This guide will explain step-by-step how to live in your car in the winter. There is extensive advice on insulating your car, creating the perfect sleeping area, and preparing food on a budget. There is guidance on how to find safe places to park and the essential gear you need for winter car camping.
Living in a car in winter can be a daunting idea, but sometimes it’s necessary to save money or allow you to explore lesser-known destinations. The most important thing to consider is preparation. If you insulate your car properly and have the right gear, you shouldn’t have any issues.
Time to navigate through this article for in-depth advice on how to survive those cold conditions!
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Find The Perfect Car
If you are planning to live in your car during winter and you are looking to buy the perfect car to do so, check out our post on the Best Cars To Sleep In. If you are using your current car, don’t worry, there is plenty of relevant advice for you in this article.
Ideally, you want a car that has the ability to fold the seats fully flat. This will allow you to make a comfortable sleeping area in the back of your car. In addition to this, larger vehicles obviously provide more space to store all the gear you will need such as clothing, cooking equipment, and sleeping gear.
It’s also helpful if the car has tinted windows for privacy reasons. If you are on a budget and planning to take a road trip, fuel economy is of course crucial to keeping costs down.
Insulate Your Car
If you are planning to live in your car during the winter months, insulating your vehicle is absolutely crucial. Staying warm during the night will be the biggest challenge you likely face. Although a good sleeping bag will keep you warm while sleeping, it is still uncomfortable to spend long periods of time inside a very cold car.
To insulate your vehicle, you should buy some car insulation material, otherwise known as Reflectix. You should then cut the foam out to the same shape as each of your windows to create insulated window covers. After you have cut the material to the correct shape, you can layer on some carpet to create some really warm window covers. This will help keep the heat inside the vehicle during the night as well as enable privacy.
For the windshield, you can also just purchase a ready-made car sunshade and use that instead.
If you are living in really cold conditions, you can use the insulation material to line the inside of the vehicle in addition to the windows. Try to create an enclosed sleeping area where the warmth is maintained.
Create The Perfect Sleeping Area
Try to create a flat sleeping area to use as your bed. Do this by either laying all of the seats flat or potentially removing them. Having a flat area is crucial as sleeping at an angle can be really uncomfortable. You can also consider building a platform as the base for your bed using wood so that you are properly supported. You can then put a mattress or sleeping mat on top of it.
Check out this large car air mattress from Wey & Fly. It’s perfect for the job.
Don’t forget to take a comfortable pillow with you to rest your head on. I would advise taking a fluffy pillow from home instead of using a camping variant.
Invest In An Appropriate Sleeping Bag
Even if you insulate your vehicle properly, a good sleeping bag is essential for the winter. I like the ones which you can unzip to use as a blanket as the added functionality is useful for when you are just chilling and watching a movie.
Make sure you buy a sleeping bag rated for four-season use! A great example is this sleeping bag which will be sure to keep you warm.
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Preparing Food On A Budget
If you are living in your car during winter to save money then preparing food on a budget is very important. Due to the difficulty of preparing food, it’s easy to spend a lot of money on fast food. Don’t take an excessive amount of equipment and use things that are easy to wash and clean after use. There is nothing worse than living in a car full of dirty dishes!
What you will need:
- Camping chair
- Camping table
- Camping stove
- Basic cooking pots, cutlery, and something to eat out of.
- A cooler
Camping food to which you add boiling water is a great way to quickly make a substantive meal whilst on the road. All you need is to boil water using your stove and then add it to the dehydrated meal.
I would suggest keeping it simple by having one large container/bowl to eat out of. Wash up immediately after eating to keep your car free from smells. You can keep cutlery to a minimum by having a simple knife and spork setup.
Simple Food Options:
- Dehydrated camping food
- oats with nuts, fruit, and seeds
- Tinned soups with bread
It’s a good idea to invest in a decent cooler to allow you to store food in your car. When I went on an epic road trip around Europe it was really useful to be able to buy refrigerated food at the supermarket and make it last longer. Even though it’s not a fridge, it still helps for a while.
You could even prepare some food, and store it in plastic containers to eat later on. Pasta salads and things like that can keep for a while in a good-quality cooler (from my experience). Do this at your own risk though, I’m not a culinary expert!
Camping food is great and so are tins of soup, tuna, etc. They are easy to store in boxes and don’t take up too much space. Make sure food is properly covered to avoid attracting wildlife at night (especially bears!).
Finding Safe Places To Park Overnight
When you are living in your car during the winter you will need to find safe places to park overnight. In order to get your head down for a good night’s sleep, you want to ensure both your safety and security.
We’ve written an article detailing how to find safe places to sleep in your car. Some popular locations include rest stops, Walmart parking lots, BLM land, and traditional campgrounds.
Finding Places To Shower
Staying clean while on the road is tough. One of the easiest options is to get a membership at the local gym. This allows you to use the showering facilities as well as have a place to work out. It’s the top suggestion in our article outlining places to shower while living in your car.
Washing Clothes On The Road
Let’s face it, if you’re living in your car, sometimes you are going to be a little dirtier than usual. My advice is to have a few items of clothing that are lightweight and breathable which you wear in and around your vehicle. Just accept that they won’t be washed as often and change into them as soon as your return from whatever you’ve been doing during the day.
Of course, you will still need to be able to wash your clothes while on the road. Try to take lightweight clothing that doesn’t take up too much space. You can use laundrettes, friends’ facilities, or even a local lake to wash your clothes.
Points to remember:
- Take breathable clothing to wear while sleeping and chilling in your car.
- Don’t take more clothing than necessary, space is limited!
- Take advantage of friends’ facilities or laundrettes to keep your clothes clean.
Organize Your Gear
Space is limited, so having your gear organized is essential. A good tip is to make use of the back of your front seats by installing some Car Backseat Organizers. These are clever, allowing you to store items inside a product that hangs down the back of the seats.
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I would recommend using some kind of plastic box to store all your cooking gear and food. This means you can pick it up and easily put it in the front of the car for when you want to make your bed at night.
Something else you should consider is where to store your valuables. Make sure they are never clearly insight from the outside of the car. It might even make sense to build in some kind of security box if you plan to leave your vehicle for large parts of the day.
Ideally, you do not want to make it obvious that you are living in your car. Not only will this potentially invite unwanted attention from thieves, you are also more likely to be disturbed while sleeping.
A good option if you can afford it is to get tinted windows. This can provide additional privacy and make it hard to tell that someone is inside. If you only use the insulated window covers it can be really obvious someone is sleeping in the car.
Never leave your valuables on display. Always take them with you if possible and if it’s absolutely necessary to leave them in your car make sure they are hidden. A simple steering column lock is also a great idea as this is a strong disincentive.
In order to not be disturbed, it’s important to know the rules and regulations around living in your vehicle, which vary from state to state. We have a detailed post discussing the legality of sleeping in your car in the United States.
It can be tempting to sleep in very secluded areas but this needs to be balanced with the risk to your safety in doing so. In the article I linked earlier, I outlined a number of places to you can park for the night.
Try to use your best judgment and if it doesn’t feel safe, don’t take the risk. It’s better to be a little sleep-deprived than to have an incident. Try to find a balance between not getting disturbed and parking in a safe location.
We discuss safety extensively in our ultimate guide to sleeping in a car. If you are living in your car, having a breakdown cover policy is also important. Breaking down in a secluded location can be very expensive if you don’t have a decent policy. Crucially you want a policy that will tow your car back to your hometown if needed.
For smaller issues, it’s also useful to have a decent car emergency kit in the car. This helps you keep visible and also includes jump leads. Battery issues are common in older vehicles so it’s a useful thing to have in the car.
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Keep Your Car Warm Overnight
Don’t leave the engine running while sleeping in the car. Although it may be tempting to do this in order to keep the car toasty warm, it’s dangerous. If there are car fumes entering the vehicle it could actually be very dangerous.
The absolute best way to keep your car warm overnight is to insulate it as best as possible. This means that you can either use the car’s heating system or a portable electric heater, to heat the car up before you go to bed. If you have insulated the vehicle properly it should retain heat throughout most if not all of the night.
You don’t just have to insulate the windows, you can use padding, insulative material, or other products to create a warm sleeping area. Making sure you have a highly-rated sleeping bag will also mitigate against any cold air leaking in.
Entertainment On The Road
Staying entertained while living in the car can be tricky. If you are planning an epic road trip then perhaps you want to disconnect from modern media a little. If you want to stay connected, being able to power your electronic devices is important. You can use a car power inverter to charge your devices using the battery.
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Other useful entertainment options include podcasts, audiobooks, and chatting with friends and family on your cell phone.
Make sure you have a decent phone contract with the ability to access the internet as much as you want to.
Things To Do Before You Set Off
Before you leave to live in your car during the winter months, it’s important to get some things in order while you still have a permanent address.
- You can rent a post office box so that you can receive packages and mail. Using Amazon lockers to order things online is also a good option
- Sign up for a local gym so that you have a place to work out and use the showers.
- Put all your belongings into storage, including your valuables.
- Make sure you have breakdown cover and good car insurance
- Make sure you have all your driver’s documents in case the police come to speak to you
Winter Car Living Gear Checklist
Here is a summary of all the gear you need to live in your car during winter
- Insulating window covers
- Windshield sunshade
- Car backseat organizers
- Car air mattress
- Sleeping bag
- Camping table and chair
- Camping stove
- Basic cutlery
- Bowl or container to eat from
- Camping food
- Pots to cook in
- Car power inverter
- Steering column lock
- Car emergency kit
Many of these items are discussed in our Winter Road Trip Packing List article.
Disclosure: Some of the links in this article may be affiliate links. This means I earn a commission if you make a qualifying purchase, but this is at no additional cost to you. Thank you for supporting The Road Trip Expert.