There are times when you are backpacking through the mountains that you wish for a nice cool breeze to save you. Going up and down rocky mountain trails has you quickly working up a sweat.
But when that sun dips below the horizon, temperatures can start plummeting.
That direct sun warmth that you felt was baking you hours earlier now sounds as nice as a glass of your favorite ice-cold drink while lounging on the beach.
Knowing how to stay warm camping in a tent is an important skill for staying comfortable on those extra chilly nights.
Best ways to stay warm when camping in a tent
Use proper camping gear
Having the right gear is the best way to make sure you stay warm on those cold nights.
Whether that is having a four-season tent for winter camping or a 10-degree temperature-rated sleeping bag for a mountainous backpacking trip, you want to set yourself up for success.
The three big items that can help you stay warm while camping are your sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and your tent.
Most people think of sleeping bags first when backpacking in colder weather. I mean they are meant to keep you warm, right?
The biggest mistake I see people make with sleeping bags is not getting one that is rated for the appropriate temperature. You’d think you would be good with a 30-degree bag in 30-degree weather, but nothing could be that simple.
There are actually two different temperatures for sleeping bag ratings: the comfort rating and the limit rating. Interestingly, the comfort rating is used for women’s sleeping bags, while the limit rating is used for men’s. Confused yet?
The comfort rating is considered the temperature at which a “cold sleeper” will feel comfortable, and the limit is the temperature at which a “warm sleeper” should feel comfortable. So, the limit rating is a lower temperature than the comfort rating.
Since there can be such confusion over the temperature rating for a sleeping bag, I always recommend getting a bag that is 10-15 degrees colder than the lowest temperature you are expecting. (I.e., if it will get down to 30 degrees, get a 15-20 degree rated bag)
Aside from providing a comfortable surface to sleep on, your sleeping pad helps insulate your body from the cold ground below.
Like sleeping bags, sleeping pads have their own measurement for how insulative they are.
Sleep pads (both foam and inflatable) have an R-value associated with them. You will notice this value when shopping for sleep pads, and simply, the higher the number, the better it is at helping you retain heat.
Most backpacking sleep pads will fall into the R-value range of 1.0-7.5. Much above this range, the sleep pads become more of sleeping mattresses more suited for car camping trips.
I generally recommend one in the 3.5-4.5 range for comfortable use in most conditions. For a cold night or winter camping, you will want something with at least a 5.0 R-value to stay comfortable.
Sometimes overlooked, but having a tent meant for colder temperatures can go a long way in staying warm.
Most backpacking tents that you will see are considered three-season tents. A three-season tent is designed to hold up in most conditions. But aren’t there four seasons?
Yes, yes there are.
Four-season tents (or winter tents) are made to be used even in winter and use thicker materials that protect you from the elements and help trap heat inside.
Winter camping tents are heavier and more expensive, but if you do a lot of camping in cold weather, they are great investments.
Have adequate clothing
Clothing is your first line of defense when keeping warm in cold weather. Having the proper clothing can help retain body heat, and can be the difference between a pleasant night’s sleep and shivering your way through a couple of hours of sleep.
Having a solid base layer (the layer closest to your skin) is critical to staying warm. You want something that will retain heat well, keep moisture away from your skin, and preferably is comfortable.
For me, merino wool is the best option hands down. It meets all the criteria that you should be looking for, and is super comfortable and soft. Making a perfect blend of warm and cozy.
Make sure you get at least a midweight (preferably heavyweight) baselayer.
If things are super cold, and nothing else is working, it may be time to start adding layers.
This is when having an extra thermal shirt and pants comes in handy. Doubling up on baselayers is a good place to start if you are having a tough time staying warm.
You can also start adding your puffy jacket and any insulated pants that you have with you too. At this point, as long as it is dry, start layering it on!
One of the biggest difference makers when it comes to clothing and staying warm is to have a separate pair of clothes used only for sleeping. You don’t get home from the gym and hop into bed with sweaty, dirty clothes. So why do that when you are camping?
I like to have a change of clothes (usually a pair of tights and a long-sleeve shirt) that I keep dry throughout the day and only use for sleeping in. Avoiding sweaty, dirty clothes will help you maximize their insulating ability.
Oh, and don’t forget a nice dry pair of wool socks for your feet!
Take care of your body during the day
It can be difficult enough for your body to keep warm when it is cold outside. Throw in being a bit dehydrated and a sunburn? You have made it much harder for yourself now.
When you have a sunburn, your skin feels super hot, but you actually have a harder time keeping warm. All because of the same reason: increased blood flow to the burned area.
The increased blood flow to the burn makes it feel warmer to the touch, and it also allows more body heat to escape.
Another major issue can be dehydration. This can lead to issues in regulating your body temperature. Also, a lot of people overlook hydration in cold weather because they aren’t drenched in sweat to serve as a constant reminder.
Have multiple ways to stay warm throughout the night
You can pretty easily pack a couple of these for each night that you are out.
You are not supposed to allow hand warmers to come in direct contact with your skin, but no worry, they are still awesome to have!
If using on your hands, have a pair of gloves on and then close your fist to enjoy the soothing warmth.
If you are using them for your feet, I like to make a hand (toe) warmer taco between two pairs of socks. Put a pair on, then place the warmer in another pair of socks before putting them on over your first pair.
Hot water bottle
This is a common trick used by campers. It involves using a non-insulated water bottle and filling it with hot water.
It is important to use a non-insulated bottle because insulated ones are meant to keep heat in, you know, and you want that heat to get out and into your sleeping bag!
Place the bottle somewhere on your body inside your sleeping bag. Hugging it around your chest, under your arms, or between your legs are common spots to place the hot bottle. If you have the ability, making multiple hot water bottles is great!
Choose your campsite well
Hot air rises, meaning if you get a campsite at the lowest point, it is going to be the coolest spot around. If you have spent any time in the desert and have gone in and out of washes at night/early morning, you know what I mean. The cold air lingers in the low ground of the washes, making a noticeably cooler spot.
I try to get a spot that has trees (to help block any wind) and is not the lowest point in sight. This is not always possible, so do your best to protect yourself from the wind with a natural barrier (trees, rocks, etc.) and avoid dips or valleys where cold air stays.
The best ways to stay warm while in a tent are:
Have proper gear
Pack the right clothing
Take care of your body during the day
Have multiple ways to keep warm during the night
You want to have a pair of clothes that stay dry and are used only for sleeping. Having clothes that are clean and dry helps maximize their insulating abilities.
I recommend getting a sleeping bag that is rated 10-15 degrees colder than the lowest temperature that you are expecting. (I.e., get a 10-degree rated bag if you expect temperatures between 20-25 degrees at night.
Backpacking high in the mountains and camping in the winter have two things in common. They are incredibly beautiful and serene. And they are also both quite cold.
I hate to see backpackers shy away from the higher-elevation, colder spots just because they cannot stay warm at night. Especially since there are a lot of easy ways to help stay warm while camping in a tent.
You just need to make sure to have the right equipment (tent, sleeping bag, and sleep pad), have the proper clothing, take care of yourself throughout the day, and have some backup ways to get warm.
Don’t let cold weather stop you from your next backpacking or camping trip!