Who needs a hotel for their ski weekend when they know that vehicles are built not just for driving places, but crashing at them, too? When you can sleep comfortably in your car, the world is your enjoyster. Park your portable shredquarters in a ski resort parking lot for free and enjoy the same ski-in, ski-out privileges as the oligarchs who spent the equivalent of your monthly paycheck on a fancy condo. Winter road trips to ice climbing parks and backcountry ski zones become much more feasible when you're happy living out of your whip for a few days.
Sleeping in a vehicle can be daunting in the winter, though, especially if you aren't sprawling out in the back of a Sprinter. I must admit, I upgraded from a crossover to a luxurious Chevy Express myself, and it's sure nice to stand up in there. But much of what I've learned from living in a van applies to bedding down in a car, too. So take these tips and party on.
Before you crawl into the back seat and pass out, park in a smart spot. A flat, quiet location that’s shielded from the wind is just the ticket. And speaking of tickets, be on the lookout for parking signs and plow schedules. The last thing you want is to wake up to a curmudgeonly cop, or worse, a bleary-eyed plow driver smashing into your buried home on wheels.
Pro tip: If you park on a slant, keep your head higher than your feet.
Build out a platform.
Building out a platform in your rig is beneficial in more ways than one. First, it gives you a flat surface to sleep on, which isn't guaranteed in some vehicles. Second, it will keep you warmer, since heat rises. Third, a platform is super helpful with organization—for Marie Kondo-approved car camping, a platform is absolutely requisite. Your ski bum cred doubles if your platform is in an atypical rig, like a CR-V, and quadruples if it's in a sedan. The world needs to know: People who drive Honda Civics shred, too.
One of my best friends sleeps in a Nissan Versa. And while he doesn’t have a platform in there, because it’s insanely impractical for everyday use when he hits the road he folds the passenger seat down as far as it can go, props it into position with some wayward gear (on our last trip to Yosemite he used a pair of snowshoes), and then piles on multiple sleeping pads until it’s relatively comfortable. It’s not as ideal as a tricked-out camper van, but it allows him to commute during his normal Monday-through-Friday life and then make the most of the weekend in the mountains.
Get a warm sleeping bag.
If you have a warm sleeping bag (and pad—more on that below), many of these other tips are relatively superfluous. I’m a big fan of the Therm-a-Rest Polar Ranger -20-degree bag, and I reckon it will keep you toasty and stoked no matter where you travel (it's designed for the arctic, after all). Cool feature: It has armholes, so you can look over trail maps, read a book, or brush your teeth from the comfort of this cozy cocoon.
If a fancy new winter bag isn't in your budget, remember: You’re quite literally car camping! Unlike a backpacking trip, where weight and space are at a premium, you can get away with bringing bulky sleeping bags—hell, you can even bring your favorite comforter along for the ride (it just might get a little damp). Because condensation is a concern, I’m a fan of throwing a Rumpl comforter over your sleeping bag. Another trick is simply to double up on sleeping bags: a summer bag plus a fall bag equals a “hey, this might just work in winter" bag.
Invest in a sleeping pad (or two).
Even fair-weather campers know a quality sleeping pad is key to staying warm through the night. Try Therma-rest's NeoAir Xlite—it's a well-insulated four-season pad that's crazy comfy. If you're bivouacking on a budget, stack two closed-cell foam pads (I like the Therma-rest Ridgerest). This configuration is not as comfortable or compactable as the NeoAir, but it will keep you plenty warm.
Curtains aren't just for privacy.
Your body gives off heat, sure, but it seeps right out through those thin glass windows. If you're serious about camping in your car, fit and cut to shape reflective insulation (i.e. Reflectix) to your windows. This will better retain heat. It also offers you some privacy—you know, in case you meet a comely ski bum and invite them back to your place.
Crack your windows.
This is counter-intuitive, but opening your windows a crack is a smart move. Otherwise, best-case scenario, your hot breath will condensate and form a persnickety (and really gross) layer of ice on your windows. Worst-case scenario, you die! We're only half-kidding. Especially if you run a car heater, cracking the windows and investing in a portable carbon monoxide detector are both good ideas.
And speaking of condensation, don't forget to dry off your gear as much as possible after a day on the slopes. For extra help mopping up any snowmelt or condensation droplets, stashing a kitchen sponge in your car door pocket works great.
Hot water bottles are rad.
Crank that Jetboil, pour hot water into your Nalgene (Assuming it's one of the hard-plastic ones—the soft-plastic ones melt. Learned that the hard way.) and voila—your sleeping bag heats up like a down-filled empanada.
Pee jars are your best friend.
This is not a joke. Forget your significant other snoring next to you–a pee jar will 100% be your new best friend when you sleep in your vehicle. Would you rather emerge from your sleeping bag, fumble blindly for your headlamp, throw on your damp boots and scurry outside into a raging blizzard just to take a tinkle? I didn't think so.
Pro tip: Make sure your pee jar and your water bottle are shaped differently—I need not explain why you don't want to confuse the two. And for women, a funnel is helpful if you're venturing into the pee jar game. Don't just take my mansplanation for it—my own beloved adventure partner prefers the Freshette as she deems the longer tube more jar-friendly.
Crank the heat.
While this is by no means a permanent solution to camping in your car in the cold, it doesn't hurt to crank the heat while you're narrowing in on your parking spot for the night. Turn that Subaru into a sauna. It won't last long, but it's splendid while it does.
Don't drink and drive. Or drink and sleep in your car.
True story: You can actually get a DUI for being drunk inside your vehicle even if you're parked and passed out. No matter what, avoid leaving the key in the ignition if you've had a drink.