night or packing up gear early in the morning.
MSR WhisperLite Stove $90
If you’ve ever tried to cook on your typical canister backpacking stove when it’s really cold outside, you’ve likely had some trouble getting it lit. That’s because the gas inside those fuel canisters tends to gel up when the mercury plummets, making them tricky to use and sometimes completely useless. In lower temperatures, you’ll need a good liquid fuel stove, like MSR’s WhisperLite. It’s a time-tested classic that won’t let you down no matter how cold it gets.
Stanley Insulated 2-Gallon Water Jug ($50)
I’ve been using this insulated water jug for several years, and it always ranks as one of my most underrated pieces of gear. The one-handed operation makes it really easy to fill bottles while wearing gloves, it never leaks, and because it’s insulated, your water won’t freeze. It’s easy to overlook having enough water on a winter camping trip, when the drier air makes it important to stay as hydrated as you would in summer.
Bonus Splurge: Portable Diesel Air Heater Planar 2D-12V ($1,685)
OK, this is an expensive upgrade that won’t be for everyone, but bear with me for a second. If you’re serious about cold-weather camping, nothing is going to make your experience more comfortable than a heater. Planar makes small, high-quality diesel heaters that many vanlife folks permanently install in their campers. (I installed one in my teardrop trailer.) But they also make this portable unit that you can use inside wherever you’re sleeping, be it your car, a tent, or a trailer.
Yes, it’s pricey, but because it has vented exhaust, it’s safe to use all night long. There are cheaper alternatives that can take the chill out of the air before you go to bed, like a Mr. Buddy propane heater (from $114), but they pump carbon monoxide into the air you’re breathing and shouldn’t be used all night. Propane heaters are also notorious for creating lots of condensation, whereas diesel versions put out a 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 except drain your car’s battery.