How to stay warm in a tent (without electricity)

by | Sep 13, 2022 | Backcountry camping

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The modern luxuries of everyday life make it easy to stay warm when we’re at home. But when you’re out in the wilderness, you need to figure out how to stay warm in a tent—without electricity or any other modern amenities.

Ross and I camp often in the shoulder seasons—that’s spring and fall—when temperatures are just above or below freezing. This is especially the case when we venture up to parts of Northern Ontario here in Canada, where the cold weather can be relentless and completely unforgiving.

Here are some of the things we’ve done to maximize warmth while we’re in our tent.

1. Consider upgrading your 3-season tent to a 4-season tent

Tent for shoulder season camping

This isn’t necessary for everyone, but if you’re camping in winter-like conditions with the potential for snow and high winds, a 4-season tent will give you the extra protection you need. The fabric is usually thicker and more reinforced, and the overall design is meant to withstand harsher weather conditions.

Believe it or not, a 4-season tent can give you as much as 15% more warmth than a 3-season tent—and that can make all the difference when you’re trying to stay comfortable in sub-zero temperatures. Learn more about the differences between 3-season tents and 4-season tents.

2. Set up your tent in a sheltered area

Exposed campsites put you at risk for high winds, heavy rain, and blowing snow, which can quickly cool down your tent. If you’re able to, find a campsite that’s sheltered by trees or large boulders—this will help block the wind and keep your tent warm.

Another option is to build a windbreak—a wall of sorts—that will block the wind from hitting your tent directly. You can do this by setting up your tent in a “U” shape, using rocks, logs, or branches to build a wall on either side.

3. Use a tarp as a groundsheet

Using a green tarp as a groundsheet for a camping tent to keep warm.

The ground can be very cold—especially when it’s wet. Without a proper groundsheet, the cold will seep up through the bottom of your tent and make it harder to keep warm.

A tarp can help insulate your tent and keep the cold out while also adding an extra layer of waterproof protection. If possible, try to set up your tent on an area of ground that’s already dry.

4. Put a tarp over your tent for extra protection from the elements

A tarp set up over a tent on a campsite.

You probably won’t need this if you’re using a 4-season tent, but it’s a great strategy for beefing up the protection on a 3-season tent. We like to set up an A-frame tarp shelter over our tent to encourage rain or snow to roll right off of it.

You can also set up a tarp along an exposed side of your tent to act as a windbreak. Just make sure the tarp is securely fastened so it doesn’t blow away in the middle of the night!

5. Add extra insulation to your tent floor and walls

Inside a tent with lots of extra blankets to stay warm.

Since the floor can be very cold and potentially make it harder to trap heat in, consider bringing something along to place on the floors of the tent. This could be something as simple as a wool blanket, or something as specific as a sheet of Reflectix.

The lower part of the walls—about 5 to 10 inches—are also an area where heat can escape. You can use blankets, sleeping bags, or even towels to insulate this area and make it harder for heat to escape from your tent.

6. Make sure your sleeping bag matches the seasonal temperature range

A man unrolling a sleeping bag at a campsite.

You should have a three-season sleeping bag at the very least, but in addition to that, you know its temperature comfort rating. For example, if you’re expecting temperatures to dip below freezing at night, make sure you have a sleeping bag that’s rated for at least -5°C (23°F).

Keep in mind that the comfort rating isn’t the same as the survival rating—the comfort rating is the temperature at which you’ll be comfortable sleeping, while the survival rating is the temperature at which you could potentially survive but definitely won’t be comfortable. Read our guide about sleeping bag temperature ratings to learn more.

7. Use a sleeping bag liner

A sleeping bag liner on the grass.

One very effective and affordable way to add extra warmth to your sleeping bag is to use a sleeping bag liner. This is basically a thin sheet of fabric you put inside your bag.

A good quality liner can add several degrees worth of warmth to your bag, making it much easier to stay comfortable in cold weather. Liners made from fleece and microfleece liners will offer you the most warmth.

8. Get a good quality air mattress with an appropriate R-value rating

A person using an air pump to blow up an air mattress.

If you have a cheap air mattress that only offers extra cushioning for your body, you can bet that it’s not doing much to insulate you from the cold ground. This is especially true when paired with a down or synthetic sleeping bag, which compresses at the back as you sleep in it and makes it less insulating.

Look for an air mattress that has a high R-value rating, which means it will offer better insulation against the cold. For most 3-season camping trips, an R-value between 3 and 4 should be sufficient, but for below freezing temperatures, you’ll want one that’s rated 4 and above.

9. Use a reflective sleeping pad on top of your air mattress

A reflective sleeping bad designed to maximize warmth.

This is a great trick we use when we camp in extreme cold. A reflective sleeping pad is basically a thin sheet of material that has a reflective surface on one side. You put this side down on top of your air mattress, and it reflects your body heat back up at you, making it much easier to stay warm through the night.

In addition to the reflective heat, you also get the added benefit of the cushioning from your R-value-rated air mattress beneath it without the drawback of feeling the cold air in it. It’s one of the best sleeping hacks for staying warm, in our experience!

10. Wear layers made of insulating material

A couple wearing hats and sleeping bags while cold camping in a tent.

When it comes to actually getting into your sleeping bag and trying to sleep, you want to make sure you’re wearing clothing that will help you trap heat. That means layers made of insulating materials like wool and down.

Wool is a particularly good choice because it’s not only an excellent insulator, but it also wicks away moisture, so you don’t have to worry about it making you sweat and cooling you down that way. We recommend wearing base layers made of at least 40 to 60% merino wool, then layering with additional wool or fleece mid-layers.

If it’s really cold, consider sleeping with a down puffy jacket and a hat like a toque or beanie. Check out our guide on how to keep your feet warm in your sleeping bag as well.

11. Try a heated vest.

A man wearing a black vest to stay warm in the fall.

If you really want to go high-tech on technique for how to stay warm in a tent without electricity, you may want to consider getting a rechargeable heated vest, like this one on Amazon. This isn’t our first choice and we’ve personally never tried it, but we’ve heard from other camping enthusiasts who say they work well.

Many heated vests come with adjustable modes so you can manage the warmth level, along with safety features that prevent the vest from overheating. Most are also rechargeable via USB, so if you bring along a power bank, you’ll be able to easily recharge your vest whenever you need to.

12. Use heat packs

A woman holding a heat back to warm her hands up.

Another way to add a bit of warmth without electricity is to use heat packs. These are small packets that you can activate by shaking or kneading them, and they’ll give off heat for several hours.

You can find heat packs specifically designed for camping and outdoor use, like these ones on Amazon, which are made with safe ingredients and have an outer fabric that won’t melt if it comes into contact with a heat source. We don’t use them mainly because they add extra waste, but as long as you pack them out, they can be a helpful way to add a bit of warmth.

13. Fill a water bottle up with hot water

A pink hot water bottle.

This is what we like to do instead of using heat packs because it’s just less wasteful. We bring along two hot water bottles, boil some water, pour it in the hot water bottles, and then take them to bed by putting them inside our sleeping bags.

They’ll radiate heat for up to several hours, providing a nice boost of warmth to help us fall asleep. Just make sure you use a heat-safe water bottle and avoid putting it in close contact with your skin to avoid burns.

14. Eat a hot meal or drink a hot beverage

Cooking food in a pot over a canister stove in the mountains during the fall.

Your body expends a lot of energy trying to stay warm, so it’s important to make sure you’re well-fuelled throughout the day. That means eating hot meals and drinking hot beverages, even if they’re just instant coffee or Ramen noodles.

We recommend checking out some of these hearty dehydrated camping meals, made with warming spices like chilli powder, curry, and ginger, to help you stay warm from the inside out. Herbal tea, coffee, and hot chocolate are also great options for staying warm between meals.

15. Empty your bladder

Toilet paper held by a tree branch outdoors.

Did you know that your body has to work harder to stay warm when your bladder is full? That’s because urine is a good conductor of heat, so it pulls heat away from your body and makes it harder for you to maintain your internal temperature.

Make sure you empty your bladder before going to bed, and if you need to get up during the night, try to go before you start to feel too cold. If you’re a guy, you can bring along an extra bottle and designate as your “pee bottle” so you don’t have to get out of your tent at night.

For the ladies, it’s a little more complicated. I always get out of the tent to go to the bathroom, but there are several different female urination devices available you can get if you’re brave enough to try.

16. Use a portable propane-powered heater

A close-up of a radiant heater.

One of the most effective ways for how to stay warm in a tent without electricity is to use gas power instead. There are some really good propane-powered heaters on the market—many of which are ideal for heating small spaces like tents.

Of course, there are risks involved. Gas heaters can produce carbon monoxide, so it’s important to make sure your tent is well ventilated. You should also be aware of the fire risk, and take precautions accordingly. But if you’re comfortable using a gas heater and you have the proper safety gear, it can be a great way to stay warm in a cold tent.

17. Consider bringing a candle lantern

A candle lantern near a campfire.

Although we personally don’t think the little warmth that a candle lantern offers is worth the fire risk, we thought it would at least worth mentioning in case you wanted to explore the option. A candle lantern is basically a lantern with one or more candles inside, which you can light to produce a small amount of heat.

Just be sure to place it somewhere where you won’t knock it over or burn your gear. Always blow it out before going to bed, and never leave it unattended. We recommend avoiding candles altogether in favour of safer options like LED lanterns, however they won’t produce any heat.

18. Try hot tent camping with a wood stove

Getting the fire started in the hot tent's stove.

Last but not least, the absolute best way for how to stay warm in a tent without electricity is to get a tent that’s designed to work with a wood stove inside of it. This is typically called a hot tent, which is made of canvas material and has a small opening in it for the stove’s chimney.

Hot tent camping is the absolute best option for extreme cold weather conditions because it can be -40°C (also -40°F) outside and a balmy 20 to 30°C (68 to 86°F) inside the tent. Trust us, we’ve done it! Read our guide to hot tent camping to learn more.

Learning how to stay warm in a tent without electricity takes some extra planning and potentially a bigger investment in heavier duty gear, but it’s worth it if it will keep you safe and comfortable. Trying to make do with subpar gear just isn’t worth the risk of hypothermia or frostbite.

Got any other tips for how to stay warm in a tent without electricity? Let us know in the comments!

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Elise & Ross

We’re Elise and Ross, avid backcountry campers and outdoor adventurers! We started Gone Camping Again as a way to share our knowledge and experience about wilderness living and travel. Our hope is that we inspire you to get outside and enjoy all that nature has to offer!

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