Gear Essentials for Winter Car Camping

Unsplash - Luke Porter

At first thought, winter car camping makes little sense. For a true ski bum, however, the juice of an unforgettable mountain experience is worth the squeeze. 

Living out of a vehicle is a tight and tricky endeavor. There’s no way around that truth. Add in below-freezing temperatures, snowy roads plus short days, and the game becomes that much more difficult. A few key items can make all the difference to making the journey memorable for the right reasons. There are a few different lists published about gear essentials for van life, but these articles are too often sponsored with expensive gear or written by someone who hasn’t lived in his or her vehicle full-time. 

So here we are. Written from personal experience after living in a truck for a Canadian winter, this is an unsponsored and nonaffiliated list of items most useful for a regular weekend warrior to take life on the road during the winter.


Skiing is fun!
The author, enjoying the spoils of winter life based in a truck. Emma Renly

1. Paco Pad 

Imagine sleeping on a cloud of heavenly fluff. Now imagine the next best thing: a Paco Pad, equivalent to being embraced by a dozen angels at once. Western river runners have long sworn by the rugged all-weather sleeping pads made by Jack’s Plastic Welding in Aztec, N.M. Constructed with heavy-duty PVC and a layer of soft foam, these prototypical inflatable, waterproof pads (and similar versions from raft manufacturers like AIRE and NRS), have a cult following as the most durable and comfortable options for camping, cold car or hard ground alike. Paco pads self-inflate, are thin enough to fit in minimal space and are easy to clean – unlike a regular mattress. Once the snow melts, they’re perfect for summer camping down by the river. 

The Best Sleeping Pads for Packing Light, Couples, and Winter Nights

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2. Three-pronged Campstove

There’s no question that a dual-burner stove is the embodiment of a successful car-camping rig, only to be outdone by the rare wood-burning stove. This doesn’t mean that classic Coleman is the best! In the winter, the metal regulator of the dual-burner stove freezes and becomes miserable to assemble for each meal. The three-pronged burner (like MSR’s venerable 25-year-proven WhisperLite) is the perfect answer for cold hands since it connects directly to the fuel bottle without extra pieces. With limited space, the three-pronger can also be used inside vehicles with a window cracked open. Plus, you play the endlessly fun game of ‘will this catch on fire?’  

5 Tips for Winter Kayaking

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3. Large Pee Bottle

There will be times that a small pee bottle will not be enough. Trust me on this.

4. Down Sleeping Bag

The best insulation is nature’s insulation (well, assembled by human-made machines). Down sleeping bags are created with goose or duck feathers, which capture and hold heat more efficiently than synthetic material. While expensive, the investment will be worth every penny in the harsh winter conditions. 

The Best Winter Sleeping Bags That’ll Keep You From Freezing to Death

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Icy windows
Icy windows

5. Garbage Container (at all times) 

Trash adds up fast. Without a designated garbage bag, it ends up taking over the entire car. Empty potato sacks or snack boxes are the perfect, recyclable solution to a garbage bin. Realistically, any container works as long as it’s easy to throw out at a gas station 

6. Light Source

Daylight hours become scarce in the winter. It means late sunrises, early sunsets and high-potential for seasonal depression. Wondering what to do once the sun goes down? An external light source will be the light in the darkness for cooking, reading or merely existing. 

Field Test: Light up your camp

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7. Mug

The worst way to start a day is without a mug. There’s no container to hold coffee, tea or other liquors. Don’t start the day on the wrong foot, get a great mug now. 

Kate Sabo and her styling mug
Emma Renly

How To Make the Perfect Cup of Camp Coffee

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8. External Battery

The only thing more miserable than being confined to a sleeping bag during a cold night is not having a smartphone to endlessly scroll through for entertainment. An external battery can change that. It offers a way to charge not only a phone but other electronics throughout the night without spending hours hogging the outlets at libraries and coffee shops. 

Charge on the Go: Two Portable Power Banks

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9. Roof box 

Find yourself crammed in-between boxes of gear, inches from the ceiling? Want to add some early morning yoga to your routine? Have no room for sleepovers? A roof box is the game-changer for space, it’s like a little attic for your home-on-wheels. 

If bought new, roof boxes and racks are overpriced pieces of gear. If bought used, they’re still pretty overpriced, but still a lot less expensive and worth it.

How to maximize your roof racks for your summer adventures

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Snowy Mountains
Emma Renly

10. A friend with a couch 

Living in a car during the winter months means that friends with normal housing situations will be the unexpected heroes of the season. Bring them beer, wash their dishes, play endless fetch with their dog. Tell them you love them and that they’re the best skiers on the mountain. In return, you’ll be offered the couch to sleep on and a hot shower in the morning.

If you’re lucky, they’ll offer some coffee in the morning to pour into that useful mug (see No. 7).


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