How to Insulate a Tent for Winter Camping

how to insulate a tent for winter camping

Last Updated on September 30, 2021

Neither rain, nor sleet, nor snow can keep passionate campers away from their outdoor adventures.

As opposed to regular people who retreat to their warm nests during the coldest months, camping enthusiasts gear up. Winter camping may be challenging, but with the adequate equipment it can also be fun.

When you take the appropriate precautions, you need not miss out on your favourite activity. From proper clothing to indoor lining, this guide will explain the ways to insulate your tent and get the most out of winter.

1. Choose a properly insulated tent

If you are wondering how to stay warm in a tent in the winter, begin by getting a cold weather tent. Choosing the right material, structure and size will make a whole difference to your experience.

Cotton or canvas are the best materials to provide insulation during the winter months.

If your tent is brand new, make sure you weather it before taking it into the cold. You can do this by setting it up in your backyard for a few days. This will fill up the pores and ensure it resists inclement conditions.

A tent with steep walls will better drain snow and heavy rains. Tipi tents are great for harsh climates as the side and upper flaps keep the interior warm. These tents are generally made out of a lot of fabric, cotton to be specific, which offers extra protection. Also, their small living space traps heat faster.

Smaller and double-walled tents provide better tent insulation. Filling any extra space with gear and backpacks to minimize heat loss is an additional safeguard.

Four season tents withstand extreme cold and snowy conditions with their sturdy structure and resistant materials that also reduce moisture. The elevation of a tent cot allows for a warmer sleep as you are separated from the cold ground. Also, make sure there are no tears in the fabric and use a tent seam sealer if you find one!

2. Tarp it up

Laying a waterproof footprint or groundsheet underneath the tent will improve ground insulation, as long as it does not extend past the edges. Otherwise, there will be an inconvenient collection of snow that will cool you down.

On the outside, a tarp tilted in the direction of the wind can act as a shield from cold currents. A tarp or thermal blanket duct taped over the top of your tent will preserve heat and repel dew and frost. When shopping for tarps, make sure they are waterproof, big enough and, ideally, UV resistant.

More on this: Tent Footprint vs Tarp – Learn The Differences

Nature may also be of service when considering how to insulate a tent for cold weather.

dry leaves under tent

Having dry leaves under the tent will help preserve the heat

Dry leaves can form an extra layer below your tent, or even over it when using a low profile tent.

If there is snow around, use it to build a wall a few feet high around your tent. Packing down the snow under the tent and stomping on it to create a snowbank will cut some of the wind. Also, loose snow is more prone to melt while you sleep over it.

You could also use rocks or fallen trees to construct a windbreak. Avoid large open fields and low lying areas where cold air settles. You can use natural structures such as large rocks or lines of trees to prevent wind from infiltrating your tent.

3. Indoor tent insulation

Cover the floor with reflective insulation material or a fitted carpet, making sure it goes up a few inches against the walls to reduce cold air currents. Materials with a reflective surface reduce the amount of heat we lose by radiation.

Or you can use children foam tiles or picnic rugs as creative and cheap ways to stop cold from coming up through the floor (while also increasing comfort). This is recommended even when sleeping on a sleeping pad or cot, as it provides an extra layer away from the freezing ground.

Line the roof and walls by attaching insulating fabric such as polyester inside the canopy.

Investing in a space blanket for an inner layer of low-weight, heat-reflective technology is worth considering. The disadvantage of lining the inside of your tent is that you need to close all screens, which promotes condensation.

Venting your tent once in a while even in the coldest scenarios will avoid this issue. Also, you can get a portable moisture absorber or dehumidifier to reduce humidity.

4. How to keep a tent warm in the winter with a tent heater

Now you know how to insulate a camping tent from inside and out.

The equivalent would be a cozy cabin in the snow. While in the cabin you may have a nice fireplace to warm up your feet, in the tent you can have a heater. Tent heaters generally use propane, butane or electric power. They come in a variety of sizes for you to choose whichever suits your circumstances.

Keep in mind that gas-powered heaters can be a fire and carbon monoxide hazard, so be extra careful and read the instructions and warnings. Open the vent flaps to allow the CO2 to leave the tent.

tent heater

A roaring tent heater makes winter camping a lot easier. Credit: Andy Arhur via Flickr

Portable electric heaters are a safer option but require an external power source, which may not be available unless you carry a generator or camp in an RV campsite. Still, make sure you are extra cautious, never leave the heater unattended and turn it off while you sleep. Battery and oil-filled heaters are more reliable but they only work for one person in a small tent.

5. The ideal sleeping bag

Well done. The space inside your tent is heated up, and warmth is held within the beautifully insulated structure. But your own temperature will decrease during the night to help your body fall and stay asleep.

Take a heavy-duty sleeping bag with a low temperature rating, and a draft collar and hood to ensure your head stays outside. This way, your breath will not produce condensation. If it does not have a hood, do not hide your head inside your sleeping bag. Instead, wear a knitted hat. You can also use a sleeping bag liner for added measure.

A close fitting mummy sleeping bag will maintain your body heat and reduce energy loss. If you can invest in down insulation, you will get much more warmth than with synthetic insulating fibers. Just make sure your down sleeping bag does not get wet.

Place a heat pad inside your sleeping bag to warm it up while you get ready for bed, or a stainless-steel insulated water bottle filled with hot water at your feet.

Thick fleece blankets are especially useful if sleeping alone. In extreme situations, you can dig a trench underneath the tent and fill it with rocks heated in the fire, covered with soil. Place your bed exactly on top of the buried rocks for another natural remedy. Important safety tip: do not heat up wet rocks and keep away from unsupervised children.

In the morning, it would be great to lay out your sleeping bag and roll it up from feet to head. This will remove any accumulated dampness. If you are able to get some sun, hang the sleeping bag to dry to ensure another night without the chills.

6. Proper clothing

So far, you have learnt how to insulate a tent for cold weather. But how to stay warm in a tent in the winter is another challenge.

One option is to wear multiple layers of clothing from head to toes, including socks, gloves, a high quality winter coat and a beanie.

Balaclavas work well as they warm up the air you breathe. However, some campers find this uncomfortable. Also, if you start sweating during the night, it might get damp before you have the sense to remove so many layers.

Wearing thermals made of heat trapping, breathable materials such as wool, fleece or synthetic fabrics will optimize heat retention and reduce the amount of necessary layers.

wool clothing

Wool clothing will help you retain more body heat

Jackets and pants with zippered vents will allow you to adjust the temperature as needed. Avoid tight fitting clothes as they restrict blood flow, and cotton, for it absorbs moisture.

Keep your feet extra warm and dry to prevent hypothermia and consider sock liners.

Remember to layer up as soon as the sun goes down and temperature begins to diminish. Finally, make sure that you and your clothes stay dry, and that you do not take anything wet into the tent.

7. Prepare your body

While sitting by the campfire, perhaps sipping on a nice hot beverage, you will start feeling snuggly. Soon, you will be ready to pull your body into the sleeping bag.

The last thing you will think of is to do light aerobic exercises. However, some jumping jacks before bed will get your blood flowing and increase your body temperature. Try your best not to go to bed cold, as it will be very hard to raise your temperature once inside the sleeping bag. If you do get cold once inside, try doing some crunches to warm back up.

Keep yourself hydrated throughout the day and avoid liquids right before you go to sleep. Once you manage to get the right temperature and position within your sleeping bag, you do not want to get out of your tent to pee. If you must, though, a clearly labelled bottle can help as an indoor loo. For women, a female urination device will make things easier.

Eat a reasonable portion of a high-calorie meal (not too much or you will feel uncomfortable). Carbohydrates, sugars and fats are your best friends for winter camping as your body takes longer to metabolize them, giving you more fuel during the night.

Mix some carrots, spinach and ginger with brown rice for a hearty dinner that warms up the body. Eggs, peanuts, cheese, chocolate and ghee are other foods that aid in increasing your body temperature. Keep an insulated water bottle at hand to stay hydrated and warm at the core.

Final thoughts

As you can see, there are several ways to insulate a tent and keep warm while winter camping. It is all about trial and error, as long as safety is not overlooked.

If it is your first time camping in cold weather, check the forecast and make sure the conditions are not too risky. You can build up your experience and resilience on some moderately chilly nights before you camp in tougher conditions. See what works for you in terms of tent insulation so that you can optimize your strategies and minimise packing requirements.

Cuddling up with your partner or camping buddy adds an extra level of protection from the cold. Connect your sleeping bags and pads together to promote the conduction of heat. Don't be shy! It is not about romance but survival.

Otherwise, a pet is a great companion and a convenient radiator. Try not to sleep in your car. With the proper preventive methods, you will be warmer in a tent and it will be a much more rewarding experience. If, for some reason, you need to transfer to your vehicle, make sure you sleep with your head toward the front and keep a window open enough to ventilate.

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