I just looked outside, and it is an absolutely beautiful day! The sun is shining, and there are a few white puffy clouds lazily floating along in an ocean blue sky. It would be a great day to get outdoors and spend a few nights falling asleep to the natural melody of the world.
Alas, those plans will have to wait, because today I am going to be discussing how to stay warm in a tent so that you can go out and have a safe, comfortable night’s sleep during this camping season.
Many people reserve sleeping in a tent for early spring or summertime because the temperatures are more tolerable. However, warm daytime temperatures don’t necessarily mean toasty temperatures at night. In fact, many areas that experience blazing hot temperatures during the day, fall to – or even below – freezing once the sun goes down. So, comfort and safety don’t just apply to winter camping.
It’s important to know how to stay warm in a tent for two main reasons:
First, temperatures don’t have to be below freezing for hypothermia to set in. Most cases of hypothermia actually occur when it’s above freezing.
Secondly, trying to sleep when your body is shivering is going to be next to impossible and cause you to have a pretty miserable night. So remember, keeping our body heat maintained is not only for comfort, but for safety.
In this article, we’ll be breaking down:
- What gear you need to stay warm in a tent
- How to naturally insulate your space
- Actions you can take while in a tent to regulate your body temperature
16 Ways For Tent Dwellers To Stay Warm on Cold Nights
Car camping has become popular way to spend time in the outdoors. It does offer some advantages when dealing with cold nights, whether that be during winter camping trips or an early-spring camping trip.
Options include using a sleeping bag inside of the vehicle, setting up a roof tent, or simply pitching a smaller tent right along side the car.
Several of the methods listed below for how to stay warm in a tent can be applied to car camping, although they may need to be slightly adjusted to accommodate a different kind of space.
Location, Location, Location!
Picking out a spot to throw up a tent isn’t all about the view, although that is a nice perk.
Location does matter, though. Where you pitch your tent can factor into whether or not you stay warm.
Avoid camping out on valley floors and any other low-lying areas where cold air will fall and settle in. However, you don’t have to lug your camping gear way up on the hillside. Anywhere from 50-100ft above a lower elevation should be slightly warmer.
Speaking of hillsides…
Putting a tent on the windy side of a hill (windward side) is really going to suck the heat right out of it. You will stay much warmer in a tent if you set up on the leeward (non-windy) side, and if there are natural wind breakers around the campsite.
Also, air temperatures can be significantly cooler around bodies of water, especially large ones, so be sure to camp away from the shoreline.
You are going to want your tent ventilated. When trying to stay warm, people usually seal up their room or home to retain as much heat as possible. But it’s important to remember that these structures are not one hundred percent sealed. There is some form of ventilation, which brings in fresh air.
The same concept should be applied when sleeping in a tent. You may notice on cold nights that you can see your breath when you breathe out and in; that air is moisture. If a tent is not ventilated, that moisture has nowhere to go, and eventually the interior of the tent will begin to feel damp.
Moisture and cold temperatures are never a good recipe for staying warm in a tent – or staying warm anywhere, for that matter.
Anything that promotes excess moisture hanging around should be avoided. This is one reason that it’s not a good idea to pull a sleeping bag up and over your head. While it might make you feel warm in your tent in the short term, the sleeping bag is going to trap that moisture and start to become damp.
Choose a Quality Sleeping Bag
During cold nights, quality sleeping bags are worth their weight in gold. There are a variety of sleeping bags on the market today that are made from an array of natural or synthetic materials, and there are ones fit almost every budget.
However, since a good sleeping bag is going to be one of the best defenses against cold air and for keeping your body temperature up, spending a few extra dollars will be worth it.
When looking at sleeping bags you may also want to look at a sleeping bag liner. A sleeping bag liner is an extra piece of material that goes inside of the sleeping bag that can help to keep the interior clean. More importantly, it adds a bit more insulation.
If you are not sure how to choose a sleeping bag check out this article, Best Survival Sleeping Bag: What I Use and Top Picks.
Use a Tent Heater
It probably goes without saying that a small portable electric heater (or any portable heater) will help to keep the interior of a tent warm, especially a small tent.
On a cold night, you may be tempted to run the heater all night to stay warm inside. But if you incorporate several of the ideas on this list along with a heater, then it should only have to run for about an hour or so before you crawl into your sleeping bag.
If you decide to keep the heater running while you are sleeping, be sure it is on a stable surface, away from flammable materials, and not close enough that it will damage your sleeping bag (or potentially burn you).
Use a Hot Water Bottles
Sometimes you gotta use what you got. An old trick for staying warm on cold nights is to use a hot water bottle in your sleeping bag. A hot water bottle is simple, but very effective!
Before going to bed, boil some water and pour it into a water bottle. Or, if you have a metal bottle, just warm it up in the bottle. After you crawl into your sleeping bag, place the hot water bottle around the torso, on the small of the back, or under the armpit.
Don’t allow the bottle to come into direct contact with the skin, as this could result in a burn. Instead, position the bottle between an extra layer of clothing and the sleeping bag.
Another way to create a “hot water bottle” is to use a pee bottle to help stay warm. I know this might sound gross, but hear me out.
Imagine you are warm in a tent, and all tucked in your sleeping bag for the night. At some point in the night you wake up and realize that nature calls. You sigh because getting out of your sleeping bag and stepping out into the cold night air is going to start sucking away your body heat.
Well, you don’t have to do any of that if you have a pee bottle. Your body used a lot of energy warming that liquid up, so why not use it? Simply urinate into a bottle (I know, easier said than done for some of us), and use it just like you would a hot water bottle.
Lay On A Sleeping Pad
One of the first things an outdoorsperson learns is that you don’t sleep directly on the cold ground. This is a very efficient and quick way of losing a lot of body heat.
To protect against this, you are going to want a layer of insulation between you and the ground. In a way, this creates a layer of “empty space ” that is an effective barrier against cooler weather.
An easy way to accomplish this is by laying down a sleeping pad, like a foam pad. This will provide just enough of insulation that your body heat won’t be drained by the cold ground; that extra layer between you and the ground will make all the difference. Plus, a sleeping pad will make sleeping on the ground much more comfortable.
An air mattress is another option that a lot of people like to use because they are easy to pack and provide a good deal of comfort. However, the air inside of an air mattress can make the bed cold.. So, if you want to use an air mattress, it’s better to lay a blanket or a sleeping bag on top of it instead of sleeping directly on the air mattress.
Create a Sleeping Pad
Should you find yourself without a proper sleeping pad, you can easily make one by sourcing the materials from your surroundings. All you really need is something that you can use to make a layer between you and ground and that you can sleep on.
Pine boughs, pine needles, leaves, and grasses work well for creating an insulating layer, and they are quite comfortable to lay on. By carrying a few large trash bags, you can use the bags to collect and contain the materials to help create an improvised mattress.
Remember the hot water bottle section from above? This method is kind of the same deal, but “old school.”
A way to stay warm in the absence of a water bottle is to gather up some rocks and place them next to some burning embers. Allow the rocks to gradually heat up for about an hour or so and use sticks, a piece of bark, or some gloves to transfer them to your sleeping area. If you allow the rocks to cool down so that you can handle them but they are still warm, then they could be placed directly into the sleeping bag. Hot rocks will radiate heat for several hours!
When using hot rocks, you really need to pay attention and take your time. You don’t want to choose rocks that are porous and retain water. If there is water inside of the rock and it is heated up too quickly, the rock can explode. This is a very dangerous scenario that you want to avoid.
Additionally, if the rocks become too hot, then they can easily cause burns on the skin or even melt and damage some of your camping gear. So, while this is an effective way of staying warm, you need to take your time and respect the process.
Wood Burning Stove
Wood burning stoves are a great way of staying warm in a tent. Generally, these are meant for larger tents, but they do make smaller models for a small tent. However, you can’t just stick this type of stove into a tent and call it good.
These stoves get very hot, and they need to be exhausted. If a stove like this is how you want to stay warm inside of a tent, then you need to make sure you have the right kind of tent and the accessories needed to properly set up a wood burning stove.
But once you do, you are sure to stay warm and have a good night’s rest.
Disposable Heat Packs
What’s one of the simplest and cheapest ways for how to stay warm in a tent? Disposable warmers. These hand warmers can be picked up at most big box stores and any outdoor store, especially once the weather turns cold.
They are small packets filled with a chemical mixture that, once activated, produces a good amount of heat. The nice thing about these, is that due to their shape and size, they can be stuck inside of gloves, hats, boots and pockets.
The bad thing about them is that sometimes they don’t always work for as long as they are supposed to, so you will probably need quite a few of them.
Mylar blankets (space blankets/emergency blankets) are another low-cost way of staying warm in a tent, and they can be used in a couple of different ways.
The first way is to simply use it just like a blanket and wrap it around your body. Many of these blankets boast that they can help to retain up to 90% of body heat. Of course, keeping warm in this manner means that the blanket needs to be completely wrapped around the body (never around the head) and kept that way.
Another way to use a space blanket is as a reflector. Instead of losing your body heat through a tent, tape space blankets up on the sides and top of the interior. This will help to hold the heat in and reflect it back towards you. They can also be set up as a reflector next to a camp fire, but just be careful not to get it to close, otherwise it will melt.
How to Stay Dry in a Tent
Its been mentioned a few times that cold temps and moisture are not good companions if you want to stay warm. Trying to get a good night’s sleep when your sleeping bag, clothes, and blanket are wet is a battle you don’t want to fight.
When you camping gear gets wet, it’s important to take every opportunity possible to dry it out before nightfall. Open your sleeping bag and lay it out in the sunshine or breeze. The same goes for wet clothes. It’s better to crawl into a dry sleeping bag naked then with wet clothes.
To help dry items out, wet items can be set up next to a camp fire. However, you need to keep an eye on them and not set them too close. Otherwise you camping gear could catch fire or melt!
Cold Weather Clothing
Choosing the right kind of clothing to wear is probably one of the simplest and most effective ways to stay warm in a tent, but it is also often overlooked. To prepare for cold weather, you are going to want a mixture of natural and synthetic materials.
However, stay away from cotton! The biggest problem with cotton is that once it becomes wet, it loses its insulating properties. Whereas when wool become wet, it still retains a high percentage of its insulating properties. This is why wool is such a popular choice for hats, shirts, socks, and blankets.
Additionally, the best way for keeping warm is to dress in layers with the base layers being natural materials, i.e. wool. Dressing in extra layers gives you the ability to remove articles as your body heat rises or during warmer weather. Once you start to feel cold, the layers can be put back on.
Even if you get a really good sleeping bag, it may not be enough. To help retain your body heat and to fight off the cold nights, wear a hat, socks, gloves and even a scarf before crawling into your sleeping bag. For a little more added warmth, long johns are another popular base layer to wear that will keep you warm in your tent.
Get Your Blood Flowing!
Sometimes, the only way to keep the cold weather at bay is to start moving around. This means doing some exercises. Exercising works the muscles. This generates heat, which in turn generates more body heat.
Exercising is a great way of staying warm, but what if you want to increase body heat without leaving your tent? Easy. Start doing sit ups, leg raises, or pushups. Working larger muscle groups will generate more body heat, so jumping jacks, squats, and pushups will probably be your best choice.
Use a Wool Blanket
When I was growing up, I never used a wool blanket. It wasn’t until I was an adult that I got one and tried it out for the first time. Now, I am a huge fan of them – I mean huge! A person just won’t understand how warm a wool blanket is until they try one.
To this day, I am surprised at how quickly I can warm up on a cold night simply by using a wool blanket. They are heavier, more expensive, and they can be a bit scratchy. However, it’s worth saying again, wool is a fantastic insulator, even when it’s wet.
Plus, a quality wool blanket isn’t just a blanket. It can be a sleeping pad, pillow, and even a poncho.
I highly recommend investing in a quality wool blanket, as it will not only keep you warm in your tent, but outside of it as well.
Drink Warm Fluids
Obviously, it’s important to stay hydrated as much as possible. But when cooler weather starts to set in, do your best to drink fluids that are warm. On cold winter days, do you drink iced drinks (okay some people do), or do you go for a hot cup of coffee, tea, or hot chocolate?
While this won’t keep your tent warm, drinking warm fluids will help to maintain core body temperature better than drinking cold fluids.
Eat a Hearty Meal
Have you ever eaten a rather big meal and just wanted to take a nap afterwards? Well, sometimes foods that are high in protein and carbs can induce sleepiness. But the process of digestion also generates heat. So, eating a meal before bed will help you to feel warmer.
Plus, nobody like to go to bed with an empty belly.
How to Stay Warm in a Tent at a Glance
To summarize, here is a quick look at the ways for keeping your core body temperature up and staying warm in a tent. Remember, don’t use just one of these methods, but a combination of them. By doing so, you will be able to fall asleep quickly and comfortably on your next camping trip.
- Choose a warm enough sleeping bag (don’t forget the sleeping bag liners!)
- Tent heater (like a Mr. heater)
- Sleeping pads (remember the tip about an air mattress)
- Make sleeping pads
- Hot rocks
- Wood burning stove
- Disposable heat packs.
- Mylar blankets
- Stay dry to stay warm
- Cold weather clothing.
- Get your blood flowing (exercise)
- Use a wool blanket.
- Drink fluids that are warm.
- Eat a hearty meal.