Deciding how to insulate a tent for winter camping is paramount to defending yourself against the cold air of winter and it can be done with a little planning and preparation.
It can be difficult to stay warm while camping in cold weather with your typical 2-to-3 season tents. And while buying a four-season tent is always an option, the price tag will make your wallet shutter.
Another option is to pile on the clothes, but that’s a huge hassle and doesn’t always do the trick (and the bulk makes it uncomfortable to sleep).
We’ve compiled a list of our best tips for keeping your tent warm and comfortable during the frosty winter months.
- 1. Bring Your Smallest Tent
- 2. Insulate the Tent Itself
- 3. Choose a Warm Sleeping Bag
- 4. Sleep on an Air Mattress or Sleeping Pad
- 5. Bring a Tent Heater
- 6. Clear the Ground Before Pitching Your Tent
- 7. Insulate the Floor of Your Tent
- 8. Insulate the Ground Under Your Tent Footprint
- 9. Devise a Wind Break
- 10. Layer and Cover Up
- 11. Wear a Head Covering
- 12. Bring Some Hand Warmers
- Wrapping Up How to Insulate a Tent for Winter Camping
1. Bring Your Smallest Tent
The smaller the tent, the easier it is to trap radiated body heat. And the more people with you inside the tent, the more heat will be produced.
The average human body radiates approximately the same amount of heat energy per hour as a 100-watt lightbulb. While you wouldn’t think of using one of these to warm a room in your house, imagine having one powered on in your sleeping bag, trapping all that heat. Then imagine that you have one for each member of your family in the same tent. That’s a significant heat source.
If you only own one of those massive “castle” tents or instant tents that have more room than is absolutely necessary, consider purchasing a smaller tent that will comfortably hold the whole family. When it comes to staying warm during a winter camping trip, the more and snugger the merrier . . . um, and toastier!
2. Insulate the Tent Itself
The trick to tent insulation is to equip the tent walls so that they reflect your radiated body heat back to you as opposed to leaking through the fabric walls and ceiling.
You can accomplish this by using insulation sheets, space blankets, or adding closed-cell foam panels to your tent walls. These materials absorb and/or reflect your body heat so you can stay warm all night long.
Considering the nature of a temporary shelter such as a tent, this can be a hassle during a short trip. While effective if done right, lining the interior of your tent with a reflective layer each time you set it up is laborious.
Alternatively, placing a thermal blanket over the exterior of your tent may have some effectiveness; however, this may be difficult to manage in high winds or rain.
It’s recommended that you try some of the other methods in this article before insulating the tent itself.
3. Choose a Warm Sleeping Bag
Your sleeping bag and your own body heat are your greatest defenses against cold weather. If your current sleeping bag isn’t rated for the chilly temperatures you’ll be experiencing, consider buying one before your next outing.
Also, consider reinforcing your sleeping bag with a liner. If the sleeping bag is the comforter of the camping world, then liners are the bedsheets. Adding one can improve your bag’s temperature rating by 15 degrees.
4. Sleep on an Air Mattress or Sleeping Pad
No, not the huge queen-size type that you would use for guests in your house. Not only would this be cumbersome to bring along, but it will also monopolize the space in a smaller tent.
Furthermore, it is near impossible for your own body to generate enough heat to keep the massive quantity of air inside warm.
A camping air mattress is specifically designed to be both comfortable and minimalistic and holds a smaller amount of air that can easily be heated by your own body heat.
Sleeping mats are also effective in insulating your body against the cold ground. These are typically made of some type of foam. For our purposes here, closed-cell foam would be best.
An air mattress or sleeping mat is preferable to sleeping on a raised cot that permits cold air to continuously circulate below your body, siphoning away your precious body warmth.
5. Bring a Tent Heater
When body heat isn’t enough to keep warm, technology comes to the rescue.
If your campsite is equipped with electrical power, electric tent heaters are a viable option for your next winter tent camping trip. There’s no shortage of options here.
Choices for electrical heat range from an electric blanket to go over your sleeping bag, to a heated mat to go under your sleeping bag, or an electric space heater to generate heat for everyone in the tent.
Under no circumstances should propane heaters be used in a tent. These emit deadly carbon monoxide which can build up in a small closed space.
6. Clear the Ground Before Pitching Your Tent
If you’re camping in the snow, make sure you clear the tent site of accumulated snowfall first. Your body heat will, initially, melt the snow beneath you which, as the night gets colder, will refreeze into solid, abrasive ice — a very uncomfortable surface to sleep on and one that could damage the bottom of your tent.
Clear your sleeping area down to bare earth before pitching your tent. This will maximize the heat reflection between you and the ground.
Once the ground is cleared of snow, try covering it with a tarp or an outdoor mat to keep the icy surface from forming.
7. Insulate the Floor of Your Tent
Use reflective closed-cell foam pads for another insulating layer on the tent floor. These materials have tiny air pockets that will absorb your body heat creating a warm-air barrier between you and the cold ground.
Reflective foam can also be obtained that reflects your body temperature upwards as opposed to being absorbed by the ground.
In a pinch, “carpeting” the tent floor with a thick blanket will also provide some insulation . . . and extra padding!
8. Insulate the Ground Under Your Tent Footprint
Ground insulation is another option that can help ward off heat loss. A simple ground tarp or closed-cell foam pad can insulate your tent from the cold, wet ground.
9. Devise a Wind Break
Cold + Wind = MUCH COLDER!!
If your campsite is not nestled on the lee side of a natural windbreak such as a cliff wall or thick grove of trees, you may consider building an articficial one.
If you’re car camping and the parking pad is close enough to the pad site, you may be able to use your car for this.
Otherwise, you have a couple of options:
If there is enough snow in the vicinity, get the whole family in on building snow walls around the windward sides of the tent. Keep the walls about a foot and a half away from the base of the tent to prevent the snow from melting and running under the bottom.
Build the walls as high as you can and pack them firmly — you don’t want an avalanche in the middle of the night!
Tarp-and-Cord Wind Break
If you have a large tarp, some paracord, and trees close by, building a windbreak is even easier. Lay the tarp down so that half of it is on the tent pad and half is hanging off to the windward side. Pitch your tent on top of the half that is on the tent pad and stake it down well. Then, using the paracord and the eyelets in the tarp, hoist the opposite end upward and anchor them to nearby trees. Try to position the tarp so that it is leaning over your tent at a 45-degree angle to direct the cold air currents over your tent. Finally, anchor the folded edge of the tarp to the ground using tent stakes.
Lean-To Wind Break
Want to try your hand at some bushcraft? Find some felled branches and construct a lean-to frame on the windward side of your tent, leaning at a 45-degree angle towards your tent wall. Panel it with smaller branches and brush or, instead, lash a tarp to the frame with paracord.
10. Layer and Cover Up
Remember the 100-watt lightbulb metaphor? Your body’s natural thermogenesis is constantly giving off heat, and, when sleeping in cold weather, your better off trapping all that toasty goodness around you.
Dress for bedtime in a base layer (such as thermal underwear, merino wool, or polyester base layer) and one more layer of sweats or fleece-lined clothing.
If that doesn’t do the trick, take along an extra few blankets to cover up with. Each layer adds one more barrier the heat has to work through before it can escape.
11. Wear a Head Covering
Up to 10% of your body heat escapes through your head and face.
Sleeping in a “mummy” style sleeping bag that allows you to draw the upper portion of the bag around and over your head can help retain heat.
However, wearing a merino wool, fleece, or thick-knit beanie over your noggin is effective in trapping body heat (and keeping your ears warm).
12. Bring Some Hand Warmers
Disposable hand warmers (or heat packs) are a handy way to boost the heat output inside a sleeping bag.
A typical hand warmer contains a blend of water, activated carbon, iron, vermiculite, salt, and cellulose. When given a good shake, exposing the mix to oxygen, the iron begins oxidizing emitting a pleasant amount of warmth.
When the warmer begins to lose its heat, give it another quick shake and the oxidation will begin again.
Hand warmers can be tucked anywhere inside your sleeping bag. Some enjoy wearing thin gloves to bed with the warmers in the gloves or even tucked in their thermal socks.
Wrapping Up How to Insulate a Tent for Winter Camping
Chilly weather doesn’t have to spell doom for your camping trip. By using some of the tips we’ve provided here, such as selecting the appropriate sleeping bag, dressing in layers, and wearing a head covering, you’ll be able to keep the heat inside your tent and enjoy a warm night’s sleep.
Now, get out there!