Sleeping outside without a tent: Can it be done in winter?

by | Nov 30, 2022 | Winter camping

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Sleeping outside without a tent is ambitious enough in the summer or shoulder seasons, but in winter?

That’s whole new level of hardcore.

Can it be done safely?


Would you want to?

Probably not, but if you’re planning on going ultralight backpacking for a winter camping trip, sacrificing your four-season or five-season tent may be worth considering.

What temperature is too cold to sleep outside without a tent?

Believe it or not, unless you’re in the harshest of arctic, antarctic, or alpine environments, no temperature is too cold to sleep outside—as long as you have the right gear.

A weather thermometer showing extreme cold temperatures in the snow

We’ve camped in extreme cold temperatures as low as -31°F (-35°C), but we’ve done it with winter sleeping bags, a hot tent with a wood stove, and loads of warm layers.

Here’s what you can expect in terms of cold weather temperature ranges:

How do people survive sleeping outside in winter?

The key to sleeping outside in cold temperatures and harsh winter weather conditions comes down to three main factors:

Shelter: How can you protect yourself from the snow, wind, and potentially sleet or freezing rain?

Insulation: What can you do, use, or wear to create a barrier between yourself and the cold air outside?

Optional heat source: What can you use to generate extra heat aside from your own body heat?

The two biggest risks associated with camping in cold weather are frostbite and hypothermia.

Ideally, your shelter, sleep system, and clothing are designed to keep you dry.

Your shelter, sleep system, clothing, and potentially your heat source should keep you warm and dry.

If you get wet—either from the elements or from sweating—you’re automatically at risk of hypothermia.

How to sleep outside in winter without a tent

Ross and I personally aren’t fans of cold camping—even if it involves a tent.

Which is exactly why we’ll drag our 30-pound canvas hot tent and massive wood stove out on sleds in the middle of February.

Setting up camp in winter

But to each their own!

If you’re really curious about sleeping outside in winter without a tent, you must absolutely do your research, plan ahead, and be prepared for all kinds of scenarios.

Pick a sheltered spot

One of the keys to sleeping outside without a tent in winter is selecting a spot that has enough natural shelter.

You want to look for an area that reduces the wind and provides some protection from snowfall, which can accumulate quickly and make sleeping conditions miserable.

For instance, if you’re in the mountains, finding an area sheltered by trees, rocks, cliffs, or even snowbanks can provide a natural shelter from the elements.

Consider using an elevated sleep system

The ground is the coldest place to sleep, so if you can elevate your sleeping spot off the ground, you can greatly reduce how cold you’ll be.

Two elevated options you have include:

Sleeping on a camping cot

Setting up a camping cot

A camping cot is basically just like a regular cot, only it’s designed to be more lightweight and portable.

They can be quite comfortable, and sleeping on an elevated surface helps keep your sleeping bag off the cold ground.

But even though they’re more lightweight and portable than a regular cot, they still aren’t that practical for anything more than car camping.

If you’re traveling, you won’t want to be lugging a big camping cot around with you.

You might as well just bring a tent.

Sleeping in a hammock

Lying in a hammock while surrounded by snow in winter

A hammock is much more practical for ultralight or lightweight camping—weighing less than your typical four-season tent.

The one big downside to hammock camping is you have to camp in areas with trees.

This could be prove to be difficult in arctic or alpine environments where forested areas are thin and trees are small and sparse.

If you’re not elevated, create a barrier between you and the ground

If you don’t plan on sleeping in a camping cot or hammock, you’ll have to create your own platform or barrier between your sleep system and the cold ground.

Although we sleep in a hot tent with a wood stove, we let the fire in our stove die out at night, which means we’re essentially sleeping on the ground in extremely cold temperatures.

The first thing we do is put down a tarp as a base groundsheet.

Next, we place our Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Xlite mattresses on top of the tarp, which have an R-value of 4.2.

Ideally, when camping in winter conditions, your air mattress or sleeping bad should have a minimum R-value of 4 or 5.

Luckily, R-values are cumulative when paired with multiple pieces of sleep gear, which is why we then place our Therm-a-Rest Z Lite Sols on top of our air mattresses, which are closed-cell foam sleeping pads with an R-value of 2.

That brings our overall R-value up to 6.2.

The reason why we place our closed-cell foam sleeping pads on top of our air mattresses instead of underneath them is because it’s warmer.

The air in the mattress is cold, and the sleeping pad creates a barrier between our bodies and that cold air—making it the more obvious choice for optimizing warmth (although you wouldn’t know it until you tested it out both ways).

If the area you’re camping in allows it, you can also take advantage of natural resources to help build up a platform or create a bigger barrier between you and the ground.

For instance, you could use logs or branches to build a small platform, or use dead leaves or spruce bows to create a barrier.

Set up a tarp shelter

A-frame tarp shelter

A tarp shelter is the simplest shelter you can set up for sleeping in cold weather.

You’ll need to bring a waterproof tarp and some cordage or lightweight poles so that you can secure your tarp over your sleeping area.

We already have a tutorial on how to set-up an A-frame tarp shelter, which is ideal if you want to be sheltered from both sides of your tent.

But if you want to be able to have a campfire in front of you while you sleep, a lean-to tarp shelter is better.

In a lean-to tarp shelter, you’ll only have one side of the tarp wall that blocks wind, snow, and rain.

The trick is to set it up according to which way the wind is blowing (and hope that it doesn’t shift direction).

Get a bivy (or bivvy or bivoauc) sack

A bivy sack in winter

Bivvy sacks—short for “bivouac” sacks—are single-person, minimalist shelters that basically look like big sleeping bags.

They were originally designed for mountaineers who needed an emergency shelter to retreat to in bad weather.

Bivvy sacks have a waterproof shell on the outside, which wrap around your sleeping bag like a cocoon, and can add as much as 10°F (5.5°C) of extra warmth to an existing sleeping bag.

The hood of a bivvy sack goes right around your head and can be cinched to provide coverage around your face, but you need to keep your nose and mouth exposed so you don’t create condensation inside the bivvy sack.

Combine the above shelter ideas for extra protection

The ideal “no tent” winter camping shelter would involve a tarp shelter and an elevated sleep system or bivy.

For instance, you could try:

  • An A-frame or diamond tarp shelter over your camping hammock
  • An A-frame, diamond, or lean-to shelter over your camping cot
  • An A-frame, diamond, or lean-to shelter over your bivy

Check out this no-tent winter camp setup, which features all three!

A bivy on top of a camping cot covered by a lean-to tarp shelter:

Take extra precautions for warmth, comfort, and safety

With no tent, you don’t have any walls to protect you from the elements or any wildlife that happens to wander into your camp.

Although taking extra precautions to stay warm, comfortable, and safe would be wise even if you did have a tent, they’re extra important when you don’t have one.

For warmth:

  • Eat a warm, nourishing meal for dinner or snack before bed—ideally rich in a good combination of lean protein, healthy fats, and complex carbs
  • Relieve your bladder before going to bed
  • Make sure your sleeping bag’s temperature rating is rated for the temperatures you’ll be sleeping in
  • Bring a sleeping bag liner to add a few degrees of warmth to your sleeping bag
  • Layer up with a merino wool base layer and a mid-layer made of fleece or wool
  • Wear wool socks, a hat, buff or neck gaiter, and potentially mitts or gloves
  • Fill a Nalgene or hot water bottle with hot water and place it in your sleeping bag

For comfort:

  • Make sure the spot you’re sleeping on is as flat as possible (test it beforehand)
  • If you’re in a hilly or mountainous area, pick a spot on higher ground that’s well-drained
  • If sleeping on snow, dig a sleeping platform (3 to 4 feet deep) and line the bottom with something like pine needles or spruce bows
  • Bring a camping pillow or use a compression sack full of your extra clothing to serve as a pillow
  • Optionally bring a sleeping eye mask and earplugs if you need total darkness and silence to sleep soundly

For safety:

  • Before you pick your camping spot, look up for “widow makers.” These are dead trees or low-hanging branches that may fall on you in the night.
  • Don’t keep any food or scented toiletries near your sleeping spot. Hang them in a tree or store them in an animal-proof storage container and drag it 200 feet or 70 steps away from your camp.
  • Keep bear spray within close reach. Just because it’s winter doesn’t mean all bears are hibernating—some hibernate late or wake up early.
  • Invest in a personal locator beacon or satellite GPS messenger if you’re going deep into the backcountry. We use the SPOT Gen4.
  • Tell someone exactly where you’re going and when you’ll be back.
  • Go with someone else who’s winter camped or camped without a tent before. You’ll learn a lot from them and be able to help each other if something goes wrong.

Bonus (but advanced) idea: Make a bushcraft or snow shelter

A final option you have for sleeping outside in winter without a tent is to use whatever Mother Nature has provided you with.

This isn’t for everyone—it takes a lot of time, energy, and skill to build a bushcraft or snow shelter the right way.

A basic bushcraft shelter might look like this:

A bushcraft shelter made of logs in winter.

Notice the horizontal log held up at each end by two trees.

Several long logs or sticks are then leaned against the supporting log to create a makeshift lean-to shelter.

A basic snow shelter might look like this:

A quinzee snow shelter.

This is called a quinzee.

It involves piling a large pile of snow, placing long sticks around its sides (at least 10 inches into the snow), allowing it to sit for a day or two to harden, and then digging out the centre.

When you see the end of one of the sticks while digging out from inside the shelter, that’s your sign to stop—to ensure the walls remain thick.

A hole is carved at the top to allow for airflow and ventilation.

It’s essential to do this right, because if you don’t, you put yourself at risk of having the quinzee collapse in on you while you’re inside.

Depending on how much snow falls on you, you may not be able to move under the weight of the snow and could suffocate.

When done right, however, it’s the perfect winter shelter.

So why would anyone want to try sleeping outside in winter without a tent?

If you have the luxury and convenience of bringing a tent, which has to be a four-season or five-season tent for winter camping, then I’d encourage you to do so.

Heck, I’d encourage you to bring a hot tent if you could swing it!

Sleeping without a tent in winter is only for the most adventurous of campers.

It makes the most sense for mountain climbers, researchers, maybe wildlife photographers, and other types of outdoor professionals embarking on expeditions that require a lot of travel in remote areas.

For the average camper, however, it’s not the most enjoyable way to embrace the coldest season—and it’s very risky.

More about winter camping:

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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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