Winter Camping: How To Stay Warm While Sleeping


Camping, Winter / Monday, August 31st, 2020

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Most people think about camping in the milder seasons, but what about camping in winter? There’s a wonderful beauty found in winter camping, especially in freshly fallen snow where you can combine cross country skiing or snowshoeing.

If you’re winter camping, you need to know how to stay warm and cozy while sleeping. Don’t put yourself at risk of hypothermia or frostbite by being ill-prepared. These tips, tricks, and gear will keep you warm in your tent all night long.

Some of these winter camping tips will be better for you and your personal situation. I’m not partial to hot rocks. They could burn my little girl. When she’s older that will change.

Pick and choose the ones that you find best. When it comes to the gear, I’m partial to starting with a 4-season tent; high R-value, sleeping pad; and down, mummy sleeping bag then adding in the others as needed like the hot water bottle.

Have fun and stay warm!

Related Content: Snowshoeing Safety Tips

Bring The Right Tent

Female camper sipping hot chocolate next to a MSR 4-season tent for cold weather camping.

If you’re camping in winter, you’ll want to invest in a 4-season tent like this MSR Guideline Pro 2 Tent. The common three-season tent is a lightweight tent great for the moderate weather conditions of spring, summer, and fall but they fall short of meeting the demands of winter camping.

The term “4-season tent” is misleading. Four-season tents are not meant for camping in all four seasons. They are designed to withstand extreme winter conditions or higher altitudes above the treeline. Four-season tents are winter tents.

Four-season tents feature:

  • Steeper sides to prevent snow buildup.
  • Sturdier poles and heavier more durable fabric.
  • Larger rainfly to combat freezing winds.
  • Vestibules that provide a transition area for reducing heat loss and storing snow-covered gear.
  • Waterproof materials.
  • Bold colors are also common for easy location by campers in storms or by rescuers in times of emergency.

When buying a tent, you want the smallest tent that meets your needs. Open space on the tent floor will make it harder to heat.

If you’re going to be camping in cold weather but not full-on winter camping, check out the related article, 3-Season Vs 4-Season Tents: Which Is Best For You? You may or may not need to step up to a 4-season tent.

Choose the Right Winter Campsite

Your choice of winter campsite can greatly affect how cold you’ll be.

  • Heat rises and cold sinks. Avoid camping in valleys and dips in the terrain. Higher ground can be warmer but not too high up where cold at higher elevations and wind are an issue.
  • Avoid open areas like fields, hilltops, and mountainsides, these can get windy. Locate near natural features that will block cold winds like trees or boulders. Don’t locate under the trees though. Limbs can fall and the shade they create will prevent the sun from warming your campsite during the day.
  • Don’t camp near bodies of water. Cool microclimates exist around these beautiful elements.

Pack Down The Snow Were Your Tent Will Go

Two winter tents set up in the snow.

Are you camping in the snow? Clear the snow away or pack down the snow before you set up your tent. If you have snowshoes or skis, use those when packing down the snow. It will go faster.

If you don’t pack down the snow, you risk tearing the tent floor when it’s displaced under the pressure of your feet, knees, camping gear, etc. You don’t want moisture getting in your tent through a tear.

Vent Your Tent

It may seem smart to keep your tent vents closed to trap heat inside your tent but the lack of airflow can cause a buildup of moisture from your breath and body heat that can freeze on your tent walls and gear.

You don’t want your tent looking like the inside of an icebox when you wake up.

Opening a few vents on the downwind side of your tent can help reduce condensation buildup without causing too much of a breeze inside.

Remove Frozen Condensation From Your Tent

A yellow tent from The North Face in winter covered in ice and snow.

Whether you vent your tent or not you may end up with frozen condensation on the walls of your tent. You don’t want this raining down on your camping gear when it melts. Protect your gear from moisture by sweeping up the ice with a tent whisk and dustpan. Cover or remove your gear first.

If you’re camping multiple nights, air out your tent after sweeping out the ice you want your tent as dry as possible.

Insulate Your Tent Floor with Carpet

All-weather carpet can be used to insulate your tent floor and prevent moisture from forming. Carpet is cheaper than specifically designed tent mats or carpets and it works quite well. Check with your local hardware store or carpet warehouse.

Portable Propane Heater

Tent-safe heaters like the Mr. Heater Portable Buddy Heater are perfect for heating enclosed spaces like your tent. A 1 lb cylinder of liquid propane will heat a 225 sq. ft. space for up to 6 hours on the lower temperature setting of 4,000 BTUs and 3 hours at its maximum setting of 9,000 BTUs.

If you choose to use a portable propane heater, you must properly ventilate your tent to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. As mentioned earlier, this helps prevent condensation too.

When improperly adjusted, propane heaters will produce carbon monoxide with incomplete gas combustion. A properly functioning propane heater presents little to no danger of carbon monoxide poisoning.

For safety, only use a portable propane heater with an Oxygen Depletion Sensor (ODS) and accidental tip-over safety shutoff that is specifically designed for use in a tent.

It’s best to use propane heaters to warm your tent before you go to sleep and not while you sleep.

Do not use unattended.

I want you to stay safe! Always use extreme caution, specifically follow all manufacturer instructions, and adhere to their warnings. Carbon monoxide poisoning, a fire, or an explosion may occur if used improperly causing property damage, personal injury, or death.

I’m not personally fond of these heaters due to safety concerns. I use a smaller tent with little extra space inside. This makes it impossible to safely position a portable propane heater away from combustible items.

Hot Bottle of Water Between Your Legs

Put a hot bottle of water or an old fashioned hot water bottle in the sleeping bag with you for warmth. The best place to put your hot water bottle is between your legs or on your groin so it warms the blood flowing through your femoral artery. This will keep you warmer than placing the bottle at your feet.

Use caution when using a hot bottle of water, you don’t want to burn yourself. Make sure the lid is on tight and if the bottle is too hot, wrap it in one of your layers.

When using a water bottle, make sure it’s made for hot liquids. Wide-mouth 32 fl. oz. Nalgene bottles are my top choice. The wide-mouth bottle is easier to fill with hot water and the lid is easier to get off when wearing gloves… Use these bottles during the day to keep hydrated and for staying warm at night.

Heated Stones

For warmth, you can heat some stones next to your campfire and place them on the ground next to your tent. Don’t heat them directly in the fire. They will get too hot to handle safely.

If you take hot stones inside your tent, make sure they aren’t too hot. You don’t want to damage your tent or gear. If they are too hot to hold in your hands for an extended period, they are too hot to be placed in your tent unless properly insulated.

Use the Right Temperature Rated Sleeping Bag

A mummy bag with the right temperature rating is the best sleeping bag for staying warm while winter camping. Cinch up that insulated hood and embrace the snug fit. Its design will keep you warmer than a loose-fitting bag.

If you’re cold-natured like my wife, you might want a warmer bag. If you’re warm natured like me, you might want a cooler bag. Pay attention to the weather so know which bag to take. You don’t want to be too hot or too cold.

I once camped in a 0°F, down mummy bag on a snowy, winter night only to wake miserably hot and sweaty. You don’t want to sweat in your sleeping bag. If it gets wet, its insulating properties will decrease.

When picking your mummy bag, pick according to your gender. Mummy bags for women are designed with increased hip room and decreased shoulder room. This improves thermal efficiency.

Whether you’re looking for a mummy bag for men, women, or kids. Check out the shoulder girth, hip girth, and length to make sure you’re getting a bag that fits properly.

A properly fitting mummy bag will give you a little wiggle room. This provides an air pocket that serves as an additional insulating layer. If the bag is too tight, you will lose this benefit. If the bag is too loose, your body will lose too much heat trying to warm the extra space.

Are you camping with your family? They make mummy bags for the kids too!

Bringing the dog? They make dog sleeping bags too! If you’ve never seen one, check out the Ruffwear Highlands Dog Sleeping Bag. There’s even a dog sleeping pad (not included) that integrates into this bag.

Use the Right Sleeping Pad

A good quality SIM (self-inflating mat or mattress) designed for winter camping is a must for warmth and comfort. Without an insulation barrier between you and the ground, a great deal of body heat is lost through conduction to Mother Earth.

Winter sleeping pads have an R-value (temperature rating) of 5.5+ or higher. I recommend the Therm-a-Rest MondoKing 3D Sleeping Pad. It’s high R-value of 8.0 will keep you warm on the coldest nights and the 4-inches of cushion provides great comfort after a long day of outdoor fun. Something I greatly value!

If needed, you can add a closed-cell foam pad underneath your SIM for added insulation. The R-Values of two pads combine to offer greater insulating power.

Share a Sleeping Bag

Cuddling in a cold-weather sleeping bag designed for two can promote warmth. The shared body heat often creates more warmth than sleeping alone.

Don’t sleep with your dog though. Get that pup it’s own sleeping bag. Over time, your dog’s body oils and dirt can damage your sleeping bag’s thermal efficiency.

Fluff Your Sleeping Bag

Fluff your sleeping bag before slipping in for the night. Compressed insulation from being rolled up and stored in a stuff sack loses its effectiveness while the space created between fluffed insulation helps keep you warm.

Make sure the insulation is evenly distributed as well. Shake the bag from the top and then the bottom to redistribute the insulation.

Sleeping Bag Liners

Planning ahead for the weather is never an exact science. Sleeping bag liners provide versatility by improving the temperature rating of your sleeping bag. Various liners provide added warmth from 5 to 25 degrees Fahrenheit.

You don’t have to buy a bunch of sleeping bags for different temperature ratings. This would get super expensive. Get a really good bag and buy liners instead.

Sleeping bag liners also protect your bag from dirt and sweat. Just remove and throw them in the wash when you get home. Far easier than cleaning your sleeping bag.

If you’re looking, Backcountry has an excellent selection of lightweight sleeping bag liners.

Another type liner to consider is a vapor barrier liner. A VBL prevents moisture from your body from reaching your sleeping bag and degrading its insulating properties.

Exercise Before Bed

Camper exercising in the snow before climbing into his sleeping bag for the night.

A great way to stay warm is to do some light exercise before climbing into your sleeping bag. Don’t get sweaty though. A sweaty sleeping bag will reduce its thermal efficiency.

Squats, jumping jacks, pushups, or just walk around a bit. All are good warmups before bed.

Hand and Foot Warmers

Need a little extra heat on those really cold nights in the tent? Throw a couple disposable hand and foot warmers in your sleeping bag with you. The heat from these disposable warmers will last you 5-8 hours.

Rechargeable hand warmers work great as well. I have a couple of these. You’ll have to have a way to recharge them on multinight camping trips. Consider a power bank and solar panel setup. You’ll likely want a way to recharge your phone, GPS, and other gear anyway.

Blankets

If you get really cold in your tent, consider layering up with a blanket on top of your sleeping bag. The type blanket you take will depend on your type of camping. If you’re car camping, you won’t be as concerned about the blanket’s weight but if you’re backpacking into your campsite, weight will be of great concern.

Your blanket should resist moisture like these…

  • Down camping blanket that resists moisture like the Therm-A-Rest Ramble Double Wide Down Blanket with stuff sack.
  • Mylar space blankets are great to take along for warmth especially during emergency situations. The Space All-Weather Blanket is super compact and radiates 80% of your body heat back at you. It has grommets to which are super helpful in certain situations.

Don’t Burrow in Your Sleeping Bag for Warmth

Don’t burrow down in your bag. The moisture from breathing inside your bag can compromise its thermal qualities.

For warmth, wear a scarf, cap, or balaclava and cinch the hood of your sleeping bag around your face.

Wear the Right Clothes to Bed

Get out of those day clothes before getting into your sleeping bag. Wet clothes can diminish your sleeping bag’s insulating properties so can sweat, body oils, and dirt.

It’s important to wear the right clothes for warmth. Make sure you are completely dry (including your hair) and change into a clean base layer and socks that you specifically reserve for sleeping.

Other clothing considerations for staying warm at night while winter camping…

  • Avoid tight-fitting clothes that can restrict blood flow to your hands and feet.
  • Layer up if you are cold.
  • Don’t get overly warm and sweaty. Moisture will reduce your sleeping bag’s thermal efficiency.
  • A great amount of heat can escape through your head. Especially if you aren’t cinched up in your mummy bag. Wear a scarf, cap, or balaclava to keep in heat.
  • Fingered gloves if your hands won’t warm up.
  • Don’t wear cotton. Cotton doesn’t wick moisture like synthetic fabrics, silk, or wool. You don’t want your sleeping bag to get wet from sweat.
  • Put your boot liners and tomorrow’s socks in the foot of your sleeping bag. They not only help with warmth overnight they’ll be warm when you dress in the morning.

Reduce Empty Floor Space in Your Tent

Open floor space in your tent will make it harder to keep warm. Place sleeping pads and sleeping bags close together and spread other gear around the tent floor for insulation... your backpack, clothes, boots, stuff sacks, etc. Just make sure it’s not something that could damage your tent like crampons.

Dry Out Your Sleeping Bag

Moisture will compromise your sleeping bag’s thermal efficiency. If you’re camping more than one night, turn your sleeping bag inside out so it can dry out.

If it’s a sunny day, hang up your bag or drape it over your tent, boulder, picnic table, etc.

Bring a Liquid Fuel Stove

Be sure to bring a liquid fuel stove for cooking your food and heating your water for your hot chocolate, and hot water bottle. Traditional canister stoves often struggle in colder temperatures.

Eat and Drink for Warmth

A calorie is a measure of thermal energy that is generated during the digestive process. To sleep warmer while tent camping in winter, eat high-calorie foods with digestion times to meet your energy needs. Faster burning nutrients will help you warm up fast but for a shorter period of time where slower-burning nutrients provide less heat for a longer time period.

High-carbs with low dietary fiber will heat you up faster than carbs with high fiber. Think candy bar vs sweet potato.

To maintain warmth from digestion for longer periods, turn to high-fiber, high-protein, and high-fat foods. These take longer to digest.

So, if it’s a really cold night, there’s no need to skip on the s’mores. 🙂 Keeping a candy bar or protein bar nearby isn’t a bad idea either.

Warm liquids help too of course so drink plenty of hot chocolate!

Drinking freezing cold water and eating snow will lower your core temperature and steal energy needed for warmth.

Stay Hydrated

You will be colder if you get dehydrated. Dehydration causes the body to decrease blood circulation and store energy. Staying hydrated improves blood circulation which will keep you warmer. Especially your hands and feet.

Did you know the risk of dehydration is greater in cold temperatures? Cold temperatures don’t provide the same reminders to hydrate like sweat does in hot weather.

Drink plenty of water throughout the day. This will reduce your need to replenish fluids before bed. And we all know what a lot of water before bed means… Cold trips outside to relieve your bladder… Unless you use a pee bottle.

Protect Your Water From Freezing

Whether it’s day or night, to remain hydrated, you must protect your water from freezing. First, you have to be able to drink your water. Second, freezing cold water lowers your body temperature and is less efficient for rehydration.

2 Ways to Protect Your Water from Freezing:

  • Water freezes from the top down. When you’re in your tent overnight, flip your water upside down so the opening/spout is on the bottom.
  • Insulate your water. Use an insulated hydration reservoir or wide-mouth 32 fl. oz. Nalgene bottles and insulated bottle holsters. Be sure to get the wide-mouth lids. They are easier to get off when wearing a glove.

Pee When You Need To

Don’t hold your pee. When your bladder is full, your body expends energy to keep your pee warm. This can make you colder in the long run.

When you gotta go, go! An empty bladder means your body uses less energy to stay warm.

If you don’t want to leave the warmth of your tent, you can use a pee bottle. Ladies can too with the help of a FUD (female urinary device).

Some people advocate the use of a pee bottle in your sleeping bag. You don’t want to miss and have to sleep in your urine. Gross and a wet sleeping bag also loses its insulating properties.

Check the Weather

Before you go on your winter camping trip you need to know the weather conditions. Keeping an eye on the weather leading up to and during your camping adventure will help you know how to pack for warmth overnight.

Weather conditions can quickly change.

Being prepared can save your life.

Always pack more for warmth than you think is needed like extra thermals, disposable hand warmers, disposable foot warmers, and space blankets. These won’t take up much room and if they’re needed you’ll be blessed to have them.

Related Content: Ten Essentials For Outdoor Adventures

Winter camping scene of a 4-season tent in snowy woods on a beautiful night beneath the stars. The graphic says Winter Camping: How To Stay Warm While Sleeping.