How to Stay Warm in a Tent: 5 Cold Camping Tips

camping cold weather how to stay warm in a tent
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Camping in the winter offers outdoor explorers a unique experience despite cooler weather. The first frost and snowfall of the season can turn your camping trip into a winter wonderland. However, cold weather can quickly put a damper on your experience, especially for campers ill-prepared for the cold nights, or worse a cold tent.

Today we’ll be talking about how to stay warm in a tent when winter camping or during early spring. Spoiler alert, it’ll take more than a pair of long johns and warm socks to keep you toasty.

We’ll cover a few things that may help in the pursuit of keeping warm, suggest equipment for a cold night, and at what point roughing it out for winter camping becomes too dangerous (even the best survival training has a limit).

With winter around the corner, you’ll be a pro at staying warm while getting a good night’s sleep, just in time for your next camping trip.

5 Tips to Stay Warm in a Tent While Camping in Cold Weather

1. Avoid Caffeine and Alcohol

whisky toast alcohol
Explorer chicks toasting with whiskey during our Virginia hiking trip. (It wasn’t cold, so it’s okay.)

A nice glass of wine or whiskey to warm the cockles on a cold winter’s night might seem like the perfect pairing. Hey, in a cozy cabin with a roaring fire, go for it! However, this combination can be detrimental to keeping your core temperature at a comfortable and safe level when you’re out in the cold.

Your body’s natural response to cold air and freezing temperatures is to shiver. However, the consumption of alcohol actually prevents your body from shivering, eliminating its ability to warm itself.

Plus, (double-whammy here) alcohol makes the blood vessels close to your skin expand. This is why you’ll often feel warmer after a glass of whiskey, but all that blood is actually cooling down real quick at the surface, then going back to your core a whole lot colder (speeding up possible hypothermia!).

While a hot drink is perfect for warming cold hands and slow sipping when winter camping, any sort of coffee, tea or other caffeinated beverages have a similar blood vessel dilating effect as alcohol. The caffeine actually circulates cold blood flowing in your body, making it difficult to keep warm in your tent. Opt for a nice cup of hot chocolate or decaf tea instead!

2. Use a Sleeping Pad with a High R-Value

how to stay warm in a tent
Setting up camp in Iceland.

A sleeping pad makes all the difference when you’re making friends with the tent floor. Not only do they make things more comfortable, they also offer much needed insulation to keep the cold ground from sucking the warmth right out of you. This is especially true for pads with a high R-Value.

R-Value is a unit of measurement that denotes the level of heat transfer and insulation in camping equipment. With sleeping pads, the higher the R-Value, the greater the heat retention and insulation for your body, meaning less chance that your body loses heat to the ground.

If you’re looking to purchase a sleeping pad, seasonal temperatures will be a deciding factor for the R-value, as this will determine how much heat you will need to retain. An R-Value of 0.5 to 0.7 is ideal for lighter insulation, or something to serve as a skinnier air mattress for added comfort. Likewise, an R-Value over 3.0 is best for nights in the 40 to 60-degree range.

(Pssst — if you’re looking to buy a sleeping pad of your own, we love the Big Agnes Insulated Q Core SLX pad. We use this pad for our Grand Canyon and Yosemite backpacking trips.) 

3. Sleep with a Buddy!

camping next to a glacier in iceland how to stay warm in a tent
Camping next to a glacier in Iceland.

Small tent? No problem – cozy up with your tent buddy to keep warm!

Shared body warmth is one of the most common ways of keeping warm in a tent, and is also quite common in nature – penguins are often seen huddled together in cold climates. The more body heat, the more warm air is produced, the faster you’ll be falling asleep!

For campers who don’t mind the close proximity, a double sleeping bag is a great option. You’ll be cooking up a hot tent in no time – maybe in more ways than one depending on your tent compadre. 

4. Use a Hot Water Bottle (or Create One)

Water bottle sitting in snow

Hot water bottles have been used for hundreds of years as a method for keeping warm and winter camping trips are no exception.

Creating your own hot water bottle is easy to do in a pinch with your regular camping gear — boil hot water on your camp stove and fill your hard water bottle (Nalgenes work great for this) with that warm goodness. Wrap that sucker up in a layer to avoid burning yourself, then put it at the bottom of your sleeping bag or in between your legs. By placing the hot water bottle between your legs, it reaches your femoral artery, the main vessel for supplying blood to your lower body.

5. Get a Good Sleeping Bag (and Sleeping Bag Liner!)

using a warm sleeping bag

Nobody likes hitting the hay only to find their bed cold. Thanks a lot, lackluster sleeping bags.

Your sleeping bag should be properly outfitted for the season, hence a cold-weather sleeping bag for winter (we like Big Agnes’ Women’s Torchlight 20). Plus, a good sleeping bag liner can help wick away sweat and keep body heat from escaping even more.

Purchasing a sleeping bag that is 10 to 15 degrees lower than the temperature you expect to encounter, can really help in making sure you’re equipped for all temperatures.

winter adventure snow

FAQs

How can I keep my tent warm without electricity?

A space blanket, a warm hat, or disposable heat packs are efficient ways to keep a tent warm without electricity.

A gas heater or propane-powered heaters should NOT be used in your tent. Keep that baby outside the tent. Why? Having a gas or propane heater in your tent can increase the chance of carbon monoxide poisoning (you’re inhaling all those fumes!), especially if you’re unable to keep your tent ventilated.

How cold is too cold for camping in a tent?

30 to 40 degrees Fahrenheit (-1 to -4 degrees Celsius) is generally considered too cold for camping in a tent, especially for those less experienced or not equipped with the right gear.

Can you heat a tent with a candle?

While you could heat a tent with a candle, we do not recommend it at all. Relatively flammable tent, sleeping bag, and sleeping pad materials within close proximity to an open flame in an enclosed area? That’s a grade A fire hazard for sure. 

A down sleeping bag, insulated tent, or a tent heater are better methods to stay warm when heating a tent.

Is sleeping in a car warmer than a tent?

Car camping is not necessarily warmer than sleeping in a tent. A car may be more spacious than a tent and can prevent exposure to wind chill. However, car parts and materials have the tendency to cool the temperature in the car, which may make sleeping in a car better suited for warmer weather. On the other hand, tents are smaller in volume meaning they heat up faster but are more likely to get drafts.

Meet the Writer

Lindsay Stroud

Lindsay Stroud is a freelance content writer and ghostwriter from Vancouver, Canada. Her published works can be found on Jiyubox and Passion Passport, in addition to producing ghostwritten content for Owl Labs and Wonderment. Her favorite destinations include Berlin, Stockholm, and Florence. In her spare time, you’ll find her exploring local foodie joints throughout her neighborhood, or planning itineraries for future trips.

Favorite Outdoor Adventure: spending time by the ocean and exploring walking trails in her local neighborhood.

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