How To Keep a Tent Warm: A Complete Guide (2022)

Read this guide to learn about keeping your tent warm during cold nights outdoors.
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The end of autumn is a dreaded time for many campers, since it usually means they’ll have to wait until spring to pitch their tent again and sleep under the stars. However, there are plenty of daring campers and hikers who love being out in the wilderness for a night or two in the cold—especially those planning trips in the climates that stay cold year-round.

There are many things to consider differently about your backcountry adventure in the winter than in other seasons, but keeping your tent warm is among the top priorities. Keep reading for our expert advice on how to keep a tent warm in the winter, a few tips for keeping your body temperature down while you sleep, and some information on the two elephants in the room: hypothermia and frostbite.

Table of Contents

7 Tips for Keeping Your Tent Warm

Choose the Right Tent

Before leaving on your trip, you should make sure you have the right tent for keeping warm in cold temperatures. Some tents just frankly aren’t built for low temperatures, so you’ll need to be careful as to which one you pick.

Although bigger tents can be more appealing for space and comfort, you should look for a smaller tent when camping in the cold, since they stay warm the easiest. You should also ensure your tent has wind resistance and good ventilation.

Choose the Right Campsite

If you have the ability to choose your campsite before you embark on your journey, we recommend finding a place that’s covered and protected from the wind and other elements. 

It can be very hard to keep warm in your tent if it’s on damp, wet ground, even with proper insulation. On the other hand, getting blasted with wind gusts can be frustrating and make it harder to stay warm, even with a heavy-duty, wind-resistant tent. Also try to avoid low areas, such as valleys, since they can hold settled cold air.

Buy a Tent Heater

Obviously, buying a tent heater is the most ideal way to keep the inside of your tent warm, but it does have its disadvantages. Tent-safe heaters can use electricity or fuel to radiate heat throughout the small space within your tent, making them great for a nice toasty night outside.

However, they can be annoying to carry around, especially if you’re on a hiking trip, and they can be dangerous if not used safely. If you go this route, we recommend closely monitoring it while it’s on to ensure it doesn’t fall and catch some of your tent materials or clothes on fire. To be the most safe, turn it off before you fall asleep, once you’ve had it on long enough to warm up your tent.

Insulate Your Tent

Even if you use a tent heater or another method to warm up your tent, insulation is one of the most impactful ways to protect your tent from the outside elements. You can use fitted tent carpet, rugs, or even towels and rag rugs to layer the bottom of your tent. Cold temperatures come from the ground, so putting multiple layers between your body and the earth is a great way to stay warm overnight.

Sleeping pads also act as a form of insulation, protecting your body from the cold ground. Bringing a sleeping pad on your camping or hiking trip is critical, even when the nighttime temperatures are as high as 60°F.

Use a Hot Water Bottle

The hot water bottle is an age-old trick for keeping your sleeping bag and bedding warm during the night. When eating dinner, you can boil some extra water using your camping stove or fire and pour it into an empty water bottle to keep in your sleeping bag overnight.

If the water bottle is too hot to touch, and you’re ready for bed, you can simply wrap it in a towel or an item of clothing until it’s a comfortable temperature against your skin.

Use Hot Rocks

Similar to the hot water bottle method, you can use hot rocks to help keep your tent warm during the night. If it’s later in the evening, you may need to use your fire starter to get your campfire going strong again. Once you have a steady fire going, look for round rocks around 4–5 inches in diameter, then place them about 6–12 inches away from your fire. 

Heat them for about an hour, turning them ever-so-often to ensure each side gets evenly heated, until they’re slightly too hot to touch. Wrap the rocks in a towel, piece of clothing, or sock, then place them in the corners of your tent. Be sure to keep it from touching the material of your tent, in case it could melt or damage it with the heat.

How to Warm a Tent with Hot Rocks

Ventilate Your Tent

Although it may seem like a good idea to seal up any holes or cracks in your tent, you actually do want some places for air to escape. Over time, the air in your tent can moisten from your breath, body temperature, hot water bottle, hot rocks, or tent heater. 

When that dampness accumulates, the air temperature can significantly drop. However, with proper ventilation, the air won’t sit in your tent long enough to humidify. Good ventilation can also help prevent mold from growing in your tent.

How to Keep Your Body Warm While Cold Camping

Wear the Right Clothes

Understanding the concept of layering is a critical aspect of adventuring outside in the cold, and it applies to keeping warm in your tent as well. Be sure you prepare with the right layers to keep you warm during the night, and don’t wait until you’re cold to wish you’d packed them.

Consider the purpose of each layer when you’re packing for your trip. For example, wearing a hat helps keep your ears and head warm during the night, thermal pants that are snug against your skin act as a base layer for your legs, and a down jacket insulates your torso and utilizes your own body heat to keep you warm.

Exercise Before Bed

Doing a few jumping jacks or going for a brisk walk can help raise your internal body temperature, which can continue to keep you warm when you get into your sleeping bag for the night. Your sleeping bag and layers of clothing can use your core temperature to keep you comfortable for hours after you’ve settled in.

Have a Warm Cup of Tea

Similar to exercising, drinking a hot drink before bed can make all the difference for setting a good base for your sleeping bag’s temperature. One of my favorite things about a cold camping trip is bringing a few tea bags for a night and morning cup—you should try it too. 

However, keep in mind that you don’t want to be getting up to go to the bathroom during the night, since that can let out your tent and sleeping bag’s warm air that you’ve worked so hard to establish, so don’t overdo it with the late night tea.

Bring the Right Sleeping Bag

Purchasing a good sleeping bag can be one of the best investments you make as a camper—not only for cold, winter camps, but for warm, summer nights outdoors as well. 

However, you don’t want to bring your 60°F sleeping bag to a 0°F camping trip, so make sure you pack the right one that’s equipped with insulation that can utilize your body temperature to keep you toasty throughout the night.

Dangers of Camping in the Cold

Camping in the cold can be a rewarding and impactful experience filled with glorious moments that you can’t quite get from anything else. However, it can be very difficult and dangerous, especially in freezing temperatures. 

You should be aware of symptoms and signs of the two biggest dangers that can occur while being out in the cold weather for extended periods of time: hypothermia and frostbite. 

Below are a few common signs of both dangers, but we recommend reviewing the Center for Disease Control’s (CDC) helpful resources about winter weather before going on your cold camping trip.

Signs of Hypothermia

According to the CDC, hypothermia typically occurs at very low temperatures, but it’s still possible at cool temperatures above 40°F if a person is wet from sweat, submersion, or rain. Look out for and monitor the following signs and symptoms of hypothermia while on your trip:

  • Shivering
  • Memory loss
  • Slurred speech
  • Confusion
  • Exhaustion
  • Clumsiness
  • Drowsiness

Signs of Frostbite

If you’re camping in freezing temperatures, frostbite is a constant threat to your extremities, such as your nose, ears, chin, fingers, and toes, that you should consider. It can cause permanent damage and lead to amputation if not monitored and treated quickly. Look out for the following signs and symptoms of frostbite:

  • Redness or pain
  • Grayish-yellow skin
  • White skin
  • Numbness
  • Waxy or firm skin
  • Stiffness

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it safe to use a space heater in a tent?

Space heaters that are designed for your home aren’t necessarily suitable for your tent for a few reasons. It may be too powerful for heating a small area like your tent and could overheat your tent if it doesn’t have proper ventilation. Additionally, if it doesn’t have proper safety features, it could fall over and potentially catch your tent on fire.

To avoid these issues, we recommend purchasing a tent-safe heater that’s specifically designed for camping, rather than using the electric space heater lying around your house.

How cold is too cold to sleep in a tent?

Generally speaking, somewhere between 30°F and 40°F is too cold for novice campers without the proper camping or backpacking gear to keep them warm. However, advanced campers who have invested in the right gear can camp in snowy climates that are considerably below freezing.

Can you use a candle to heat a tent?

Although you can technically heat a small tent with a lit candle, raising the temperature about 3°F to 5°F, we don’t recommend it. Having an open flame in your tent can be dangerous and isn’t worth the risk of accidentally setting your tent, sleeping bag, and clothes on fire.

Before You Leave: Summary

Whether you’re planning to go on a trip in Northern California, you’re worried about the sub-zero temperatures when you camp for a night in the Canadian Arctic, or you just want to take your family for a camp in 40°F weather, one thing is for sure: staying warm and comfortable in your tent is the best way to maximize your outdoors experience.

To keep your tent warm, be sure to choose the right tent and campsite before leaving on your trip. You could also purchase a tent heater if you’ll have access to electricity while on your trip. Insulate your tent with carpets, rugs, and sleeping pads, but be sure it also has good ventilation. 

Additionally, you should use a water bottle with hot water to keep your sleeping bag warm, and carefully use hot rocks in the corners of your tent for some extra radiating heat.

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