Tent camping is an awesome way to enjoy the great outdoors – but it comes with its own set of challenges.
In addition to a potential lack of comfort (check out our top tips to make tent camping more comfortable to solve this problem), you’re at the mercy of the weather, particularly the cold.
Of course, staying warm while winter camping is challenging. But, cold can also be a major factor even when camping in the summer, especially in the desert, mountains, and other regions known for chilly nighttime temps.
Luckily, staying warm camping in a tent isn’t all that difficult with some preparation, a little know-how, and the right gear whether.
Here’s exactly how to stay warm camping in a tent on cold nights.
Preparation is Key
With the right gear, you can go camping in pretty much any weather conditions.
But, it’s still always essential to keep an eye on the forecast, so you know what you’re getting yourself into.
Read up on the weather before heading out so you know exactly what gear to pack and what to expect at your campsite.
This is especially important if you’re planning to travel in avalanche country.
Check and double check your camping checklist (or backpacking checklist) to ensure you have all the gear you need. You don’t want to be stuck cold weather camping without the proper winter camping gear.
Speaking of your campsite, choosing the right site goes a long way towards staying warm while tent camping in the winter.
If at all possible, choose a campsite with a natural wind block. But, at the same time, make sure you’re not camped underneath dead branches (known as widowmakers), especially if there’s snow.
Ideally, you’ll also avoid valleys and other natural dips in the terrain. Cold air is typically trapped in these low-lying areas. Instead, find a campsite on a natural rise (that’s not completely exposed).
Finally, always remember to let someone know where you’re camping and what your plan is while you’re there.
Sure, this isn’t going to help you stay warm while tent camping, but it is very important to your overall safety. Always do this, no matter the time of year or expected weather.
Bring the Right Tent
A winter camping tent is a must when camping in cold and snowy conditions.
Look for a 4-season tent designed to stand up to extreme weather. These are typically heavier and more robust than your standard 3-season tent due to reinforced poles and stronger materials.
Although a 4-season tent is a good choice for camping in the snow, most winter campers should be able to get away with a typical 3-season tent.
The exceptions are if you’re camping above the treeline or in another exposed location or you expect heavy snowfall or high winds. A 4-season winter tent will fare much better in strong wind than a 3-season model.
If you do opt for a 3-season tent, make sure it has a full coverage rainfly and a domed shape to shed rain and snow.
Personally, here in the Pacific Northwest, I’m almost always fine with a 3-season tent since I’m camping in fairly mild, if cold, conditions.
The Cabela’s Alaskan Guide Tent is a great winter tent. Although it’s a 4-season tent, it actually works quite well in spring, fall, and even summer thanks to its removable rainfly and surprising breathability.
Yet another option for tent camping in winter is a canvas tent. Although much more expensive than a traditional nylon tent, a winter canvas tents holds up much better to snow and wind. Plus, they actually provide some insulation and are able to trap warmth (which a normal tent can’t really do).
Better yet, you can actually use a winter tent stove inside of most canvas tents. Not much beats heating your tent with a crackling fire when it dips below freezing outside.
A Warm Sleeping Bag is a Must
Even more important than a quality winter tent is a warm cold-weather sleeping bag.
In fact, a quality sleeping bag, properly rated for the temperatures you expect, is the single best way to stay warm camping in a tent.
Our guide to the best sleeping bags for winter camping breaks down exactly what to look for in a winter bag (and provides a handful of recommendations).
Most important is to look at the lower limit temperature rating. This number is the lowest temperature that the manufacturer believes the average user will stay warm.
Personally, I always find it best to opt for a sleeping bag with a minimum temperature rating at least 10°F to 15°F lower than the coldest temperatures you expect to encounter.
In fact, on my own winter camping trips, I usually opt for something even warmer than this. You definitely don’t want to be stuck with a not warm enough sleeping bag on a cold night. If you’re too warm, just unzip the bag for a little ventilation.
In terms of design, a mummy bag is a much better choice than a rectangular bag on colder nights thanks to their superior insulating properties.
For even more warmth, consider adding a sleeping bag liner. Not only does this help keep your bag clean and extend its lifespan, but it can also add quite a bit of warmth. Most liners add about 10°F to a sleeping bag’s temperature rating.
Don’t Forget Sleeping Pads!
Sleeping pads (check out our complete sleeping pad guide here) aren’t only about comfort.
They also add a lot of warmth to your camping sleep setup by better insulating you from the cold ground.
A closed-cell foam sleeping pad almost always provides superior insulation than an inflatable air pad, although some air pads are insulated.
If you normally use an inflatable sleeping pad while camping, then I recommend pairing it with a closed-cell foam pad for winter camping.
Simply use the air pad on top of the foam pad for a one-two punch of insulation and comfort.
When camping in cold weather, I often bring several sleeping foam pads for even more insulation. The better the ground insulation, the warmer you’ll stay.
A cot is another option. At the same time that it helps lift you off the cold ground, it also lets cold air circulate below you.
When camping with a cot in the winter, I strongly recommend using a closed-cell foam sleeping pad, or better yet a high-density foam pad, for better insulation.
The same goes for hammock camping. Yes, hammock camping in winter is totally possible. But, to avoid cold butt syndrome, you need to add insulation in the form of a sleeping pad and an underquilt.
A major part of staying warm while tent camping boils down to getting insulation underneath you, between your body and the ground, no matter your camping sleep setup.
Consider Insulating Your Tent
It’s possible, albeit a little difficult, to insulate a tent for cold weather camping.
First things first, clear the ground of snow if possible. Your tent will retain much more heat if it’s placed directly on the ground, rather than on top of snow.
Next, bring some sort of ground cloth. The tent footprint that comes with your tent is fine, but adding a tarp is even better. Just make sure the tent doesn’t extend past the bottoms of the tent as this can create a vessel for snow and rain to sit in.
Remember that smaller tents are easier to insulate. The smaller your winter tent, the better.
Fill the inside of the tent with additional ground insulation. Closed-cell foam sleeping pads are a must. But you can also lay down blankets, rugs, or even foam padding like yoga mats to completely insulate the floor.
Now, to the outside of the tent. The best winter tents have full coverage rainflies. Not only does this held shed rain and snow, but it also slightly improves insulation.
If you expect wind, create some sort of windbreak. Trees or a vehicle work. In deep snow, you can also build a snow wall to shield your tent from the wind.
To really insulate a tent, you can even add layers of thermal blankets or other insulating fabrics to the interior walls and ceiling. Duct tape work swell for attaching thermal blankets to the inside of your tent.
Of course, this extra insulation will impact breathability, but it can have a noticeable difference on overall warmth by trapping your body heat inside the tent at night.
One final tent insulation tip is to put all your extra gear around the edges of your tent. Place extra clothing, backpacks, etc around the perimeter of your tent to further increase insulation.
While insulating a tent is possible, it’s typically much easier to insulate yourself.
A properly rated sleeping bag (as mentioned above) with a sleeping pad is essential. Warm clothing (discussed below) is also vital.
For the utmost in tent insulation, I once again recommend a canvas tent. The naturally thicker fabric has better insulating properties than even the best nylon winter tents.
Pack Warm Clothing
Layering is crucial when camping in the winter.
Wear a lightweight, long-sleeved base layer that sits close to your skin without being too restricting. Make sure to select a breathable, moisture-wicking material. Polyester or nylon is a good choice.
Your next layer should be a warm mid layer. Wool or polyester is best. Think fleece pants and a fleece quarter zip top. Remember that this is the insulating layer and should be warmest.
Next up is the exterior layer. This outside layer of winter clothing should consist of a waterproof yet breathable jacket and waterproof yet breathable pants. This is the layer that sheds any rain, snow, or wind to keep the inner layers warm and dry.
The idea behind layering is that you can add or remove layers as is necessary. You absolutely don’t want to get too hot while winter camping. And, if you do, you want any sweat to be wicked well away from your body where it’s able to quickly dry.
Personally, I like to bring a separate base layer to wear at night in my tent.
Chances are that you’ll break a sweat setting up task or completing campground tasks before its bedtime. You don’t want to go to bed with moist or damp clothing. This can lead to frostbite, hypothermia, and other serious problems.
A dry base layer that is tight but not too tight and made from synthetic fabrics or wool will greatly help you stay warm while camping in a tent.
Personally, I like to wear thin gloves, warm wool socks, and a beanie at night. Add or remove these as needed throughout the night.
Cotton is typically a poor choice for winter camping (and, honestly, camping in general) since it’s not very breathable and not good at wicking sweat.
Our winter camping gear guide has even more advice on selecting the right winter clothing for your next cold weather camping trip.
Of course, a pair of durable, well-insulated, and waterproof winter hiking boots with good traction is also essential for camping in the winter.
A Portable Tent Heater is Helpful
I’m a big fan of using a portable tent heater when camping in the winter.
A portable heater is hugely helpful at staying warm during cold weather excursions, especially when it’s frigid at night.
Although some people do run tent heaters at night inside their tents, I personally prefer to run mine only when I’m awake.
I use my tent heater to warm up the tent before bed and right when I wake up. Make sure that there’s adequate ventilation if you’re using a propane model.
Just know that, even with a tent heater, your tent is unlikely to retain the heat for long. Unless you have an extremely insulated tent, a heater is only able to provide heat while in use.
I personally prefer propane heaters for winter camping. Mr. Heater is the gold standard in my opinion. I like the Mr. Heater Little Buddy best out of their offerings for tent camping.
But using an electric tent heater is also possible. Pair a portable electric heater with a portable power station for tent camping use. You can even use a portable solar panel to charge the portable power station on long trips.
Our comprehensive guide to the best portable heaters for camping will help you find the perfect model for you.
Yet another option is a tent stove. However, these portable wood stoves are only compatible with certain tents – so make sure yours is before investing.
Although it’s not currently for sale, the Cabela’s Big Horn III is an excellent example of the type of winter camping tent I’m talking about here. It can be safely used with a variety of tent stoves, including those from Four Dog Stoves.
Other Tips to Stay Warm in a Tent
There are quite a few other things you can do to stay warm while camping in a tent.
This includes sleeping closer together, using a hot water bottle at night, eating a high-calorie bedtime snack, and warming up before entering your sleeping bag.
Just as important is not bundling down inside your sleeping bag too far. You don’t want to breathe in your bag which creates condensation and will ultimately make you colder than before.
Additional Winter Camping Tips
Learning how to tent camp in winter is about more than just staying warm. Here are some additional tips to make the most of it.
Remember to always bring a shovel when camping in snow. This will more easily allow you to clear the ground for your tent, build a wind block out of snow, and various other tasks.
I’m a big fan of also bring a sled. If you’re not able to camp right next to your vehicle, a sled makes transporting gear to your campsite so much easier, especially if you’re packing in a heavy canvas tent and wood stove.
Remember to check on the tent throughout the night in heavy wind. You probably want to check the tent poles and rigging at least every couple of hours to make sure they’re holding up.
The same goes for checking the tent walls. Tap them throughout the night if it’s snowing to prevent snow from building up.
What About You?
Staying warm camping in a tent is honestly pretty easy with the right gear.
In fact, I’m a big fan of taking cold weather camping trips since the wintertime environment is so pretty and you’re likely to have the entire forest to yourself.
What about you? How often do you go winter camping? Do you have any additional tents on how to stay warm in a tent?
Let us know in the comments below!