How I Stay Warm in My Tent: 11 Tips from a Colorado Backpacker
The temperature is dropping, wind speeds are climbing, and snow is expected to fall in the highlands. Yet I refuse to retire my tent to the gear shed. Sure, winter is coming, but that never means it’s time to stop camping.
Trust me, I spend half the year in Durango, CO. I summit 14ers at night. I know a thing or two about how to stay warm in a tent.
Stop shivering yourself to sleep. Follow these 11 tips and feel as cozy as a flame-engulfed marshmallow all night long.
1. Take Care of Yourself While on the Trail
Our bedtime experience is directly correlated with how we treat ourselves during the day. Stay hydrated, keep your body fueled and don’t get sunburned. While it’s easy to neglect personal care for the sake of a few extra miles, all that wear and tear is going to catch up with you, in the form of a freezing cold and bad night’s sleep.
2. Get a Good Sleeping Pad
Your sleeping pad is all that is separating your body from the cold, hard ground. If you skimp on your pad you could wake up in the middle of the night shivering cold — that is, if you’re able to fall asleep at all.
In particular, get a sleeping pad with an R-value (or temperature rating) appropriate for the temperatures you’ll be camping in. For our recommendations, check out our guide to the best backpacking sleeping pads.
3. Choose Your Campsite Wisely
Knowing how the weather behaves in certain areas is the foundation to keeping warm while camping. Cold air sinks and hot air rises, so the valley floor (which also can act as a wind tunnel) is going to feel like a patch of the arctic.
What’s more, the highest points are often exposed to windy and potentially dangerous weather conditions. Avoid the windchill and pick a protected mid-elevation point.
4. Fill a Water Bottle with Hot Water
The crotch bottle, or belly bottle, is a classic warm body trick. Right before you go to bed, boil water on your backpacking stove, fill your Nalgene and shove it inside your sleeping bag. This makeshift heating pad can be tucked right up against your belly or shoved inside the front of your long johns. It’s an easy way to generate instant heat in your bag that will last all night.
Does sticking a water bottle against your crotch sound gross? Great! Now nobody will ask for a swig from your bottle during the day. Win, win.
5. Eat a Hearty Dinner and Drink Warm Liquids
I don’t know about you, but one of my favorite things about backpacking is the amount of rich, fatty, butter-filled foods I can consume without guilt. Hiking in winter temperatures means that your body may need up to 6,000 calories per day.
Plan meals high in fat, which provides more than double the amount of calories per gram than protein or carbohydrates. They’ll warm your body like an internal furnace.
6. Keep Your Head and Feet Covered and Dry
Most heat escapes your body through the bottom of your feet and the top of your head. To prevent this, wear a dry, thick pair of hiking socks and a warm hat to bed for extra insulation right where it matters. Don’t sleep in the socks you hiked in, though, as sweaty socks are a night ruiner.
To reduce the temptation of wearing the same socks, designate a pair of sacred sleep socks that never leave the bottom of your sleeping bag. In the morning, just roll them up and pack them in with the sleeping bag. Having a permanently dry pair of socks will also give you something to look forward to at night.
7. Prep Your Tomorrow Clothes
Make it easy to start the day warm.
If the clothes you plan to wear tomorrow are dry, shove them inside the bag with you. It’ll add a few extra insulating layers to your sleep den. Plus, having warm clothes to change into will make the whole getting-ready-for-the-day thing more bearable.
If your tomorrow clothes are damp or wet, avoid balling them up in a corner where they will retain that moisture and possibly freeze stiff. Fan them out on the floor of your tent or hang them if possible.
8. Actually Use Your Mummy Bag
If you’re complaining about the cold and I can see more than your little nose and mouth poking out of the mummy bag, you will receive no sympathy from me.
I get it, you’re bunching up the extra fabric of the hood to create a pillow for your head. It’s a great way to ensure you wake up to the sound of your own teeth chattering.
Conquer your fears of claustrophobia and use your sleeping bag as it was designed. Wrap your face with the insulated hood and be amazed at how big of a difference it makes. But don’t burrow — keep both your nose and mouth outside the bag to avoid creating excess moisture on the inside via your breath.
9. Change Out of Your Day Clothes
When you’re exhausted from a full day of hiking, it’s easy to get lazy about hygiene. I’ve skipped teeth brushing in the backcountry more times than I’d like to admit.
Even still, I make it a rule to never sleep in the sweaty, wet clothes that I hiked in. Besides being gross, it’ll drop your core body temperature and make it difficult to fall asleep.
10. Fluff Your Sleeping Bag
When your sleeping bag is squished into a compression sack for 16 hours a day, the insulation will quickly flatten. This can make even a -30F rated bag feel cold in 60F weather.
As part of your bedtime routine, take time to fluff your sleeping bag and shake up that internal insulation, also checking to make sure it’s evenly distributed. If you have time in the morning or on sunny rest days, it can also be a good idea to let it dry out in the sun.
11. Play the Naked Game
No, not that one.
While many people recommend a set of 50 jumping jacks before launching under the covers to heat your core body temperature…I think jumping jacks are stupid. Plus, getting yourself sweaty before bed is the exact opposite of what you want to do.
Instead, play the Naked Game!
How to play: Hop in your sleeping bag wearing what you intend to sleep in. Zip the sleeping bag up all the way and, from the inside of your sleeping bag, strip down to your birthday suit. Once that’s done, try to put all your clothes back on. All that squirming around in your bag will generate heat (and good laughs) in the exact place you need it to be — your sleeping bag.
For added fun, race your friends and challenge the comfort level of all your relationships!