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Tips and tricks to keep cozy and warm in your tent

Camping is a wonderful family activity that can be fun and create awesome memories. One thing that can make an awesome winter car camping trip turn sour is being too cold. The good news is that with some planning you can prepare ahead of time to keep your tent warm and comfortable on your camping trip even on cold nights.

green sleeping bags in an open tent showing a snowy field with trees

Why Camping in the Cold can be a Challenge

Whether you are planning winter car camping trips or are looking to go camping in the shoulder seasons of spring and fall when the nights get cold it can be a smart idea to be prepared with ways to keep warm so you can stay comfortable. Camping in the cold weather is a challenge because being cold often makes people cranky, it makes Momma Critterz hands not work so well and it makes Tiny Critter never want to leave his cozy sleeping bag.

Staying warm in a tent is an essential part of making everyone comfortable on your next winter car camping trip! Follow our tips to make your tent a cozy oasis.

Tips to Help Keep You Warm in Your Tent

Stay Cozy with Hot Drinks

A tea kettle or camping coffee maker are essential for warming up in the morning after a cold night or to make some warm bed time tea to get you warmed up and ready for bed. Even hot water on its own can be useful to warm you up if you didn’t expect it to get cold and did not bring hot drinks with you.

Hot drink options to stay warm for winter camping. Apple cider, hot chocolate, bone broth, irish breakfast tea, bedtime tea, constant comment tea

Our favorite hot drinks are hot cocoa, hot apple cider and hot chicken broth or bone broth. We power up the jet boil, get some water boiling and whip up all kinds of drinks. I’ll even drink plain warm water in a pinch. Warm fluids are always a better choice in the freezing cold.

steaming hot drink in an orange mug nestled in between two trees.

Plan Hot Meals

When it is cold you can use hot meals to help warm you up and keep you warm. This can be a full-fledged meal or something simple like hot oatmeal. We usually eat a warm bedtime snack, but do whatever works for you to help keep warm and get your blood flowing.

Eat high calorie foods, as your body uses a lot of energy to stay warm. We add bone broth packets to almost every food we make while winter camping.

stew, camping, outdoor cooking

Keep the Tent Zipped

This seems obvious, that the way to keep the tent warmer is to not leave it open. But once you’re camping you realize how many times you think you’re ready for bed only to find that you have something in the tent that needs to be in the car or vise versa.

Opening the tent in cooler weather lets out a lot of warm air and it takes a while to get that heat back. If one person needs to go to the bathroom, it’s probably best for everyone who is awake to go as well. I’ve always found that if one of us wakes up to pee, eventually all 3 of us end up going in short order.

The other way to combat this is to use a pee bottle during the night. A large mouth bottle or coffee can will even work for females or anyone not blessed with the correct equipment to urinate into a small bottle. It sounds gross, but sometimes staying warm in a tent is worth it.

How to Keep a Tent Warm While Camping

  • Stay protected

Start by pitching your tent somewhere out of the wind. The more protected your tent is, the easier it is to stay warm. Also pitch it somewhere that will catch the morning sun. Most often we try to avoid the sun rising right on out tent, but if you’re camping in winter weather, you’ll want as much sun on your tent as possible.

If you can’t find a natural wind break, creating one with a tarp is always an option. Attach the tarp to the top of your tent and then angle it down to the ground leaving enough space to ventilate the tent properly. If you do this on the side with the prevailing wind, it will help you stay warm all night.

  • Keep your tent ventilated.

When people think of keeping warm in a tent, they don’t often think airflow is important. It’s tempting to shut all of the windows down tight and batten all the hatches, but beware of making your tent TOO closed up. Condensation will collect in a closed off tent, and everything is much colder when it’s damp. You’ll want some ventilation to keep the air circulating to keep your self and your gear dry.

  • Reflect out the cold

You can try placing mylar blankets along the bottom of your tent and one on top of your tent under the rain fly to hold it down. This will reflect your body heat back in at you and reflect the cold out. Mylar makes a great portable insulation option that is perfect for helping to ensure that you keep warmer. You should have one of these packed with your 10 essentials or in your first aid kit. Be sure to replace it if that’s where you got it from.

  • Insulate your tent

Use our tips for tent floor padding to keep your tent insulated and warm on cold nights. The more you can insulate your tent, the longer your tent will stay warm. The ground is COLD, so keep yourself up off of it as much as possible. One of the best ways to stay warm in a tent is to not let the tent get too cold in the first place.

  • Stay small

A small tent is easier to keep warm than a larger tent. We normally camp in a 6 person tent, but for cold weather camping, we’d bring a smaller 4 person tent. Usually I say bigger is better, but a small tent is the way to go when you’re trying to stay warm. The more tent you have, the more cold air you’ll have to heat up to stay warm.

Sleeping bags are the same way, a smaller bag is easier to stay warm in than a large rectangular bag. You’ll want to get a mummy style, or a semi-rectangular shape. The less cold air around you, the more you’ll benefit from your own body heat.

Gear to Help Keep you Warm

3 Season tent

While you may not think you need one, if you are going on a lot of camping trips in the winter, the cost of a better insulated tent is well worth the expense to help keep you warm and comfortable on a cold night.

marmot 4 person 3 season tent for camping in cooler weather

Marmot makes an awesome option for a 3 season tent that the reviews say holds up well even in snow.

Cold Weather Rated Sleeping Bag

Like your tent, opting for gear like a winter sleeping bag will help to keep you comfortable on a cold night so you can better enjoy camping. Cold weather sleeping bags are generally just fine for summer camping as well, you can sleep on top of your sleeping bag with a sheet instead.

Disposable Hand Warmers

These disposable hand warmers are filled with a chemical that reacts with oxygen in the air to create a reaction that warms the contents of the bag and in turn warms your body. They are lightweight and easy to pack and take with you. You can carry one around in your pocket during the day or shove one in your sleeping bag at night.

Do NOT use disposable heat packs with babies or little kids, and do NOT sleep with these on your bare skin. They seem harmless, but they actually get hot enough to burn.

Rechargeable hand warmers

Zippo makes an amazing rechargeable hand warmer that also doubles as a phone charger/battery bank. Slipping this into your sleeping bag or pocket is a great way to stay warm in a tent or at any other outdoor activity. Now that I have one, it will always be packed with my winter camping gear.

Tent Heater

Technology is getting better and better for tent heaters. When I first started camping I can’t imagine feeling safe with a tent heater from 30 years ago, but the safety features on tent heaters have come a long way.

There are several propane options that will help heat your tent so you can stay warm all night. I wouldn’t sleep with a propane heater on in my tent, but firing it up while everyone is getting ready for bed will take the chill out of the air and keep you from going to bed cold.

If you have electricity at your site or a generator, we’d suggest using the heater we have for Tiny Critter’s room. It’s made for a nursery or small child’s room, but it would make a perfect tent heater. It has a ceramic heating element, an air flow shut off and an automatic tip-over shut off.

If you have a canvas wall tent, there are often ways to connect a wood burning stove to the tent. I’ve never had the experience, but I can only imagine how awesome it would be to camp in early spring and come in from the cool fresh air to a hot tent warmed by a stove.

Be sure to read all safety information for the heater you want to use, and maintain adequate ventilation when using combustible gasses like propane.

How to Sleep Warm in a Tent

Insulated sleeping bag

This cannot be mentioned often enough, if you’re going to do a lot of winter car camping, make sure you have a warm enough sleeping bag. Check the rating on your sleeping bag and assume that’s the temperature you will stay alive at. If you want to be comfortable, you’ll usually need a bag rated for 20°F colder than the weather you’re camping in. So if you’re camping in 40°F, you’ll want a sleeping bag rated for 20°F. If your sleeping bag isn’t going to keep you warm enough, you won’t get a good night’s sleep, and no one wants to be a unhappy camper in the morning.

Layer Your Sleeping Bags

In addition to having a good sleeping bag, covering up with space blankets or a mylar bivy bag is a great way to help trap in more of your body heat to help keep you warm. Look for a sturdy space blanket that can be used more than once. These lightweight weight survival gear items help you retain body heat by reflecting your heat back to you and reflecting cold out. If you’re doing a lot of winter camping or hiking, you should always have a survival blanket with you.

Another way to make your sleeping bag warmer is to add a sleeping bag liner. Sleeping bag liners are an amazing way to extend your camping season without adding another expensive sleeping bag to your camping gear. This is our favorite one, it’s fleece and oh so cozy.

A down quilt is also an amazing option for retaining heat. Any extra layer you can add to your sleeping system will keep you warm in your tent, even in cold weather. Spreading a quilt or even an unzipped sleeping bag over two campers will help you share body heat and get a good night’s rest.

If you have a generator or an electric site for your camping trip, an electric blanket will go a long way to keep you warm. Our suggestion is to lay the blanket down on top of your sleeping mats and put your sleeping bags over it. Having an electric blanket on top of you lets a lot of heat escape into the cold air of the tent instead of warming you up.

Go to Bed Warm

Do not go to bed cold. Warm up your body before you jump into your mummy bag by doing a few light exercises. Jumping jacks or crunches will work just fine. Go slowly and do not do a ton of exercise. The goal is to increase your body hear and get slightly warm, NOT sweaty. If you break a sweat this will make you COLDER.

If you need to get up to pee, do a few pushups or crunches when you get back into your sleeping bag. You just need to do enough to get the blood flowing and raise your core body temperature slightly.

Insulated Sleeping Pads

If you’re camping on the cold ground, then insulated sleeping pads are a MUST HAVE. We camped in Glacier National Park in August and I wasn’t expecting the ground to be so cold in late summer. We brought a standard air mattress, and we FROZE the first night. Our friend slept toasty warm using his insulated sleeping pad. After that trip I bought an Ex-ped mat immediately.

Insulated sleeping pad, exped brand

I’m also not a fan of cots. They act a lot like an air mattress. A lot of people think they want to get “up off of the cold ground” but anyone who lives in a snowy climate knows that bridges that are up off of the ground get more ice because of the cold air underneath them. If you’re going to use a cot in cold temps, add an insulated sleeping pad to the top of it to make sure you’re sleeping comfortably.

A closed cell foam sleeping pad is also an option. Foam pads are better than air mattresses because they will help retain your body heat instead of letting your heat transfer into the air. You can also get foam mats with a reflective side to combine your foam sleeping pad and reflective blanket into one awesome item!

Use Hot a Water Bottle

An easy way to stay warm is to make your own hot water bottle. It’s as simple as it sounds, take your screw-top water bottle (we prefer Nalgene brand) and fill it with hot water. Then tuck the hot water bottle into your sleeping bag. You can even do this 20-30 minutes before bedtime to prewarm your sleeping bag.

Don’t use bottles with fancy flip-top or sip-top lids as hot water bottles. I’ve never found one that is 100% spill-proof and you do NOT want to find out the hard way by soaking your bedding and sleeping pad.

This trick should keep you warmer for a few hours and give your body a jump start on creating more body heat. After the water cools off in the hot water bottle, you can even drink the water to stay hydrated during the night without getting out of your sleeping bag.

If you want, you can even bring an actual hot water bottle, this option will be much more comfortable to sleep next to than hot water in a plastic bottle.

Warm Clothes

To get a good night’s sleep, start with warm clothes. Keeping your feet warm and your head warm are essential to staying warm in a tent. Momma Critter always finds it easier to fall asleep in colder weather wearing a hat and warm socks.

I’m not going to quote how much body heat is supposedly lost from your head, but when your head is the only thing outside of the sleeping bag, wearing a hat will be essential to stay warm.

Never sleep in wet clothes, it will lower your body temperature significantly. You need to start with as much heat as possible, so be sure you’re wearing dry clothes. We highly recommend you change out of your sweaty daytime base layers into night time base layers to stay warm.

If you want a jump start on keeping warm the next morning, you can always put the next day’s clothes into your sleeping bag to prewarm them for the morning.

Share Body Heat

Sharing a sleeping bag with your kids, partner or even a dog is a great way to stay warm in cold temperatures. We own several double sleeping bags, and they are amazingly cozy and warm.

Just be aware of how large double sleeping bags are. If it’s just one adult and a smaller child, a double sleeping bag will be HUGE and you’ll waste a lot of energy trying to heat the whole thing. One option is for each person to sleep in their own sleeping bag liner within the double bag. The other option is to fold under the unused potion of the sleeping bag, which will add more insulation and give you less space to keep warm.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is it safe to use a heater in a tent?

Yes, there are several tent heaters you can use to keep your tent warm. Be aware of the warnings on the type of heater you’re choosing.
I would never sleep with an open flame in a tent, but using a propane heater for a short while before you go to sleep can be an awesome way to quickly heat your tent.

Can I heat rocks to bring in my tent?

Anyone who’s had a hot stone massage knows the amazing heat retention power of hot rocks.

Keep in mind that heating rocks in a campfire can be dangerous. Rocks can contain moisture or a mix of minerals that may cause them to explode without warning.

If you are going to try heating rocks to bring into your tent, heat them on the far side of the fire and keep everyone well away from them, so if they do crack or explode no one is near them.

Once the rocks are heated, make sure they are cool enough to handle, then wrap them in a towel and tuck them in your sleeping bag the same way you would a hot water bottle. Be sure the rocks are warm and not HOT, you don’t want hot rocks to melt your sleeping pad.

Do not let small children sleep with rocks in their sleeping bag, warm or otherwise.

Can I use a hot water bottle in my child’s sleeping bag?

Yes. I’d remove it when they go to sleep though. You don’t want them playing with it an accidentally getting warm OR cold water all over themselves.

I hope our tips and tricks to stay warm while car camping in winter keep you and your family toasty warm and comfy!

Happy Camping!

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