How cold is too cold?
February 28, 2014 5:55 PM   Subscribe

Hi there Hivemind, at what temperature (fahrenheit, preferably) does it become unsafe for a person to spend the night in a car?

"Theoretical" person has an 80-pound Chow Chow as a roommate in a Subaru station wagon and a parking space at a Walmart.
posted by feistycakes to Health & Fitness (19 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
With what sort of blankets, coats and gear?
posted by canine epigram at 5:56 PM on February 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

There is safe, and then there is uncomfortable. I would go down to about -20, with a good cold weather down sleeping bag and be totally fine. The Chow Chow, I dunno.. can he fit in the bag with you?

You can, of course, start the car and heat it up a couple times during the night. It will probably drop temp pretty quickly, but at least it's a respite.

Beware of any fumes that may be getting in if you're just idling while parked - don't kill yourself! But you should be fine out in the open unless you have some exhaust leaks and holes in your floorboards.
posted by mbatch at 5:59 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Yeah, this really depends on the gear. We used to take the scouts camping in Feb. in Michigan, temps always way below freezing. With the right sleeping bag and dry clothes, the kids were fine. A bit of moisture and a cheap bag and they were in trouble.

If you're in a car, you're protected from wind and rain/snow. If you have a closed cell pad to sleep on, it all depends on how good your sleeping bag is. I would guess that someone with experience and the right bag could go as low as 0 without much problem. You'll want to figure out how to get the moisture out of the car (from your breath and the pup).

And, to be honest, I would be more worried about the dog. It has no way to tell you that it's too cold.

And, never leave the car running while you're asleep...
posted by HuronBob at 6:00 PM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

Depends on so many variables. How much other gear do you have? Do you at least have a winter jacket?

With a good winter jacket, gloves, a hat, a full tank of gas, and alarm (watch or cell phone) - you could go into survival mode, and endure -50F. Set your alarm for every hour. Start the car and blast the heat for 15 minutes. Then crash for 45 minutes. Then heat for 15 minutes, then 45 mintues sleep, and repeat all night. You would not sleep well, but if the car is mostly air tight, you could keep it warm enough to not freeze to death.

Below -50F, most cars don't start anymore (not with out special oil and such) - and if you couldn't start the car and use the heater, and without other camping gear, you would be in deep trouble.
posted by Flood at 6:12 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well below zero. I've done it alone and without a dog in just blue jeans and a winter jacket. long story, but I put the car in the ditch in the middle of nowhere near Ely MN in the dead of winter. Was able to flag down a passing truck the next morning for a yank out. That was a long night.

Didn't sleep well, and also didn't die.

I've camped in below freezing temps with a dog and several good blankets and was mostly toasty warm (put a blanket beneath you!). Two dogs to be the buns to your hot dog(!) would be warm as hell.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 6:13 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've camped in a van with just some blankets and a dog in freezing temps. The Chow will probably fare better than you, actually, with that thick undercoat.
posted by The otter lady at 6:17 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have spent the night (sort of sleeping) in an uninsulated shack when it was -25 F. I had multiple layers on, including a hat and mittens, and was inside two sleeping bags. It was uncomfortable but not deadly. I wouldn't have wanted to do it more than a couple nights in a row. I did not have to worry about a dog, even one with a nice thick undercoat.
posted by rtha at 6:17 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here is an article from an experiment in spending the night in Canada around -20 C
posted by saucysault at 7:25 PM on February 28, 2014 [3 favorites]

The dog and human will throw off some heat, and in the small space, that will help. I've been car camping with freezing nights, and my small dog helps keep my feet warm. Cardboard can be layered several thicknesses, and be cut to fit the windows, for significant savings in heat loss. Staying dry and having several good layers underneath as well as on top will keep you pretty warm. I've been comfortable with a couple yoga mats and quilts under me, and a doubled over down comforter on top.
posted by theora55 at 7:31 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

This young woman spent most of the night on the front porch in substantially below freezing weather and (barely) survived.

A car or tent or other shelter provides the biggest key to survival - keeping the winds/breezes off of you. Your ability to survive cold temps improves considerably if you can get some sort of shelter.
posted by Pogo_Fuzzybutt at 8:03 PM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

This young girl died of hypothermia last night.

My dad is a doctor and coroner in northern Minnesota and every winter sees someone who died in their car. Usually because they got drunk and passed out somewhere.

It can be done if you are prepared. Many oil field workers in western north dakota live in their cars.

But, any temperature below freezing is dangerous and can be deadly if you do not have the right gear and are exposed long enough.
posted by BabeTheBlueOX at 8:19 PM on February 28, 2014 [2 favorites]

in part one of Survivorman 10 Days: Norway, Les Stroud spends spends 4-5 nights (and days) in a car on a frigid mountainside.
posted by changeling at 8:39 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Since it sounds like you will have plenty of room, you should pack layers of clothes and blankets. Your car will protect you from wind and rain/snow better than any tent. Above -25 F you should be fine. Much below that and starting the car becomes a concern in itself.

Is the WalMart 24 hour? Keeping hydrated is important even in the cold, and liquid water might be hard to come by if it's seriously cold. You might plan to make a quick trip in to get some water.
posted by the christopher hundreds at 8:47 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

The person above mentioning water vapor is right. Picture frost on the inside of the windows. (I have no idea what to do about it though.)
posted by salvia at 9:22 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Starting cars below 25 is just fine as long as your battery isn't complete shit. We've had the coldest winter in 130+ years here in Duluth and my car has turned over every time.

Dress warm, good sleeping bag or blankets and you'll be just fine to at least zero. Much colder and you need better gear.
posted by edgeways at 9:24 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Factors to consider:

Your own size
Whether you're wearing a hat
Insulation _under_ you
posted by amtho at 10:02 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

I spent a freezing night in NM outside a gas station that didn't open until the next morning under my shearling pulled over my face.
posted by brujita at 11:25 PM on February 28, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If an expensive sleeping bag isn't available (which are really the best option when possible, both in terms of insulation and bulk since they're usually designed to be compressed down into a small container for storage) the aforementioned "lots of blankets" approach is possible. Since it's a station wagon, there may be enough space for a futon above or below - definitely advantageous if available since they were originally used in Japan partly for helping people keep warm in freezing temperatures in buildings with walls made of paper.

An alternative or addition to any of the above options if they're too expensive is to create a crude quilted duvet from rags or old/unused clothes. Arrange all of the pieces of cloth in layers and use a sewing needle, cheap buttons, and "carpet thread"—heavyweight synthetic-fiber thread—or whatever thread is handy (maybe fishing line would work too?) to sort of "spot weld" all the layers together at various points, with one button on top and one on the bottom at each weld point.

If he's going to be doing this indefinitely, one problem that can develop as mentioned above is that in a small enclosed space like a car or a tent, moisture from your exhaled breath will gradually accumulate night after night and reduce the insulation capacity of the bedding. So he may want to start off with several times as much bedding as he actually needs to compensate for this.

Once he's got a really substantial amount of insulation, hot water bottles are useful because their warmth will last well into the night. These can be as simple as 2 liter soda bottles—anything that won't leak—filled in the Walmart bathroom. They're also a source of water as mentioned by the christopher hundreds. But he needs to remember to empty them in the morning - if they're left in the car during the day and get cold enough to freeze they might burst and saturate the bedding, and a bottle full of ice can't be refilled when you go to use it on the subsequent night.

Lastly, as others have mentioned he definitely should remember mittens and gloves and a hat or ski mask, or just an old t-shirt tied around the head like a bandanna: even if the rest of your body is toasty warm, since your head and hands are often above the blankets the may get freezing cold. Come to think of it, I wonder if a pool snorkel would be handy for that, so that you can completely cover your head with blankets.

I've managed to be quite comfortable for many nights in a row sleeping in cars and unheated cabins in Northern New England and Canada, and even in Yellowstone National Park parking lots in the middle of winter. Though I should note that I'm a big guy whose body produces lots of heat and has lots of insulation on its own.

"Vandwelling" may be a handy search term for issues related to this.
posted by XMLicious at 9:01 AM on March 1, 2014 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Thank you so much, everyone—this was all incredibly helpful information.
posted by feistycakes at 12:38 PM on March 3, 2014

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