Camping in the colder months can be a blast, but not if you spend all night shivering from the cold.
Depending on your tent, you might be able to warm it with a gas heater, a wood-burning stove, or glass bottles filled with hot water. But honestly, you’ll never keep your tent warm enough to sleep comfortably if it’s cold out. It’s much more important to focus on warming yourself, so you can sleep snugly in your sleeping bag, even if the tent itself is freezing cold.
I feel the cold a lot, so I have to be extra cautious when camping in the winter. I know how awful it is to wake up with uncontrollable trembles and wonder how the heck you’re going to get through the night.
But electric heaters are expensive and inefficient to run, so you’re right to be avoiding that approach.
This article tells you how to keep yourself warm on your next trip. I’m also going to talk you through some tent heating options, though it makes a hundred times more sense to warm yourself and forget about heating the tent. (Sorry, but it’s true!)
Tips for Keeping Warm on a Camping Trip
Let’s start with the best ways to keep your body warm on your next camping trip. Everyone feels the cold a bit differently, so you’ll have some trial and error before you get your approach just right for you.
Remember to err on the side of caution at first, as it’s better to be a bit too warm and shed a few layers than be too cold and have nothing to do about it!
1. Choose the Right Sleeping Bag
To start, you’ll need a suitable sleeping bag. Check the temperature that it says you can sleep comfortably in, and compare it to the temperature forecast at night. (Don’t forget that desert climates can get freezing at night, even if they are hot during the day!)
You want a mummy sleeping bag, meaning that it has a hood. Pulling it tight will help stop warm air from escaping around your neck.
You also want a sleeping bag that’s the right size for you. I’m not very tall, so I have a smaller sleeping bag than my husband does. This way, I don’t have to warm up as much space with my body heat. (Plus, it’s less weight to carry.)
Another consideration is that sleeping bags deteriorate over time. I recently grabbed my old mountaineering bag out of the garage for a winter camp, assuming it would be fine.
However, when I got to the mountain peak, I realized it had lost loads of stuffing. So even though it was technically appropriate for the conditions, I was turning blue! Do check the condition of your kit before each camp; it’s worth it!
2. Insulate the Ground
You want a sleeping pad that won’t let all your body heat drain out through the cold ground. You have two options here.
You can get a sleeping pad designed for winter with a high R-value. Or you can use one sleeping pad year-round, but bring a cheap silver-coated mat along in the winter to put underneath your sleeping pad. (The shiny side needs to be toward your body.)
I choose the second option because I’m not too obsessed with hiking ultralight. But if you’re thru-hiking long distances, you’ll want to think more seriously about a special wintertime sleeping pad.
3. Layer Up
You’ll need to wear plenty of warm layers, even to bed. I usually wear a warm hat and gloves to sleep when it’s cold, and I bring thick, fluffy socks to wear at night.
Make sure to put on layers before you feel cold, so your body won’t have to work as hard at warming you up. (It’s harder to feel warm once you’ve already let yourself get too chilly.)
4. Eat Plenty of Food
The more you eat, the more calories you have available to warm you up. Think big, hearty meals and generous portions. This is not the time to be on a diet!
You could consider buying dehydrated food designed for hiking. This food is rich in calories and is easy to cook. Just add hot water and wait for a few minutes.
You might be surprised at how good dehydrated food tastes these days. (Plus, there’s hardly any washing up, which is always a bonus after a long hike!)
5. Pee Before Bed
Weird as it sounds, peeing before bed can help you stay warm because you have less liquid in your bladder.
Plus, you won’t have to get out of your sleeping bag to go in the night and let all your precious body heat disappear into the great outdoors.
6. Bring a Hot Water Bottle
You can bring a mini hot water bottle like you’d use at home, or you can boil water and pop it in a Nalgene bottle.
Putting it at your feet will make a big difference if your toes are cold, and you can drink the water when it’s chilly in the morning, so it won’t be wasted weight to carry.
Heating Your Tent Without Electricity
Now that I’ve covered your most sensible choices, we can look at heating your actual tent. This might make sense if you want to play a few board games in the evening and need to take the chill off the air.
But it won’t be an all-night solution in most cases. All that heat will flow straight out of the tent walls, and you can’t heat the whole world.
You might want to try a portable gas heater. The great thing about little gas heaters is that they aren’t too expensive and they throw off a surprising amount of heat! If I were going to be socializing with friends, I would consider using one of these.
But only in the right situation. The surface gets so hot that it could easily burn you, so you don’t want to use gas heaters around small children or animals.
They could also cause a tent fire, so you should use them only in large screen rooms with a grass floor and high ceilings, not in small, confined areas.
To be fair, gas heaters are getting safer these days. If you choose a model that automatically shuts off if oxygen levels get low or if it gets tipped over, you might consider using it inside your actual tent.
Personally, though, I wouldn’t go there. I just don’t think it’s worth the risk, and I’d rather enjoy the warmth in a screen room before heading into my cozy sleeping bag.
Some canvas tents like teepees have a fire-resistant stove port so you can install a wood fire. That is the only situation in which you can realistically keep your tent warm throughout the night.
However, because of the fire risk, you won’t want to leave the stove unattended.
For long-term campers in cold climates, a canvas tent and wood-burning stove would be an interesting option. But that will cost you.
When you share your tent with another person, the heat difference can be surprisingly significant. I would definitely consider sharing a small tent in the cold months rather than bringing a tent for each person.
You don’t have to spoon to benefit from your buddy’s body warmth!
A trick that I’ve used in small spaces is to boil water and then pour it into a few liter-size glass bottles. As they slowly release heat, the bottles can raise the temperature in the tent.
But you’d be better off boiling this water and putting it in Nalgene bottles that you slip into your sleeping bag.
Hot water bottles are far more effective in your sleeping bag and keep you super toasty, as compared to the minimal difference they will make in the tent.
If you want to be warm enough to hang out in the evenings, a campfire can be an excellent alternative to heating your tent. Now, you don’t want to light a fire close to your tent, as a few rogue sparks could put your shelter up in flames.
Keep the fire a reasonable distance from where you’ll be sleeping, and gather around it with your camping chair.
You’ll find that the front of your body gets really hot while your back stays cold, so I encourage you to wrap up in a blanket or sleeping bag instead of getting so close to the flames that your face starts to melt.
Campfires are allowed only in some places, and you need to follow responsible “leave no trace” principles. Click here for more on that.
While we are on the subject of campfires, you could use your fire to heat some stones. You would put the hot rocks inside the fire until they are glowing red, then place them carefully in a metal baking tray that you put inside your tent.
Make sure to put something beneath the metal tray to protect your tent floor, and I’d use this method only in an emergency. It’s not a great idea to have burning hot rocks on the ground where people walk around.
Otherwise, you could be dealing with burn injuries as well as the cold!
A Note on Condensation
Your first instinct might be to zip all the tent windows shut to keep in the heat. I can see why!
But that doesn’t work so well in practice. When it’s cold outside, your warm breath will hit the cold tent walls and turn to condensation.
If you don’t open some vents, wet breath will soon be dripping off the tent walls and ceiling. Not nice!
No matter how cold it is outside, you’ll want to allow some air to come through in the night to reduce condensation and help you breathe more comfortably.
That is another reason why I keep insisting that you should heat yourself rather than your tent!
Can you heat a tent with a candle?
I don’t recommend heating your tent with a candle and clay pot. You want to keep open flames out of your sleeping compartment. That goes for smoking and cooking, too. It’s just too dangerous to mess around with a fire in a flammable shelter.
Besides, the candle isn’t going to make much difference in the temperature.
How can I insulate my tent?
It’s best to start with a four-season tent instead of trying to insulate a summer shelter. But you can improve a tent’s insulation by covering the floor with a reflective blanket or sleeping pad, shiny side up.
You could also consider rigging up a tarp as a wind block outside your tent.
How can I warm up in an emergency?
If you’re getting too cold, you need to be proactive. One option is to get up and move around. Going for a brisk walk will raise your body temperature. But that will be only a short-term solution, as it’ll use a lot of energy.
Your best bet is to wrap yourself in an emergency foil blanket, which you should always bring with you to a camp.
What is the best way to heat a tent?
The best way to heat a tent is probably with a modern portable gas heater. But it makes far more sense to focus on insulating and warming your own body, as heating your tent isn’t a cost- or fuel-effective solution.
What’s the best tent for cold weather?
If there’s any chance of snow, you’ll probably want a four-season tent with a snow skirt. You’ll compact the snow over the top of the skirt, which will stop the wind from blowing up and under your tent wall, making you even colder.
An expedition-style tent or “five-season” tent is good in extreme conditions, but it would be overkill for most campers.
How long does it take for a tent to get cold?
Your tent won’t stay warm for longer than a few hours after you’ve turned off a heat source, especially considering that you will have a vent open to reduce condensation.
You’ll still feel warmer inside your sleeping compartment because the tent walls will protect you from the wind chill.
Your best bet for heating your tent is probably a gas heater, but only if it has an oxygen sensor and turns off if you accidentally knock it over.
Having said that, however, I would be cautious about using a gas heater around children and pets, who could get badly burned.
If you’re in a canvas tent, you can consider a wood-burning stove, especially if you’ll be camping for the long haul. But in the vast majority of situations, a decent sleeping bag and an insulated sleeping pad are the most affordable and practical ways to stay warm in your tent.
I hope you found this article on how to heat a tent without electricity helpful, and I wish you many cozy nights of camping!
More to read:
Rachel is a freelance adventure writer and founder of Highly Sensitive Nomad. When she isn’t writing, she can be found wild camping in the mountains and swimming in the lakes of Europe.