One of the most important things to consider when winter camping is how to insulate your tent to keep yourself warm.
As avid winter campers who regularly camp in extreme cold temperatures as low as -31°F (-35°C) in northern Canada, we know what it takes to stay warm.
Choose the right (winterized) tent
Some tents are better at retaining heat than others, so if you’re planning on doing a lot of winter camping, it may be worth investing in a tent specifically designed for cold weather.
Two-season tents are generally not suitable for winter camping because they’re designed to offer protection from rain and wind more than cold temperatures.
Three-season tents provide some level of insulation and protection from the elements, but they may not be enough to keep you warm in very cold temperatures and aren’t designed to be used in the winter.
Four-season tents are designed to withstand extreme weather conditions, such as snow and high winds.
They usually have thicker walls and more insulation than three-season tents, making them ideal for camping in the winter.
Five-season tents, also called expedition tents, are designed for the harshest winter conditions and offer the most protection from the elements.
They usually have multiple layers of insulation, waterproof covers, and sealed seams to keep out water and snow, however they’re only necessary for camping in alpine or arctic environments.
Hot tents are typically made of canvas material (see photo above) and have a built-in stove that can be used to heat the air inside the tent, which makes them ideal for use in very cold temperatures and snow.
The only downside is they’re heavy and bulky, making them a bad choice for ultralight or lightweight camping.
Pitch your tent in a sheltered spot
One of the best things you can do to help insulate your tent is set it up in a sheltered spot—away from exposed areas and wind.
Find a spot that’s close to trees or rocks so you can make use of their natural windbreak.
It’s also important to choose a flat, level piece of ground that’s free of snow and ice so you won’t end up sleeping in a pool of melting snow.
Set up a tarp over your tent
A simple tarp can be a great way to add an extra layer of protection from the cold, wind, rain, and snow.
An A-frame tarp shelter works great for this.
Simply set it up over your tent and anchor it down with stakes or rocks.
Make sure the tarp is large enough to cover both the front and back of the tent.
Optionally use another tarp as a windbreak
If your tent is still exposed to the wind, consider creating a windbreak by setting up a tarp or around it.
You may want to consider a lean-to tarp shelter for this, which involves creating an angled wall on the exposed side of the tent.
Add exterior and interior groundsheets
Groundsheets keeps the tent floor dry and helps to insulate your tent from cold temperatures coming from the ground.
If you’re using a four-season tent, it may already come with an extra thick and waterproof floor, but that doesn’t mean you won’t benefit from adding extra layers both inside and outside of the tent.
For exterior groundsheets, look for a tarp or sheet of heavy-duty plastic that’s big enough to act as a barrier for the entire base (floor) of your tent.
For interior groundsheets, you can use:
- Foam mats, pads, or squares
- Exercise or yoga mats
- Closed cell foam camping sleeping pads
- Sheets of Reflectix
- Spruce bows (if allowed by the campground/park/area)
- A combination of the above
These will add an extra layer of insulation and help to keep the cold air from seeping into your tent.
Use blankets made from insulating materials for additional warmth
You can increase the insulation in your tent by adding more layers of insulation on top of the tent floor and a few inches up the walls.
A wool or synthetic blanket is usually enough for this purpose, but if you’re really concerned about staying warm, look for blankets made from insulating materials such as down or Thinsulate.
You can also place your sleeping bags on top of the blankets and/or tuck them into the sides of your tent to act as additional insulation and help reduce heat loss.
Optionally line your tent walls with Reflectix
Reflectix is an inexpensive reflective insulation material that’s typically used for household applications, like insulating your hot water tank.
But you can also use it to create a barrier between the cold air outside and the warm air inside your tent.
Simply cut it into strips, adhere it to the tent walls using double-sided tape or clips, and then trim it with scissors for a neat fit.
For best results, line the entire interior of your tent (including floors and ceilings) with Reflectix.
Experiment with keeping vents open vs. closed
If your tent has vents, which it should, you may want to experiment with keeping them partially or completely closed in order to reduce the amount warm air escaping and cold air entering your tent.
The big trade-off to doing this is that it also reduces air circulation, which increases the risk of condensation developing on the interior walls.
This can potentially make you or your gear wet if it touches the walls.
In general, it’s a good idea to open up the vents at least partially overnight to help reduce condensation.
However, if you’re just hanging out in your tent during the day or before you turn in for the night, closing the vents for a limited amount may be worthwhile.
Consider bringing along a portable gas-powered heater
If you’re cold camping (a.k.a. not hot tenting), then you’re not going to have any real heat source inside your tent other than your own body.
In these types of cases, a portable gas-powered heater can be a great way to warm the tent up quickly and maintain a comfortable temperature inside.
Just be sure to follow all safety instructions when using any type of heating device since they can be dangerous if used incorrectly.
And remember, you should never leave a gas-powered heater running overnight or when you’re not inside your tent.
Note: When using a heater inside your tent, avoid closing all the vents.
You’ll need the extra ventilation to prevent carbon monoxide buildup, which can be deadly.
It’s one thing to insulate your tent while winter camping, but if you want to stay truly warm and cozy, then you’ll need to work on insulating your body too.
Layering your clothing is key here.
Start with a base layer of thermal underwear or light synthetic material, then add a mid-layer of sweaters/fleece, and finally top it off with an outer layer of waterproof/windproof material like a shell jacket or snow pants.
You should also consider bringing along a warm beanie, gloves, and insulated boots to help keep your feet from getting too cold.
As far as your sleep system goes, you should have:
- A winter sleeping bag rated for the temperature you’ll be sleeping in
- An optional sleeping bag liner for added warmth
- An air mattress and/or sleeping bag with a total R-value of at least 4 to 5
- An optional hot water bottle you can fill with hot water to place inside your sleeping bag
What not to do when trying to insulate your tent for winter
When it’s freezing cold outside, it can be tempting to try all kinds of crazy things to insulate your tent and stay warm.
However, some methods are not safe or effective and can actually do more harm than good.
Never use an open flame (i.e., candles, camp stoves, etc.) inside your tent since this is extremely dangerous and can cause an uncontrollable fire if not monitored properly.
Don’t place your tent too close to a heat source, like a campfire or camp stove.
Again, this can possibly cause your tent to catch fire or become filled with toxic fumes.
Don’t use a portable gas-powered heater in a tent that’s too small or without proper ventilation.
If you plan on bringing a generator, avoid leaving electric blankets, heating pads, or other electric items on overnight or when you’re not using them.
Avoid placing gear right up against the tent walls, which puts it at risk of getting wet in case condensation develops.
Don’t place a hot water bottle against your body right after filling it with boiling hot water.
Allow it to cool down to a safe temperature before doing so.
If it’s simply too cold to go camping, don’t go.
It’s as simple as that!
Better to be warm and bored at home rather than cold inside your tent.
Wait for milder weather, or better yet, start planning your next spring camping trip!
Elise is an experienced backcountry canoe tripper and winter camper from Ontario, Canada. She loves cooking up a storm over the campfire, taking in all the backcountry views, and enjoying a piña colada or two while relaxing at camp. She’s also certified in Whitewater Rescue (WWR) I & II and Wilderness First Aid (WFA).