You don’t have to call time on camping the moment the sun sets on Labor Day. In fact, camping in fall, winter, or early spring has its own particular magic. The color palette of the outdoors changes, the trails are quieter, and you can immerse yourself in the season of hot chocolate, cozy clothes, and campfires.
The downside — of course — is the plummeting temperatures. Set out on a cooler weather camping trip with your lightweight summer gear and you’re on a highway to hypothermia.
To learn how to stay warm in a tent in any season, check out our round-up of top tips for cold nights:
- Start out right by pitching your tent in a sheltered spot, where it wont get battered by wind and rain.
- Stay warm by investing in a quality winter sleeping bag and an insulated sleeping pad with a high “R value.”
- Don’t get into bed cold. Make sure you go to bed warm and well fed.
- Consider using a wood stove or electric/propane heater to warm the tent.
- Stay toasty in bed by using hot water bottles — or cuddle up to share body heat with your nearest and dearest (human or canine).
Camp in the Right Place
The journey to warmth and a good night’s sleep begins before you even hammer your first tent peg into the cold earth.
When you’re picking a campsite, try and find a sheltered spot where the icy wind won’t be battering you all night. And remember to allow for other winter weather conditions as well as the cold — so avoid tall trees if high winds are forecast, and don’t camp in a hollow if it’s going to pour with rain.
If you’re on a commercial campsite, it might not be a bad idea to position yourself reasonably close to the bathrooms and other amenities.
Invest in a Good Sleeping System
Winter camping adventures mean long dark nights snuggled up in bed — and this can be either the most deliciously comfortable or downright miserable element of your trip, depending on whether or not you’re warm enough.
When it comes to how to stay warm in a tent, the single most important thing is to get the right sleeping bag. It’s not always easy to work out whether a bag will be warm enough for winter conditions, but there are a couple different rating systems that can help.
The simpler one is the “season” system. You’ll find that pretty much all sleeping bags market themselves vaguely as either summer or “three-season” bags, but four-season ones do exist, and it’s those that stand the best chance of keeping you toasty.
The problem with “season” ratings is that winter exists on a sliding scale between, say, Florida and Alaska. A better way of judging a sleeping bag’s insulating qualities is to use the “comfort” rating, which is based on actual temperatures.
Most decent sleeping bags will indicate a temperature range within which they’re considered comfortable for most people. There will also be a wider temperature range described as “extreme” — in which the sleeping bag will keep you alive but not happy.
However, even these temperature ranges are only a rough guide, since people feel cold differently. If you know you tend to sleep cold, it’s worth getting a sleeping bag that’s a bit warmer than you need.
Often, the cold that creeps into your marrow on a camping trip actually gets in from underneath you, and the way to prevent this is with a good quality sleeping pad.
The temptation is to bring the biggest, squishiest, flumpiest-looking air mattress you can find, but oddly enough these actually aren’t great for winter — since you’re essentially lying on a deep cushion of cold air into which your body loses heat.
What’s most important for a good night’s sleep in the great outdoors is insulation between yourself and the tent floor.
A simple closed-cell foam mat will help you stay warm on the cold ground, but it won’t offer much in the way of cushioning, so for a better mix of warmth and comfort you might want to look into a self-inflating pad or an insulated air mattress.
There are a bewildering number of options on the market, but a useful guide is to look in the tech specs for the “R rating” or “R value.” This is a measure of thermal resistance, and a higher rating is better. Decent mid-range sleeping pads might have an R value of 2 or 3, going all the way up to 8 or more for the priciest ones.
To try and translate this roughly across into seasonal ranges, an R value above a 2 is good for late spring to early fall, 4+ should be fine for most cold weather camping, and more than 6 belongs on the back of a Ski-Doo.
Upgrading Your Existing Equipment
Keeping warm in a tent doesn’t have to mean dropping megabucks on a heap of new camping gear. If you’ve already got a decent sleeping bag that just isn’t quite up to cold nights, you can stretch the comfort rating a bit by using a fleece sleeping bag liner.
Similarly, you can upgrade your sleeping pad by adding a cheap foam mat either underneath or on top. And you’re best off ignoring any “hacks” involving Mylar blankets.
Go to Bed Warm
You’re onto a loser if your teeth are already chattering before you’ve even climbed into your sleeping bag for the night. Set yourself up for success with plenty of food, drink, and warm clothes.
Camping can involve a fair bit of sitting around while you wait for food to cook, water to boil, or whatever else — and it’s easy to let your core body temperature drop without realizing.
Throw on an extra layer as soon as you reach camp, and try to change out of any wet clothes ASAP.
When it comes to dressing for bed on a cold night, there are two schools of thought. Some campers swear by climbing into bed without a stitch on, arguing that the insulation in your sleeping bag will trap warm air most effectively if you’re totally naked.
Most people, however, prefer to wear a little more on frosty nights. There’s no need to go overboard on the layers, but think long johns, a base layer, and bed socks, plus a warm hat.
Wearing a scarf or neck gaiter will also help keep your face warm without having to stick your face in your sleeping bag — which causes condensation.
Some outdoor blogs and forums suggest avoiding cotton pyjamas on the principle that they don’t wick moisture away from your skin very well — but we’ve worn cotton plenty in the outdoors and never had a problem. Just to go with whatever you find most comfortable.
A popular option is merino wool, thanks to the fact that it’s insulating, wicking and odor-resistant.
For an easier time in the morning, you can also pop tomorrow’s clothes inside your sleeping bag with you.
Think of your body as a generator. It won’t keep on kicking out heat all night unless you’ve sloshed plenty of fuel into the tank.
Nutrition in the outdoors is a whole other topic, but the essence of it is that you need to get plenty of calories down the hatch — especially if you’ve been doing strenuous exercise or carrying a heavy pack.
One of the curious things about being outdoors in winter is how quickly and easily you can get dehydrated. You’ll notice that when you sneak off to make “yellow snow,” the snow is often much yellower than it should be.
There are a few different reasons for this, but one is that we just don’t feel as thirsty in cold weather — so we don’t hydrate enough.
Make sure you get plenty of fluids — especially if you’re doing intense exercise like hiking or skiing — and go to bed well hydrated. It’s also a good idea to warm up with a hot drink.
And while we’re on the subject of hydration…
Consider Bathroom Trips
Don’t forget to take a trip to the bathroom before you crawl into your sleeping bag for the night. With luck, it might save you getting up later.
If nature does call during the hours of darkness, the temptation is to try and hold it until morning — but this is a surefire way to make an already long winter night stretch out into eternity. Bite the bullet, do what needs to be done, and settle down to sleep again.
There’s also a bit of old-timey back-country wisdom that you should keep a bottle to pee in rather than letting your body lose heat by going outside. All very well in theory, but in practice, achieving this in the gloomy confines of a one-man tent in the pitch-black is rather more awkward than it sounds.
It only takes one disaster with a sleeping bag and a half liter of human urine to realize that a quick dash into the open air is altogether easier and safer.
Heat the Tent
Being in a heated tent in the depths of winter is a joy. It’s not always achievable — especially for backpackers — but if you can manage it then it’s an absolute game-changer for keeping warm in a tent.
In most cases, the best way to heat a tent on cold nights is to use a portable wood-burning camp stove in a tent that’s been designed to accommodate it. Some of these stoves can be incredibly light, making “hot-tenting” a viable option for backpackers as well as car campers.
There’s a big caveat though. Burning carbon-based fuels in confined spaces can produce dangerous levels of carbon monoxide gas — the “silent killer” that’s caused countless tragedies over the years.
That’s not to say a hot tent is unsafe, but you need to take precautions. The stove should be vented, the area needs to be adequately ventilated, and it’s a smart idea to bring a portable carbon monoxide detector.
And, above all, let the fire die down before you fall asleep.
Obviously, electric hook-ups are few and far between if you’re backpacking in the mountains. But if you’re car camping on commercial campsites, it might just be possible to source some juice for a portable electric heater.
However, remember that any heat source comes with risks — especially in the enclosed space of a tent. In the case of electric heaters, the main hazards are burns and fire, but there’s also the added consideration that moisture and electricity aren’t good bedfellows.
In general, an electric heater should be safer than a wood or propane one, but it’s still a good idea to switch it off when you start falling asleep.
If you’re car camping but the site doesn’t have an electric supply, you could try a propane heater. Certain models are designed specifically for camping, and have important safety features that will cause them to shut off if they get knocked over or if the ambient oxygen level drops too low.
This latter is particularly crucial because — like wood burners — propane heaters can emit toxic carbon monoxide gas if there’s not enough oxygen in the air. For this reason, you’ll need to take all the precautions mentioned above, and you should never leave the heater burning after lights-out.
While they’re reasonably safe if you follow the rules, the more significant downsides to propane stoves are that they’re relatively heavy and fuel-hungry.
If heating the whole tent isn’t practical, you can always just focus on boosting your own body heat.
Hot Water Bottles
These are an old favorite — and for good reason. Car campers can enjoy the nostalgic feel and smell of an old-school rubber bottle, and even lightweight backpackers can improvise one by filling a standard drinks bottle with warm water and slipping it into their sleeping bag.
If you’re going for the second option, remember that most drinking bottles are only really designed to take cold liquids, so if the water’s too hot then the steam pressure will cause them to leak. Even if you’re using a traditional hot water bottle, you should still avoid boiling water, since the last thing you want on a camping trip is scalds or steam burns.
Nothing says true love like allowing your partner to warm their ice-block feet on your own. Sharing body heat is a great way to stay warm in cold weather, and if you’re camping as a couple then it’s definitely worth considering a double sleeping bag and air pad (or cot) rather than two singles.
It can also help if you use a tent that’s not too much bigger than you need. We’re not suggesting you cram yourselves into a small tent like sardines, but five people in a six-man tent will tend to sleep a lot warmer than one person on their own in the same space.
Just remember that more people will produce more condensation, so you’ll need to leave some ventilation flaps open.
Man’s Best Friend
Where even the most devoted partner may shudder at the thought of letting your clammy self back into bed after a 2am trip to the bathroom, a faithful outdoor dog will always be happy to snuggle up in a tent.
For some reason, dogs seem to sleep a bit warmer than humans, and your canine adventure buddy can make an excellent everlasting hot water bottle.
The only downside is that you may start to pick up the distinctive fragrance of a dog that’s been bashing through mud and water for days on end. You might not notice it on yourself after a while, but you can be sure everyone else will.
How Do I Keep My Tent From Getting Cold?
You can use a tent heater — such as a wood burning stove or an electric/propane heater — to warm your tent, but it may be easier just to keep yourself warm with a good sleeping bag and a hot water bottle or disposable heat packs.
Can a Tent Keep You Warm in the Winter?
Tents are more about shelter than insulation. To stay warm in winter, there are ways that you can heat the tent itself — for example, with a wood stove or propane heater — but more important is to bring a winter-rated sleeping bag and pad.
How Cold Is Too Cold for Camping?
There’s no lower limit for winter camping, but the colder it gets, the more important it is that you take the right gear. Most important is a winter sleeping bag and an insulated sleeping pad.
How Can I Keep a Tent Warm Without Electricity?
You can warm a tent using a wood stove or a propane heater. In either case, you’ll need to pay attention to the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Take a portable carbon monoxide detector, make sure you keep the tent ventilated, and never leave the heater going when you go to bed.