How to Stay Warm in a Tent Overnight

Warm tent on a starry night

Growing up in Scotland I sometimes take the natural beauty all around me for granted, but the one thing you don’t take for granted is the weather.

A night shivering in your tent is definitely not how you want to spend your camping trip!

Yet, winter along with summer is actually the most popular time for campers to venture out [1]. So I’ve written this guide on how to stay warm when camping as the temperatures start to drop!

According to research by Harvard University, everyone experiences the cold differently [2] and we all have different temperatures we can sleep comfortably at. Some people get so desperate they come up with remarkable ideas to fight the cold – like how to heat a tent with a candle! (Please, please do not try this)

Related: Want to stay cosy in your tent? Consider picking up a canvas tent for proper insulation. Check out our review of the best canvas tent.

You don’t need to take extreme measures to keep yourself warm when camping. Follow the advice in this guide and you’ll give yourself the best chance for a cosy night in your tent!

Before heading out on any trip you should do your homework: check the weather and adjust your plans accordingly. Expect the worst and hope for the best!

Once you have an idea what to expect from the weather, you can make sure that the equipment you are taking with you is going to be adequate.

So if you’re wondering how to stay warm in a tent, read on to find out!

A Cosy Tent

A key first step in keeping yourself warm in a tent at night is to take the right tent with you. You want to make sure the tent is weatherproof and not too large. Whilst insulated tents are available to buy, they are expensive and may not offer versatility through the summer. Figuring out the best way to insulate a versatile tent is likely a better plan for most campers.

What kind of tent?

Tents can range from 1-Season lightweight shelters to heavier expedition level 5-Season tents. 1-Season and 2-Season tents are not intended for standing up to harsh weather conditions, prioritising their lightweight ease, so avoid these if possible.

3-Season tents are more versatile and will be effective through spring, summer and fall. But they are not intended for colder winter temperatures. 4-Season tents will often boast that they are usable all year long, yet in reality they are much more geared to winter camping and will not offer the breathability needed in hotter conditions.

This isn’t to say you can’t use a 2-Season tent in winter or a 4-Season in summer. But you should be aware that it’s going to make a difference to how warm or cool you can keep your tent overnight.

There is no point taking a tent with lots of space if you aren’t going to use the space. Fill ambient space with your bag and other equipment to insulate your tent further.

Two people sharing a tent
Keeping your bag in your sleeping pod at night can help with insulating against the cold

Properly setting up a tent

It’s important to pitch your tent somewhere that will be protected from high winds but also avoids low lying areas where cold air might settle. Look for natural shelters that provide windbreaks such as trees, bushes or a rocky outcrop and avoid valley floors where cold air and water can gather and flow through.

Related: Expecting high winds? Check out our review of the best tent for wind.

Condensation in tents can lower the temperature inside your shelter. You should make sure that there is ventilation in the tent to allow the air flow to carry moisture out.

Wherever possible, it can be a good idea to share a tent. It can be a bit more cramped and a bit less comfortable but you’ll appreciate the added body heat during those colder nights.

Staying Off the Cold, Hard Ground

Many campers will tell you that the last thing you should skimp on is your sleeping pad – you should never underestimate the value of a good night’s sleep!

Tip: Pack plenty of spare socks, you’ll need some dry socks for sleeping in at night!

What kind of sleeping pad?

You want to make sure you have a pad that will reflect heat back into the tent. Sleeping pads with higher R-values will insulate better from cold surfaces and for winter camping an R-value of over 5 is recommended [3].

Some campers commit to taking air mattresses and pumps with them for some home comfort. However, in the cold air mattresses hold the current air temperature and will themselves also need to be insulated. There are hybrid foam and air pads available which may offer the best solution in terms of comfort and insulation for campers.

How to get the most from your pad

Your sleeping pad will insulate you from the ground, but can work even better with a further insulating layer between the pad and the ground. If possible it can be a good idea to take a picnic blanket and lay it on the tent floor underneath your pad. Groundsheets and multi-purpose tarps are also good ideas to further insulate your tent from the ground. Picnic blankets have the added advantage that they can be repurposed on the trip.

A Snug Sleeping Bag

Sleeping bags come in styles for different weather conditions much like tents. But there are also good all-rounded options available and helpful ways you can further insulate your bag.

What kind of sleeping bag?

There are plenty of sleeping bags that are designed for the cold weather. Until recently I only had a 2 Season sleeping bag which had been great for the summer months – it was lightweight and easily stored. These bags can be okay, if you have taken as much precaution to maintain your base condition as possible.

But this year, as I’m going to be heading out later than I normally do, I made sure to invest in something more substantial. My new bag has a 3-4 Season rating and although it’s about half a kilogram heavier, the extra insulation can make a difference on the chilly nights.

Sleeping bags also come in different sizes that are fairly intuitive – if you are tall, you need a sleeping bag for tall people. You can’t have the bag finishing around your armpits – you’ll end up exposing your extremities to the cold air.

Look after your bag and your bag will look after you

Ideally, you should have a mummy sleeping bag with a hood and strings to tighten around your face, leaving your mouth and nose free to breath. It is important not to breathe in the bag because it can lead to condensation and dampness in the bag, lowering your body temperature.

In the morning, it is a good idea to let the sleeping bag air out to remove any moisture trapped from the night before.

A man shaking out a sleeping bag to get rid of the moisture in it
Airing out your sleeping bag in the morning helps keep it dry and fresh!

If you’re out hiking then it’s also important to make sure that the bag stays dry by keeping it waterproof when stored. Many campers will line their backpacks with a garbage bag as an inexpensive waterproof liner for the sleeping bag.

If you have been hiking with your bag compressed, the internal insulation may need a shake up to distribute evenly again – it’s recommended that before you bed down for the night you should fluff out the bag to make sure it works as efficiently as possible.

A sleeping bag liner can be a helpful addition to keep yourself warm at night. I’d recommend investing in a fleece one as the silk liners are often less durable and more susceptible to tearing. Layering up with blankets and towels inside the sleeping bag can also be a way to trap hot air and warm-up.

A Warm Wardrobe

There is nothing worse than being sat around a campsite, damp and cold wishing you had brought that extra pair of socks you thought you could do without. You should always pack enough clothing to prepare for the worst – a good rule is to always take one more jumper and pair of socks than you think you will need. To stay warm at night, it’s just as important to consider your clothing as well as your other gear.

A warm pair of wool socks
Spare socks are a must for any trip!

What kind of clothes?

Wherever possible avoid cotton. Instead opt for materials which are breathable and will wick moisture away from your body rather than absorbing sweat, becoming damp and lowering your body temperature. Fabrics like wool, silk and synthetic materials are good alternatives.

Thermals are viewed as essential by many campers. Despite not being the most fashionable item in your backpack, long johns are one of the most useful. They keep warmth excellently and are easily stored. Again, it is best to avoid cotton wherever possible and opt for alternative fabrics.

Tip: Use a base layer such as long johns or thermal underwear made from a material that will wick away sweat and moisture

Dress to impress

Just as you should dress in layers during the day, layers at night are the most effective way to keep warm. The great advantage of layers is that you can continually adjust to remain at a good temperature. If you start to sweat through the night it is important to remove layers as the damp will only end up making you cold [4].

On the same note, changing into a dry set of clothes before bed can make a massive difference to the quality of your sleep. It can be tempting after a long day of hiking to dive into your sleeping bag – especially if your clothes are still warm. But chances are your clothes are damp somewhere and they aren’t going to dry off in your sleeping bag.

Splashing puddles in boots in the rain
Who doesn’t love a good splash in the mud? Just remember those spare socks!

Having the next day’s clothes ready can make your mornings so much easier. If you’ve managed to fight off the cold through the night and are now emerging from your cosy cocoon, the last thing you want to do is face the harsh cold air outside of your bag. Make sure to prepare your clothes the night before so that valuable heat isn’t wasted. Plenty of layers in the morning are a good thing but make sure to strip down until you’re cool enough before you start moving again.

Tip: Focus on insulation by wearing something like a fleece or a wool sweater that traps heat

Don’t wear all your clothes to bed though. When you wake up and come out of your insulated shelter, you’ll have to face the harsh morning cold without any extra layers to warm you up to start the day.

Be careful to make sure that your socks and gloves aren’t too tight – you don’t want the blood circulation to your extremities to be restricted.

Tip: Bring a good hat – you can lose up to 70% of body heat through your head [5].

Drink and Eat to Raise Your Heat

When dealing with the cold whilst camping you should be proactive rather than reactive. You should never wait until you are cold to do something about it. There are a few things that are helpful to do throughout your day to try and prevent any issues at night. The first of these is our choice of food and drink.

As a general rule if you are enjoying the great outdoors, it is a good idea to stay hydrated throughout the day. This is also, perhaps surprisingly, true for staying warm at night.

Failing to drink enough water during the day can lead to campers drinking excessively in the evening. They are then disturbed from their cosy cocoon and forced out to face the cold weather by the call of nature. Heating yourself up after this can be difficult so ideally you want to avoid getting out of your toasty shelter before wherever possible.

If you do wake up to nature calling, don’t try and hold in your pee. By holding it in, your body has to use energy keeping your bladder warm that could be directed elsewhere. If you can’t face the cold outside your tent, it’s common practice for campers to take a spare “pee bottle” with them to allow them to relieve themselves in the comfort of their own tent.

If things get bad you can also use your newly filled bottle as a heat source (assuming the bottle is leak proof and secure), clutching it in your bag as you try to drift off. But don’t worry – it’s not necessary to hug a bottle of your pee every time you go camping. Only for special occasions.

Some campers have adapted the pee bottle solution into something a bit more elegant – making improvised hot water bottles out of their drinking containers. Others feel more comfortable bringing an actual hot water bottle with them. If you have the space and are a cold sleeper, it can be a great comfort during the night – or even just sitting around in the evenings as the temperature drops.

Eating is very important when you’re hiking or camping to make sure that your body is getting the right amount of calories to support itself. Eating a high calorie dinner can help to keep you warm through the evening as well as.

Eating a small meal or snack before going to bed can also help keep you warm through the night as digestion raises your body temperature. In fact, if you do wake up to the call of nature then eating something as you get back into bed can be helpful in generating some heat.

Even if it is fairly cold outside, if you bring any perishable food with you then you should still make sure that you keep it cold when you’re camping.

Woman warming herself with a hot drink
Heating yourself up with a hot drink on a cold night is camping bliss

Drinking hot cups of coffee, tea or soup can also be a great way to warm yourself up and give your body some more fuel.

Little Extra Helps

There are a few smaller-scale ideas that you can use to try and keep warm.

Hand warmers can be a great relief and are definitely worth considering throwing into your backpack. They’re lightweight and don’t take up much space, and one or two on a trip can make a big difference.

For some, the allure of portable heaters will be too much to avoid on the colder nights. They aren’t the easiest bits of equipment to take on trips and can be very dangerous. If you are going to use one make sure to follow the manufacturer’s safety advice.

If you plan to do any hiking on your trip, a foil blanket should be an essential emergency item you are taking with you. But they don’t just have to be used in emergencies. Foil blankets can also be used as another layer during cold nights.

Staying Active

Lastly, as you get into your sleeping bag, it’s a good idea to try and raise your body heat. Do some jumping jacks, or maybe take a walk and go to the toilet to try and stop yourself getting up through the night. But make sure you don’t overdo it – you don’t want to start sweating as you get into your sleeping bag!

Wrapping It All Up

Check that the equipment your taking with you is as suitable as possible for the trip 
Do what you can to further insulate your tent and you at night 
Eat and drink properly to keep your body running properly 
Dress in layers during the day and at night and bring plenty of spare clothing

So there it is. Make sure you have the right equipment, use it properly and trial out some of the hints here and you should stand a pretty good chance of putting an end to long, cold nights in a tent.



Glossary: Tent heater

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