How to Stay Warm While Camping

Camping & Hiking Expert Kat Smith gives you all the details you need to know on how to stay warm during your next winter camping trip.

Camping in the forest in the winter

Photo by Nathan Karsgaard

If you’re heading out for a camping trip during the winter months, you already know it’s going to be cold. But when planning a camping trip in the shoulder seasons or summer months, it’s still important to be ready for all weather conditions. Nature has many faces and can be unpredictable, especially in the mountains and desert. Heavy rain, strong winds, unexpected snow, and freezing nighttime temperatures are never out of the question and are all part of the camping experience. In order to truly embrace these weather conditions, staying warm is key.

So how exactly does one stay warm when temperatures are below freezing, winds are ripping, and a steady rain has left everything wet and damp? A roaring campfire and a piping hot drink will help, but it comes down to the right clothing, sleep system, and shelter, plus a few other tips and tricks. Follow the 10 tips below outlining the best gear—and the best ways to use them—and you will be warm and cozy on your next camping trip.

1. Dress in Layers

Woman sitting in the mountains

This is me on a chilly morning at Annapurna Base Camp in Nepal. I was glad I had my beanie and fleece so I could enjoy this sunrise! Photo by Israel Diaz

The best way to dress for cold weather is with layers. Dressing in layers will not only keep you warm by trapping heat from your body, but it gives you more versatility and control over regulating your body temperature. As the temperature changes throughout the day, and as you go through periods of high energy exertion and rest, the ability to remove or add layers will help you maintain a comfortable temperature. Layers should consist of:

Added to that, accessory clothing, such as a hat, gloves, warm socks, and even a balaclava will make a world of difference when temps start creeping down. Having a pair of warm boots that are insulated and meant for winter weather will also make a world of difference for your toes and feet. Include these items with your layers and add them as needed.

If you’re heading out for a backpacking trip or thru-hike, you may be tempted to leave some layers behind in an effort to keep weight low and maximize space in your pack. But, many layers like the ones listed above are designed to be lightweight and compress to pack down small. They will actually be lighter and take up less space than one or two bulky coats.

Pro Tip: Don’t wait until you feel cold to add layers, and don’t wait until you’re sweating to remove layers!

2. Have a Set of Designated Dry Clothes

Wearing wet clothing will lead to heat loss and feeling cold. It doesn’t matter whether you are wet from sweating or from getting caught in the rain, the combination of chilly temperatures and wet clothing can lead to hypothermia, especially if there is also wind. To avoid this, you should always have a designated set of dry clothing to change into once you have your campsite set up. Even if you are winter camping, you should still be prepared to sweat. If you are out hiking, climbing, or ski touring during the day, your body temperature will rise despite the cold temperatures. And, even if you are camping in a hot climate and think that there is no way you will get cold, always be prepared for unexpected storms and with them, drastic temperature swings. The bottom line is, regardless of the season and forecasted weather conditions, always have dry clothing.

To get the most out of your designated dry clothing set, opt for good-quality layers made of wool or synthetic materials. Unlike cotton, these materials are breathable, have the ability to wick away moisture, and will dry quickly. They will therefore be more effective in regulating your body temperature and keeping you warm.

3. Have the Right Sleeping Bag

Aside from clothing, your sleep system will contribute most to your warmth while camping, and your sleep system starts with your sleeping bag. Your sleeping bag’s temperature rating is the key factor to consider in keeping you from shivering all night long. Sleeping bag temperature ratings are based on a standard scale, however, since comfortable sleeping temperature varies from person to person, it’s important to think about your individual needs. As a Curated Camping and Hiking Expert, I always recommend that you get a bag with a temperature rating that is 10 to 15 degrees below the coldest temperature you expect to camp in. So if you are expecting nighttime temps to be about freezing level, go for a 20-degree sleeping bag as this will ensure warmth and comfort. Worried about getting too warm? Many sleeping bags have ventilation systems for those warmer-than-expected nights.

Although a sleeping bag’s temperature rating is the number one factor to ensure warmth while camping, other features such as fill-type and shape will also contribute to warmth. Synthetic sleeping bags hold up better in wet conditions than down-fill sleeping bags, so if you anticipate a wet climate, a synthetic bag may ultimately keep you warmer by way of keeping you drier. A mummy-shaped sleeping bag may be more constricting, but the decreased space will trap your body heat and keep you warmer than a rectangle-shaped bag.

A sleeping bag liner, such as the Sea to Summit Reactor Thermolite Liner, is a lightweight and packable accessory that, when layered with your sleeping bag, decreases the temperature rating. This adds versatility so you can use one sleeping bag during any season. Lightweight quilts and blankets are other great options for adding sleep system layers without adding weight and bulk to your pack.

4. Have the Right Sleeping Pad

Sleeping bags may be the most well-known aspect of the camping sleep system, but sleeping pads are equally as important, especially when camping in cold weather. Sure, having a cushioned surface to sleep on is great, but the cushioning that a sleeping pad offers plays second fiddle to the warmth it provides. Even in the summer, the ground stays very cold, and all of that coldness will be transmitted to your body if you don’t have an insulated layer in between.

When it comes to protecting you from the cold ground and keeping you warm, not all sleeping pads are created equally. A sleeping pad’s insulation is reflected in its R-value, which is numbered between 1 and 7. The higher the R-value, the more insulation and therefore the warmer the sleeping pad. If you are camping in extreme winter conditions, double up two sleeping pads for extra insulation. I like to use a closed-cell foam pad on the ground and an inflatable pad on top of it.

5. Don’t Burrow Inside Your Sleeping Bag

A dog curled up in a sleeping bag

My pup, Fitz, snuggled into his (my) sleeping bag on a late-Fall camping trip. Notice how he’s not burrowed—he’s doing it right! Photo by Jos Smith

It may be tempting to burrow your entire body, including your face and head, inside your sleeping bag for protection from the cold air, but this is a big no-no. When you breathe inside your sleeping bag, your breath creates moisture, which then creates condensation. This makes your sleeping bag damp and decreases the effectiveness of the bag’s insulation. In other words, you’ll get cold. Try wearing a beanie or even a balaclava while you sleep to keep your ears and face warm and protected from frostbite without having to burrow.

6. Stuff a Hot Water Bottle in Your Sleeping Bag

Another trick to ensure warmth while sleeping in cold camping conditions is to put a hot water bottle in your sleeping bag. You don’t need any fancy equipment, a standard plastic water bottle with a tight lid, such as a Nalgene, will do the trick. Fill it with hot water before you head to sleep and tuck the hot water bottle inside your sleeping bag.

While many people put their hot water bottle at their feet, it is more effective to place it at your groin. There, it will warm your entire body by warming the blood pumping through your femoral artery. Once you sleep with a hot water bottle in your bag, you’ll wonder how you ever camped in the winter without one. Just be careful not to burn yourself. If your water bottle is too hot initially, wrap one of your layers around it to protect your skin until it cools off a bit.

Anecdote: The first time I hiked King’s Peak, Utah’s highest peak, I got caught in a summer storm about 8 miles from base camp. My group and I did a 17-mile summit day, and when we left base camp that morning, temperatures were mild and the sun was shining, so the only extra layer I put in my day pack was a rain jacket shell in case a stray storm came through. Well, I learned my lesson, in addition to a rain jacket, always pack warm layers! A summer storm did in fact roll in, dropping the temperature about 30 degrees. After walking for hours in the steady rain and chilly temps, I was absolutely freezing. The combination of dry clothing and a hot water bottle saved me. After about an hour in my sleeping bag with a hot water bottle, I was re-warmed and ready to go!

7. Have the Correct-Sized Tent

Your tent is your shelter, and although it doesn’t have a heating system like your home likely does, it still contributes to your warmth. While a large, airy tent may be tempting because you will have extra space to spread out, change clothing, and hunker down inside if a storm rolls through, empty space means cold air. The more empty space in your tent, the more cold air there will be. Having a tent designed for the capacity of people using it will be more effective, as your body heat will more easily warm the interior.

Pro Tip: If you do find that you have extra space in your tent, pack it with your extra gear to reduce the empty space.

8. Have Good Tent Ventilation

It may seem counterintuitive, but make sure your tent has good airflow and ventilation. As with burrowing into your sleeping bag, breathing inside a poorly ventilated tent creates moisture and condensation. To keep the inside of your tent as dry as possible, open vents and windows, or pull back the rain fly, to allow air through. When shopping for a tent, look for one made of breathable materials, such as the 3-season NEMO Dagger OSMO 2-Person Tent or the 4-season Black Diamond Hilight 2-Person Tent.

9. Eat

Man holding a PB&J sandwich

My husband Jos never ventures into the outdoors without a few PB&J’s stashed in his pack! Photo by Jos Smith

Your body uses calories to stay warm, so if there are no calories in your system to burn, guess what? You’ll be cold. Late-night snacking on calorie-dense foods such as chocolate bars or peanut butter will help keep you sustained throughout the night. As long as you aren’t in bear country, you may even want to keep a few snacks inside your tent in case you wake up cold.

10. Don’t Hold Your Pee in

If you wake up in the middle of the night and you’re cold and have to pee, then go! You may not want to get out of your cozy sleeping bag to empty your bladder, but you’ll end up being warmer if you do. Your body uses energy to heat the urine in your bladder, so if your bladder is empty, you will be able to conserve energy and stay warmer. If you really hate the thought of heading out into the frigid night air to pee, think about keeping a wide-mouth water bottle, aka your “pee bottle”, handy in your tent.

Staying warm while camping starts with being prepared, with both the gear and the knowledge! Whether you are planning a winter expedition or you are heading into the mountains in the summer, be prepared for cold temperatures and wet and windy weather. Get the right clothing and gear to keep you warm, and use the tips mentioned above to really maximize all that the gear has to offer. Connect with me or another Curated Camping and Hiking Expert to get the gear you need, and never spend a night shivering in the backcountry again.

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Growing up in a suburb of New York City, most of my outdoor adventures were in the Northeast. Hiking, skiing, horseback riding, or just exploring the woods, when I was outside, I was in my element. Now, I am lucky to call Salt Lake City my home, where the world’s greatest outdoor playground is my ba...

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