A tent sitting on a cliff at sunset

How to Heat a Tent: 11 Tips for a Cozy Evening Inside Your Tent

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As the end of summer rolls around, many outdoor enthusiasts wave goodbye to the camping season and transition into a life indoors for the colder winter months. While colder temperatures can make outdoor recreation less appealing to some, the fall and winter seasons are some of the most magical times to be outside.

Whether you’re a keen winter camper or someone looking to branch out into shoulder season outdoor activity, there’s no reason to stay indoors out of fear of being cold at night. If missing out on a quality night’s sleep while camping in the fall and winter is your main reason for staying indoors, we’ve got some top tips to help heat your tent and stay toasty warm wherever your adventures might take you. Here’s how to do it:

1. Quality sleeping bag (4-season)

Perhaps the easiest thing you can do to stay warm at night when the mercury falls is to get yourself a quality, four season sleeping bag. While the required temperature rating of your sleeping bag can vary widely based on where you’ll be camping, as a rough guide, you’ll want to look for a sleeping bag that’s rated to at least zero degrees Fahrenheit.

A zero degree sleeping bag is more than enough for a good night’s sleep in many campgrounds in the low to mid-elevations in much of the continental United States. If you’re planning on heading into the mountains for a few nights or you live somewhere that’s particularly cold, you might want to look for an even warmer sleeping bag. These days, one can buy a sleeping bag that’s rated down to an astonishing negative sixty degrees Fahrenheit, so there are few places that are too cold for camping in this world. 

Do keep in mind, however, that a down sleeping bag offers minimal, if any insulating value when wet, so many people opt for a synthetic sleeping bag for the winter months. Alternatively, you can get a down sleeping bag that has a thick waterproof shell on it to help keep that precious insulation dry, even when the conditions turn sour.

Regardless of what kind of sleeping bag you choose, be sure to thoroughly do your research so you have the best gear for the weather conditions you might face outside.

2. Use a sleeping pad

While some people think that camping is all about “roughing it,” there’s no reason to be uncomfortable when you’re outside. In fact, a sleeping pad is not only a surefire way to get a more comfortable night’s sleep, but it’s also a surefire way to stay warmer at night.

Sleeping pads are designed, first and foremost, to insulate you from the cold, wet ground. While many people think that the ambient air temperature is the main reason why we get cold at night, we actually lose much of our body heat through direct contact with the ground.

Even in the summer months, the ground temperature can be much colder than the air temperature, so we want to insulate ourselves whenever we’re lying down. In the winter, a quality sleeping pad can make a world of difference and give us a much better night’s sleep.

That being said, not all sleeping pads are created equal. While some are well insulated, others are little more than a thin piece of foam that can help keep you dry. Thus, whether you choose to get a foam or inflatable sleeping pad, you’ll want to make sure you get one with a high “R-value.”

In the world of sleeping pads, an R-value is a measure of a sleeping pad’s insulative qualities. Essentially, the higher the R-value, the warmer the sleeping pad. Most summer-weight sleeping pads have an R-value between 1.5 and 2.5, while the warmest winter sleeping pads often have an R-value around 4. If you get cold easily at night, you’ll want to get a sleeping pad with the highest possible R-value.

3. Candle lantern

Sometimes, people use candle lanterns to help stay warm at night while camping. A candle lantern is basically a lantern that is powered by good ol’ fashioned candles. These tend to be pretty cheap and, depending on the kind of tent you have, can be pretty simple to set up inside.

For the most part, people use candle lanterns as a way to create light in a tent, not to create heat. That being said, a good candle lantern can heat up the inside of a tent by up to 10 degrees or so, making them a decently effective way to stay warm.

However, as a candle lantern requires an open flame to work, it poses a major fire hazard to your tent. Thus, if you do choose to use a candle lantern to heat your tent, you need to take some safety precautions to prevent a serious incident from occurring. Plus, since combustion creates carbon monoxide, you need to be sure that you’ve got enough ventilation in your tent to prevent any sort of dangerous build-up of this poisonous gas.

Long story short: Only heat your tent with a candle lantern if you’re willing to assume the fire and carbon monoxide risk that comes along with it.

4. Layers, layers, layers

Layering is the best way to stay warm when outside. While many people opt to buy one gigantic ski jacket for their wintertime adventures, it turns out that this is a pretty ineffective way to stay warm, especially if you’re a fairly active person.

Instead, having a plethora of layers can help you customize your current insulation technique to best meet the needs of your environment. Thus, if it’s wet and cold outside, you can put on a fleece, synthetic vest, and a rain jacket instead of one large puffy jacket.

The key with layering, however, is that you need to ensure that you can wear all of your layers at once. Since the more jackets, you can wear at once is directly correlated with the amount of warmth you can have in the outdoors, you don’t want to get caught in a situation where you can only wear half of your layers at any given time.

The solution? Size up some of your jackets so you can fit a layer or two underneath them. This is especially important when it comes to rain jackets and wind jackets, which are designed to go over all your other layers.

Oh, and don’t forget about your legs, either. While keeping your chest and torso warm should be your top priority, a couple of pairs of long underwear, or even a pair of puffy pants, underneath a set of rain pants, can make a huge difference on a cold, rainy day.

5. Heated rocks wrapped in towels

If your own body heat isn’t enough to keep you warm, you’ll have to start looking for external sources of heat. A simple, yet effective way to add heat to your tent with little extra gear is to wrap hot rocks in towels and place them in strategic locations around your body.

The best source of hot rocks will be from around a fire, so place a few fist-sized rocks near the coals of your campfire at night before going to bed. Then, when it’s time to retire for the night, you can carefully pick these rocks up, wrap them up in your towels (be careful not to get burned!) and bring them into your tent.

Once in your tent, place the towel-wrapped rocks around your body so that you get some of the direct effects of their radiating warmth. While you can put these rocks in your sleeping bag, it’s only recommended if you can ensure that the rock won’t slip out of the towel and burn you while you sleep. Otherwise, simply being near these rocks can also add some heat to your tent.

6. Heating pads/hand warmers

Another popular option for keeping warm at night while camping is to use self-contained heating systems, like a disposable handwarmer or heating pad. Handwarmers are common amongst the skiing crowd on cold winter days, and they have some use in the backcountry, too.

If you’re going to use heating pads or hand warmers to stay warm in your tent, you’ll want to open them up right before bed and follow the instructions on the packaging. Then, place the hand warmers in your gloves or pockets so they can provide you with some heat as you sleep. 

Alternatively, you can get some toe warmers to keep your feet toasty at night. The best way to go about using these toe warmers is to put on one pair of socks, attach the toe warmers to the underside of those socks, and then carefully pull on a second pair of socks to trap in the heat. Voila! You’ve got warm toes.

7. Hot water bottle

Commonly used in Europe, hot water bottles are an excellent way to stay warm in a cold tent. Commercially made hot water bottles are easy to come by in Europe and are possible to locate in North America with a little bit of work on the internet. Some hot water bottles are simply made of rubber, while others have soft covers for comfort.

If you have a proper hot water bottle, all you need to do is fill it up with hot water before you head to bed. Then, bring it into your sleeping bag with you – or, better yet, zip it up inside your jacket – and you’ll be toasty warm at night.

Should you not have a proper hot water bottle, you can still enjoy all of the great benefits of this simple technology with a Nalgene. All you have to do is fill your Nalgene up with hot water and bring it into your sleeping bag with you. If you’re using a Nalgene as a hot water bottle, you’ll just want to take extra precautions to ensure that you don’t burn yourself on the bottle’s hot surface. Additionally, you’ll need to make sure your Nalgene is properly tightened to avoid any dreaded leaking all over your sleeping bag.

8. Use a tent carpet

A tent carpet is a pretty simple way to increase the temperature in your tent. As you might expect, a tent carpet is basically a carpet for your tent. Tent carpets are quite similar to rugs that fill the floor of your tent to help insulate you from the ground.

When used in conjunction with a quality sleeping pad with a high R-value, a tent carpet can add a whole lot of warmth to your sleeping set-up. Plus, tent carpets are comfortable, stylish, and aesthetically pleasing.

However, tent carpets are only really practical for car camping as their extra weight and bulk make them a relatively annoying thing to pack with you into the backcountry. That being said, they’re definitely worth the investment if you’re looking to make your tent a little homier in the winter months.

9. Mr. Buddy heater or another safe tent heater

If a hot water bottle just doesn’t have enough oomph to actively add heat to your tent, you might want to consider getting a portable heating unit that’s safe for use while camping. These small space heaters can bring a whole lot of warmth to a tent without the need to get excessively bundled up in your sleeping bag.

When choosing a tent heater, however, you need to take some precautions to reduce the risk of fire or injury in your tent. Generally speaking, tent heaters that run off of electricity are going to be safer than one that runs off of an open flame. 

However, even an electric space heater can be a fire hazard if it comes into direct contact with flammable materials, like your tent wall or sleeping bag, for too long. Thus, whenever you use your tent heater, be sure to set it up in a safe place in your tent where it isn’t likely to get knocked over.

As you might imagine, though, space heaters are quite bulky and heavy, so they’re not exactly useful for most backcountry adventures. But, if you’re in a campground with electrical hookups, they’re a convenient way to heat up your tent.

10. Use a small tent (less space to heat)

When all else fails, using a smaller tent is a great way to stay warm at night. Smaller tents have much less space in them that needs to be heated, so any of the above methods will be more effective in a snug two person tent than in a massive ten person tent. So, if you’re still cold at night, consider downsizing your tent.

11. If you have a dog, let it sleep in the tent with you

Letting man’s best friend inside your tent with you at night might mean you track some dirt and mud onto your tent floor, but it could also make you much warmer as you sleep. Dogs produce body heat, just like humans do, so letting your pup snuggle up with you at night can be a mutually beneficial act. Not only will your puppy be warm and happy, you will, too.

In Summary

Staying warm at night while camping doesn’t have to be an insurmountable challenge. While cold temperatures can be daunting, there are plenty of ways to heat your tent at night while camping. Which method will you try on your next shoulder season camping trip? Happy camping!

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