15 Tips on How to Stay Warm in a Tent During Very Cold Nights

Mind if we begin with the obvious “how to stay warm in a tent” solution? It’s as easy as inviting a very close friend to go camping with you because two in a sac ups body heat generation, says NOLS.edu blogger Tod Schimelpfenis. His “Two People in a Sleeping Bag” article is a blast to read once you finish reading this.

We identified three takeaways from that article.

1) Snuggling is a great way to battle hypothermia. 2) Skin-to-skin contact is such a reliable heat generator; plenty of couples sleep nude in tents. 3) “Heat donors” won’t become hypothermic while cuddling, so this is a win-win situation.

You can even camp and hike with your beloved cat and sleep together in a tent.

Of course, not every camper wants to snuggle with a pal for myriad reasons. Thus we offer 15 alternatives for staying toasty in your tent! 

1. Purchase a high-quality sleeping bag 

Backpacker Gear Editor Kristin Hostetter knows a thing or two about sleeping bag evaluation. She recommends prioritizing winter bags over summer and 3-season ones when shopping.

Winter bags are engineered to contain the heat when temperatures dip as low as 20-degrees F. The best ones are designed with hoods, draft collars, and zipper draft tubes. 

While temperature ratings make an excellent guide, Kristin recommends taking them “with a grain of salt,” because there is no “standard, universal method for determining ratings.” As a result, manufacturers get to play fast and loose with warmth claims.

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

That said, Europe’s EN13537 rating system has won praise from campers, so if you find a number on the bag you favor, you could feel more confident about the purchase.

On the topic of fill, there are two main options: down or synthetic. Down fill is the lightest, priciest, and warmest, while sleeping bag shells fall into three categories: Mummy, rectangular, and semi-rectangular.

You’re more likely to get optimal thermal efficiency in a Mummy, while a semi-rectangular bag makes an excellent second choice. Take a pass on rectangular containers if you have a choice – they deliver the least amount of thermal efficiency. 

Here’s a hot tip from the folks at GearJunkie.com: Pre-warm your sleeping bag by filling a hot water bottle with hot water, secure the lid and toss it into the bag’s interior, so it warms the bed while you take a brisk jog. Jump in. That pre-warmed bed is going to feel awesome! 

2. Layer up before you feel cold 

Joe Jackson, writing for the Outside website, recalls “bickering matches,” breaking out when the topic of layering clothing while sleeping in a tent is introduced to veteran campers. Some insist that wearing as little as possible is the best option. Others “find it ridiculous not to use the jackets, pants, and base layers.” 

Jackson’s advice? Layer up before retiring for the night to bring that warmth with you. But if you like to sleep in the raw, who are we to discourage you? Want to add your opinion to this ongoing debate? Who knows, you may agree with campers who insist on sleeping nude, even when temperatures plummet!

3. Always check weather conditions before you camp

How important is checking the weather report before you pack up to go camping? So important, Outdoor Camping Tent World names this step as the first thing campers should do before filling a vehicle with gear for an outdoor adventure.

Photo by Mark König on Unsplash

Not only can a forecast warn you against inclement conditions, but it factors into the type of clothing you pack. Whether or not to add rain gear to your supplies and even determine whether you want to bother including a swimsuit if the mountain lake you plan to frequent is known to attract lightning strikes. 

If you belong to the school of thought that insists that there is no such thing as being overly-prepared, you should know that even the food and cooking supplies you bring along can be impacted by weather. Suppose things turn nasty when unexpected weather front hits and all of the food you brought was meant to be cooked over a fire? 

4. Is a small, cozy tent better than a big one?

Folks who say “the bigger, the better” may wish to make an exception when tent shopping because the advantages of small, cozy tents outweigh those of enclosures large enough to host a crowd. Not only are small tents warmer and more comfortable but offer other benefits, say campers responding to this insightful survey

Since heat containment is your priority, a small tent is unlikely to offer enough room for a tent heater. Still, the trade-off is a lighter, less complicated structure that fits a smaller footprint allowing you to pitch your tent in a smaller place. Additionally, small tents tend to go up faster, with fewer complications, and you probably don’t need a crew to set it up, so it’s ideal for solo campers. 

5. Should you eat a high-calorie snack before turning in?

Sleep experts espouse the virtues of snacking before bed, as long as those snacks are small and of high nutritional value. Apple with peanut butter or avocado toast are good choices, but if your objective is conserving body heat, up the calorie count says bloggers writing for Leesa Mattresses’ blog

Your metabolism slows down at night, so anything you consume before crawling into your tent is likely to burn off more slowly, which is why high-calorie snacks that are small and loaded with calories extend the benefits of that pre-bed snack.

Pizza? Not so much! Besides, delivery to your camping spot is probably not within Grub Hub’s delivery area. 

6. Use disposable heat packs to help retain heat

Have you ever visited Japan in winter?

That snowcapped view of Mt. Fuji is lovely to look at, but for campers in that area, discovering and then using disposable heat backs can mean the difference between an awesome winter campout and one that puts a permanent end to seasonal trips. The sheer variety of heat packs on today’s market is growing and includes types profiled in this Matcha.com article

The original pocket heater is a non-sticky version designed to keep your hands toasty for up to 20 hours. Attachable sticky heat packs with peel-off backs work like therapeutic patches, but you don’t put them directly on your skin. They keep a body area warm for up to 12 hours. 

Because extremities are especially vulnerable to cold, invest in heat packs for your feet that are placed on your socks. Because heat dissipates faster in hands and feet, don’t expect more than 5 hours of warmth. Because disposable heat packs are sold by category, there are many types.

7. Fill a bottle, bladder or jar with hot water 

New York Times Magazine writer Chantel Tattoli grabbed the opportunity to wax poetic about one of the most popular heating products of all: hot-water bottle. Invented in the 1840s, the concept is even older: primitive people warmed bricks or stones on fires to act as body warmers long before the invention of the vulcanized rubber.

In a pinch, you can use any bottle or container capable of hosting boiling water without cracking or breaking. Fill it with hot water, secure the lid or cap, and hold the bottle against the clothing covering whatever body part needs defrosting. Make sure you don’t burn yourself when you try this out.

Should you bring along a traditional hot-water bottle? Yes, please. These products are lightweight, and the way the rubber conducts hot water is not only safer but can conform to the body’s contours so that you can warm up one specific area.

8. Drink a hot beverage before going to bed 

Finding scientific evidence that drinking hot beverages before bed is likely to help you stay warm once the liquid leaves your stomach and hits your intestinal track proved a no starter, but that’s not to say that there are no therapeutic benefits to drinking a hot beverage before bed.

Consider the quintessential glass of warm milk recommended by moms for centuries.

Photo by Andrew McElroy on Unsplash

According to NDTV.com’s food page, the benefits of drinking a hot beverage before bed include fighting anxiety and depression, riding the body of toxins, replenishing lost fluids, and aiding digestion.

That stated, if your only objective for drinking a hot beverage is staying warm, we feel that we must remind you that drinking anything before bed can force you out of your warm cocoon to empty your bladder, and that rather defeats the purpose, right?

9. Dry off ASAP if you get wet or are drenched in sweat 

Is there anything worse than clothing saturated with sweat or water just as a cold wind or temperature change descends upon your camping site? The answer is no. The University of Michigan School of Medicine warns that the combination of wet clothing and dropping temperatures are the fastest and most thorough ways to dissipate body heat. 

Further “conduction” (heat loss experienced sleeping on the cold ground) can contribute to heat loss by another 15-percent. The potential for hypothermia — defined as the result of the body getting so cold, heat is lost faster than the body can generate it — can have dire consequences if it’s not rectified immediately.

Strip down. Dry off. Get into dry, warm clothing. Shove a filled hot water bottle down your pants or against your chest. Aren’t you glad we recommended a hot water bottle?

10. Fluff and shake up your sleeping bag

Sound like a silly idea? It’s not. If you take it upon yourself to shake and fluff your sleeping bag before you climb into it, you will loosen insulating materials stuffed inside, which leads to a warmer interior once you get in. Why do these materials require a shake?

Because when you fold up or roll your bag to stow or transport it, the fill is compressed, which means some material may not spread evenly throughout the sleeping bag.

Whether you have chosen an inexpensive synthetic fill or more luxurious down fill, by decompressing sleeping bag fill you will stay warmer from the moment you hit the sheets.

That stated, if you’re willing to give up a few luxuries to own a down-filled sleeping bag, you’re going to be delighted that you made the decision says experts at Teton Sports. “It will keep you warmer pound for pound than any synthetic available.”

Read more: How to Insulate a Tent for Winter Camping

11. Employ two sleeping pads 

So, if one sleeping pad can up the amount of body heat you enjoy during your tent snoozes in winter, does that mean two are twice as effective?

That’s a logical conclusion. Sleeping pad insulation acts to regulate heat. So even if you take your gear outside because your tent mate is disturbing your sleep, you’ll enjoy insulation that assists your system in producing heat faster if you add one or more pads to your gear. 

But, not all sleeping pads are created equal, say folks at VanCampingLife.com. Some are air-filled, and others are foam-filled. The first category – air-filled — makes for a softer, more cushiony sleeping experience. 

‘R’ values categorize pads. The higher the number, the more warmth you can expect.

Stack two pads beneath your tent and you will feel toasty, but keep this in mind: even if you layer on 5 pads, if those pads are air-filled, your chances of a rip or puncture can dramatically cut down on heat retention. Closed-cell foam, while not as comfortable as air, is impervious to being punctured. 

12. Wear a balaclava 

An avid camper, dog lover, tech nerd, and world traveler Teo Maragakis is as big a fan of sleeping in long johns (he considers sleeping nude in a tent to be weird) and he counts on his balaclava to keep his scalp and brains warm during winter nights under the stars. Teo’s “cheap Chinese fleece balaclava” doubles as a hood or scarf by day. 

Were he to move to frigid climates, he would trade in his fleece for a wool balaclava, and unless wool makes you itch, you’re going to want to follow his lead. Where to get wool balaclavas that don’t cost more than your tent?

Teo scours military equipment and supply sites and retail outlets because he finds military-grade gear is always of the highest quality.

13. Choose the right camping spot 

Even if you bring a truckload of products to keep you warm during your winter tent outing, it can all be for naught if you fail to choose the right spot to set up camp, says Connor McGuigan.

Photo by Peter Vanosdall on Unsplash

Your goal? Getting the maximum amount of shelter from weather that can come from different directions during your time under your tent roof. “Avoid the bottoms of hills, where cold-air troughs form, and the tops of hills, which can be exposed to wind,” advises McGuigan.

But before you even declare a spot ideal, check wind directions, so your tent flaps are perpendicular to the direction of blowing wind. That done, choose flat terrain that meets the criteria above. If there’s snow on the ground, compress it under your boots (this move increases the insulation beneath your tent) and securely fasten stakes, just in case the wind shifts during the night. 

14. Should you count on a campfire to keep you warm? 

Finding a Reddit web page entitled, “How do you sleep next to a campfire without catching on fire?” begs the question most people ask whose desire to stay warm isn’t worth the risk of becoming a crispy critter. There is no hard and fast rule about the number of yards a camper should put between a fire and a tent, because every campfire is unique, so be prepared for all eventualities. 

Frequent winter campers recommend including an old wool blanket on your supply list if you intend to sleep near a campfire. Throw it over your sleeping bag before you go to sleep to deflect errant fire embers that may be blown in your direction.

Alternately, use rocks to help generate heat. Place them at the base of a fire and retrieve them once they’re hot. Place them between your sleeping bag and the ground to stay warm without risking a campfire burn.

Read more: 15 Tips on How to Stay Warm in a Tent

15. Use an electric heater 

The increase in the number, style, and price of tent heaters has grown exponentially in response to the number of enthusiasts eager to get as far away from congestion as possible. Now it’s possible to stay warm without risking flames by choosing an electric tent heater. An outgrowth of gas-powered units, electric tent heaters are safer to use, but you’ll need a power source.

This means those obscure campsites tucked into the wilderness won’t do. Still, if you are happy to stay at a campground with porta johns and electrical hookups, an electric tent heater should make your wish list, say product evaluators on the Effortless Outdoors website

That stated size matters. If your tent so big a platoon of soldiers could be accommodated, only those sleeping close to the heater will benefit from the output. Electric tent heaters are most efficient in small tents.