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Tips for Winter Car Camping

During the winter, spending a night or two outdoors can be a wonderful respite. And thankfully, Washington has options for snow-free car camping all year long.

If you’re looking to get outdoors this winter for a night or two away from home, car camping is an easy, comfortable way to enjoy fresh air without the added considerations of planning for snow and backpacking supplies. There are, however, a few things to keep in mind when planning a winter car camping trip.

A camper laughs while holding a mug.
Cozy layers and warm drinks are key for winter camping. Photo by Justin Alaniz.

Know your options: Many campgrounds close for the late fall and winter months, but others stay open with reduced fees. One nice thing about winter camping is that you can gain some solitude if you’re OK with fewer amenities. An added consideration this year is the changed closure schedules of many sites due to the coronavirus. Check with the land manager to confirm the area you want to go camping is open.

Keep the weather at bay: Winter can be a beautiful time of year to sleep outdoors, but it also means you’ll need to combat bad weather at times. Plan ahead for setting up outdoor shelters to block rain, and pack an extra layer of blankets and warm sleeping bags. You can also head up water and then pour it in a water bottle to put inside your sleeping bag to keep warm. The nice thing about car camping is that you can pack extra layers, warm blankets and other comforts without worrying about carrying the weight on your back. Bring whatever you need to stay happy!

Plan ahead: The campgrounds that do stay open in the winter months do so with reduced amenities. Campgrounds often shut off running water, which means that restrooms may be closed, and you’ll need to pack in plenty of water for drinking and cooking. Days are shorter as well, which means you’ll be using your lanterns and headlamps a lot more. Bring backup batteries or ways to charge them if you’ll be staying for more than a single night.

Tips for hanging a tarp

  • Tarp size: Use a tarp that’s larger than the space you want to keep dry.
  • Pack: Don’t forget plenty of paracord (or thin nylon rope), including some long lengths to use as a ridgeline down the middle or to string to far-away anchor points. Stakes can come in handy for anchoring to the ground. Duct tape or tarp repair tape can help with rips or torn grommet holes.
  • Creative anchors: Cars have loads of anchor points, especially if you’re stringing up over a tailgate or hatchback. Look around to see what will work for your space.
  • Drainage: Flat tarps lead to soggy campers. Always angle your tarp to keep water from pooling. Use a ridgeline setup or start with the corners and then use grommets along the side to finetune a drain-off gutter on the downside.
  • Make a wall: Dealing with wind or sideways rain? String one side as a windbreak.
  • High ceiling: Use a trekking pole or long stick to string your cord higher around a tree than you can reach with your arms.
This article originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Washington Trails magazine. Support trails as a member WTA to get your one-year subscription to the magazine.