If you hate being cold, I'm with you.
Shivering your way through a cold night in your tent is no fun, and it can even ruin your camping trip.
With the right gear and knowledge of a few simple techniques, you can stay comfortable in your tent even in temperatures below freezing.
How to stay warm in a tent
I have compiled my top 15 most effective strategies for staying warm in a tent, even without electricity.
One you learn these strategies, cold weather will no longer be an excuse to stay indoors!
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I currently do NOT use affiliate links or receive compensation for products I recommend. I do this so my work stays honest and in line with my values. I only recommend gear that I personally use and believe is the best.
Bring the right sleeping bag
Your sleeping bag is by far the most essential piece of gear that will keep you warm in your tent.
It is critical that you understand how to choose the right sleeping bag and then invest in the best one you can afford.
Here's what to look for when choosing the right sleeping bag to stay warm:
- Temperature rating
- Women’s specific
- Snug-fitting hood
Choose a bag with the right temperature rating
Much has been written about choosing the right sleeping bag, but the most important thing you need to pay attention to is the temperature rating when it comes to staying warm.
Temperature ratings are standard ratings that manufacturers provide based on laboratory testing about how warm you should feel in a bag given the outside temperature.
So, what temperature rating should you choose when buying a sleeping bag?
Always choose a bag with a lower temperature rating than the coldest nighttime temperature that you anticipate camping in.
It’s better to choose a bag with a lower temperature rating than you think you will need because you can always unzip or sleep outside of the bag, but it is much more difficult to get warm in a bag that has a higher temperature rating.
You should also know that the temperature rating (which was created in a lab under constant conditions) does not take into account real-world variables such as what you wear to bed, your metabolism, what you last ate, the outside humidity, etc., which can all change the rating and your comfort level when sleeping in the bag.
Rather than a hard rule, think of the temperature rating as an estimate or guideline that helps you compare different sleeping bags and make an informed decision about the right bag to choose.
Choose a women’s specific bag
Due to differences in physiology, women are typically colder sleepers than men.
For this reason, sleeping bags for women are usually more insulated and heavier than ones designed for men, even if their temperature ratings are the same.
For example, a temperature rating of 20°F on a women’s bag does not mean the same thing as a 20°F temperature rating on a men’s bag.
Women’s bags are also often made in different shapes and lengths than men’s sleeping bags to accommodate body shape differences and provide more comfort.
Get a sleeping bag with a hood
A snug-fitting hood prevents heat loss from your head and stops valuable heat from escaping the bag itself.
This will keep your bag significantly warmer and in my experience has been the difference between a good night’s sleep and a miserable night shivering.
A style of bag called a mummy bag often comes with a hood, but other types of bags can have them as well.
These hoods are very similar to the hood you will find on a down jacket and have stretchy cords that allow you to comfortably tighten the hood around your head.
Make sure that you use the adjustable cords to secure the hood around your head so that it stays on throughout the night.
2. Choose the right sleeping pad
Sleeping pads are often an overlooked piece of equipment when it comes to optimizing your warmth on a cold night, but choosing the right sleeping pad is one of the most important things you can do to stay warm while sleeping.
When the temperatures outside drop, the ground that you are sleeping on becomes much colder than your body temperature. When the ground is cold, any part of your body in contact with it will lose heat due to conduction.
Think of your sleeping pad as a buffer between you and the cold ground and your warm sleeping bag.
A sleeping pad with higher insulation will act as a stronger buffer, preventing heat loss and keeping you warm throughout the night.
Sleeping pad manufacturers provide a temperature rating on their products called R-values.
R-values are numbers that typically lie on a scale from 0 to 8.
The higher the R-value, the more insulated the pad is - but heavier and more expensive it usually is.
Your sleeping pad and your sleeping bag should work together as part of your sleep system, so keep in mind the forecasted low temperature during your trip and the temperature rating of your sleeping bag when choosing a pad to go with it.
For example, if the nighttime low is 30°F and your sleeping is rated at 15°F or lower, you might not need a sleeping pad with an R-value of 7.
This is especially true if you are backpacking because a high R-value sleeping pad will mean more unnecessary weight in your pack.
However, if your sleeping bag is rated at 15°F or lower and you use a sleeping pad with a low R-value of 2, the rating of your bag might not hold up to its temperature rating and you will probably be cold in temps below 15°F.
If you are car camping, I’d say go all out and get the highest R-value sleeping pad you can afford.
Pro tip: sleep on two stacked sleeping pads which will combine the R-values of each pad and greatly increase your insulation from the ground and keep you warmer. I recommend combining an air-filled sleeping pad with a closed cell foam pad (or CCF). A CFF is also nice to sit on if you don’t have a chair or comfortable seat at your campsite.
REI conducted testing on sleeping bag and sleeping pad combinations and their performance, which you can view here.
I recommend you check out this REI resource when shopping for sleeping pads.
3. Add a sleeping bag liner to your sleep system
Sleeping bag liners are a great way to increase the warmth of your sleeping bag, with some liners claiming to add up to 25°F of extra warmth.
In my opinion they are not necessary if you have the proper sleep system (sleeping bag + sleeping pad combination) and plan properly, but they can serve as extra insurance in case you have to spend the night in temperatures below what you expected.
They also keep the inside of your sleeping bag clean, especially after you have spent a long day sweating it out on the trail and don’t have the option to shower in the backcountry before going to bed.
A cleaner sleeping bag that needs fewer washings will last longer, which is a major plus.
The only real downside of liners is that they add extra weight and bulk to your bag that you really shouldn’t need with the right sleep system. H3 - How to choose the right sleeping bag liner to keep you warm
Sleeping bag liners come in a variety of different materials with different warmth-to-weight ratios.
Like with most outdoor gear, the material you choose will depend on your specific goals, preferences, and budget.
Here’s an overview of these materials and the pros/cons of each.
- Lightweight and compact natural fiber that efficiently wicks moisture. Cons: not a strong insulator (won’t add much warmth) and is more expensive than other materials.
- Cotton: Durable and affordable natural fiber. Cons: bulky, heavier than other fabrics, doesn’t dry quickly.
- Fleece and microfleece: Soft synthetic fiber that wicks moisture and dries quickly. Decent insulator adding about 10°F of extra warmth. Not cheap but not very expensive. Cons: can be bulky and somewhat heavy compared to other synthetic fabrics.
- Merino wool: wicks moisture and helps with temperature regulation. Cons: expensive, heavier fabric that doesn’t dry quickly if it gets wet.
- Insulated Synthetics: (e.g., Thermolite, CoolMax) Can add lots of extra warmth to your sleeping bag. Breathable, wicks moisture, and dries quickly. Not extremely heavy for the added warmth. Cons: can be expensive and adds extra bulk and weight to your pack.
If you are a cold sleeper and spend a lot of time in the backcountry, I recommend thermal synthetic materials like fleece or microfleece, CoolMax, or Thermolite.
My personal favorite is the line of Reactor sleeping bag liners by Sea to Summit. I use the Reactor Extreme Liner which is made of Thermolite and helps me stay very toasty in my sleeping bag when it is below freezing outside.
4. Sleep with a hot water bottle
My favorite secret weapon against sleeping in the cold is going to bed with a hot water bottle.
It feels like you have a space heater inside of your sleeping bag for most of the night.
Here’s how to do it properly. Right before bed:
- boil about a liter of water on your camp stove (I use a Jetboil) and let it cool for about a minute.
- pour the hot water into a Nalgene or other hard-sided BPA-free water bottle like this. Never use a water bladder like a Camelbak or disposable plastic water - these can melt or leak.
- Close the lid tightly. The absolute last thing you want is a leak in your sleeping bag.
- Crawl into your sleeping bag and place the bottle in your core area (somewhere between the chest and groin). If the bottle is too hot, wrap it in a shirt or jacket.
5. Do everything in your power to keep your body and your clothes dry
Water is 25 times more efficient at conducting heat away from your body than air is, which explains why you will feel much colder in 70°F water than in 70°F air.
It also means that you should avoid getting wet if you are trying to stay warm in a cold environment.
Water is the enemy when you are trying to stay warm.
There are many things you can do to keep your body dry, especially while you are in your tent.
The following is a brief overview of the skills you should learn to keep your body warm and dry.
Learn how to layer your clothes properly
The idea of “layering” is a framework used by outdoor adventurers to choose the right clothes to stay comfortable and dry.
Your goal with layering is to regulate your body temperature in changing weather, temperatures, and activity levels so that you avoid sweating and getting your clothes wet.
Generally, you always want to have:
- a base layer that efficiently wicks away moisture and sweat
- middle insulating layer(s) that traps body heat
- and an outer shell that protects you from external sources of water like wind, rain, and snow
Knowing how to layer properly is one of the most important skills you can learn to stay warm.
Choose clothes made of materials that dry quickly
If your clothes do get wet despite your best efforts to keep them dry, it helps if they can dry quickly.
Synthetic fabrics like polyester, polypropylene, or capilene dry more quickly than other materials like wool and down.
Do not wear garments made from cotton while adventuring in the outdoors. Cotton absorbs moisture like a sponge and doesn’t dry quickly.
H3: Bring an extra set of clothes and change before bed
If your clothes do get wet, it is important to change into dry clothes as quickly as possible.
This is especially important before you go to bed inside your tent and sleeping bag.
I recommend always having a spare pair of dry socks and a dry set moisture-wicking base layers (or long underwear) designated just for sleeping in.
I recommend clothing made from merino wool, which will help regulate your body temperature, wick, sweat, keep you warm, and prevent sweat from building up on your skill while you are sleeping.
Avoid breathing inside of your sleeping bag
When you wake up feeling cold, you might be tempted to tuck your head into your sleeping bag and let the heat from your breath increase the temperature inside of your bag.
I was guilty of doing this for a long time before I knew better.
Although it might feel like you are trapping heat in your sleeping bag and preventing heat loss to the environment...
you are causing condensation to build inside of your sleeping bag due to the moisture in your breath.
The increased humidity inside of your bag will draw heat away from your body more quickly and make you colder.
6. Cover your head with an insulating layer
Once you are tucked into your sleeping bag, your body will be insulated but you will continue to lose heat through your head through radiation.
Since you won’t want to tuck your head inside of your sleeping bag (see above) covering your head with an insulating layer like a warm hat is essential to staying warm throughout the night.
To stay even warmer, try wearing a balaclava underneath your hat. This will protect your ears, neck, and most of your face from losing heat.
If you have a mummy sleeping back with a hood, cinch the hood over your head as well.
I find it hard to keep the hood of my sleeping bag over my head all night, especially as a side sleeper, so don’t rely on it as an insulating layer for your head.
7. Choose the right campsite
The location of your tent can impact the temperature inside your tent.
If you are in the backcountry and have the option of where to set up your campsite, there are a few things you should consider before pitching your tent if you want to maximize warmth.
Do your best to avoid the wind
Wind will remove heat from your tent through convection. Do your best to avoid it’s path.
You should already be checking the weather right before your trip, so take note of the wind direction and speed predicted each day. Write it down somewhere if possible.
I use the Garmin InReach to send me weather forecasts (including wind speeds) via satellite when I need them.
Once you have this information, do your best to set your tent up so that it is not in the direct path of the predicted wind.
This may mean not pitching your tent along at the top of an exposed ridgeline or in the middle of a large field. Consider using natural features (trees, boulders, ridges, etc.) to block the wind if possible.
Make sure that you keep your tent’s rainfly on if it is windy, as these are designed block wind (among other elements) from entering your tent.
You might even consider setting up a camping tarp like this to shield your tent from the prevailing winds.
Understand how air behaves
Consider the landscape, your altitude, and how air behaves.
Since hot air rises and cold air sinks, avoid setting up your tent at the very bottom of a valley where cold likes to settle.
Try to get at least 100-200 feet above a valley floor and you will likely find yourself warmer at night.
Use the sun to your advantage
If possible, put your tent in a location where it will be in direct sunlight for as much of the day as possible.
Take note of where the sun will rise in the east and set in the west, and where your campsite will be in relation to this movement.
The more time your tent spends in the sun, the warmer it will be inside due to the greenhouse effect.
Unfortunately, a backpacking tent or lightweight 3 season tent that isn’t insulated won’t retain the solar heat at night, but it will keep you warmer during the day while you are spending time at your camp.
8. Add layers before you get cold
It is easier to stay warm than it is to warm up from a state of being cold.
Your body must spend energy to warm your body up, so it’s best to prevent yourself from getting cold in the first place.
Whenever you are outside or in your tent, put on enough layers so that you always feel comfortably warm - don’t wait until you feel cold to start adding layers of clothing to your body.
When the sun goes down, I recommend adding more layers than you feel like you need - especially gloves and socks - as a preventative measure to avoid the cold.
9. Do some light physical activity before bed
Before getting in your tent at night, try to warm your body up with a brisk walk, a light jog, some push-ups, jumping jacks, or anything that raises your metabolism and helps you produce more heat.
The key here is to do just enough activity so that you start to feel really warm, but not so much that you start to get sweaty.
Your sleeping bag and your clothes don’t generate heat - they only trap the heat your body generates.
The more you can increase your metabolism, the more heat will be trapped by your insulating layers and sleeping bag, and the warmer you will be in your tent.
10. Eat a lot of healthy food
You will generate more body heat after eating because your body must spend energy to digest food through a process called diet induced thermogenesis.
The more you eat, the higher your energy expenditure will be above your basal metabolic rate, especially if you aren’t exercising.
For this reason, eating a big healthy meal before bed will help you generate more heat inside of your sleeping bag when you go to sleep.
Choose foods that are slow digesting so that your internal furnace burns for hours after a meal - foods like healthy, low glycemic carbs (whole grains, sweet potatoes, etc) and healthy fats like avocado and olive oil.
Avoid simple sugars like candy and white bread as these foods won’t give you a sustained thermogenic effect.
Pro tip: keep a healthy granola or energy bar near you when you go to bed. If you wake up cold durning the night, eat this snack and you will raise your metabolism and produce more heat. Note: only do this if you aren’t in bear country - you don’t want any food in your tent if you are!
11. Keep your tent ventilated
While your instinct might be to seal your tent up as much as possible to keep heat in, it could actually make you colder.
You should keep your tent ventilated for the same reason you shouldn’t breathe inside of your sleeping bag (see above).
If you don’t ventilate your tent, the buildup of condensation inside of your tent due to your body heat and the moisture in your breath will cause the inside of your tent to become damp.
The higher the humidity in the tent, the colder you will be.
If water builds up in your tent because it can’t evaporate into the atmosphere, it could even cause your clothes and your sleeping bag to get wet.
A wet sleeping bag (especially a down one) is practically useless, so, again, do everything in your power to keep yourself plus your insulating layers and gear dry.
Depending on the outside humidity, you may need more or less ventilation.
To increase ventilation, open up your rain fly doors and tent windows and allow for a breeze to flow through your tent.
12. Sleep with your next day’s clothing
One technique that I love to do when it is cold is to take the clothing I plan on wearing the next morning and stuffing it at the bottom of my sleeping bag.
I like to stuff my down jacket and other insulating layers that I plan on wearing in the morning at the bottom of my sleeping bag, below my feet.
The clothes will be heated while you sleep and feel much warmer when you put them on in the morning as you crawl out of your sleeping bag.
This also has the added benefit of reducing the ambient space in your sleeping bag, helping you more efficiently heat your sleeping bag with your body heat.
13. Choose the right tent
Learning how to stay warm in a tent involves choosing the right tent to camp in in the first place.
Here are a few guidelines for choosing a tent that will keep you warmer.
Bring a 4 season tent
If you plan on camping in very cold weather (espcially the winter), you might consider bringing a 4 season tent instead of a 3 season tent.
4 season tents are generally designed to protect you from snow, higher winds, and harsher environments.
These tents use fabrics that are better at keeping cold out and sealing heat in, but this comes at the cost of being much heavier than 3 season tents.
Choose a smaller tent
While it’s nice to have lots of room to spread out, bigger tents only mean lots of empty space filled with cold air.
It will take a lot more heat from your body to warm a larger tent than a smaller tent.
If you are camping alone, you should opt fo a 1-2 person tent rather than a 3-4 person tent if your goal is to stay warmer.
14. Try heated equipment
There are a lot of heated products on the market that you may find useful to help you stay warm in your tent.
Most of these products are impractical for backcountry adventures like backpacking since they add extra weight to your pack, but they are worth trying if you are car camping.
Hand and toe warmers
Hand and toe warmers come in both disposable and battery powered varieties, and are most commonly used by winter athletes and outdoor adventurers trying to stay warm.
They can be slipped into your gloves are your socks, and provide hours of comforting heat for your hands and feet - which are typically the parts of the body that are most susceptible to getting cold.
Stick them to your socks and even to the inside of your sleeping bag at night and they can help you get through a really cold night in your tent.
They don’t really generate tons of heat, but every little bit helps.
From vest and jackets to hats and cloves, there is a plethora of clothing on the market these days that is designed to generate heat.
Heated apparel looks like regular clothing but has built-In heating panels connected to a hidden rechargeable battery pack.
It is a bit strange to “turn on” your clothes, but they can really make a difference in your comfort, especially if you are a woman or a smaller human that has a harder time staying warm.
The battery will last for a few hours up to 8-10 hours (depending on the settings you choose), so the heat they produce could potentially last you the entire night in your tent.
You might experiment wearing some of these clothes in your tent or sleeping bag if you are struggling to stay warm.
The downside to these clothes is that they are heavy and you will need a way to recharge the batteries, which can be a problem if you don’t have a source of electricity or a solar charging battery.
Heated sleeping bag liners
I haven’t tried a heated sleeping bag liner yet, but it’s definitely at the top of my list of gear to try.
An innovative company called Ignik is the only one that makes these liners (that I know of), along with a whole lot of other interesting heating product like heated sleeping pad covers and heater stoves.
If you have tried one, let me know what you think!
As someone who is always cold, I love heated blankets and use them almost every day at home during the winter.
Heated blankets usually require an electrical outlet for power, so you can only really use one in your tent if you have a portable source of power or an outlet nearby.
I never though I could use one camping until I got the Jackery Explorer 500 portable power station (my new favorite toy).
I can plug my blanket into the Jackery in the morning and wrap myself in it after getting out of my sleeping bag, making the experience of getting out of my bag much less painful.
This solar powered battery generator is pricey, but it is a game changer for charing everything I need (including camera gear, computer, etc.) when I’m car camping and working outdoors.
15. Try a tent heater
This tip is for the car campers, as it would be absolutely impractical to bring a heater backpacking.
I’m not going to lie - I have never used a tent heater, but I want to mention it here so that is something you are aware of.
I don’t think they are really necessary if you use all of the techniques mentioned above, but it could be something that is nice to have if you really can’t stand the cold.
Do your research to see which tent heater is right for you if you choose to try one out.
Some are electric (which you can use if you’re camping at a hook up) and some are fueled by propane.
I’ve read good reviews about the Mr. Heater Little Buddy Heater, which may be worth checking out.
Keep in mind that most tents aren’t significantly insulated, so a the heat produced by a heater will dissipate quickly into the atmosphere.
How to stay warm in a tent: what not to do
1. Don’t use a stove inside your tent
Never use your camping stove inside of your tent as a source of heat.
Not only could this cause your tent to catch on fire…
but it could also lead to the buildup of carbon monoxide (especially if your tent isn’t well ventilated), which can poison you to death if you breathe in too much.
2. Don’t leave heaters on while you sleep
If you do choose to try a propane or electric tent heater, avoid turning your tent into a bonfire by turning them off before you go to sleep.
Propane heaters also release toxic carbon monoxide gas that can accumulate in your tent while you sleep.
Be sure to turn your tent heator off before you go to bed and never leave it unattended.
3. Don’t start any kind of fire in your tent
Campfires belong in established fire rings, if they are allowed at all.
This should be obvious, so let's just leave it at that.
4. Don’t cheap out on your sleep system
In my opinion, when you are camping, the goal should be to learn how to stay adequately warm in your tent without electricity or propane.
This means investing in your most important pieces of heat insulating gear: your sleep system and your clothes.
Without outdoor gear, you usually get what you pay for in terms of quality, durability, and functionality.
Like mentioned at the beginning of this article, the single most important thing you need stay warm in your tent in your sleeping bag, so this is one piece of gear that you should invest your money in.
Buy the best sleeping system you can afford and you will be thanking yourself for many years to come.