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How To Stay Warm in a Tent (19 Expert Tips)

There are few things worse than spending a night shivering in your tent. When it’s so cold you can’t sleep, all you can think about is the sun breaking over the mountains in the morning and getting moving again.

However, there’s no need to freeze overnight even in the coldest conditions. With a little preparation and a few tricks, anyone can keep warm while camping and get a good night’s sleep in the backcountry. In this guide, I’ll share 19 tips based on my own experience to teach you how to stay warm in a tent.

Before You Go

The key to being warm in the mountains is good preparation. Here’s how to get ready for a chilly camping trip.

1. Bring the Right Sleeping Bag

Bringing the right sleeping bag is perhaps the single most important thing you can do to stay warm while camping.

Treat sleeping bag temperature ratings as an absolute minimum for comfort and err on the side of a warmer sleeping bag. If it’s 20 degrees outside, you’ll be much more comfortable in a 0-degree bag than in a 20-degree bag.

2. Store Your Sleeping Bag in a Dry Sack

One of the worst things that can happen during a cold trip is that your sleeping bag gets wet. Down sleeping bags lose almost all their insulating properties when wet. Synthetic sleeping bags will still insulate when wet, but not nearly as well.

I recommend storing your sleeping bag on its own in a waterproof compression sack. If it’s on its own, you won’t have to open the sack until you’re safely inside your tent at camp.

3. Bring the Right Sleeping Pad

After a sleeping bag, having the right pad is the second-most important part of staying warm in cold weather. You’d be amazed at how much body heat you can lose to cold ground, and how quickly.

Manufacturers measure the degree of insulation that sleeping pads provide with an “R-value.” If you’re camping on snow, I recommend a pad with an R-value of at least 5, and ideally 6-8.

In the spring and fall, you can usually get away with a lighter pad with an R-value of 3-4. You can also increase the effective R-rating of your sleeping pad by adding a lightweight foam pad underneath it.

4. Pack Long Underwear

Thermal leggings and shirts can make a big difference in how warm you’ll be overnight. They do a great job of trapping body heat, plus they give you dry clothes to change into at camp after a day of hiking or climbing.

If you’re not on a tight budget, I highly recommend investing in a pair of Primaloft or down pants to wear at night. Having used down pants for years now, I’d never go winter camping again without them.

5. Consider a Sleeping Bag Liner

If your sleeping bag’s temperature rating is right on the edge of being not warm enough, you can get extra warmth by packing a sleeping bag liner. These effectively add 10-20 degrees to your sleeping bag’s temperature rating.

They’re also great at wicking moisture from your body, which can slowly dampen your sleeping bag over the course of a night. So, a liner is worth considering even if you think your sleeping bag will be warm enough on its own.

6. Add an Emergency Bivy

Another way to make your sleeping setup warmer is to put your sleeping bag and pad inside of an emergency bivy sack. An emergency bivy is basically a mylar envelope. It doesn’t weigh much and doesn't cost much, but you might be surprised at how effectively it traps heat.

However, I wouldn’t recommend using an e-bivy if it’s humid outside. The downside of these bivy sacks is that they don’t ventilate well, so they can trap in condensation and leave your sleeping bag damp.

7. Pack Hand Warmers

I almost always carry hand warmers with me when winter camping. They’re great for emergency situations and they can be used to provide a little extra heat in key places like around your head if you find yourself shivering overnight.

Before You Sleep

Practicing a few simple tricks before you climb into your sleeping bag can make a big difference in how warm you are.

8. Pick a Good Campsite

Choosing the right campsite can make a big difference in the overnight temperature in your tent. A windy camp right at a pass is likely to feel a lot colder than a camp on a slightly lower bench that’s sheltered from the wind.

If you’re camping on snow, you can also build your own wind shelter. Use an avalanche shovel to pack snow into blocks and build a wall on the windward side of your tent. Just make sure to do a good job with construction or else the wall could collapse into your tent in the middle of the night!

9. Ventilate Your Tent

Most mountaineering tents are designed with ventilation zippers that can allow airflow into your tent. While this does mean you’ll swap out warm tent air for cold outdoor air throughout the night, it also prevents condensation from building up inside your tent. That condensation can drip down onto your sleeping bag and get you wet, so it’s important to keep the tent at least a little ventilated.

10. Fluff Your Sleeping Bag

Sleeping bags need to be filled with air in order to trap heat effectively. If your bag has been in a compression sack all day, it’s going to need some time to fully decompress. Once your tent is set up, lay out your bag on top of your pad so that it’s fully lofted by the time you’re ready for bed.

11. Eat a Big Dinner

Food is the fuel that your body burns to keep you warm overnight. It’s always a good idea to eat a big dinner and replenish calories after a long day in the mountains, but it’s especially important on cold nights.

I’ve found that fatty foods tend to keep me warmer, so I often add butter or olive oil to my dinner when I’m winter camping. I also like to have an after-dinner cup of hot chocolate, which leaves me with a warm feeling and adds some extra calories before bed.

12. Put Hot Water in Your Sleeping Bag

One of my favorite cold weather camping tricks is to heat up water shortly before bedtime and put it in a Nalgene bottle. Then I stick that Nalgene bottle in my sleeping bag, where it can radiate heat and pre-warm the bag. Once I climb into my bag, I can put the warm bottle around my feet or stomach.

13. Use the Bathroom before Bed

Make sure you pee before going to bed. Not only because getting up to pee in the middle of the night is cold and unpleasant, but also because storing pee overnight takes a lot of energy. Your body has to keep that liquid at 98.6 degrees, which sucks away body heat that could otherwise be keeping you warm.

14. Do Jumping Jacks

One last thing you can do before climbing into your sleeping bag is to do a few jumping jacks or push-ups. The goal here is to get your blood pumping so you feel warm already when you climb into bed.

In Your Sleeping Bag

Once you’re comfortably in your sleeping bag, there are a few more things you can do to make sure the heat you’ve built up lasts all night long.

15. Keep Your Head Covered

Your head and neck have a lot of surface area, which means they’re areas where you can lose a surprising amount of body heat. You’ll stay a lot warmer overnight if you keep your head covered.

That means using your sleeping bag’s hood and keeping your sleeping bag fully zipped up. On really cold nights when you’re wearing your down jacket inside your sleeping bag, you can also put on your jacket’s hood. Wearing a thermal beanie or buff can also help you conserve heat. 

16. Be Careful with Wet Clothes

One of the best ways to dry out damp layers like socks and shirts is to put them in your sleeping bag overnight. But be careful doing this, as it can backfire and leave you shivering.

I’ve found that when clothes are more than just a little damp, they end up soaking your sleeping bag rather than actually drying out. This is especially true if you’re camping in humid conditions, when moisture that gets into your sleeping bag doesn’t have anywhere to go.

When in doubt, I’d rather put on wet clothes in the morning—unappealing as that may be—than risk getting my sleeping bag wet.

17. Don’t Wait to Pee

If you do have to pee overnight, it’s better to bite the bullet and go right away than to wait hours and hope you can make it until morning. Like I said earlier, your body uses a lot of energy to keep pee heated. Plus, I’ve never been able to sleep particularly well when I have to go.

I usually leave the tent to pee, even if that means slipping on cold boots for a few minutes. However, you could keep a pee bottle next to you or even pee straight into your tent’s vestibule if it’s really frigid out.

18. Ventilate before You Sweat

If you get too warm during the night, unzip your sleeping bag a bit or remove a layer. If you start sweating, that moisture will soak into your clothes and can leave you colder in the middle of the night. 

19. Get Close to Your Partners

On the coldest nights, there’s one more way to stay warm: snuggling up next to your climbing partners. If you and your partner have sleeping bags with zippers facing each other, you can actually zip the two bags together to make a double-wide sleeping bag. Sharing body heat is an extremely effective way to keep warm.

Mistakes to Avoid on Cold Nights

In addition to the tips and tricks above, there are a few easy mistakes to avoid when trying to keep warm.

Don’t Drink Alcohol

Having a drink around camp before bed will make you feel warmer, but alcohol actually lowers your body temperature. If you’re worried about sleeping warm enough overnight, drinking alcohol isn’t a great idea.

Never Run a Heater at Night

Most mountaineers and backpackers aren’t carrying a propane tent heater. But if you get any ideas about lighting a stove inside your tent to warm up the air, don’t. Running any sort of stove or tent heater overnight can be extremely dangerous since these heat sources produce carbon monoxide.

Summary

With good preparation and a few simple tricks, you can be perfectly warm overnight while camping even in the coldest temperatures. Above all else, make sure you bring the right sleeping bag, a sturdy sleeping pad, and do everything you can to keep your overnight gear dry.

I live in Bellingham, Washington, at the base of the wild North Cascades. Over the last ten years, I've explored much of the region's steep terrain and endless layers of ridges and peaks, both on foot and on skis, often linking far-flung ridges together to push deeper into the range.

*The information on this site is based on research and first-hand experience but should not be treated as medical advice. Before beginning any new activity, we recommend consulting with a physician, nutritionist or other relevant professional healthcare provider.