April 21, 2020 6 min read

Prior to this trip, five days of van life in Guadalupe Mountain National Park was the extent of my car camping experience. What better way to dive right into true car camping than by doing so in the Colorado winter?

You might be wondering why someone would voluntarily subject themselves to sleeping in their car in below freezing temperatures, and you’d be right to assume such a person was looking for a challenge. I explained my intentions best in the article I wrote about my first attempt at snowshoeing, which you can read more about here.

“I walked into this year wanting a challenge. My intentions? To become more comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

Another way to challenge myself beyond my boundary of comfort, car camping. Car camping in the early Colorado winter was yet another way for me to become comfortable with being uncomfortable, not to mention it would only add to the adventure by having to scout out a place to sleep each night. Choosing to sleep in my car also allowed for a sense of freedom one would struggle to experience with hotel or Airbnb reservations in place. The options for adventure were endless, I simply needed to pick a destination and drive.

If you’ve been curious about car camping, then allow me to answer any questions you may have about the curious and seemingly unsafe way of life here.

Want to know how I packed for 8 days of winter car camping in backpack and carry-on? Click here to find out!

How did you find safe spots to sleep at night?

I was able to find most of my overnight camping spots on my own accord, but not all. The first night I arrived in Denver and planned to stay there for the night. It was already black out and something about driving through the unfamiliar wilderness in the black of night, trying to find a spot to sleep, did not sound appealing. Cities, especially densely populated ones, can be some of the most difficult to find free overnight parking; however, this is where apps can be immensely helpful. iOverlanderis an app that has rescued me on more occasions than during this trip alone. This app shows established and non-established campgrounds nearby and is especially helpful when you’re looking for free overnight parking. Whether it be an actual campground, a quiet street, or somewhere to pull off on the side of the road, iOverlander does a decent job of having your back. After I got out of the city, I relied on the recommendations of spots from locals, and stayed in small towns nestled in the mountains where nobody really cared or paid attention!

 

How did you stay warm?

If you’ve read the packing guide article I wrote for this trip, then you might have a good idea as to how I stayed warm throughout the night, especially on ones that dipped below 8℉. The most crucial piece of equipment I brought along on this trip, one that I would not have survived without, was my REI zero-degree sleeping bag. Though this sleeping bag got me through the cold winter nights, it did not do so alone. On my own person, I wore a moisture-wicking shirt, a thermal, a down puffy jacket, and a ski jacket (in that order). On my lower half, I wore layered wool leggings, regular hiking pants, and topped off the look in a pair of wool socks. Essentially, I went to bed in the same type of clothing and layers I wore throughout the day of hiking in the freezing temperatures.

 

Were you ever scared?

Not in the slightest. I am fortunate in that at no point during my car camping experience did I have any strange or scary encounters, whether that be with people or animals. Being my first night, of course I was more on guard and uncomfortable while sleeping in a parking lot in what seemed to be a sketchier part of Denver. Even still, that discomfort lasted maybe 30 minutes (even that's stretching it). The whole experience felt very right and because of that I never felt unsafe or worried, maybe even in moments when I should have.

 

What did you eat while living out of your car?

I must admit that my diet throughout the entirety of my trip severely lacked the nutritious component I usually uphold in my day-to-day normal life, that is to say, it was not a priority. I am a very cheap traveler and choose to preserve my funds for experiences and things more important than the food I eat. Although it is slightly embarrassing to admit, my diet consisted of Wildway granola, apples, bananas, rice cakes, and peanut butter. I’m not kidding when I say I went through 2-16oz. jars of crunchy peanut butter in a matter of 7 days. I also picked up some canned soup, most of which I ended up returning at the end of my trip.

There is absolutely a better way to go about this, and had I been traveling for longer, I likely would have invested more in making sure I was optimally fueling myself. But at the same time, I was living my best life on those peanut butter and apples and don’t regret a thing.

 

What was the most difficult part of car camping?

Prior to my trip, I thought the most difficult part would be the obvious, sleeping. Surprisingly, I got a solid 8 hours of sleep each and every night (aside from when I had extreme altitude sickness, I only got 6 that night). To be completely honest, my car camping experience couldn’t have gone more smoothly. Never was I interrupted during the night and asked to move, the food situation wasn’t all that bad, and though the nights were cold, I was able to sleep quite soundly.

The worst moment, however, was the night I had altitude sickness. The second night of my trip, I lied in my sleeping bag for two hours trying to fall asleep before I drove to a hotel. The moment I walked in it occurred to me, my symptoms were going to remain awful regardless of where I laid my head. Upon this realization, I walked directly out and drive to a gas station where I bought headache relief and water. I popped the two Advil into my mouth, chugged some water, and got right back into my sleeping bag. I also upchucked in the gas station bathroom, and although I attribute that to making me feel tremendously better, I won’t go into the details of that. You’re welcome. :)

 

What was the best part about car camping?

The freedom, hands down. With no reservations to meet, I was able to go where I wanted to go, when I wanted to go. Another great thing, I had everything I needed with me at all times. I never forgot and had to turn around for anything because I had it all right there within arm’s reach. This is likely an unpopular opinion, but I enjoy small spaces. I have plans to convert and live out of a van full-time, so this experience was a nice introduction and test of my ability to persevere.

 

Final thoughts. Would I do it again?

A million percent yes, I would absolutely car camp again.

I saved hundreds of dollars by not paying for camping spots, hotels, Airbnb, or whatever other sleeping arrangements you could dish out money for. Because of car camping, my only expenses were:

  • Gas: $52
  • Food: $33 (not including my treat-yo-self lattes I had the last three mornings of my trip)
  • Park entrance and parking fees: Less than $30

As a cheap traveler, this brings a huge smile to my face. I experienced and saw more of Colorado, by my own free will, and let me tell you, the freedom of aimless wandering tastes oh so sweet. Car camping also lengthened the time of my individual experiences. Had I been able to retreat back to a nice cozy hotel room, I might not have sat in coffee shops until closing time, people watching, reading, and soaking in the unfamiliarity of my new surroundings.

I spent hours outdoors each and every day, and then took comfort in libraries, bookstores, and coffee shops to write, read, and observe. The only times spent in my car were those in which I was driving between destinations, grabbing food, and sleeping. I spent more time basking in the environments I love, and less time isolated in a hotel room pursuing meaningless distractions.

Yes, I would absolutely do this again. In fact, I would prefer it.



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