It snowed/sleeted briefly yesterday morning, and that might well be the only snow we get this year; therefore I feel justified in publishing this post on techniques to stay warm when camping when it’s absolutely bloody freezing.
Follow the tips below, and you too can expect to get at least two or three hours’ sleep per night on an ill-advised last-minute bicycle journey to the Arctic Circle in the middle of winter with totally inappropriate equipment…
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1. Know Your Gear (Or Take More Of It)
If you’re trying to minimise your baggage for winter camping, the key is becoming extremely familiar with how your gear performs in a range of conditions and temperatures.
But if you’re not sure how your existing equipment is going to work out, the safest strategy is to add more of it. Double up your sleeping bag, putting one inside the other. Stick a foam roll-mat or two underneath your inflatable mattress. Then, as you start to understand what works and what doesn’t, you can refine your gear selection to match the conditions.
2. Know Your Body (Or Play It Safe)
Some people sleep warm. Other sleep cold. Fitness, experience, age, gender, amount of body fat and other factors all contribute to the range of comfort levels experienced by different people using exactly the same gear. If you aren’t used to winter camping and don’t yet know where you fit into this, the same advice goes: bring extra gear and refine your kit list as you gain experience. It’s better to have brought along too many layers than not enough.
3. Wear The Right Kind Of Clothes
That cotton T‑shirt you wear at night while summer camping? It’ll ruin you in winter. Wear baselayers made of an appropriate material such as merino wool, bamboo, or insulating synthetics, with a close-fitting mid-layer on top. Add a woollen or fleece hat and neckwarmer. Pack a pair of thick woollen socks specifically for sleeping in and make sure you keep them dry. Only wear thick insulating layers if there’s enough space inside your sleeping bag without compressing the filling and inadvertently reducing its performance.
4. Go To Bed Warm
In winter, warmth originates from within, and any insulation from a sleeping bag or clothing is merely concerned with keeping it there. It’s pointless bedding down if you’re already freezing, so get warm by doing star-jumps before going to bed or performing sit-ups or press-ups in your sleeping bag.
5. Eat Late
The body needs fuel to generate heat, so eat a hot meal immediately before sleeping, and make the meal a fatty one, as fat is metabolised more slowly than carbohydrate and will last for longer as you sleep. Take extra rations of cheese or olive oil. (Cheese has the added bonus of giving you really vivid dreams.)
6. Get The Most Out Of Your Sleeping Bag
The insulating layer in sleeping bags functions by trapping air, so achieve maximum ‘loft’ by shaking air into a sleeping bag before bedtime. With down sleeping bags, do this with the bag upside down so the filling is encouraged to accumulate in the upper sections of the bag where the insulation is most needed. As mentioned in point 3, make sure that the bulk of any extra clothes isn’t having the effect of compressing the bag’s filling; performance might be improved by actually removing the thicker layers. Avoid using down bags inside narrow bivvy bags for exactly the same reason — better draping the bivvy bag on top.
7. Add More Layers Outside
Get one of those thin metallic survival blankets and drape it over the torso area of your sleeping bag. If you don’t have one, do the same with your waterproof jacket or anything else that would add another layer on top of you without squashing the air out of your sleeping bag’s insulating layer.
8. Keep Your Sleeping Gear Dry
Protect down sleeping bags from getting wet at all costs, as this will reduce their insulating effect to near zero. Avoid breathing into the sleeping bag while sleeping, no matter how tempting, as it introduces moisture from within which will then condense in the insulating layer. For the same reason, squash all the air out of your bag as soon as you get up in order to expel body moisture, and dry out your bag fastidiously on a daily basis whenever you get the chance.
Winter camping can be utterly miserable. I began that journey north from Oslo getting everything wrong. I ended up damp and shivering at around zero degrees in a very expensive mountaineering sleeping bag supposedly rated for comfort at ‑25°C. The first week of that journey was one of the most miserable weeks of my life.
Yet winter camping can also be one of the most beautiful and memorable experiences of all, made all the better by having learned how to survive outside in such conditions. By the time I reached Swedish Lapland a month later — where the temperatures at night were usually approaching ‑30°C — I was able to pass the night in comfort in my spare sleeping bag — a cheap Chinese knock-off I’d bought in Tehran one time and which contained less than half the amount of filling.
And if there’s a message to be had from this, it’s probably that it’s better to leave before you’re ready than not to leave at all. You’ll figure the rest out on the road.
Any more tips for successful winter camping? Please do share them in the comments section for future reference.
55 replies on “8 Simple Winter Camping Tricks To Stay Safe & Warm”
In the USMC mountain training we learned to stay warm by using the word COLD, Keep CLOTHES CLEAN,Avoid OVERHEATING, Wear clothing and bedding LOOSELY and in LAYERS and Stay DRY
Nice mnemonic – thank you!
I think the layering tip should be repeated multiple times — so crucial to doing anything outdoors in the winter.
I find that choosing a good location for the tent is absolutely critical to not freezing to death overnight. Trees, rocks, cars and so on can be really useful windbreakers.
You’re absolutely right. Being in the vicinity of trees can also raise the ambient temperature by a couple of degrees, supposedly due to their nighttime respiration.
Carbon Dioxide Posioning is Real!
Breathing into sleeping bag does more than just add moisture. I often break this rule and have to dry out. Then there was the time I was sleeping out to guard my chickens and was tucked into my mummy bag for too long. Woke up with racing heart and first experience of vertigo in my life and nauseous. Practically had to crawl back to the house as the vertigo was so bad. Very unpleasant! I made the connection right away although I had never been warned about c02 exposure. It is possible that someone else might not realize the cause and remain in the CO2 still trying to stay warm. Fortunately for me I was just in my backyard that time.
Long time ago in my army days , the winter training was hard and cold in northern Canada , we had double sleeping bag and one inner cotton sleeping sheet , also extra length sleeping bag and stuffed cloths and boots in to prevent from freezing … happy winter camping all .…
Ok I’ve been homeless for a long while now and I sleep in a tent and I put 4 sheets on top of my tent then a plastic shower curtain on top of the 4 sheets then my tent cover. Then I line the inside of my tent with towels because of the moisture that will drip down.… The towels will soaked up the moisture. Then I also lite up a few candles for my heat. And actually I make t torch with candle wax. But you must ventilat your tent by opening your tent windows a bit so your not all black like me and my wife in the mornings. I hope that this little bit of information will help anyone who’s going camping in the cold snow.
Good tips, bro. Sounds like when SHTF you’ll have plenty of experience in survival.
Don’t be me and take wrong butane can.… I was in Japan — 5c over night almost perished and 1am went to make hot miso.…stove would not burn. I done lots of camping but never learned there a thing such as winter cannisters.
🙂 many brands use a butane-propane mix for this reason! Pro tip: if you have a remote burner, turn the canister upside down for better flow…
Being a stomach sleeper and one who gets a stuffy nose if the air is too cold and dry, I used to hate winter camping until I discovered that I could lay an open fleece bag over my down one, but sticking out over the head. I let my head stick out of the down bag but still under the fleece one, and it keeps in just enough moisture and heat to make for really comfortable stomach sleeping. Of course I keep my head covered as well, as others above have suggested!
Thanks for the tip, Dan! 🙂
Great blog Tom, thank you! I’ll be putting all this info to good use in a few weeks.….except I’ll be adding two four legged bed warmers to the equation, for super maximum warmth.
Very inspiring. It made my situation sound a lot more in advantage. My 4 door Corola is my tent. And a trunk filled with supplies- food, bed covers etc. I’ve been driving across the country from the west to the east coast as well as Canada for Three+ month. As the weather gets below ‑C. And I just saw the first snow when I entered the state of New York. I was getting nervous. Reading your post gives me some ideas and encouragement. Thank you!
Bed covers – such luxury! 😉
Hey Lydia do you have any tips for staying warm in the car. I’ve taken a few from this post
Also, I have made some experiments with “firebeds” during winter camping. In Scandinavia during winter, this works because even with all that snow you are usually able to get dry tinder from the lower branches (near the ground) of pinewood. Just remember that you should have at least a foot of dirt on top of the hot rocks.
Great article, Tom.
I came across this article, which includes a few more tips: http://campingandcamping.com/10-tips-on-how-to-keep-your-tent-warm/
[…] you are brave enough, you could go camping during the winter months. Make sure you take a tent and plenty of sleeping bags for when it gets […]
[…] at all. So better check some extra sources like Backpacking in winter for general advice, or some tricks to stay warmer by Tom, a cyclist with useful pieces of advice to sleep at least 3 hours each […]
[…] doing star-jumps before going to bed or performing sit-ups or press-ups in your sleeping bag. Click here for the full […]
This was interestng! I have probably hundreds of nights out in the winter in Norway, Greenland and Northern Canada on skiing tours, and I was surprised to see some of my favourite tricks here.
Clothing: wool, wool hat, woolen gloves woolen socks. Remember: “Cotton kills”
Extra heat: Warm water in a couple of bottles in the sleeping bag, Then you also have fluid water ready for the moring porridge. Keep away from “Soda bottles”, they will distort and may leak when filled with boiling water.
Water condensating in the sleeping bag insulating material: Sleep in an airtight bag (plastic) , placed inside sleeping bag. This is unconfortable, but keeps the sleeping bag free from ice and keeps you warm on the long run.
Insulation to ground: Use two matresses, top one should be airfilled, for confort.
Peeing bottle: Absolutely. “Draining body fluids will not make you loose body temperature. On the contrary, it will increase your confort.
Sleeping position: Lying on the side may be warmer than on your back. (Less heat loss to ground)
Extras: Bring a small piece of extra insulation (20 cm x 20 cm) to place under body part with major force to ground (usually hip), for extra insulation. (personally, I bring a piece of reindeer fur, which never leaves my sleeping bag)
Take along the hand and body warmers shake 1 up and throw in sleeping bag.One at the feet,and one near torso works Great
“…By the time I reached Swedish Lapland a month later — where the temperatures at night were usually approaching –30°C — I was able to pass the night in comfort in my spare sleeping bag — a cheap Chinese knock-off I’d bought in Tehran one time and which contained less than half the amount of filling…”
Of course these are your words, Tom. Can you explain please ? How was that possible ? Why ?
What happened with this expensive top shelf sleeping bag ?
It was simply about knowing how to get the best out of my gear and how to operate efficiently in such conditions (rather than anything intrinsic about the equipment itself). This article is intended to share some of those lessons.
If you have a fire .…use a clean “heat rock” from around the fire base.….. move away from fire with a stick and roll it into an old shirt .…then can place it in the sleeping bag.….
Great tip! Just don’t use a polyester shirt 🙂
I have done something similar . Cut the leg off an old pair of denim jeans and sew up one end of it. Then put the hot rock in it and roll the open end down. Put it in your sleeping bag and it will keep you warm for hours. I
Keep a high energy treat handy during the night. If you get cold, eat the treat… it will help you make energy and warm you. Drinking some water help as well. At winter camp, we give each Boy Scout a sugary treat before going to bed with the same instructions. Funny how they all get cold and eat them before 10:00 🙂
Bury water bottles in the snow. It will prevent (or substantially reduce) freezing. Temps in the snow are a lot warmer ( a relative term) than the air temp.
PopTarts can be warmed in boiling water if you put in the water in the sealed package. Then use the hot water for hot drinks and hot food.
Boil some water before bedtime, put into well sealed bottles and insert into the sleeping bags. This will prewarm the bag before you get in. Leaving in the bag overnight will wring the last heat from the water…make sure it is sealed well.
Sleep with footwear in the bag so they are not frozen in the morning.
Getting nervous! Leaving for my first bike tour on December 28th around the coast of england Scotland and wales! Need advice on keeping dry … wild camping … what gear to pack how much gear too pack what clothes are best!!!
Thank you in advance
Quoting from Sir R Fiennes “Cold” book: “…’s sleeping bag had increased in weight from 12 to 28lbs (in just a few days) …. Cherry-Garrad’s sleeping bag …. 18lbs (and after 6 weeks) weighed 45lbs” Frozen body moisture.
Don’t exhale into your bag.
Wear hat(s) as much of your body heat is lost through your head.
Hot waterbottles ar a nice idea but ultimately self-defeating as they cool & freeze.
The more you are insulated from the ground the better off you’re going to be.
A silk liner keeps you from the bag, important if it’s down bag as you are unlikely to be washing it frequently.
Don’t put your pi££ bottle inside your bag, that is simply courting disaster! Try not to [email protected]@ in the night as keeping warm fluids inside is the name of the game.
Condensation is a major issue, that’s why double skin tents (an inner & an outer) work best most of the time.
Grow a beard (‘cept if you’re a lady), don’t cut your hair, cultivate the “Wild Man o’ the Woods” look to trap all body heat.
Beware sweating too much as at seriously low temperatures, it’ll freeze & frozen sweat under arms etc is unpleasant.
Above all else: wet kit / dry kit. Wet kit never comes into the tent. Yes, frozen socks and boots in the morning are unpleasant but you need to keep the two separate.
Leave any water bottles upside down as fluids freeze from the top (bow read: bottom) .
Trying to keep a full bladder at night is wrong. Calories are used keeping that excess fluid at body temperature. Calories are better used keeping your body at body temperature.
I think they meant u should pee prior to bed, then try to stay tucked in because as many calories as it may take to heat body fluids, its going to take way more to get warm after getting up to go use the restroom. I like many women, have to pee a few times at night. So for me, i dont drink liquids that contain diuretics and keep the liquids to a minimum before bed.
If you’re trying not to pee during the night it’s good to practice finishing all eating and drinking at least five hours before bedtime. This is also a good health practice otherwise because the body can focus it’s energy on healing itself instead of digesting while you sleep.
When I first started studying winter survival I came across a book that said if you find someone suffering from cold hypothermia you should encourage and even assist them in emptying their bladder as a first step in treatment.
I always bring an thin outer bag. I made a wide (enough) thin sleeping bag with synthetic insulation and a pertex shell. In winter camping condensation of body moisture is a problem.
You don’t want the condensation point in the insulation of your down bag. With the second bag the condensation point will by in or outside the synthetic insulation. I also use the bag as a summer sleeping bag.
As I write this the bag is in Rondane used by friends…
Complements on your site, hope it will inspirate a lot!!
Cheers, Ed (the Netherlands).
Liking the idea behind a synthetic outer bag.
Nigel — you should check out Wiggy’s sleeping bags and sleeping bag systems. They are big proponents of ‘system’ sleeping bags utilizing an inner and an outer that are used separately in varying temps and together in the coldest of temps.
Just back from a nice trip..temperatures high of 4, low ‑2, Gulf Islands..different cold than snow. The advice above works well here. I use two cheap bags..one down inside, synthetic bigger one outside..works like a charm.
Never expected to be really cold on a bicycle trip across Australia in Spring and Summer. Underestimated the elements. Definitely reassessing our sleeping gear and riding clothes before Europe and the North America’s.
The hot water bottle idea is a good one, however I’ve always found it more effective to keep it between the thighs — this warms the blood as it flows through the femoral arteries and keeps the legs and feet warm ” from the inside”. The best tip I’ve ever been given was to keep a dedicated pee bottle in the tent with you — Nalgene’s collapsible widemouth bottles are excellent for this. It saves getting up in the night for calls of nature and means sleep isn’t disrupted as much by having to getting out in the cold then having to warm up the sleeping bag back up. Just make sure to put the lid on securely!
It would probably pay to keep the bottle inside ones sleeping bag after “topping it up”, might as well benefit from the heat contained in pee. Quite surprising how warm that stuff is.
I invested in an ‘Innocent’ Orange Juice bottle and this probably kept me from freezing on Tuesday using it as a hot water pee bottle. Ironic that those Nalgene Collapsible bottles are made from PE!
I never once thought to keep the pee bottle in my bag, I always throw it out the door, then have to remember where so as not to stand in it or cook on it the next morning.
Enjoying your site. I’m not a cyclist, just a backpacker and thru hiker in and around Scotland, but still find your site extremely useful and full of excellent ideas. Specifically enjoy the comments sections of your blogs.
Stuart (aka scotsmist)
I really like the UCO candle lantern for adding warmth to my tent, also nice that they make a citronella candle for use in the lantern for areas where mosquitoes are abundant. I have also heard that the Marmot EOS 1 person tent is excellent for cold weather camping.
[…] Nylund positively welcomed the white stuff! Obviously, staying warm in camp is essential. Tom has a few simple tips gleaned from years of experience. For instance, did you know that squashing the air out of your […]
1) Just before going to bed brew up a big batch of hot water and make a cup of tea, warming yourself up. Pour the excess hot water into a nalgene water bottle (or equivalent) and put it into your sleeping bag to warm the bag before you hop. Once in, push down to the bottom of the bag to warm your toes.
2) Depending on snow cover; dig a small trench right outside the tent door. This let’s you sit inside your tent with feet in the trench, meaning you don’t have to sit out side in the cold and wind. In really cold weather you can stay inside your sleeping bag and cook with your stove down in the trench.
3) Take a small sponge to mop up condensation/meting snow. keeps tent walls and your sleeping bag dry.
Sponge idea is a nice one when it’s ‘warm’ enough for there to be any liquid moisture! Thanks!
Great tips, here’s another.
Think Warm, Be Warm and also warm the wrists, thin skin and heats blood quicker to circulate around body.
Great tips Tom, thanks for sharing! Especially breathing into the sleeping bag is pretty tempting indeed. Some of the tips are so darn simple yet make so much sense…
There’s one other trick I stumbled across a while ago: “the wee tent heater”. All you need to do is placing a lighted tea light candle into your shoes or some fire-proof base in the middle of the tent. It’s quite surprising how much warmth these little tea light candles can emit and I tend to carry a few of them with me whenever going on a camping trip. Using your shoes also can do the trick when they got wet or something. Free newspapers (depending in what area you are travelling) also come in extremely handy — not only as makeshift insulation, but also as disposable towel for drying tent and other equipment the next morning…
The tea-light in a shoe idea is brilliant! 🙂
Hehe, glad you like it! I wish I could give credit to the right person, since I stumbled across the idea on the internet quite a while ago. But in the end it’s all about sharing and as long as it does the trick… 🙂
I would not put a tea light in my shoe but I would put it into a glass Jar/Mason Jar with an open top. It can double up as a hand warmer. You can’t touch the jar with bare hands but you can touch it with gloves on.
I know this is 13 years old, but I found it in a search so hopefully this will be useful…newspapers can also be use dry out wet shoes or boots or gloves. Just stuff the wet object with newspapers and let it sit overnight in your tent. The paper will draw out a large amount, if not all, of the excess moisture.
Thanks Larry! Just 3 years old, actually, but tips like this are timeless 😉