Your Guide to Winter Overlanding
Winter needn’t send your overlanding setup into hibernation. Here’s what you need and where to go.
Outside's long reads email newsletter features our strongest writing, most ambitious reporting, and award-winning storytelling about the outdoors. Sign up today.
Here’s something that a lot of overlanders would rather I keep secret: camping in winter is frickin’ great. “In wintertime, all the really popular overlanding places are a lot less busy,” says Eric Valdes, founder of Asheville Vehicle Outfitters in North Carolina. Factor in the additional upsides—such as the lack of road dust and bugs—and you understand why winter is overlanding’s sleeper season.
By making a few tweaks to the standard summertime overlanding formula, you can drive and camp safely and comfortably in snowy, sub-freezing conditions. Here’s how and where.
Do you have four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive? You’ll want one of those options for tackling unplowed roads, so assess your ambitions and consider that sometimes, snow surprises you.
“I remember parking above Moab one April because we’d planned to ski the LaSal Mountains,” says Wayfarer Vans founder Ian Horgan. “It snowed hard all night. We woke up to 14 inches of fresh and were literally plowing snow with the van to the trailhead.” Because he was driving an AWD Ford Transit with generous clearance and a snow-specific traction setting, Horgan arrived without incident, but he’s convinced that a Ram Promaster (or similar front-wheel drive van) wouldn’t have made it without tire chains.
Cold temperatures drain car batteries, so if you’re parking in winter, carry a power brick like The Athena ($139) from Uncharted Supply. This 9”x5” charger will jump-start a vehicle not once, but 15 or more times, depending on conditions.
Tires and Traction
Depending on the tires you’ve already got on your vehicle, you may not need to swap them out for a dedicated snow tire. Some popular all-terrain models (such as the BF Goodrich T/A KO2 and Falken Wildpeak A/T3W) are also rated for severe snow. Check your tires’ sidewalls to see if they’ve earned the three-peak mountain snowflake symbol, indicating that their on-snow traction passes muster with the U.S. Tire Manufacturers Association, the gold standard in the tires world.
Tires made for rock crawling (such as the BF Goodrich T/A KM3) deliver poorer snow performance because the rubber and tread blocks are optimized specifically for mud and rock. Swap them out for a winter-rated tire, or try lowering the tires’ air pressure for better traction on snow (just remember to air back up before returning to pavement to avoid blowouts).
Snow-specific tires, such as the Bridgestone Blizzak W965, deliver the best possible performance in icy winter conditions because their rubber compounds are formulated especially for cold temperatures and deliver better braking performance than all-terrains. Consider snow tires if you’re logging lots of high-speed highway mileage. “All-terrains do really well, but in snow and ice, you just can’t beat Blizzak,” says Travis Titus, who runs Denver-based Titus Adventure Company and rents four-season campervans and 4×4’s with roof tents.
Of course, even the best tires can lose traction in soft or uneven conditions, so it’s smart to pack a few tools to get you unstuck should you drift into a ditch or get plowed into a parking spot. One obvious must-have is a shovel. Some people pack a broad snow shovel; I prefer avalanche shovels because those blades are strong enough to slice through cement-hard snow (including the walls of ice that plow trucks leave behind). Maxtrax ($300) are helpful too. These traction boards can help you motor out of a ditch or plowed-in parking spots.
Finally, be sure to carry a tow rope. A length of nylon webbing (like a tie-down strap) can work in a pinch, but kinetic ropes made specifically for vehicle recovery are gentler to your vehicle. I carry the Maxtrax Kinetic Recovery Rope ($150 for 5 meters), which stretches a bit when tensioned, which makes for a smoother extraction.
Summer weather makes it pleasant to start camping in mid-afternoon so you can chill out in a camp chair and enjoy the scenery. But cold temperatures dictate a schedule change: instead of cutting the engine at 3 P.M., consider driving till bedtime (or close to it). That way, you have fewer non-sleeping hours that you have to heat.
Snowy conditions also call for changes to route design, because in winter, many mountain roads are closed and gated. “Winter isn’t when you do big through-routes, like you would on dirt,” says Titus. Instead, you’re more likely to drive two or three miles to a parking spot that becomes your base camp from which you backtrack into town or to adventure zones.
If your goal is to create a comfy group hangout, pack a freestanding sun or bug shelter plus a propane heater or fire pit. I love the Camp Chef Sequoia ($115), which blasts out warmth and approximates the look of a wood fire with lava rocks that hide the gas jets. Place that under an awning or an enclosed bug shelter, and you’ve got a de facto party room. “It heats up fast, and you can strip off your puffy coats and just hang out,” says Valdes, who always packs an awning-heater combo when he’s winter camping with kids.
Thanks to their hard-sided construction, truck bed campers generally provide better insulation than rooftop tents and uninsulated vans. Pop-up models made by Four Wheel Campers and Overland Explorer Vehicles include built-in heaters with thermostats.
But vans’ R-value is easy to boost: Horgan insulates his vans with Havelock wool, which is warm, affordable, and moisture-wicking (so it doesn’t translate interior condensation into mold and mildew). Thinsulate is another (albeit more expensive) option, but spray-in foams are to be avoided, says Horgan. “They can end up getting warped by big temperature swings from hot to cold, and because they adhere to the van walls, they can warp the metal as well,” he says. To reduce the interior space that you need to heat, hang a quilt behind the front seats (if you don’t want to DIY, companies such as VanMade Gear produce vehicle-specific quilted panels that match window panels and van widths).
Rooftop tents are generally colder than hard-sided campers, so most people look for auxiliary heat sources when using them in winter. Some overlanders put a portable Buddy Heater in the tent, though doing so safely requires plenty of ventilation and no-tip positioning. Thus Titus prefers to avoid all combustion heaters and instead buys heating pads made for long-haul truck drivers and positions one over the mattress, beneath the fitted sheet. Connected to a Goal Zero power bank, it turns the rooftop tent into a cozy nest. Alternatively, you can add a second layer of insulation: iKamper makes the Insulation Tent ($269), a quilted lining for the exterior walls that boosts warmth (but reduces interior space).
Some tents—such as the canvas portions of Alu-Cab Campers—are dual-layered and thus surprisingly heat-retaining. Alu-Cab also makes a fit kit for a Dickinson Marine propane heater: a miniature chimney attaches to the aluminum base and serves as fresh-air intake and exhaust.
If your camper has interior plumbing, be sure to drain it of all water before you experience winter conditions. Sub-freezing temperatures can ice up the hoses and PVC tubing, causing them to split or burst. So save such features for summer; in winter, carry water in a basic jerry can and store it where it’s least likely to freeze (like the cab of your truck or the van interior).
And although it might seem obvious, winter overlanding calls for the best down bedding you can afford. Think zero-degree sleeping bags or flannel sheets with down comforters. If you have an iKamper roof tent, consider upgrading with one of the amply-insulated new RTT Comfort mattresses that will hit market in December 2021.
Just don’t make the newb mistake of sealing up every window to retain warmth—because you’ll also retain moisture, which will condense and freeze on interior surfaces. Crack a window or vent to funnel humidity outside.
Google Maps is notorious for leading drivers astray in rural areas, so if you’re navigating public lands or far-flung roads, you’re better off using a backcountry-specific app like Gaia GPS (now owned by the same parent company as Outside). Its latest version offers weather forecast integration, so you can receive notifications of oncoming storms. By downloading Gaia maps to your phone ahead of time, you can use the app’s routefinding features when cell service isn’t available. The app also pairs with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, so if your vehicle has that functionality, your phone will broadcast map info to the larger dashboard screen, making it easier for the driver to follow.
Don’t overlook local sources of road intel. For example, Titus likes the Colorado Trail Explorer (COTREX) app, issued by Colorado Parks and Wildlife, because it indicates the roads that remain open through the winter. Just select the “OHV” filter to see what routes remain viable for vehicular travel.
Here’s where to dip a toe into winter overlanding.
The Northeast: Do the ski-bum thing in Vermont. Overnight parking is permitted (limited to two nights per week) at Killington’s Skyeship overflow parking lot. Just be willing to move your vehicle to accommodate early-morning snow removal. For dispersed camping ops, look to the Green Mountain National Forest. The eastern portion of the Stratton-Arlington Road (Kelly Stand Road) is usually plowed for some distance starting from the Stratton side to the Grout Pond Trails or possibly the Appalachian Trail junction. Both trailheads offer opportunities to snowshoe or cross-country ski through pines and birches.
The Southeast: The mild climate and vast swaths of public land around Asheville, North Carolina, make this a prime destination for winter overlanding. Most campsites in the Pisgah National Forest enjoy nighttime temperatures in the thirties and forties in January, and roads generally stay snow-free. Ask locally about the spring thaw (generally February or March) when some roads become impassably muddy. Closer to Boone, elevations exceed 3,000 feet and therefore see more snow than rain. Head to Linville Gorge for long, snow-packed roads that overlook sheer-plunging cliffs—and bring your mountain bike. The area is laced with singletrack that stays hard-packed but snow-free for much of the winter. More challenging driving awaits near Grandfather Mountain, where high winds turn roads to ice (bring microspikes for hiking that region’s trails).
The Rockies: Colorado’s Bluebird Backcountry ski area welcomes car-campers for $25 per night. Or skirt the deepest snows by heading south toward Salida: this town on the Arkansas River Valley touts its year-round mountain biking, and dirt-road driving and camping is another all-seasons option. The Pike National Forest east of town sits in the rain shadow of the 14ers bordering the valley’s west edge, so in some years, roads may stay dry for most of the winter. Look for dispersed camping options along Ute Trail/County Road 175, and venture forth on trail runs or mountain bike rides from there.
The West Coast: In Washington, follow U.S. route 2 into the Cascade Range and explore the forest service roads abutting it. Miller River Road and Foss River Road (near Skykomish) are both plowed for several miles leading to popular winter trailheads. Or continue further up Highway 2 to claim a paid parking spot at Stevens Pass for epic skiing. In California, look to the Mendocino National Forest, where many jeep trails remain passable through winter and offer abundant spots for chilling in camp.