A man wondering if he should sleep in a car or tent

Is it warmer to sleep in a car or in a tent?

When staying overnight in the great outdoors, some people rent cabins or RVs while most bring tents. Only a select few have ever planned on sleeping in a car. Have you ever fallen asleep in a car before? Perhaps you forgot your house keys at a friend’s only to discover it too later. Perhaps you had one too many to drink and couldn’t afford anywhere else to stay. Whatever the reason, you most certainly didn’t have a good time sleeping in your car.

  Well, if you’ve had to sleep in your car on a cold night, then you know it gets freezing in there. Tents are smaller in volume which means they can get warmer faster plus they have double the insulation. They also happen to be made of specific fabrics that keep it from getting as cold as the aluminum your car is made from.

In short, it’s warmer to sleep in a tent. If you’re going to spend the night outdoors, get a tent and come join the fun. You’ll have a much better time if you do. Keep reading to find out why it’s not just warmer in your tent but a wiser idea all around!

Why sleeping in a tent is not only warmer but also more tempting

Did you think you could just get by on your camping trip by going to sleep in your car? Not a good idea at all. Sure, you could run the heater (or the air conditioning in hot weather), but you’ll run into way more problems. Here’s why you’ve got to get a tent and pitch it for your best outdoor experience.

You can enjoy a campfire

Unless there is a rule at the campsite forbidding campfires (which you can and should look up before choosing a campsite), one of the best parts about camping is sitting around the fire. The campfire keeps you warm. It burns on and on through the night and just has that warm, cozy glow to it. With your tent nearby, it will radiate heat in your direction and aid in keeping you warm the whole night through.

You can sleep better in a tent

Maybe you’ve never slept in a car for emergency purposes. But more likely, you’ve probably fallen asleep in a car on a road trip when you were a passenger. Did you wake up feeling refreshed and well-rested? Probably not. The seats in a car are designed to keep you safe during driving. Even if you do recline them, you can’t really move. One roll to the left or right could mean you get jabbed in the ribs with the seatbelt buckle.

Even if you have an SUV and it’s just your or one other person in the car with you though, it’s just not going to be as comfortable. And if you have too many people in the car, it’s going to be a long night trying to get some sleep. You may feel confined by all the stuffy air and open the windows only to let the frigid air come tumbling in. Or worse, rain and snow should the weather turn.

It’s just better to get a tent and enjoy having room to stretch out and cozy up.

You don’t have to deal with any battery issues

Would you like to get stuck out in the wilderness with a car that won’t start? That’s what could happen if you run the heater all night. Not to mention you might run down your gas so low that you won’t make it to the nearest gas station if you do still have enough battery power.

Don’t be lazy about the tent. Just pitch it, build a campfire, and go get cozy. It’s worth the effort to be able to leave when you’re ready to go home. What a dismal way to end a camping trip, waiting for AAA to come bail you out of a bind!

Smaller spaces heat faster

Let’s say you’re not permitted to build a campfire at your campsite. Even without it, your body creates heat. If you get into your sleeping bag, you warm up because those materials that sleeping bag is made from lock in your body heat and keep it swirling around your body to warm you up. This is infinitely warmer than sitting out in your car all night. The tent helps keep it from getting too cold too and coupled together, you’re going to be nice and toasty compared to sleeping in your car, even if you use a blanket or sleeping bag while in the car.

Double-layer insulation

As mentioned, tents tend to have another layer doubled into the wall. What that does is create a barrier of air between those layers. It’s a bit like those double-paned windows on an airplane, just with different materials. The principle behind it is the same though. The air in between the layers serves as an insulator and thus helps keep you protected better from the exterior elements.

Less thermal conductivity

We’ll try not to blind you with science here, but in thermodynamics, the higher the number of thermal conductivity, the more easily something conducts heat. Polyester, the fabric your tent is made from, has a smaller value than that of a car door. Car doors are made of aluminum and clock in with around 225 thermal conductivity while polyester is just 0.05. In short, in the same location, your car door is going to get much colder than the walls of your tent.

So, now that you’re grabbing that tent to take along, keep reading to maximize your warmth while tucked away inside that tent during your next campout!

Camping Tips to Stay Warm in Your Tent

Camping in winter can be one of the most incredible experiences, but knowing how to beat the cold will ensure you and your crew stay healthy, safe, and comfortable while you’re out there. Here’s how to ensure you hold onto that warmth!

Don’t wait until you feel cold to layer up

In some locations, temperatures can plummet fast as soon as the sun sets. By then, it will be too late to ever get completely warmed up, especially if campfires are banned at your campsite. When you feel the first tingle of cold coming in as the evening begins, throw on an extra layer so you retain your warmth.

Use thermals

Thermals might seem a bit uncool but when you’re weathering the weather, they will be your favorite item of clothing. Use long-johns and a long-sleeve thermal top under your clothing and you will be completely cozy.

Make use of a hot water bottle

In addition to taking a stove and a kettle on your family campout, you won’t regret packing a hot water bottle. This will really help keep you warm, even in spring when the temperatures haven’t warmed up enough just yet.

Avoid going to bed cold

No matter how much extra bedding you have, if you climb into it cold, you’re more likely to stay cold. Drink something warm before bedtime or do some quick exercises just to bring your inner temperature up slightly. You’ll have a much better sleep!

Use a sleeping bag liner

Sleeping bag liners are great if you have a sleeping bag that is decent for warmer weather but might not be all that great for cold weather. They make them in silk and fleece, though fleece will be the more durable of the two.

Choose down insulation

Down-insulated sleeping bags are among the warmest and coziest. If you plan to do more cold weather campouts, it will be a wise investment. They also make synthetic fillings that might be of interest too, especially if it frequently rains where you’re camping. Synthetics will dry out faster when they get wet.

Put insulation in your tent

Tent carpets or even little rugs on the floor help insulate your tent. They keep the cold from penetrating through the ground. You don’t need anything fancy though. While they do make fitted tent carpets, you can keep to your budget by using those inexpensive rag rugs. As an added bonus, if you wake in the night to use the bathroom, you won’t freeze when you step on the groundsheet.

Take along disposable heat packs

These might be the best invention for cold weather ever! You can take disposable heat packs and stuff them in your pockets for hikes or in your sleeping bag as you sleep for added warmth.

Choose a tent that fits your size

Bigger isn’t always better. If you have a big family or a large group of friends that can fill a big tent, then go for it. But if it’s just a few people in a cavernous tent, that unused space will stay cooler. For a small campout with a couple of people, try using a smaller tent or switch to one made from a poly-cotton blend or canvas instead which will help keep the cold from filling the vacant space.

Be very careful with portable heaters

If you’ll have access to an electric hookup, a portable heater is an excellent idea in the dead cold of winter. But you have to take extra care and follow all safety precautions. Under no circumstances should you ever leave it on for long durations, and never ever leave it on while you’re sleeping.

For portable gas heaters, we don’t recommend taking them along if you’re going to put them in an enclosed space like a tent. These should only be used when there is plenty of ventilation. It should never be left unsupervised. If you plan to use one, follow all the instructions for being safe in accordance with the manufacturer. Taking along a carbon monoxide alarm will add an extra measure of safety if you do choose to use one.

Go with a good sleeping bag

Cheap sleeping bags or the kind rated for summer aren’t a wise idea. If you absolutely must make do with what you have used in warmer seasons, use a sleeping bag liner to add more warmth as you sleep.

Bring extra blankets

In some locations, even in the warmer months, nights can still be cold. It does no harm to bring extra blankets along. Besides, if something spills and wets one of the sleeping bags, you’ll still have something dry to keep you warm at night. Go for thick, fleece blankets rather than something flimsy.

Use a regular air mattress

An air mattress can add an extra element of comfort to your campouts and help you get an amazing night of sleep. The ones that are double-height though can get very cold, even if you layer them with insulation. Put something down underneath it as well as on top and then get cozy in your sleeping bag on top. You’ll sleep beautifully!

Why sleeping in your car may look more convenient to keep you warm

“But we’re only going on a short trip!” you might protest. Even if it’s just one or two nights out in the wilderness, sleeping in your car isn’t more convenient. It might seem as such considering you won’t have to take time to set up camp. And you have access to the car’s heater, right? Read on to see why it only looks like the better option!

You can use the heater

As mentioned earlier, running the heater in your car all night long will likely result in draining your battery. If you turn on your heater in intervals, you might just get around it. For example, if it’s cold in the morning before the sun rises, you can turn it on and warm up, but again, we really don’t recommend staying in your car. If you must for one night, it can be an option that guards you against the elements if you have no tent.

One word of extreme caution: be sure your exhaust isn’t enclosed in any area, like a ridge of snow for example. Your exhaust should have room to ventilate. If not, it goes back into the car, causing carbon monoxide poisoning.

You won’t shiver as much

If you sleep in your car, you won’t get that chill when you first get into a cold sleeping bag. While you will warm up in the sleeping bag, it will take time for your body heat to do its thing. Meanwhile in a car, you can shut off the engine and the core temperature retains its heat for a while.

That sounds good, right? But when you do sleep in your car, it will eventually get really cold as the hours wear on. If you must sleep there, be sure to dress in enough layers or you’ll wake up a short time later feeling even colder than you would on the entry of a cold sleeping bag!

You’ll stay dry inside your car

With tents, you have the problem of condensation. Cars on the other hand don’t let condensation, rain, or snow get inside (unless you leave the window or sunroof open). But in a car, you may want to crack the windows a bit to have some ventilation. Trapped inside with stale air is not the most pleasant of environments.

You’re not sleeping directly on the ground

When camping in a tent, you lose the most heat by being close to the ground. A sleeping pad helps keep that from happening. In your car, you won’t have to lay one out and can just go right to sleep!

Best tricks to stay warm when sleeping in your car

We’ve got to be honest and tell you that sleeping in your car isn’t the best plan. A tent really gives you a better experience even in the cold. However, if you’ve somehow forgotten a tent or you’re too tired to drive back at night, you should keep reading to find out how to keep yourself as warm as possible when sleeping in your car.

If you live in a cold and snowy place, these tips could even save your life should you have nowhere else to sleep but your car on a winter’s night. A tarp would be a great start to keeping the vehicle covered to prevent it from getting too cold but if it starts getting snowy and you have nothing else, even just a thin layer of snow on the front of your car can add some insulation.

Ideally, you’ll have plenty of warm, dry clothes or even a sleeping bag with a liner. Get into those things and bundle up. And while that might be obvious, here are a few that you might not think of in the heat (or lack of rather) of the moment.

Sleep with your head toward the front of the car

The best places to park are flat but that might not be possible where you’re located. If you can’t help but park at an angle, position your car so that when you sleep, your head will be above your feet. When you sleep with your head at the front of the car, you get more elbow room too.

Keep your devices charged

If you’re stuck in the car on a cold night, you need to try to keep your phone or tablet fully charged. While the car is on, it’s not an issue, but while camping, a solar panel might be your best bet or a portable battery device. This will ensure you’ve got juice when you need it most.

Invest in a comfortable bed

If you’re going to sleep in your SUV, you should get a heavy mat, pillows, and blankets. You’re not toting them on your back so splurge for the good stuff. But as we mentioned, it can get really cold in your vehicle so make sure you take an insulated blanket or a sleeping bag with a good thermal rating.

Open a window just enough to ventilate

You might not want to crack open the windows on your vehicle, but leaving them up all night will fog them up, collect moisture, and make for stale, unpleasant air. If you’re insistent on camping in your car, a wise move would be to get cheap mesh and cut it so you make portable screens on the go. This will keep bugs out and allow you to feel comfortable.

You never want to open the windows or sunroof all the way. That leaves room for an animal to come calling, or even the kind of person all those scary movies warned you about. Moisture-absorbing packets and Damp Rid can help keep moisture out too so you’ll have a comfortable sleep in the car.

Portable heaters can help

A catalytic heater might be a good idea if you’re intent on sleeping in your car. They don’t create that much carbon monoxide, but you’ll still need to crack a window just in case. You never want to use them when you’re sleeping. As we told you earlier on, using the car’s heater could leave you with a dead battery come morning. Unless you turn the heater of your car on just before going to sleep and then again when you first wake in the morning, you may be out of luck.

Electric heaters can also drain your battery but a gas-powered heat source can be helpful when used properly. You absolutely must make sure you ventilate the area and shut it off before going to sleep. Ideally, turning them on for just a few minutes at a time to warm everyone up is the best option.

Get some space blankets

Space blankets are a must-have accessory for any camper! They can retain 90% of your body heat and keep you safe from shock and hypothermia. It’s never a bad idea to keep these in the trunk of your car just in case.

Bring an electric blanket

Have you seen those electric blankets you can plug into your car charger? On your way to the campsite, heat it up. Charge it again right before sleeping too and then unplug it when you’re ready for bed. It will stay nice and warm for a while and won’t drain your battery if you remember to unplug it.

Get reflective foam insulation

It won’t take much of this stuff to stash in your car. Measure your front and side windows to get the right amount, then cut it down to size. It reflects as much as 97% of the heat in your car, keeping it from getting out and keeping you warm inside.

Bring hand warmers

Often used in sports like running marathons or on big hikes, or even for observing sporting events in the North (like, have you been to a tailgating party in the winter?), these will keep your hands plenty warm when you sleep. They’ll also help you keep the chill to a minimum when you are hiking about.

And while all these things are great to think of putting in your car before you go on your campout, it’s never a bad idea to keep your car fully stocked for emergencies. Read on to find out more!

What you should keep in your car for emergencies 

You likely have these things around your house. Create an emergency kit from a spare bag and toss it in your trunk in case you breakdown in winter weather or you need them when you go camping!

– Gloves

If your hands are freezing, you’ll never be able to light a fire. Go for athletic style gloves that are slimmer so you can still use your hands without feeling like a Muppet. Bulkier gloves can be brought along for additional protection.

– Hats

We lose quite a bit of body heat from the top of our heads (about 10% to 20%) so it stands to reason hats should be readily available. A few knit ski hats should do the trick.

– Socks

Socks are one of the handiest tools in your emergency kit. If you should get your other socks wet from rain or snow, you’ll always have extras. You can use then as gloves in an emergency, or even take an extra sock and use it to wipe off the windows.

– Flashlight

You really always should have a flashlight in your car every day of the year. It should stay in your glove box. But adding another one in the rear of your car can be useful. If you have other passengers, you will then have 2 working flashlights to guide you.

– Extra batteries

What good is a flashlight if the batteries are dead? For anything that runs on batteries, bring a stash of extra batteries and be sure to keep them in a cool, dry place.

– Extra blankets

In winter, wool or fleece blankets will be great for keeping you extra warm and dry. Don’t forget them!

– Extra shelf-stable food

What if you get stranded in your car in the snow with roads closed and nowhere to go? Having plenty of packaged foods to eat will help you. You need energy to keep on thriving so pack granola bars, popcorn, nuts, and anything else that keeps well so you can eat with ease.

– Headlamps and lanterns

Unlike flashlights, a headlamp can be really handy if you need to get under the hood or use both hands. A lantern can be placed in one location and add brightness for everyone in your group to see. Don’t forget the extra batteries!

– Candles

Small tine candles along with waterproof matches can be helpful if you need another heat source in an emergency. Just don’t light up enough to look like a Catholic mass is going on in your car!

How to car camp for free

In every corner of the US, you’ll find campgrounds that allow tents, cars, or RVs. You can simply pull in and find a campsite with picnic tables, fire pits, water sources, and in some cases, electricity.

You’ll still need to book a campsite to go car camping so do call ahead or book online. You’ll want to choose a place that lists tent camping lots as ‘back-in’ or that mention parking on site.

Planning ahead is ideal for getting a spot. They book up fast on weekends, in summer, and during any major holiday. Most national forests allow for free primitive camping though known as ‘dispersed camping’ which they’ll allow you to do for a maximum of 16 days. There are no amenities though which means water, restrooms, and trash services are all up to you. You should always contact the local ranger station to find out what the parameters as they can vary from area to area.

There are apps that can help you out too. Hipcamp and AllStays are a couple of them that can help you find a legal place to stay in your car either for free or at locations that require a fee. Wherever you are, always keep the way clear for others and if you need to have a special pass or permit, make sure it’s visible to the rangers.

How to use both your tent and your car for optimal heat

Want the best of both worlds? If you have a really large tent that could cover your entire vehicle, that may be the most ideal option. It insulates your car and makes for a good campout spot. Word to the wise though that you should never use your car’s heater or any other heater while you cover it with a canvas as you put yourself in extreme risk for carbon monoxide poisoning.

Tent poles can help out to keep snow from stacking up on your car but a tarp would to just as nicely over a small car if you’ve got one.


The best camping memories tend to come from gathering around the campfire and huddling up in tents. But it is possible to use your car for camping too. Just practice proper safety measures and avoid draining your battery and you can stay in your vehicle if you’d prefer. An RV might be the best way to go if you don’t want to pitch a tent and have a large group, or even renting a cabin.

Few things compare to the wonderfully humble feeling of setting up camp on the earth as nature intended though. If you plan to only stay one night, camping in your car is fine, but if you plan to make a weekend or longer of it, put in the effort to set up your campsite and enjoy becoming one with the world again!


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