What to wear to sleep while winter camping: Stay warm in your sleeping bag

by | Nov 11, 2023 | Winter camping

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It can get downright cold at night in the middle of winter.

If winter camping is something you’d like to try this season, you better be prepared with the right gear and clothing—not just during the day, but at night too.

A warm camper is a happy camper, after all!

Before you do anything, when camping in cold weather, you absolutely must confirm that the temperature rating of your sleeping bag and R-value of your air mattress or closed-cell foam sleeping pad are appropriate for wintertime temperatures.

Once you’ve got that taken care of, you can move on to figuring out what to wear at night.

Are you a warm sleeper or a cold sleeper?

Sleeping in a hot tent while winter camping

Several factors can influence whether you are a warm sleeper or a cold sleeper.

For instance, women tend to sleep colder than men due to differences in body composition.

Additionally, your age, weight, and metabolism can also affect your sleeping temperature.

To find out whether you’re a warm sleeper or a cold sleeper, pay attention to how you feel when you sleep at home.

If you tend to feel hot and sweaty, you are likely a warm sleeper.

On the other hand, if you feel chilly and have trouble staying warm, you are probably a cold sleeper.

Warm sleepers can get away with sleep gear and clothing that perhaps isn’t super insulating.

Cold sleepers, on the other hand, may have to go the extra mile to get gear and clothing that’s extremely warm—including sleeping bags and foam pads that are better suited for seriously cold weather.

How to layer in mild nighttime temperatures (0°C/32°F and above) to stay warm

If it’s expected to stay above the freezing mark overnight, here are some sleepwear options to consider:

Mid-weight base layer top and bottom: These are long underwear clothing pieces that typically in the 200 to 300 g/m2 range, striking a nice balance between warmth and not being too overpowering.

Merino wool is a great option for base layers as it’s warm, breathable, and moisture-wicking.

It’s also naturally odour-resistant, making it a good choice for multi-day trips.

Optional middle/insulation layer: If you tend to get cold easily, consider adding an extra layer for added warmth.

A lightweight fleece sweater and pants are a good option as they provide warmth without adding too much bulk.

How to layer in cold nighttime temperatures in winter (0°C/32°F and below) to stay warm

Below the freeing mark, there are bigger risks.

Here are some tips on what to wear to sleep in extreme cold:

Heavy-weight base layer top and bottom: Expedition-style merino wool base layers are 300 g/m2 or higher, and noticeably thicker compared to their mid-weight counterparts.

Optional middle/insulation layer: You may want a warmer mid layer for extra warmth, such as a heavy-weight fleece or down jacket and pants.

Add a sleeping bag liner as extra layer when cold weather camping

The Sea to Summit original Reactor sleeping bag liner in its stuff sack.

If you want to stay warm while winter camping, adding a sleeping bag liner can be a game-changer.

A liner can add extra insulation to your sleeping bag, which is especially important if you’re using a bag that isn’t rated for extremely cold temperatures.

There are many types of sleeping bag liners available, including those made from wool, fleece, and synthetic fill.

The Sea to Summit Reactor Extreme liner is a popular option that can add up to 14°C/25°F in warmth. In addition to adding warmth, a liner can also help keep your sleeping bag clean.

It’s much easier to wash a liner than it is to wash a sleeping bag, so using a liner can help extend the life of your sleeping bag.

When choosing a liner, make sure to choose one that is compatible with your sleeping bag.

Some liners are designed to fit specific sleeping bags, so be sure to check the dimensions before making a purchase.

Keeping your feet warm

Wearing down booties while winter camping

Feet can be a tricky thing in winter, and many of us struggle with keeping them warm without having them feel too sweaty. Here are some tips to help you keep your feet warm in your sleeping bag:

Wear synthetic, merino wool, or wool socks: There materials are an excellent choice for winter camping as they provide excellent insulation and are moisture-wicking.

Wool also retains their insulating properties even when wet.

Layer your socks: In mild temperatures, you may be able to get away with wearing no socks or thin liner socks only.

However, in colder temperatures, you’ll want to layer your socks.

Start with a pair of liner socks, followed by a second pair of heavier wool socks.

This layering will trap warm air between the layers and keep your feet toasty.

Use down booties: If you’re someone who sleeps cold or gets really cold feet and toes at night, consider investing in down booties.

These are essentially sleeping bags for your feet and provide excellent insulation.

They’re also lightweight and packable, making them a great addition to your winter camping gear.

Keeping your head, neck, and face warm

Winter sleeping bags

When sleeping in cold weather, it’s super important to keep your head, neck, and face warm since these areas tend to lose a lot of heat when exposed.

Here are some tips to help you stay warm and comfortable:

Wear a hat: Choose a hat made of wool or insulated material, such as a wool beanie/toque or down-filled trapper hat, to keep your head and ears warm.

Make sure it fits well and covers your ears properly.

Use a neck gaiter or buff: These can be pulled up to cover your nose and mouth when needed.

For colder temperatures, choose a heavier fleece neck gaiter or buff.

Consider a balaclava: A balaclava is a great option for those who want to keep their entire head and face warm.

It covers your head, neck, and face, leaving only your eyes exposed.

Choose one made of insulated material to keep you warm in colder temperatures.

How to adjust your sleepwear when camping in cold weather

Sleeping in a hot tent while winter camping

The way you sleep and the environment you’ll be in means you’ll have to consider these factors to get your sleep system and sleepwear just right.

Remember, it’s important to layer your clothing to help regulate your temperature and avoid sweating, which can make you colder and increase your risk of hypothermia.

What to do if you get too hot at night

If you find yourself getting too hot at night, you can try the following:

  • Remove some layers of clothing to allow your body to temporarily cool down.
  • Open up your sleeping bag slightly to allow more air circulation.
  • Use a sleeping bag liner made of a lightweight material such as silk or cotton to help regulate your temperature.

What to do if you get too cold at night

If you find yourself getting too cold at night, you can try the following:

  • Add more layers of clothing, such as a middle layer made of fleece or down.
  • Use a sleeping bag liner made of a warm material such as merino wool or synthetic insulation.
  • Zip your sleeping bag all the way up and make sure your head is inside the hood.
  • Cover your face (especially your nose) with your neck gaiter or scarf.
  • Warm your hands and fingers by placing them inside your armpits or at your groin area.

Additional tips for staying warm at night

To ensure a comfortable and warm night’s sleep during your winter camping trip, there are a few extra things you can do to warm up before bed.

Drink a warm beverage: Sipping on a warm cup of tea or hot cocoa can help increase your body heat and keep you warm throughout the night.

Just make sure to use a spill-proof container and avoid drinking too much liquid before bed to prevent the need for midnight bathroom trips.

Have a snack that’s high in fat: Eating foods like cheese, peanut butter, or full fat yogurt can help keep you warm in cold weather due to the way the body metabolizes fats.

Use a hot water bottle: A hot water bottle can provide instant warmth to your sleeping bag.

Fill it up with hot water and place it at the bottom of your sleeping bag or between your legs to keep your extremities warm.

Move around: Doing some light exercises before bed can help raise your core temperature to create body heat and improve blood circulation.

Try some jumping jacks, push-ups, or squats to get your blood flowing and warm up your muscles.

Go to the bathroom: Remember to empty your bladder before bed, as a full bladder can cause discomfort and make it harder to sleep.

Stack your mattress and sleeping pad: You can combine R-value numbers this way to increase the overall insulation.

Warm up your sleeping bag: If you’re camping in a hot tent, you can turn your sleeping bag inside out and hang it up so it warms up from the heat rising from the wood stove.

You can also do this if you’re using a portable propane heater.

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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