I often go winter camping, and sometimes, tents can get ridiculously cold, especially at night.
Now, I know most guys will say, “get a better sleeping pad!”. But from experience, I genuinely don’t think it’s all about that.
Sure, a quality sleeping pad is critical, but knowing how to keep a camping tent warm is the key to a toasty camping trip.
Here’re my favorite tips for keeping my shelter warm:
- Investing in the right tent
- Investing in a Tent-Safe Heater
- Using camping fire
- Using a Mylar blanket
- Using large, extra cotton blankets
- Using temperature-rated sleeping bags
- Covering my head
- Drying out my sleeping pad
- Using a camping cot
- Ground insulation
- Ventilating my tent
- Covering my tent
- Choosing a Smart Camping Location
- Keeping my Feet Warm
- Wearing the Right Sleeping Garments
- Get Blood Flowing; Go to Bed Warm
- Eating High-Calorie Dinner
- Using a Hot Water Bottle
- Use Heat Rocks/Disposable heat packs
- Use Heat Warmers for Kids
- Tent insulation
Of course, along with the listed methods, there’re a couple of other measures that will help you remain cozy and stay warm.
And in this comprehensive guide, I’ll detail everything you should know about how to keep a tent warm.
22 Handy Methods of Keeping a Camping Tent Warm
Buy the Right Tent
The first step to staying warm in a tent is choosing a tent that can withstand the challenges of winter camping trips.
Generally, tents designs range from the lightweight 1-season shelters to the heavier expedition 5-season tents.
For cold weather camping, I wouldn’t recommend the 1-season, 2-season, or even 3-season tents.
Instead, choose the 4-season tents and above, especially if you’ll be camping in extremely cold weather conditions.
But not any standard 4-season tent can withstand the harsh challenges of winter and early spring.
Instead, the right winter tent should have adequate insulation and be weatherproof. It should provide warmth for cold-weather and stand up to the harshness of winter camping, including the cold winter gusts and snowfall.
While these 4-season winter tents will definitely help in keeping warm, understand that the added insulation adds bulk to the tent, so they may not be the best solution for backpacking.
Another limitation with winter tents is they lack the versatility to take you through the warmer weather. It can turn into a hot tent and be uncomfortable.
But personally, these aren’t dealbreakers, considering I’ve multiple tents for every season. Plus, I’m a car camper, so portability isn’t really a big concern.
Choose a Small Tent
While a big tent is more spacious, it may actually be damaging when retaining warmth.
See, a bigger tent has more surface, so heating it will require more energy and resources. The big tents have excess space where the freezing cold air may reside and not be forced out by the hot air.
It’s why, even with a large family, we recommend using a couple of smaller tents than a big one.
Invest in a Tent-Safe Heater
I swear by tent heaters, and they’re usually my go-to options to stay warm in a tent.
As their name suggests, heaters are made for use inside the tent and radiate heat to keep the inside cozy and stay warm.
I wouldn’t recommend using the heater all night, but rather running it for a bit of time, then shutting it off.
I usually run my Mr. Heater Big Buddy portable electric heater in the evening for 30 minutes, just before falling asleep and then shutting it down.
Also, if I wake up to cold weather at night, I turn it on and let it run for a couple of minutes until I feel the tent is warm, then I shut it off.
Types of Tents Heaters
There’re a couple of different tent heater designs, but whatever method you choose, understand none is 100% safe to use in a tent.
See, there’s always a chance a tent heater will produce poisonous gas, result in fire, or even cause a catastrophic incident.
Of course, as you’ll see later, some options are much safer than others.
- Electric heaters
Electric heaters are by far the most popular and safest options.
They’re not completely safe, but considering they don’t give off carbon gases or flames, they’re generally considered safe.
Still, they produce heat, so I can’t recommend placing them near or in contact with the tent’s sidewalls.
But their greatest limitation is they require electricity, so unless you are in a camping ground or RV camping, they might not be a handy option.
- Gas heaters
Gas heaters, mostly propane heaters, are another popular way of warming your tent.
While propane heaters are effective, you need to be cautious using them in an enclosed space because of the carbon emissions.
Also, as with the electric heaters, you shouldn’t run them all night. A good plan of action is switching them on a few minutes before you hit the sack or when there’s a cold spell.
A limitation with propane heaters is they’re quite bulky and might bump up your backpacking weight.
Candles will interject warmth, but not so much as the propane heaters or electric heaters. They only add a few degrees to the ambient tent temperatures.
I’m not a big fan of candles because they carry a huge risk of fire for such a negligible temperature rise. A candle is likely to tip on your tent and start a fire.
Additionally, they risk carbon monoxide exposure, especially in smaller and enclosed tents.
But they’re still a decent option if the conditions aren’t so chilly to warrant anything drastic. Plus, they come light and cheap.
- Wood burning stove
A wood burning stove will effectively warm your tent, but it only works in tents with a stove jack.
- Catalytic heater
A catalytic heater uses a similar combustion principle as the gas-powered heaters but has fuel in place of gasoline to catalyze a chemical reaction.
There’s no fuel burning, so it’s a much safer option. Still, I would insist you keep your tent well ventilated, even with the catalytic heater.
And as with any other tent heater option, human supervision is necessary.
Consider Camping Fire
While you can’t start a fire on a camping tent, there’re a few methods you can use to generate warmth for your tent from a camping fire.
One of my favorite methods is using the heat generated from a burned-out camping fire.
I dig a trench or a pit as big as my tent to accomplish this. I then use the pit for my campfire for the night.
Once the fire goes out, I layer the pit with soil, burying the burned-out coal and wood logs.
From there, I can set up my tent over the covered pit and enjoy the leftover warmth of the campfire.
*A word of caution is that you need to ensure all the fire remnants are removed before covering with soil. It’ll save you from carbon monoxide poisoning.
The other crude method I use to stay warm is building my campfire in a controlled location, ideally between rocks.
I then position my tent a few feet from the rock and wait for the rocks to reflect the campfire’s heat towards the tent.
As I mentioned, it’s a bit of a crude method, and the strategy won’t work independently.
Use a Mylar Blanket
Mylar blankets, also known as space blankets, are probably one of the most versatile camping covers.
I’ve a couple of these blankets, and I use them over my body and my sleeping pad. They act as great insulators, helping trap more body heat while keeping the cold away.
But their greatest use, at least in my opinion, is how well they reflect heat to the tent.
Using them for heat reflection is quite simple, as all you need to do is attach them to the ceiling with duct tape. If you also have an extra blanket, you can even insulate your tent’s sidewalls.
The mylar blanket does a great job of reflecting body heat and heat generated from the tent.
Invest in Big Blankets
An alternative to the Mylar blankets is the big camping blankets.
I prefer cotton blankets because it’s easy to lug them around even when backpacking.
However, these blankets aren’t primarily my main heat source, but rather a backup when the cold weather is at its peak. I usually find mine handy from 2 to 5 a.m., when it’s freezing.
They’re great for winterizing my tent and my sleeping bag.
And the good thing is if the conditions are hot, I can still use the blankets as extra support for my bed.
Use Temperature-Rated Sleeping Bags (Warm Enough Sleeping Bag)
Your choice of sleeping bag will determine how toasty your camping experience will be.
Now, it’s easy to think you can use any sleeping bag to stay warm, but that’s far from the truth.
The ideal sleeping bag for winter use should be temperature rated. A sleeping bag specifically designed should be rated for zero degrees.
I also prefer a water-repellent sleeping bag to keep the moisture and water in the bag.
Finally, consider the size. It may seem like a trivial suggestion, but it affects the heat retention of your bag.
The two common shapes for sleeping bags are rectangular and mummy. Avoid the mummy-shaped sleeping bags because they’ve a lot of space between you and the sleeping bag, resulting in more heat loss.
Add a Sleeping Bag Liner
There’s no better way of adding extra warmth to your sleeping bag than using a sleeping bag liner.
It’s not a necessity, especially if you’ve a proper sleeping system, but having one provides extra insurance when the cold temperatures dip than expected.
Another plus with the sleeping bag liners is that they keep your bag clean, especially if you’ve had a sweaty day and don’t have time to shower. It saves you from the need for regular washing of your bag, which extends its longevity.
The only downside with these liners is the extra weight to your camping gear.
But that may also change depending on the type of material used. Some of the common materials for the sleeping liners are:
- Cotton: Long-lasting and expensive, but bulky.
- Fleece: Dries quickly but expensive
- Merino wool: Great at temperature regulation but expensive and retains moisture
- Insulated synthetics: Plenty of warmth, lightweight but expensive
Using a Sleeping Bag Properly
Choosing the right sleeping bag is just the first step. You need to know how to use it properly.
A common mistake I see many campers make with the sleeping bags is burrowing their heads right into the bag.
This is counter-intuitive because it’ll usually result in condensation of your breath, making the section around your head and neck wet.
Instead, I’d recommend you let your head stick out, so you don’t breathe moist air.
Cover your Head
Not burrowing your head inside a sleeping bag saves you from condensation but will, in turn, result in the loss of body heat. Yes, our bodies can lose heat through the head.
The good news is that you can prevent heat from the head and face by covering yourself with a knit cap, warm hat, or scarf.
Be sure it’s not blocking your nose or making you feel uncomfortable.
Dry out your Sleeping Bag
Another handy tip of using a sleeping bag is to dry it out completely after use.
After a good night’s sleep, it’s critical you roll your tent outside, and even better if you can hang it in a shaded place.
Drying your sleeping bag eliminates the dampness and chilliness, which is the last thing you want when you get into your bag.
Consider a Camping Cot
One of the huge benefits of a sleeping cot over a sleeping bag is that it usually keeps me elevated from the cold ground.
The cot’s ground elevation makes them suitable for ant terrain and, more importantly, cooler weather condition.
They’re particularly handy options for winter camping because they eliminate cold penetration from the tent’s floor to my body.
Remember, our bodies can feel cold through conduction. When you sleep on a cold surface, it’s likely to draw your body heat from you. A cot saves you from that.
Plus, with their elevated design, cots are convenient and homely, saving your back from the aches and pain of sleeping on rocky ground.
Consider Ground Insulation
Ground insulation is critical, especially if you don’t have a camping cot and have to sleep directly on your tent floor.
While sleeping pads by themselves offer a great way to catch sleep, they may need some help.
Placing a ground insulation mat or foam provides a layer of barrier while bulking up the heat retention of your mat.
If you don’t have an insulation foam, you can DIY the insulation by using dry branch leaves.
Keep your Tent Ventilated
Keeping your tent ventilated might seem like a counter-intuitive measure, but it actually helps stay warm in a shelter.
See, once the heat from your body and breath comes into contact with the tent’s fabric, it condenses, which makes your tent damp.
The condensation is so severe that it’ll even start forming water droplets in some cases.
Dampness isn’t a big problem by itself, but the problem is even the best-insulated sleeping bags will struggle to keep you warm while they’re the least bit wet.
By ventilating your tent, you do away with dampness and allow fresh air, which in turn keeps your tent dryer and warmer.
But at the same time, it’s equally important to consider measures that will prevent your body from generating a lot of moisture.
For example, if you notice you’re sweating too much, consider removing the extra layers of cloth.
Sometimes, frost is inevitable, even with the best ventilation.
Now, if you find your tent is already frosted in the morning, the first thing to do is get rid of it. Otherwise, it may condense and wet your tent.
Remove the frost, and set your tent on open sunlight to let the sun do the remaining job.
Cover your Tent
Covering your tent is one of the practical ways to stay warm in a tent.
It’s much better than throwing a cover on your sleeping bag because the latter will only warm you when you’re in the sack. It’s not effective when the temperatures outside are frigid.
On the other hand, covering the entire tent raises the overall core body temperature. A cover over the tent traps the warm air inside while creating a barrier against the cold outside air.
Choose a Smart Camping Location
Many campers don’t think much about their camping spot, but this could expose you to the unwanted attention of the winter conditions, starting from rain, wind, sleet to snow.
I use a few tricks to bolster my defenses against the winter conditions.
I always avoid the low grounds since it’s where cold air settles. In case it rains, low grounds are usually subject to water pools.
Ideally, setting a camp 50 feet above the valley floor should be warm enough.
I also consider locations with natural windbreakers such as trees or rocks.
A chilly wind isn’t something to look forward to in the evening, so using natural features such as a tree will stop the wind from blowing towards you.
In the same breath, keep away from the exposed ridges since wind can get pretty rough.
Finally, set your tent where it can catch the sunrise.
Keep Your Feet Warm
Our body can also lose heat through the feet, so it’s a good idea to ensure they’re completely dry before you jump into bed cold.
In addition to ensuring your feet are free from moisture, ensure you wear a pair of warm socks. Be sure to don on completely dry socks because the slightest dampness might result in moisture formation.
At the same time, don’t bundle your feet with too many layers of socks because it may cause sweating, resulting in dampness.
Instead, just use the right amount of layering for your feet to stay warm without the risk of sweating.
Use the Sleeping Clothes
The choice of bedclothes is critical to keeping you warm in your tent.
While it’s tempting to go to bed with the day’s clothes, especially if they’re still warm, that’s not a good idea because chances are they might be damp somewhere. The wet clothes won’t dry off in your sleeping bag.
Instead, I’d recommend you change to separate dry clothes for bed. You might be amazed by the difference they make.
But the most important thing, at least, in my opinion, is to focus on insulation.
Choose bedclothes made of breathable materials like wool, silk, synthetics, or fleece. I’ve wool pajamas & long johns, and I like how well they retain heat while wicking away the excess moisture.
Cotton is a big no because it absorbs sweat instead and becomes damp. Simply put, it lowers your core temperatures.
Moving on, consider dressing up in layers. Layering is crucial for keeping you warm, but the biggest benefit is continually adjusting the clothes or rather levels of layers to remain at good temperatures.
For example, if you start to sweat in the middle of the night, you can remove some layers without exposing yourself to the cold.
Finally, your choice of material should also feel comfy and loose. It should be ultra-tight to restrict circulation and blood pumping. The good flow of blood helps at improving your body’s warmth retention.
It also makes sense to pack tomorrow’s clothes inside your tent to warm up with you.
Get Blood Flowing; Go to Bed Warm
In addition to wearing loose, you can also enhance your blood flow by performing some aerobics before hitting the sack.
Perform some exercises to promote better blood flow for warmth.
And if it gets cold while sleeping, similarly do some crunches to warm back up.
But whatever exercise you choose to do, be sure that it won’t lead to sweating because this will drench you and cause dampness.
The trick to staying warm in your tent is being proactive rather than reactive. You don’t have to wait until you feel cold to insulate or look for warmth.
I’ve a couple of things I do throughout the day to help keep warm on cold nights.
The first one is hydration, especially throughout the day.
A problem of not drinking enough water during the day is you’re tempted to drink excessively at night. It means there’s a high likelihood of waking up to nature calls.
For some, it may involve getting out from the comfort of their warm tents, and heating up again can feel like a Herculean task.
Now, you might decide to hold onto your pee, but that’s not advisable either.
The problem with holding your pee is your body uses energy to keep the bladder warm. This energy could be directed to keeping your body warm.
So, if you can’t get out and don’t want to hold your pee, consider investing in a pee bottle. It allows you to relieve yourself from the comfort of your tent.
Consume a High-Calorie Dinner
Eating just before dinner jumpstarts your metabolism, helping your body generate more heat.
But not just any food.
I’d highly recommend a high-calorie meal. Remember, a calorie is a unit of heat, and the higher the calories you take, the more warmth your body generates.
I’d even go as far as suggesting campers have a bite of food after waking up to answer a nature call to generate as much heat as possible.
Along with the food, a hot drink may also serve well to keep the body warm while providing extra body fuel—warm fluids such as a cup of steaming coffee or water help generate more heat.
Use Hot Water Bottle
I’m a big fan of the hot water bottle method.
As the name suggests, this method simply involves heating your tent through hot water bottles.
Using a portable camp stove, bring your water to a boil, then pour it in hard plastics.
Be sure to use hard or metal plastic bottles. The weaker bottles may crumble from the extreme temperatures.
Place the hot water bottles in different locations around your tent. With time, they’ll radiate heat, which steadily envelopes your tent.
For even better results, you can even place some of the hot water bottles inside your sleeping bag. But you need to wrap them with a towel or heavy-duty fabric so as not to burn. Wrapping also extends their warmth.
Use Heat Rocks
A heat rock uses the same heating principle as a hot water bottle and may even serve as an alternative.
The only limitation with rocks is they heat a tent faster but don’t hold on to the warmth for longer.
To heat a tent through rocks, collect some stones or even use a single dry rock.
Place the rocks in the middle of your camping fire and let them warm until you’re ready to go to bed.
Wrap the rocks with a towel, or any heavy-duty fabrics, just as you would with the hot water bottle, and place them inside your tent.
Alternatively, you can set them in a tripod or cookie tray, but this will make them lose warmth much faster.
But my favorite method with the hot rocks is digging a trench under my tent then burying the rock with layers of sand.
It may take some elbow grease, but it’s much better at preserving the heat and eliminates the safety threat of a burn when the rocks are inside.
As with water bottles, don’t use this method unsupervised or near kids. Also, never heat the wet rocks as they’re likely to burst and release embers of hot flames.
Use Heat Warmers for Kids
Heat warmers are probably the most practical way of keeping your young ones toasty.
The heat warmers are nice for keeping your kiddos feet and hands. And the good thing is they’re quite safe to use and will last for a long time, typically 8 to 10 hours.
Plus, if the kids drop the warmers on a cold night, they should remain inside the sleeping bag to extend the warmth.
Improve Tent Insulation
You may heat a tent as much as you want, but all that will go to waste if it’s not properly insulated.
Tent insulation takes many forms, but ground, top, and side insulation are three critical ones.
Have a foam blanket for ground insulation and a cover on top to keep the elements at bay. The insulated tent walls should also be covered to avoid heat loss. Pay attention to the seams since it’s where most of the heat gets lost.
Cozying up to your loved one in a shared sleeping bag is a great way to generate heat, and it’s free! Pets, especially dogs, may also make for good snuggling partners, but just ensure they’re comfortable.
If you can’t snuggle, having an extra person in the tent is enough to generate heat. The more people in the tent, the warmer it gets because everyone is contributing body heat.
Pack a Pair of Sleepers
Packing tent sleepers may not seem like the sexiest thing to do, but you’ll be surprised at how practical they’re, especially during winter.
First, they keep your toes warm inside the tent and save you from walking on the cold floor of your tent.
But more importantly, they’ll let you dash outside without braving the harsh elements or slipping in your cold hiking boots.
And at the end, the sleepers allow your feet to breathe while staying protected.
Don’t of Cold Weather Camping: How not to Keep your Tent Warm
Here’re a couple of practices that will work against your effort to keep your tent warm:
Avoid Air Mattress
Air mattress is a creature of comfort, but avoid these inflatable constructs if you want to stay warm in a tent.
See, air mattresses hold on to the ambient temperatures, so if you’re winter camping in zero-degree conditions, expect your bed to be damn cold.
Keep Off the Double-Height Air Beds
I’m a big fan of the double-height air beds because of their convenience of getting on and off. They’re particularly a great option for users with mobility issues.
The problem is they can get quite chilly because of the void of air between the bed and the floor. It tends to hold onto the ambient air conditions.
Instead, consider a regular twin-size mattress for more floor space and extra warmth if you must use the double-height design.
Avoid Using a Stove Inside your Tent
I know it’s tempting to bring a stove to stay warm, but it’s a huge mistake.
For one, it poses an imminent danger of your tent catching fire.
Also, using a stove in an enclosed space may result in the buildup of poisonous carbon monoxide.
Don’t Leave the Heaters on while sleeping.
I already mentioned this, but I’ll continue to reiterate that you shouldn’t leave your heaters on when heading to sleep.
Switch them on until your tent warms up, then turn them off before you fall asleep.
Otherwise, they may turn your tent into a bonfire or harm you from the toxic gases they release.
Don’t Cheap Out on your Sleeping Bag
Sleeping bags are, in my opinion, probably the most critical element of keeping warm in a tent.
The goal of any camper should be how to keep a camping tent warm without electricity or heaters.
It means investing your resources in a well-insulated and good sleeping bag. It should also be waterproof and easy to use.
I’m Already Cold: What Should I Do Next?
Assuming you start to get cold and everything around you freeze, understand you might be at risk of hypothermia or frostbite.
Both conditions have severe consequences and can even be fatal if not recognized early and addressed.
Some of the effects of these conditions may include loss of fingers and toes, limbs, and even death.
Let’s look at how one can easily spot these conditions and how to save yourself;
It’s a medical emergency, occurring when your body is exposed to extreme cold, typically when the body conditions fall below 35 °C.
Usually, the condition happens when your body loses more heat than it generates.
Some of the common signs and symptoms of hypothermia are:
- Weak pulse
- Low energy
- Memory loss
The worst thing about hypothermia is the victim hardly recognizes these signs or knows their condition, so it’s easy to degenerate into a more serious condition.
Body heat is the most reliable and surest way to warm up a person with hypothermia. Make body contact while waiting for medical help.
What is Frostbite?
It’s the gradual freezing of body parts. It mainly starts with the limbs and cuts off the blood supply.
If not addressed, it may lead to the loss of limbs or permanent damage of body organs.
Signs and Symptoms
- Numb feel
- Rigid feel
- Discolored skin
Warm up the affected region.
Dip the region in warm but not hot water. Let the affected region warm up gradually, but not instantly, as it may cause more harm.
Also, avoid rubbing the affected region.
How to Keep a Tent Warm Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Q: What is the safest way to heat a camping tent:
A: I’d recommend using an electric heater over any other heating method.
Yes, it’s not completely safe, but it carries a lesser risk of starting a fire or generating carbon monoxide than the propane or gas heater.
Other safe ways to heat your tent include using a hot water bottle and hot rocks.
But like any other heating element, close supervision is necessary.
Q: What’s the best way to insulate my tent?
A: There’re a couple of ways to insulate your camping trips tent, but my go-to option is using blankets.
Covering the entire tent with blankets will stop the generated heat from radiating outside.
Also, consider insulating your tent from the cold ground using a groundsheet, over even piling snow on the bottom section.
Q: What is the warmest tent?
A: Generally, the 4-season survival tents are the warmest options available.
These tents have great insulation properties and are waterproof, so they don’t allow water seeping.
Q; How much warmer do tents get?
A: Generally, tents will provide a shield against the elements while your body heat raises the temperature inside the tent.
Tents will raise the internal temperatures by a small fraction, and the bulk of the temperature rise will come from your heart-warming efforts.
Q: Is a car camping warmer than a tent?
A: The choice to sleep in either a car or a tent will depend on the amount of insulation.
If a tent is properly insulated, then it might just be warmer and more comfortable than sleeping in a car.
Q: Is it advisable to pitch a tent under a tree?
A: Pitching a tent under a tree will save you from direct sunlight exposure but might be an issue in case of rain.
Trees act as lightning rods in the rain. Plus, the branches and leaves may fall on your tent.
Q: Where do I pitch in the rain?
A: Avoid setting your tent on sloppy ground to avoid the rain driving into your tent.
Also, avoid setting your tent in the lowest section or in the valley to avoid water collecting in your tent.
If you’ve been wondering how to keep a camping tent warm, you now have a couple of handy techniques and methods to help you out.
Remember, these methods are to be used collectively for the best results.
But as we’ve seen, the choice of your down sleeping bag will determine how insulated and toasty your next camping trip will be. It should probably be the most important camping gear in your camping kit.
Also, don’t skimp on your sleeping bag; go for quality and well-insulated options.