February 04, 2021 9 min read

Camping during winter months can be an exhilarating and peaceful experience. However, it can quickly turn uncomfortable or even dangerous if your body temperature drops too low. That’s why it’s so important to be prepared for cold weather camping and know how to stay warm in a tent.  

To make sure you’re properly outfitted for a winter backpacking or camping trip and you know what to expect when you’re out there, here are 15 expert tips to keep you cozy and safe—plus a reminder of some essential cold weather gear you’ll want to add to your checklist.  

1. Start Off Prepared by Packing Carefully

If you’re planning an outdoor adventure in the wintertime, it’s alarmingly easy to underprepare for the cold. Especially if you’re new to cold weather camping. You may think you’ve packed more than enough clothes and materials to weather any storm only to find yourself shivering through the night. There’s no such thing as over preparing, but you also don’t want to create too much excess weight to carry. 

Be thoughtful and make sure you know how to pack for a long trip by bringing clothes that will keep you warm, no matter how low the temperature drops. Some essential clothing choices are the following:  

  • Loose-fitting clothes (so you don’t restrict blood flow to the extremities) 
  • Synthetic fabrics and wool (sweaters, blankets, socks, hats, etc.) 
  • Moisture-wicking shirts, gloves, and socks (this will prevent perspiration from building inside your clothes) 

More is not always better. You need the necessary ventilation to prevent your clothes from becoming wet due to perspiration. It’s a general rule that backpackers and hikers never wear cotton, because cotton does not wick moisture. Instead, it acts like a sponge, soaking it all up. When you are out on a wintery trail, you’ll have limited opportunities to dry your clothes, so anything cotton could cause you to lose body heat.

2. Stay up to Date on Incoming Weather and Conditions 

You want to make sure that you have a way to stay informed about upcoming weather, trail conditions, and potential hazards. Apps like Alltrails are helpful, but you really should take prep in this area one step further. If you’re winter camping, establishing a relationship with ranger stations near your destination is your best course of action. 

It takes much more preparation and planning than you'd think to really stay warm camping in a tent. Rangers will ensure you are aware of all potential hazards such as avalanches, mudslides, white-outs, and high winds. 

3. Choose the Right Campsite 

You can set yourself up for a warm night by first choosing your camping location carefully. Make sure you find protection from the elements by picking a spot that is flat, smooth, and has a bit of overhead cover to keep you out of the wind. 

Choosing a protected, mid-elevation camping spot is a difference-maker. Get all the snow out of the way as well. If you’re dealing with an abundance of it, you can even build a snow wall next to your tent to help act as a windbreaker. 

The goal of a camping trip shouldn't be to freeze in your tent. By ensuring you have the perfect location for your campsite, you'll limit your exposure to cold air and, ultimately, have an easier time keeping warm.

Essential Gear: Backpacking Tent 

When backpacking, you’re essentially carrying your home on your back. This is a cumbersome task without the right tent. One of the keys to staying warm camping in a tent is ensuring that you don’t overwork yourself while you hike. However, you also need to make sure that your tent is durable and insulated enough to keep you warm. 

Go with a backpacking tent that offers great capacity, lightweight design, and durable anchors to ensure that you’re not up all night fixing your tent. 

tent in snow

4. Fluff Your Sleeping Bag 

Over time, your sleeping bag will start to flatten out, reducing the performance of the insulation. This can make your sleeping bag feel cold even in warmer weather. Make a habit of fluffing your sleeping bag before you get into it to ensure that the insulation is nice and plush. 

Essential Gear: Ultralight Down Sleeping Bag 

A down sleeping bag is the best way to stay warm when the elements are stacked against you. Many are rated for use in temperatures as low as 15 degrees Fahrenheit, so you’ll want to make sure to get one that will accommodate the temperatures you plan on camping in. 

If you plan on hiking, an important feature to look for in a sleeping bag is compressibility. You need a sleeping bag that can be compressed to a small size without losing insulation. Down is great for warming, it’s comfortable, and it also offers great compression if you’re backpacking. 

5. Have an Insulated Hot Water Bottle Handy 

Bring an insulated hot water bottle with you and put it in your sleeping bag at night to act as a makeshift heater. Make sure you place it near your core, inner thigh, or neck. These are the most important parts of your body to keep warm. 

You can use a backpacking stove to make hot water from snow or ice—this is a great idea if you’re running low on water. This strategy paired with your body heat should supply enough heat to get you through the night. 

Essential Gear: High-Quality Sleeping Pad 

The most important insulation goes on the bottom of the tent. A sleeping pad is a critically important piece of equipment that will prevent you from shivering in the middle of the night. Make sure you know the R-Value of your sleeping pad. This is a rating that describes how well insulated something is, usually on a scale of 1-5. A 1 rating is the lowest (minimally insulated) and 5 is the highest (heavily insulated).

Gone are the days of sleeping with giant inflatables. Make sure the sleeping pad you choose can shrink down; this will make it easier to travel. Choosing the right pad is just as important as your sleeping bag; both will help ensure that the cold air stays away from your body throughout your whole camping trip.

6. Get Cozy with Friends If You Can 

The goal is to reduce as much ambient space as possible, and doing this is easy when you have multiple people in the tent with you. Cozy up close by pushing your sleeping pads against each other. Place as much of your gear around the perimeter of the tent to insulate it, and better yet, if you have an emergency blanket, place that on the interior ceiling to limit the impact of cold wind. 

Essential Gear: Mylar Blankets 

Mylar, also referred to as emergency blankets, offer great insulation when your tent simply isn’t cutting it. You can place these on the inside ceiling of your tent and they’ll reflect all your body heat back down into the space.

Think of it like making a baked potato. We wrap the potato in foil because we want the heat to steam the potato rather than “bake” it, per se. We're essentially trying to create as much radiant heat inside the tent as possible. Just make sure there is some type of ventilation so you don’t accumulate moisture. 

tent in snow

7. Sleep in Shifts 

If the wind is whipping and your tent keeps losing its anchors, shift sleeping can help. Even if you set up your camp perfectly, high winds can still damage your rigging, and if you wait too long, it will be more difficult to repair. 

By sleeping in shifts and checking on the rigging frequently, you can ensure your campsite is staying intact without creating extra work and while limiting the overall time you need to spend outside the tent. 

Essential Gear: Tent Heater 

One of the most obvious ways to keep warm is with a tent heater. While not always practical on a trip, especially if you are packing light, they do make a great emergency option. You want to use these sparingly and make sure that you get one that is clean burning. It’s best to turn it on as you’re settling in for the night and then shut it off when you’re ready to go to bed. 

8. Moisture Is Your Enemy 

You'll want to watch out for these three ways moisture and condensation are created in the tent: 

  • Spills. Hydration is important but the last thing you want to do when trying to stay warm while camping in a tent is spill something inside it and risk having wet clothes, hats, or gloves. Using a tightly-sealed container for all liquids is essential. Also, make sure you have ample light to see what you’re doing. 
  • Your own breath.You might not think about your own moisture, but you create a lot of it. Your breath will get trapped inside your sleeping bag while you sleep, so you need to have ventilation in there. It’s recommended that you leave a space for your mouth and nose to breathe outside of your sleeping bag, letting your wet air exit.
  • Frost outside the tent. Any frost on the outside of your tent may start to create condensation inside your tent. Think of what happens on a glass door when it’s cold outside but warm inside the house. The condensation accumulates on the inside. As soon as you wake up, brush all frost off the outside of the tent to prevent this. 

9. When Duty Calls, Answer

If you need to go to the bathroom, go. If it’s absolutely too cold and risky to go outside your tent to relieve yourself, no problem. You can repurpose your hot water bottle as a pee bottle and then use it to keep warm. 

Pee funnels are a useful tool for women, but it’s best to try it out before hitting the trail. Not only do you not want pee in your tent, but you also don’t want anything dampening your dry clothes. 

10. Cover Up Your Feet and Head 

Always remember that heat escapes through your feet and head, so it’s essential that you keep these areas warm. Having a high-quality pair of hiking socks and a nice hat will provide you with the necessary insulation where it matters most. 

Keep a pair of dedicated sleeping socks and a hat in your tent. When you go to sleep, you don’t want to wear the same gear you wore out. They might be sweaty or wet from snow, and once you stop moving that moisture will start to cool your body temperature, leading to a miserable rest. 

Essential Gear: Hand and Foot Warmers 

While this might only provide a temporary solution, hand warmers are a nice way to keep your hands and feet warm when you’ve run out of options. Use these sparingly, however, because they can run out quickly, and you never know when you’ll need them the most. 

Hand warmers are also a nice trick to keep your core warm at night when you’re sleeping. You can throw one in your sleeping bag with you and hold it up against your chest for a little extra heat boost. 

boots in snow

11. Double Up on the Calories 

Backpacking takes a lot of energy, so it’s extra important to keep up your caloric intake and to eat foods that are rich in fat and protein. The fat will keep you warm, and the protein will keep your energy level high. 

The body metabolizes protein first so it’ll act as a quick burst of energy if you’re close to camp and need something to help you make it. Fat takes longer to metabolize so it will keep you feeling full longer. 

12. Change Frequently

This is something that’s easily forgotten, but it can really help you feel more comfortable. The last thing you want to think about is stripping down when it’s cold, but you never want to sleep in sweaty clothes. 

If you feel like you’re sweaty or wet, change your clothes. Don’t question it and don’t get lazy, but do make sure you stay on top of your clothes inventory. Running out of dry clothes will make for a rough, and possibly dangerous, end to your trip.

13. Store Clothes Properly 

This tip goes hand-in-hand with the previous one. When you get into your tent for the night, put your next day’s outfit inside your sleeping bag with you. Not only will this keep your clothes warm, but it’ll also act as additional insulation to keep you warm throughout the night.

Also, as you accumulate wet clothes, do not ball them up. They’ll retain moisture this way and become stiff from the cold. Instead, lay them out, hang them up, or let them dry outside if you’re lucky enough to get any sun. 

14. Keep Your Boot Liners in Your Sleeping Bag 

Another great habit to get into is putting your boot liners inside your sleeping bag. We’ve all experienced trying to force on our frozen boots in the morning. Stashing the boot liners in your sleeping bag will keep them warm so you can conserve as much energy as possible in the early moments of your day. 

15. Know the Warning Signs 

Probably the most important bit of information is to know when something is wrong. Make sure you can identify the symptoms of hypothermia and frostbite. No one is immune to cold weather, and even after following all the steps, you are still at risk when you’re out in the severe cold. 

Here are some of the most common symptoms of hypothermia: 

  • Shivering 
  • Poor coordination
  • Slurred speech 
  • Low energy 
  • Slow or shallow breathing 
  • Weak pulse 

Make sure you get immediate help for any of these symptoms because time is an important factor in saving your life if you are suffering from hypothermia. 

How to Stay Warm in a Tent: Final Thoughts

Learning how to stay warm while camping in a tent is essential for cold weather excursions. Remember, just because the weather is cold doesn’t mean you need to be cold. You can stay warm and cozy inside your tent with the right equipment and the right planning. These tips, tricks, and gear recommendations will help you survive and thrive on your next trip no matter what Mother Nature throws at you. 

Are you a cold weather camper? If so, what’s your one “super-secret” tip to stay warm on the trail? Let us know in the comments! 

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