Campers love to camp but hate being cold. Camping in the cold seasons challenges any camper’s ability to stay warm outdoors. The cold seems to seep in through every crack, seam, and opening until it leeches into our skin and bones. Once we feel cold, we become less comfortable and camping becomes much less enjoyable. How to insulate a tent becomes an important question for cold weather campers.
Some hardy souls camp in every season. How do they stay warm? What makes them so special? We’re going to tell you what you need to know to set up your next camping trip. You can get outdoors and enjoy a winter wonderland. Your tent can be a little oasis of warmth waiting for you when the skiing, hiking, and exploring are finished.
What makes your tent cold?
To begin, we should understand something about why tents are cold. Tents are small structures designed for temporary use outdoors. Insulation is not built into most tents. Instead, people insulate a much smaller area: their sleeping bag. Camping in the wintertime is not much fun if you must remain in your sleeping bag all the time. Instead, you can insulate your tent. Before we give you the top tips for improving the outside and inside of your tent, let’s cover a few basic points about what causes tents to be cold.
One of the big problems campers face is the design of their tents. To have a warm tent, without the use of a heat source such as a stove, you need a small tent. Winter camping requires more gear and so a bigger tent is necessary. This dilemma causes serious problems for camping in the winter due to moisture management and heat retention.
Your body generates warmth all the time. In fact, your energy output is similar to a 100 watt light bulb. This might not seem very much, but light bulbs can be very hot! In your living room, this amount of heat is barely noticeable. In a small tent, it can be more than enough to keep you warm.
The first design imperative is a small tent living space. Use a smaller tent in the winter and try to keep the height as low as possible. You will warm up the air from your tent. The warm air will help you feel comfortable. A large, high tent has a much greater volume of air to warm. Use a small tent with a low ceiling.
The second design requirement is a vestibule or gear storage area. In the winter, wet gear is inevitable. Wet gear in your tent will absorb huge amounts of heat. Instead of heating your cold gear, store it in the tent’s porch or under a tarp to keep it dry and away from you.
Convection is heat loss through air movement. A simple illustration is to picture yourself sitting next to a fan on a hot day. The air movement makes you feel cooler. In the winter, you want the exact opposite. Once the air in your tent gets warm, you should try to keep as much warm air as possible inside your tent. Tents are not airtight. Instead, most of them are designed to be breathable. Our tips will help you combat air circulation.
Conduction is heat loss through contact with something cold. The opposite of this is how many stoves work. A cold pan is set on a hot surface and the pan is heated. For winter camping, if you sit or sleep on a cold surface such as the ground, your body’s heat will drain away into the ground. We’re going to tell you how to stop conduction from making you cold all night long.
Now that we’ve covered a few basics, let’s get into some tips for making your camp warmer in the winter.
Battling the cold outside your tent
The fight against freezing starts as soon as you decide to pitch your tent. Choose a good location, set your tent up correctly, fight the wind, cover your tent, and insulate the bottom. These are our strategies for combatting the howling winds and freezing temperatures of winter. Let us look at each one in more detail.
Location is important to keep your tent warm
You should try to find a very good spot for winter camping. There are a few things to consider when choosing the perfect place for your cozy castle. Here are a few pointers:
- Stay in the middle of slopes. Camping at the top of a hill is almost always windy. On the other hand, cold air sinks to the bottom of the landscape. Try to find a relatively flat spot in the middle of the slopes.
- Trees make natural windbreaks and rope anchors. They also create dangerous hazards when their branches fall. Set your tent up between two healthy-looking trees.
- Wind is a big factor in staying warm. Use your fingers or ears to feel the wind direction. Pitch your tent on the downwind side of hills and forests to stay out of the wind as much as possible.
Those three quick ideas should guide you to a good place to set up camp. The most important factor is managing the wind. If there are no slopes or trees and you are in a wide, flat area, then just choose another spot.
Insulate the bottom of a tent
Before you pitch your tent, plan for insulating the floor. Heat loss through conduction can make you miserable. Try to get off the ground. You can use a simple tarp under your tent to act as a thin barrier against the cold. There are at least two better options:
- Bring enough foam mats to cover your tent’s footprint. This will work well for campers without a big weight limit. Use two or three thick foam pads, such as yoga mats, to cover the area under your tent.
- Another option, if you have the time and tools, is to cut down tree boughs and use them as insulation. Small pine branches are well-suited to this purpose. Try to chop down a lot, though! Lay down a 6-inch-thick layer and then cover it with your tarp to prevent puncturing your tent’s floor with any pointy bits. Roll around a little to flatten the branches and you will have a well-insulated floor.
Stake it out
Once you’ve chosen your camping location and insulated your floor, stake your tent out correctly. Snow can place a heavy load on your tent. If it isn’t set up correctly, then snow can build up wherever your tent sags. Tents which flap in the wind also struggle to keep the wind out. Tie your tent down securely so it doesn’t move in the wind or sag under any snow.
We’ve already mentioned the wind several times. Once your tent is set up, take another step to keep the wind at bay by using a windbreak. A natural windbreak such as a stand of trees or a group of bushes is the best option. However, you can also bring a tarp with you to set up. The simplest solution is to drape the tarp over your tent and stake it down. However, if you also need gear storage, then hang a ridgeline between your trees and pitch the tarp as a simple tent over your tent. This should give you some space to get your gear out of the weather.
Cover the top
Heat rises through the top of tents. If you’ve done a few things to keep the wind and convection from robbing your tent of warmth, then the next step is to cover the top of your tent. This will really work to trap warm air inside. A simple solution is to use a heavy wool blanket. Lay it out over the top of your tent and use toggles or weights to anchor the sides. The top layer will really minimize heat loss to convection. You can also use a tarp or reflective safety blanket.
Keeping the warmth inside your tent
If the outside of your tent is well-insulated, then how to insulate the inside of your tent is a much simpler question. Once again, you will be fighting convection and conduction in the battle against the cold.
Stop air leakage
Look around your tent and try to discover places air is leaking out. Tents are often designed with windows. Close them. If your tent’s zip doesn’t quite close, then find a way to cover the open areas. Use a spare coat or sweater to block air movement.
This process can go a little too far! Obviously, you need air to survive. However, unless you are creating a tightly sealed tent, you should be fine. There are two points to remember about fresh air:
- If you are using a heater, then ventilation and air are very important. Many heaters – especially wood or gas stoves – give off gases that will build up in your tent. These can kill you! If you use a stove or heater, then ensure a supply of fresh air.
- The best place to get fresh air is at ground level. Hot air rises so try to keep it inside your tent. A small air gap near the bottom of your tent can let fresh, cold air in without letting out the air you have carefully heated and conserved.
Get off the ground
Even though your tent’s floor should be insulated, you should still insulate yourself further by getting off the floor. There are several ways to accomplish this. First, and simplest, is to use a sleeping mat. Self-inflating mats are common, relatively cheap, and very effective for getting you off the cold ground. A second option is to use a camp bed. You can carry a simple folding camp bed along with a sleeping mat. Set up the bed and then lay the sleeping mat on top of it before placing your sleeping bag on top of the mat. If you do this, then you can sleep five or six inches above the floor of your tent. Since the coldest air will be at the bottom of your tent, sleeping on a bed will keep you warmer.
Dress for success
Insulation starts at your skin. Dress in layers to keep your body’s heat close to you. Many people wear three layers of clothing:
- The first layer is thermal underwear. Pants and shirts designed to fit tightly and keep you warm are a great start to successful dressing. Put these on first.
- Then add a looser layer of clothing to aid in air circulation. Sweatpants or khaki pants work very well with a long-sleeved T-shirt in this layer. The goal is to move air around close to your body to keep moisture from building up.
- The final layer is a heavy layer of insulation. A thicker sweater or fleece hoodie will work wonder for keeping you warm and toasty.
Those three layers are indoor gear. Waterproof pants and a coat complete the outfit for winter trekking and exploring.
Sleeping bags for winter
The single most important place in your tent is your sleeping bag. There are two key design points for sleeping bags in cold weather:
- A winter bag must have good insulation. The thicker the bag is, the better it will insulate you. Insulation works by trapping warm air close to your body. A thick sleeping bag is full of lightweight materials which will keep warm air inside the bag. Choose a thick bag with a high thermal rating.
- Any sleeping bag must be comfortable. If you’re tall or broad, find a big bag that doesn’t constrict you too much. If you’re normally cold, then look for bags with features such as draw hood and dedicated foot box. Aim for maximum comfort.
By now, if you’ve followed these tips, you should have a great campsite. Your tent will be out of the wind, insulated from the ground, and very capable of keeping you warm in harsh weather. Before we finish, let us hit you up with other simple tricks for a warmer camping experience.
Some quick tips for warmer camping
These four ideas are not complicated but they can make a big difference to your warmth and well-being. Try them out and let us know what you think.
Keep wet stuff out
Snow will build up on your boots. Rain and sweat can soak a layer of clothing. These pieces of wet gear will soak up the heat in your tent. Keep them out of your living area in order to avoid loaning them your body’s heat.
However, you should think about what to do with your gear in the morning. Frozen boots will not fit very well. A cold coat will make its wearer cold as well. If a morning fire is not possible, then bring your gear into the tent with you on super cold nights to try to keep it from freezing solid.
Stay away from alcohol
Having a nightcap before bed is very tempting for many campers. However, one alcoholic drink can cause your body’s blood vessels to dilate. The result is feeling colder. Two or more alcoholic drinks will not help the situation and could impair necessary judgment. Cold weather campers are better off abstaining from alcohol for the duration of their adventures.
Eat heat, drink warmth
Instead of a tot of rum, bring along a pot of soup. There are many benefits to eating heat and drinking warmth. The fastest benefit is simply the cooking process. Being near a fire – even a small gas burner – will make you feel warmer. The next big benefit is the way heat from soup or a cooked meal seeps into your body from your stomach. This isn’t scientific but it does feel good! The same can be said for drinking hot chocolate, coffee, or tea. A hot drink will really warm you up from the inside. To keep things simple, fill a thermos flask with soup or a hot drink. You will feel much better when you open your thermos and feel the warmth coming out into your face.
Bring the heat
A final tip is to bring heat sources. There are two different ways to do this. First, you can make a fire or use a heater. Building a fire is a beautiful way of staying warm. Not only does it feel comforting, but it can warm you and your tent for hours. Some tents are designed to be used with small stoves inside. These tents are game changers for winter campers.
A second way to bring heat with you is to use small heating pouches. These hand warmers and foot warmers are light, relatively inexpensive, and can make a big difference. Try putting one or two of them into your sleeping bag a little while before bedtime. You can crawl into a cozy bag when it’s time to go to sleep.
The final word
Conserve. That’s the final word on how to insulate a tent. Conserve the heat you create by insulating your tent from convection and conduction. Pitch your tent carefully, cover it, keep the air in, and get off the ground. All these tips will make your next winter camping trip warmer and more successful than your last one!