Camping Tips: How to Sleep Warm

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There’s nothing worse than waking up in the middle of the night shivering.

Night should be your time to rest and recharge for the next day of adventures, but if you’re cold, there’s just no way you can get the rest you need. If you tend to have trouble sleeping warm on backcountry trips, are some tips to help you stay cozy at night:

1. Go to bed with a hot water bottle.

A hot water bottle in your sleeping bag can stay warm for hours and help you sleep soundly when it’s well below freezing in your tent. Fill up your hard plastic bottle with hot water and go to bed with it between your legs so it hits your femoral artery. If the bottle is too hot to the touch at first, wrap one of your layers around it and then place it between your legs.

2. Eat food.

If you’re camping in an area where bears or other wildlife aren’t an issue, keep a few snacks inside your tent, and if you wake up cold, eat a candy bar to get your metabolism going.

3. If you wake up cold, pee.

When your bladder is full, your body is expending energy keeping that liquid warm. If you empty it out, your body needs to expend a little less energy to stay warm. It also helps you go back to sleep because the thought of needing to pee won’t distract you from some much-needed rest. If it’s too cold to get outside your tent to pee, use a collapsible pee bottle. Women can also use a pee funnel to pee into the pee bottle. Check out Girl Talk: Peeing in the Backcountry for more tips.

4. Get an extra-warm sleeping bag and if you’re a woman, get a women’s bag.

If you’re someone who runs cold, you may need to spend the cash to get an extra-warm bag. Most sleeping bag temperature ratings are based on the temperature at which the bag will keep you functioning, but not necessarily comfortable. So if you run cold and are expecting a 15-degree night, consider a 0-degree bag.


Photo by Caitlin Brown

If you’re a woman, there are a lot of benefits to having a women-specific sleeping bag. Extra insulation has been added to the feet and upper body, and they are fitted to a woman’s contours so there are fewer air pockets in the bag that you have to heat up. If you’re tall you’re in luck, as most women’s bags these days come in regular and long.

5. Stuff extra gear under your sleeping pad.

Sometimes sleeping warm is just a matter of getting more of a buffer between you and the ground. Consider bringing two sleeping pads—one foam and one inflatable—and put the foam one on the bottom and the inflatable between the foam and your sleeping bag (this is my go-to system when I guide trips on Denali’s West Buttress). You can also place other flattish pieces of gear between your sleeping pad and the ground. I’ll often flake out my climbing rope, then put the rope under one half of my sleeping pad and my backpack under the other half.

  • Jim Bonneville

    I’ve always found that wearing a hat makes a big difference for me if I’m cold in my bag. Sleeping socks (not the pair you wore all day!) can make a big difference too.

  • The hot water bottle trick is great in my camping hammock. I tie my fly tight down over the mosquito net so as only a small breeze can flow through. Then when I go to bed, something warm (like a hot water bottle) hanging in the stash bag above me turns the whole hammock into an oven, making falling asleep much easier.

  • Don Gingrich

    Just a couple of hints from my days of winter camping in North America. I was a scout a *few* years ago with an Assistant Scoutmaster who’d been an officer during the Korean War. He taught us how to deal with cold and limited equipment.

    1. If you’re trying to add to the warmth of a sleeping bag with additional insulation — put it on the outside (and if it’s a down bag, make sure that you don’t stuff up the loft of the down) I was out in -25C with a sleeping bag rated at 0C – I had a down jacket, small tent and used these tips — it worked. I put the down jacket over the torso section of the sleeping bag and used a full length ensolite pad.

    2. carry a towel and a set of long underwear and socks that are reserved for sleeping. Before bed, strip and towel off then put on the clean, dry long underwear and socks. It seems weird, but you actually sweat enough even in really cold conditions that this can make a big difference in comfort. The Inuit go to great lengths to minimise sweating in cold conditions because it makes a difference.

    3. A smaller tent is better. The leakage of heat from your sleeping bag can raise the temperature of a small tent by several degrees. It makes a difference.

    By the way, on the trip I’m talking about above, I had a friend’s Siberian Husky with me. I woke at about 3:00AM hearing her outside moving about — i had not wanted to bring her inside since I was worried about claws and thin tent floors — she was a husky, right? they’re bred for the cold, right? Anyway, looking out of the tent, it was clear that she wasn’t coping all that well. I let her into the tent, she simply dropped and went to sleep — might not have worked earlier, but she was an additional “space heater” and made the whole arrangement warmer.

    I guess what I’m saying, distilled, is that there is more than one way of staying warm, and combining several is a good move.

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