How to Safely Live In Your Car This Winter

By: Kelly M.

It’s getting colder at night. I know firsthand how critical it is to prepare for cold weather, so I compiled my tips for surviving in a car in winter in the Pacific Northwest. We all know that living in a car is not ideal, and that we need more shelter and housing options that will work for everybody.

In the meantime, I hope my experience can help people who are forced to sleep outside stay safe, and can give other people an idea of the day-to-day challenges that we face. 

Here’s my checklist for people who have to sleep in their cars.

1. Write down the address of where you are parked and keep it close at hand.

It’s important to have the exact address of your location in case you need emergency support. When calling 911 while experiencing a medical emergency (such as hypothermia) or panic, it can be difficult to think clearly.

2. Ensure your car is in decent running order before winter.

O'Reilly's will typically check and test batteries for free. If you don't know how to check your car fluids and tire pressure, you can ask about that as well. Call 2-1-1 to check for free basic auto support.

3. Buy jumper cables (and make sure you know how to use them).

If you feel safe, an open hood is universal for “I need a jump”.

4. Try to always have at least a half tank of gas.

5. If it is snowing heavily, check to make sure your tailpipe is not blocked by snow.

This will put you at risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.

6. Keep your window(s) cracked, on the side away from the wind.

You want to vent out moisture (which you create by breathing and sweating), but you want to stay as dry as possible.

7. Purchase Reflectix from Walmart or Auto Stores (also cheap scissors, if you don't have any).

Reflectix is a thermal insulating material. Use it on your windshield for privacy and insulation, using the visors to hold it in place. You can also hang it across the inside of the car using bungee cords connecting it to the grab handles above the front doors); with this method, you’ll also want to drape a synthetic material blanket across it to help trap your body's heat to the side you're on.

8. Closed cell pads (i.e. sleeping bag mat or a yoga mat) are ideal for trapping body heat beneath you.

A lot of body heat gets lost from underneath you, and fluffy blankets and sleeping bags get flat from your weight and car seats/floors don't insulate. Any material you can blow air through is not closed cell. In a pinch, reflectix will also do the job, as will a silver survival blanket, though neither are very comfortable.

9. Never use candles, space heaters, or open flame of any kind in your car.

Just don't do it.

10. Smart clothing layering is critical.

You want synthetic material next to your skin and as an outer shell (such as a large garbage bag with holes cut for arms, head). Cheap exercise clothes are synthetic and they pass moisture away from the skin. Long or short sleeve synthetic shirts work well, along with additional layers of whatever you have on top. It’s critical to finish with something water resistant if you have to go outside. Wear fleece tights, thermals, and/or long johns. Jeans can go over them but try to keep them dry, and roll them up if they drag on the ground. On your feet, thin synthetic socks with thick fluffy socks, preferably wool/synthetic blend, are best. Wear a hat and scarf. Thin synthetic gloves with flip top mittens are good for the hands. Flip tops usually have room for a hottie.

11. Layer your bedding.

Flannel is a great bedding material if you can keep it dry. Sleeping bags won't let drafts in. Again, go synthetic. Add blankets on top. Use a mat.

12. Know the signs of hypothermia and seek emergency support immediately, if symptoms arise.

Hypothermia symptoms include: Excessive shivering, exhaustion or drowsiness (particularly when you were wide awake), confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech, and blue-ing of fingers, toes, or lips. If you call 911 and they are slow to respond, you could set your car alarm off to get a faster response, go to a business that has lights on and ask for help, or try to get skin contact for warmth. Don’t ever be embarrassed to ask to enter a business while having a medical emergency — your life depends on it.