How to Stay Warm Camping in a Tent

Tent with a campfire in the woods during fall

The end of summer doesn’t always mean the end of camping. The fall, winter, and spring are some of the best times for camping because of the availability of sites in campgrounds, and in most year-round campgrounds, there is also a greatly reduced rate for camping off-season.

This post is part of our outdoor adventure series

What is cold weather camping?

Cold weather camping is defined as camping when the weather drops below 50 degrees Fahrenheit overnight. Most year-round campgrounds will be almost empty, so you can be sure that you will find the peace and quiet you’ve missed all summer.

You will need to bring all your regular camping gear plus extra gear like down sleeping bags and blankets, preferably made of wool (enough to use as insulation underneath where you will be sleeping), and the appropriate camping gear to deal with rain and wind.

Even the most exciting camping trip can become uncomfortable if you cannot keep warm while enjoying the great outdoors; keeping warm may even become a matter of survival in certain circumstances.

There are three main aspects of keeping warm in the outdoors.

  • The first is clothing; this is the warmth you carry on your back.
  • Second is shelter; where you sleep or what you sleep in will determine your nightly comfort.
  • Lastly is fire; this is your warmth outside your shelter and can be your true lifesaver.

Planning these three key features of your camping trip can make for a better time in the wild.

Clothing That Keep’s You Warm Camping

Planning what type of clothing to wear while camping is a simple but often overlooked task.

A good rule of thumb is to layer your clothes. A few thin layers of clothing are way better than one thick layer. The layer closest to the skin should be a thin material designed to wick perspiration away from your body. There are several high-tech materials on the market that excel in this area.

Cotton is a classic standby. The next layer should be a sweater, sweatshirt, or woolen layer that closes near the wrists and neck to keep warm air inside. Wool is excellent because it does not absorb water and can keep you warm even if it gets wet.

Follow that layer up with a good fleece that can be easily removed if you begin to overheat. The final layer, the one exposed to the elements, should be wind and water-resistant.

Keep in mind that the majority of the body’s heat is lost through the head. Wearing a beanie will help in the fight against heat loss.

Also, cold feet are a one-way ticket to discomfort. Be sure to wear quality socks designed for hiking or camping. Gaiters also keep water, snow, and mud off your boots and pant legs; drier always equals warmer in the great outdoors.

The key to keeping warm is staying dry. You also want to make sure not to get overheated. If you get too warm, you will begin sweating; later on, as your body drops to its resting temperature, you will be cold.

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Lastly, do not forget your gloves. Thin nylon gloves can be worn under another pair of outer gloves, layering the same way as your primary clothing.

What to Wear to Bed Camping in the Cold

Your best bet for keeping warm overnight is, again, layered; whilst you might want to rug up extremely warm as you’re getting into your tent and sleeping bag, you don’t want to overheat during the night.

We suggest starting with fleece pajamas and woolly socks, then top it off with a warm hoody to wrap around your head.

Where to Sleep Keeping Warm Camping

Where you stay and sleep at night greatly impacts your camping warmth. Whether you are sleeping in a good-quality waterproof tent or under the stars, the sleeping bag you tuck yourself inside will determine the peacefulness of your sleep.

Sleeping bags are basically one of two designs, synthetic or natural (i.e., down). Keep in mind, however, that it is not the material that keeps you warm but the warm air that is trapped around your body. Down is great for warmth and packability, but it is heavy when wet and takes a long time to completely dry.

Synthetics, on the other hand, provide adequate warmth, packability, and quick-drying features. It is worth doing extensive research in this arena as modern sleeping bags can be quite an investment.

We would also suggest adding a thermal liner to the sleeping bag for an additional layer of warmth.

Sleeping pads and mats

Don’t forget what you’re sleeping on, too. Air mattresses can actually cool down more than the ground you’re sleeping on, making sleeping pads a much better choice; there’s a great guide on REI to selecting the best sleeping pads to keep you warm, including an explanation of “R-Value” for determining a sleeping pad’s warmth.

Last but not least, warming a kettle and filling a hot water bottle to snuggle in with can be your last line of defense against the cold in bed.

Your Camp Fire For Keeping Warm

In a survival situation, fire may provide the only available source of warmth. An entire book could be written on all the ways to start a fire in the wild, but what is the best way to use that fire to stay warm?

If you have the luxury of being able to build two fires, the best position is between those fires allowing each to warm you from a different side. With one fire, it is best to create a reflector to direct the heat towards your body or sleeping area.

This can be accomplished by building a simple wooden shield. Do not use the rock as your reflector if you are near a large rock structure. Instead, back up against the rock, build your fire and then build a reflector on the other side. This way, the fire is reflected back towards you and the rock. The rock will warm up and now also acts to keep you warm.

Have another cooking source

Whilst campfires are our go-to for winter warmth, wind, snow and rain on extreme days may wreak havoc with best-laid plans.

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We always bring a gas cylinder as a secondary cooking source. The MSR WindBurner and PocketRocket range of backpacking stoves are excellent for 4-season camping trips too.

Most importantly, don’t forget your hot cocoa and marshmallows, bound to warm even the fussiest of little one’s camping!

Packing list you will need to keep warm camping in cold weather

  • Winter wear such as mittens, gloves, hats, scarves, boots, and winter coats.
  • Pack extra clothing, especially socks. Changing socks often will help keep your feet warm.
  • Bring more campfire wood than you think you might need!
  • If there is snow on the ground, you will want to remove as much snow from the ground as possible. You can use the snow as a shield for your tent to keep the wind off of it.
  • Never use space heaters inside your tent. That can cause a fire, and propane heaters can cause carbon monoxide poisoning.
  • You will want to make sure that you keep all wet gear away from your sleeping area.

Proper planning and good attention to detail are essential for any venture into the wild. Remember that warmth is not only a matter of comfort; it may be a matter of survival. Make a list, and never pack in a hurry when going on a camping adventure. It is better to have something and not need it than need it and not have it.


More Camping and Outdoor Adventure Advice

  • Ultimate Camping Packing List – prepared especially for our readers who enjoy beach and desert camping, here’s exactly what we pack to cope with the elements, cook & entertain
  • Camping with a Baby – all the essentials you’ll want to pack when camping with a baby; gear to make it easier and keep it fun
  • Toddler Camping Essentials – once your kids are on the move, you’ll want these essential items when you go camping to keep everyone safe and entertained for outdoor adventures
  • Ready-made meals for camping – no need to spend hours of your camping trip chopping and prepping – these ready-made camp meals will go straight on your stove or camp fire
  • Perfect Fall Campgrounds – where to find some of the best cooler-weather campgrounds where you can also see the incredible changing colors of the season

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Family around a campfire keeping warm - text overlay Cold Weather Camping and keeping warm
A tent and campfire under th trees titled Keeping Warm Camping

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