Expert Advice

Tips for Staying Warm When Cold Weather Camping

Regardless of what season you decide to venture out into the wilderness for a few nights, you are likely to encounter some cold temperatures – temperatures in Grand Canyon in the winter months can drop below freezing, and this applies also to summer hikes in the High Sierras in Yosemite. There is one big thing to remember as you are planning your adventure of a lifetime while in your house with your thermostat set to 72 degrees F – the great outdoors is NOT climate controlled! You cannot crawl out of your sleeping bag and adjust the thermostat to suit your desired temperature. But that is part of the fun, so here are A LOT of tips to help keep you warm and comfy during your next camping trip.


  1. Determine what kind of sleeper you are. Are you a cold or warm sleeper? Not sure? Then use some everyday experiences to figure this out. Do you sleep with your down comforter on your bed through May? Are you the type of person that wears a long sleeved fleece zipped up while hiking in 70 degree F temperatures while all your friends are hiking in shorts and tank tops? You need to keep this in consideration when figuring out what you need extra to keep warm – and no one is going to know this better than you.

2. Don’t assume sleeping bags’ temperature ratings are designed exactly for you. Everyone has a different slumber comfort zone. If you’re a cold sleeper (i.e., you do keep a comforter on your bed until May), use a bag rated at least 10°F below the nighttime low – or add layers (see below). For example, if the comfort rating of your bag is 30 degrees F,  you may be comfortable without anything else helping you keep warm at an outside temperature of 30 degrees F. But this does not take into consideration your own intolerance to cold.

3. Make sure you have a bag that fits you. A bag that is too large or too small is not going to work as efficiently as one of the right size. A bag too small will have parts of you hanging out. A bag that is too big will leave you with too much empty space, requiring more area to be warmed up by your own body heat. Fill up that space with extra clothing or water bottles filled with warm water. Anything you can use to make the area smaller. For those of you that are vertically challenged, bags are made in shorter lengths – 60″ and 65″. If you are taking a guided tour, this may not be an option, so be certain to check if sizes will work for you. If not, an investment of a bag just your size may be worth it.

4. Bring a sleeping bag liner. Liners can add as little as 5 degrees F of warmth with a microfiber liner to 17 degrees F with a flannel or merino wool liner.

5. Insulate yourself by wearing as much clothing as possible, especially around your core (stomach, back and chest). The more layers you have, the better and if you get too warm, remove a layer or two. But, be sure your nighty night clothes are loose-fitting and clean (like thermals you only wear to bed). Tight clothing restricts circulation and dirt clogs air spaces in the materials, reducing insulation value and thus, making it harder to stay warm. Sorry, got kind of sciency there.

6. However, in response to number 5, being too warm produces perspiration and you can be sure that you will end up cold and damp in the end, so vent your bag if needed or remove some layers.

7. Make sure your feet are as dry as possible before going to bed. This can be done by having a pair of dry sleeping socks in your bag, for sleeping only. Even slightly damp socks can cause you to lose a lot of heat through your feet.

8. Wear a knit cap to bed. Forty to 50 % of your body heat is lost through your head if that is the only part of your body exposed to the cold.

9. Stay hydrated and consume calories! Just like in warm climates, your body uses liquids to regulate your body temperature. Calories – well your body “burns” them doesn’t it? It actually keeps you warmer.

10. Keep your tent ventilated at night. This may sound a little strange at first but there’s a good reason for it! The heat from your body and your breath itself inside your tent at night can cause condensation to build up and make everything in your tent slightly damp – thus making the inside of your tent colder.

11. Use a good insulating sleeping pad between you and the ground. What you have under you is more important in keeping you warm than what is on top of you. Closed cell foam sleeping pads offer more insulation than air mattresses, which will eventually be filled with cold air on cold nights. An air mattress by itself offers little insulation between you and the cold air inside the mat – even if it is an insulated air mat. If you want warmth AND comfort, put the sleeping pad on top of your air mattress.

12. Roll the moist air out of your bag each morning when you get up (roll from foot to head), then leave it open until it cools to air temperature. If weather permits, set it out to dry. At night, fluff up your sleeping bag with vigor to gain maximum loft before you climb in.

13. Try to keep your bag from touching the wall of your tent. There is this thing called conduction. Conduction occurs when molecules increase in temperature; they vibrate, and this vibration and movement passes the heat energy to the surrounding molecules. In English – heat transfers to colder surfaces. Your warm sleeping bag touches the cold tent wall, eventually, the bag gets cold. Another example – your warm butt sits on a cold rock – does your butt get cold or does your butt warm up the cold rock? Please say your butt gets cold because if it doesn’t you are either delusional or a scientific anomaly.

14. Be sure to keep your face outside the bag. When you breath inside the bag, you exhale moist air, creating a damp, clammy atmosphere. If your face gets too cold, put on a face mask or bandana.

15. Don’t go to bed cold. Before hitting the sack, warm up by doing some pushups, jog around camp, do some jumping jacks or whatever, just not to the point of sweating.

16. Snuggle up with someone else. The more bodies there are, the more body heat. And we will leave this suggestion right where it is!

17. Bring foot and hand warmers.

18. A great light weight way to add some heat – bring a mylar thermal blanket – also called an emergency blanket. Simply attach the thermal blanket to the ceiling of your tent with duct tape and it will reflect much of the heat inside the tent back down at you. Just make sure you still have ample ventilation in your tent. If on a guided tour or using gear that is not your own, ask if this is ok as duct tape can leave residue and result in you buying the company or friend a new tent or paying for cleaning fees.

19. One last tip – if you need to pee in the middle of the night, do it! You are wasting body heat by trying to keep that amount of fluid warm, and wetting yourself is only a quick fix.

And there are probably other ways to stay warm – like lighting a fire in your tent – but there are safer ways than turning your tent into ash.

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