It’s important every outdoor enthusiast knows exactly how to stay warm in a tent and on the trail. Camping isn’t enjoyable when you’re shivering, and in some conditions, being cold can become dangerous really quickly. I’ve been camping for ten years and spent a season freezing my butt off in the arctic – and I’m generally a cold person – so I have a ton of tips to keep you warm while camping.
I’ll run through how to dress for cold weather conditions, including clothing materials, accessories and some helpful hacks to make the most out of less expensive gear. I’ll give you a comprehensive guide on how to keep warm in a tent. This includes both gear (and how cold-weather gear is rated) and things you can do to maximize your warmth overnight.
Use the list below to navigate the post:
- Quick tips to stay warm while camping
- How your body loses heat
- How to stay warm in a tent
- Additional tips
- Recognizing and treating hypothermia
How to Stay Warm Camping – Quick Tips
- Dress according to the layering system (base layers, mid-layers and outer layer). Read this post if you need a refresher.
- Get a sleeping bag with a lower temperature rating. >>This is my favourite one.
- Get a sleeping pad with a higher R-value. >>I recommend this lightweight one.
- Dress in layers during the day, and avoid overheating (and evidently, sweating too much).
- Create a hot water bottle with a Nalgene and put it in your sleeping bag before bed.
- Wear wool socks and a wool hat when sleeping.
- Wear merino wool base layers for pyjamas, and avoid wearing cotton.
- Consume lots of calories and stay hydrated.
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Staying Warm Camping
When thinking about how to keep warm camping, we need to think about all the ways our body loses heat. And then do whatever we can to minimize heat loss.
How does your body lose heat?
There are four ways that an object (i.e. you) can lose heat to its surroundings. (Finally, an opportunity to use some of the knowledge I gained from my chemical engineering degree.) Those include evaporation, conduction, radiation and convection.
I always found this to be a little counter-intuitive, but when moisture evaporates off a surface, it cools down the surface. That means that sweat evaporating off your skin will cool you down.
To avoid cooling from evaporation: Minimize sweating and wear moisture-wicking clothing to move sweat away from your body.
Conduction is heat transfer between two surfaces that are physically touching one another. If you have prolonged contact with any surface that is colder than your body temperature, you’ll get cold.
To avoid cooling from conduction: Have a good sleeping pad to avoid losing body heat to the cold ground when you sleep.
Radiation occurs when an object loses heat to its surroundings without physical contact. Think of it kind of like conduction, but rather than losing heat to another object, you’re losing it to the air around your body.
To avoid cooling from radiation: Surround your body with an insulating layer, both when you’re active (i.e. down jacket) and when you’re sleeping (i.e. down sleeping bag).
Convection is when a heated fluid (liquid or gas) moves away from its source. For example, when you have a cup of coffee and you see the steam rising. That’s convection. We don’t need really need to think of convection in the context of staying warm while camping.
In summary, you stay warm camping by keeping yourself dry, using insulation and minimizing contact with the ground.
How to Stay Warm in a Tent
You’re most likely to experience the cold at night because the temperature drops and you stop moving. The easiest way solution on how to keep warm in a tent at night is to have the right gear. However, there are a few additional things you can do as well.
Check the temperature rating of your sleeping bag
Your sleeping bag is one of the most important pieces of gear for how to stay warm at night.
Sleeping bags from quality outdoor brands have a temperature rating. This is the lowest temperature the sleeping bag is intended to keep the average person comfortable.
Note: Temperature ratings assume you are using an appropriate sleeping pad and are wearing long underwear / base layers.
So the first part on how to stay warm in a tent comes down to choosing a sleeping bag rated for temperatures lower than what you’re expecting.
|Summer||0°C / 32°F and above|
|3-Season||Between 1°C / 33°F and -14°C / 4°F|
|Winter||– 15°C / 5°F and below|
I use a 3-Season sleeping bag rated to -9°C / 16°F for most of my camping. It is insulated with ethically sourced 650 fill power duck down. >>This is my sleeping bag.
I won’t go into too much detail about how to choose the best sleeping bag, because I have an entire post about it here. But if warmth is your priority, choose a down sleeping bag with a minimum of 650 fill power and a rated between 1°C / 33°F and -14°C / 4°F.
Use a sleeping bag liner
Another strategy on how to keep warm in a tent is to use a sleeping bag liner.
A sleeping bag liner serves two functions: it keeps your sleeping bag clean and it provides additional warmth.
Over time body oil, sweat and dirt can damage your sleeping bag and reduce its insulating ability. This means your sleeping bag won’t keep you as warm as its rating.
But more notably, a sleeping bag liner can add 5 to 15 °F of warmth to your sleeping bag. So this is a good option if you find yourself just a bit cold and don’t want to splurge on a warmer sleeping bag.
Just be careful not to buy a cotton sleeping bag liner! You should choose a synthetic material (like polyester or fleece) or silk. You can even get insulated sleeping bag liners.
Make yourself a hot water bottle. Before bed, fill a stainless steel water bottle or Nalgene with boiled water. Place it in your sleeping bag and then get changed, brush your teeth, etc. When you enter the sleeping bag, it’ll already have heated up a bit. Go to sleep with the hot water bottle between your thighs (rather than at your toes). This will keep your core warm overnight.
Check the R-value of your sleeping pad
One of the most underrated elements on how to stay warm when camping in a tent is the quality of the sleeping pad. Many people believe sleeping pads are there to keep you comfortable, so it’s a place to cut corners.
But in reality, your sleeping pad is meant to keep you warm. It does this by creating a layer of air between you and the ground, which insulates. If you were just sleeping on the ground you would lose a lot of heat through conduction.
Like sleeping bags, quality sleeping pads have a universal rating and this rating is called the R-value. It is a metric between 0 and 10.
The R-value is actually a measure from thermodynamics. It’s the difference in temperature between a hot and cold surface, over the rate of heat flux. You don’t need to know that, but I like to know that outdoor companies use real metrics, rather than inventing their own.
|Summer||2 and below|
|3-Season||Between 2 and 4|
|All Season||Between 4 and 6|
|Extreme||6 and higher|
If I was to buy a new sleeping pad, I would go with a lightweight inflatable one with an R-value around 4. Specifically, I have this sleeping pad in mind.
Currently, I use the Therm-a-Rest ProLite sleeping pad, which has an R-value of 2.4. I find it suitable for summer, but not warm enough for spring or autumn camping. So once September hits I put a foam sleeping pad underneath. This sleeping pad has an R-value of 2.
So together, I have a suitable sleeping pad, but it takes up way more space than if I had a single, warmer sleeping pad.
To learn more about R-value or how companies measure it, read this post. It’s actually pretty interesting.
Know when to upgrade to a four-season tent
The major difference between a three-season and four-season tent is the strength in its structure. A three-season tent is meant to protect you from bugs, rain and wind. They’re designed to be lightweight and pack small.
A four-season tent, on the other hand, can withstand high force winds and heavy snowfall. This is achieved by having stronger tent poles and more durable fabric.
Four-season tents also have less mesh (to increase warm) but have strategically placed vents to allow for airflow and moisture management.
A four-season tent is a bit of a misnomer because you wouldn’t use it in the late spring, summer or early autumn. You also don’t always need a four-season tent in the winter.
For example, in most of Ontario, a high-quality three-season tent is sufficient for the winter. This is because there typically isn’t high wind or extremely heavy snowfall.
If you’re camping in the mountains, however, you definitely need a winter tent.
Vent your tent. Although this may seem counterintuitive, you want to maintain some airflow through your tent, especially when winter camping. This is because your breath is warm and contains moisture. When the warm moisture hits the cold tent walls, it condenses. If it’s cold enough, this condensation will freeze.
Wear synthetic or wool clothing
There is a stupid myth that you sleep warmest when you’re naked. This is simply not true. You should pack a pair of clothing to be worn in your sleeping bag, and only in your sleeping bag. Keep this clothing as dry and clean as possible.
Start with a pair of base layers (T-shirt / long sleeve shirt and pants). They should be made of a synthetic material or wool. I prefer merino wool personally.
Should you sleep in cotton?
A long time ago, I used to sleep in a cotton t-shirt and pyjamas pants. Since I never leave my tent in my sleep clothing I thought this one fine. But on one trip I wasn’t feeling well and was sweating a lot in my sleep. This made my sleep clothing wet and they never totally dried. Now, this was a summer trip and not a big deal, but had it been colder I would have been really uncomfortable.
Keep your extremities warm. Wear a pair of wool socks at night (not cotton). When it’s chilly, wear a wool hat as well. I occasionally wear gloves to bed, but only when it’s been really cold.
Even if you don’t need to wear them to bed, I definitely suggest bringing gloves on spring / autumn trips. I don’t know about you, but when my hands get cold I lose a ton of dexterity. Trying to cook or set up camp in the rain or wind becomes nearly impossible. >>These are the mittens I use. They’re warm, water-resistant and super inexpensive.
Get a merino wool buff: I got one ahead of two October camping trips this year and really liked it. It kept my head warm during the day when I didn’t want to wear a wool hat, and I could pull it down around my neck when I got warm. At night, I used it around my neck for additional warmth. >>Check it out here.
Keep other clothing in your sleeping bag with you
Rather than wearing ALL your clothing, just wear your base layers and keep the rest of your clothes in your sleeping bag with you.
Your sleeping bag keeps you warm by trapping your body heat inside it and warming up the air around you. So if your sleeping bag has a lot of extra space inside it, your body has to heat up more air. By keeping your extra clothing inside your sleeping bag you’re reducing the amount of air your body needs to heat up, and providing additional insulation (if the clothing is fleece or down).
I find my shoulders and chest get particularly cold, so I sometimes sleep with my down jacket across my chest. My torso and arms don’t get cold, meaning I don’t want to actually wear the jacket. So I find this to be perfect.
How to Stay Warm Camping – Additional Tips
Consume high-fat snacks. Your body actually burns a ton of calories when keeping itself warm, so ensure you’re eating often. Have a snack high in fat before bed, as this will burn slowly and give you sustained energy.
Use a liquid fuel stove. If you’re winter camping, you should bring a liquid fuel stove rather than a compressed gas stove. When the temperature drops, compressed gas stoves can be finicky and unreliable.
Bring hand warmers. You know those little hand warmers you can find at ski chalets? Pack some of those in your bag or first aid kit.
Stay hydrated. Dehydration causes unnecessary strain on your body, so drink plenty of water. (And if you have to pee in the middle of the night, don’t hold it in. It takes a lot of energy to keep pee warm.)
Regardless of what season you’re camping in, hypothermia is possible. Frostbite is really only common in the winter or in high alpine environments. It’s important that if you go into the wilderness, you know how to prevent, identify and treat both hypothermia and frostbite.
The easiest way to do this is by taking a wilderness first aid class. I’ve outlined some of the symptoms and treatments below. But although I’ve taken a lot of classes myself, I’m not an instructor. >>Read more about classes here.
Know the symptoms and treatment of hypothermia
Symptoms of Hypothermia
Here are the symptoms for hypothermia (source: Mayo Clinic):
- Shivering, though this may stop as body temperature drops.
- Slurred speech or mumbling.
- Slow, shallow breathing.
- Weak pulse.
- Clumsiness or lack of coordination.
- Drowsiness or very low energy.
- Confusion or memory loss.
- Loss of consciousness.
Once someone stops shivering or has an altered mental state (confusion, lethargy, may appear drunk), hypothermia has advanced from mild to moderate / severe and you should get help ASAP.
Check out this post by the Wild Med Center. It is an excellent resource for treating hypothermia in the field.
Assess how severe the hypothermia is. Are they alert or responsive? If so, have them sit on a backpack against something (like a tree), and preferably sit on a sleeping pad or jacket. The ground is cold, so try to keep them off of it.
Begin rewarming. Remove any wet clothing. Add insulating layers, like a fleece sweater, down jacket or sleeping bag. You can also sit with the person and use your body heat to heat them faster.
Meanwhile, someone in the group can prepare a fire (if possible) or get a stove going. If you can build a fire, have the patient sit near (but not too near) the fire to slowly warm-up.
However, if you can only use the stove, warm clean water to give to the patient. If they are alert and able to swallow, have them drink the warm water. Don’t have them drink anything alcoholic or caffeinated. And serve warm water, not hot water – hot water will shock the body.
If it is just the two of you, prioritize staying with the patient and warming them up with your body heat until they are shivering again.
If the patient is alert and can swallow, keep them hydrated and replace electrolytes. Also, feed them simple sugars to replace the calories lost from shivering.
If rewarming the patient is not possible, you need to evacuate the patient.
I recommend taking a wilderness first aid class. You can read about the different classes here.
Don’t be afraid to call it quits
Check the weather forecast ahead of time. How cold will it be? What’s the perception supposed to be? If a huge snowstorm is coming, and you don’t have the right gear and experience, there is no shame in cancelling.
Likewise, if you’re out on trip and something happens (i.e. all your gear gets wet, someone can’t get warm), don’t be afraid to pack out early. There are no prizes for sticking it out when it is unsafe to do so.
Finally, if someone is suffering from moderate or severe hypothermia, do not hesitate in getting them medical assistance.
Carry an emergency locator beacon
Ideally, it won’t come to this, but there could be a situation where you need to get off the trail ASAP. Maybe someone fell through ice or is showing signs of moderate hypothermia.
Whatever it is, if you need immediate attention don’t rely on your cell phone. You may not always have service and the cold is notorious for draining phone batteries.
How to Stay Warm Camping – Final Thoughts
I hope these tips help you keep warm on your next camping trip! As long as you stay dry, wear insulation and prevent heat loss to the ground and your surroundings, you should be fine! Let me know if there are additional tips you think should be added!