How to Stay Warm in a Tent

When those shoulder season temperatures drop near freezing and the driving rain gets into every crack, staying warm in a tent can be nearly impossible.

You know the feeling – when you’ve been out backpacking and get into camp with achy knees and a cold that seems to creep to your bones. These are the kind of days when no number of puffy jackets seem to keep you warm enough.

Actual medical dangers of cold-related injuries aside, staying warm in a tent can be challenging on these trips. Whether it’s high altitude, late spring cold-snaps, or winter camping the cold presents unique sleeping challenges.

Luckily you don’t have to be completely at the mercy of Mother Nature. Discerning backpackers know that tent location, eating the right food, and improving sleep systems are just some of a number of solutions to camping in those bitter cold nights.

With hundreds of nights guiding trips on the trail, I’ve worked, lived, and played in these conditions. Let’s take a look at how you can improve your comfort and enjoyment and stay warm in your tent!

Shelter Locations

This is a big one that tarp campers know well, yet tent campers often overlook. There are several major factors that impact tent warmth when it comes to where you decide to pitch for the night:

  • Shelter your tent from the wind
  • In spring avoid large bodies of cold water
  • Try to avoid valleys where cold air may settle

Finding a location where your tent is sheltered from the wind helps reduce convective heat loss. For many other reasons you should avoid pitching your tent in exposed locations.

Good choices for sheltered locations include dense healthy trees, back away from open meadows and water, and areas where you may be on the leeward side of the wind.

Water bodies can massively impact the areas around them. In the spring large lakes and rivers that trap the cold can chill the air near them. In late fall the water may actually be warmer than cold nighttime air and may slightly warm the area around it.

Camping in valleys, bowls, or depressions may also expose your tent location to colder than necessary air currents. Avalanche and flood danger (in some areas) aside, valley floors tend to capture the denser cold air at night. Camping at an elevation midway between a peak and valley tends to be a safe bet in most situations.

Pro Tip: Don’t get tunnel vision when looking for a campsite. Make sure to also check for widowmakers, game trails, and appropriate Leave No Trace ethics when choosing.

choose your tent location carefully for warmth
A bitterly cold night ahead as the mists roll in at 15,000ft on Kilimanjaro.

Tent Characteristics

Part of being a skilled, competent, and confident backpacker is understanding and mastering your equipment.

If you’ve recently found yourself chilled to the bone on a camping trip then perhaps you’re doing everything right and your gear just isn’t up to the challenge.

Before you get frustrated, be sure to check that:

  • Your tent is 4-season rated
  • You’re pitching the tent and accessories properly
  • You’ve got ventilation and condensation under control

If you’re out camping in the early spring or late fall you probably want a 4-season tent or shelter. If you happen to encounter some unexpected snow, your lightweight 3-season tent poles and fabric may collapse on you. Talk about cold! That’s not to say I haven’t risked it before myself, but I don’t recommend it.

Good 3-4 season or winter tents will have fully adjustable ventilation and windows that seal. While there’s rarely a “perfect” way to adjust your ventilation for maximum warmth, ensuring that your tent is adjustable means you can dial it in over time.

Managing air flow is key to controlling both temperature and moisture inside the tent on cold nights.

Good tent flys should be widely adjustable from almost fully sealed to quite open and airy. This becomes another link in the chain to temperature and moisture management inside your tent.

Tent footprints should be properly set. Keep them smaller than the surface area of your tent. If your footprint sticks out it can catch water and channel it under your tent. In the worst situations this can result in you waking up in a puddle of standing water.

a bitterly cold night near the glaciers of Kili
This campsite was freezing as the wind picked up and blew the cold off the glaciers above us!

Sleeping Bag Woes

Don’t worry – the sleeping bag done right is a perfect addition to your gear. This is probably the first thing people think of as “key” to staying warm in a tent. While it’s not the only factor, it is one of the largest.

Before you head into a cold camping situation be sure to check:

  • Sleeping bag temperature rating
  • Sleeping bag sizing for your body type
  • Keep your sleeping bag clean and dry
  • Make sure the bag loft is allowed to expand
  • Learn to properly use the drawstring hoods and baffles

All sleeping bags will have a rating established by the manufacturer. While the pinpoint accuracy of these temperature ratings remains hotly debated, they do serve as a touchstone.

Before heading into cold temperature camping, make sure that your sleeping bag is at the very least able to handle average nighttime cold temperatures for the area you’re traveling.

Sleeping bag sizing and using the drawstrings properly kind of go hand in hand. If your bag is too small, the neck baffles and mummy hood may not properly draw. This means tons of heat loss during the night which can definitely make you cold fast!

Keeping your sleeping bag clean between trips means the loft will be able to perform to its maximum intended warmth rating. Over time dirt, grime, and skin oils can cause down and synthetic insulations to lose quality. Washing your bag once you notice that it has lost loft or become particular dirty solves that problem.

Use a Sleeping bag liner to keep your sleeping bag clean and free from body oils and dirt.

Of course, the other factor is accidentally getting your bag wet on the trail. This can be very dangerous with down bags which suffer greater insulation value loss when wet than do synthetic bags.

If you’re going into cold and wet climates, consider a synthetic bag for safety’s sake if you think it may get wet. On top of that, be sure to keep your sleeping bag in a truly waterproof stuff sack or dry bag. Water has a nasty habit of finding its way into the deepest parts of your backpack at just the wrong moments.

If your bag does get wet on the trail, lay it out in the sun with the darker side facing up. Dark colors help the bag dry faster in the sun.

Pro Tip: Watch your feet! The foot of your sleeping bag is the most likely to come into contact with the sides of your tent during your sleeping hours. In situations where your tent walls are moist with condensation this can lead to a wet and cold sleeping bag.

Sleeping Pads

While sleeping bags are responsible for protecting you from convective heat loss, sleeping pads protect you from conductive heat loss. Together these tools keep protect us from the most common causes of heat loss when sleeping in a tent. If you’d like to learn more about types of heat transfer, you can read up here.

There are three main types of sleeping pads:

  • Closed cell foam
  • Inflatable
  • Open cell foam inflatable

The ability of a certain pad to protect you from conductive heat loss to the cold ground is measured as R-Value. R-Value can be affected by:

  • Pad construction
  • Pad materials
  • Pad thickness

Generally closed cell foam pads have the highest R-Value while inflatable pads have the lowest. Open cell foam inflatable, also known as self-inflating pads, may range widely in their R-Value.

Many lightweight summer sleeping pads such as the Therm-a-Rest NeoAir X-Lite have relatively low R-Values. As a tradeoff they are exceptionally lightweight and packable. For use in the winter, however, you’ll want to add a closed cell foam pad underneath.

R-Values always stack together so any combination of insulating materials between you and the ground will boost the total R-Value of your sleeping system.

Pro Tip: In the worst case scenarios you can use spare clothes, leaf debris, or other natural materials to add more insulation under you. All of these will boost the total insulation value between you and the cold ground.

Cold Camping Pajamas

No, I’m not suggesting that you take PJs into the backcountry. However, understanding your cold camping clothing system is critical to getting the warmest possible sleep.

Most hikers will keep a small set of clothes for sleeping, especially in cold weather. I put my socks from the current day in my sleeping bag and take out the socks I slept with the night before to wear. Sleeping with damp socks overnight allows them to dry out thanks to body heat. This process repeats itself indefinitely throughout my trip so I always have a dry pair of socks each night.

In most situations the clothes you may want to consider for cold camping are:

  • Warm socks
  • Beanie
  • Thin leggings
  • Thin long sleeve shirt

During cold hikes, I always keep a set of socks, leggings, shirt, and beanie in a well-sealed dry bag. No matter what I won’t let these get wet because they’re my clothes for inside the tent and sleeping bag at night.

Overdressing can cause you to overheat and then sweat. Sweat, of course, makes your clothes and sleeping bag damp which can almost instantly cause everything to become cold. It’s a fine balance between warm enough and too warm. Shed layers immediately if you begin to sweat.

To avoid waking up and putting on cold clothes, keep a few layers of clothes in the bag with you as you sleep. Then it won’t be such a shock to get out of bed in the morning!

In all but the coldest temperatures you will most likely want breathable clothing. However, when the mercury plummets in extreme situations vapor barriers can become a necessity.

In these cases even the imperceptible moisture produced by your body can be enough to cause your sleeping bag to lose performance.

Vapor barriers actually trap the air and moisture closest to your body from coming into contact with the sleeping bag. 

Pro Tip: Find the record low temperature for the area you’ll be camping. If the warmth of your sleeping bag plus wearing all of the clothing you’re carrying would be enough to survive a “record low” situation, you’re planning appropriately. Never purposely push this limit in search of a lighter pack by leaving safe and appropriate clothing at home. When in doubt, take more warmth.

camping in the snow

Other Tips for Cozy Tent Sleeping

There is hardly an end to the tips and tricks other hikers will tell you for staying warm. I’ll end this article by giving you a few last tidbits that you can use. Some of these I use myself, others I’ve never had need of. Experiment and find what works for you!

Exercise before bed. Do a few jumping jacks to get the body warm and the blood flowing. Just don’t start sweating or you’ll defeat the purpose!

Eat a Snickers. Something high in calories with tons of fats and sugars gives the body the raw fuel it needs to burn to stay warm.

Hydrate. In cold weather your thirst may be repressed but your body needs proper hydration to stay warm. Just don’t overdo it or you’ll be up peeing every hour.

Warm up some water. Put warm water in a Nalgene bottle down by the feet of your sleeping bag. This will keep you toasty for hours.

Use hand warmers. Chemical hand warmers are safe to use inside a sleeping bag and can stay warm for up to 8 hours. They might be just what you need to keep the cold away.

Warm rocks by the fire. There is no doubt that warming rocks by a fire will cause them to emit heat for many hours thereafter. But be very careful about the temperature of the rocks. Too hot and they’ll easily melt the nylon and polyester of your sleeping bag and tent!

Avoid alcohol. Alcohol is a well-known vasodilator. That means it makes you feel warm because your blood vessels expand. This causes rapid and massive heat loss at skin level through capillary dilation. Avoid alcohol in cold situations if you want to stay warm and safe!

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