We love to camp in the cooler weather that takes place in the fall and spring but sometimes an unexpected cold snap comes along, and the thin material of the tent is not enough to keep us warm. After some research, and lots of experimentation, here are some ways to heat your tent that do not require electricity. You might want to mix and match amongst these to stay warm and ensure a cozy night in your tent.
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Location location location
Real estate agents know what they are talking about. The location you choose for your tent can be a total game changer. Remember that cold air sinks and warm air rises so you don’t want to camp at the bottom of a valley. However, just because warm air rises doesn’t mean you want to head for the top of the mountain either as then you will feel the full force of any wind. If you have the ability to place your tent halfway up the mountain (now I hear the nursery rhyme Grand Old Duke of York, just me?) you will avoid much of the wind while also taking advantage of the warmer air. Additionally, look for an area that is protected by trees or rocks for additional help. Lastly, you can also use a tarp as a windbreak if you have a way to hang it.
Now, let’s think logically for a minute here. The best way to control the temperature is to know a little something about thermal mass. Now we aren’t going to go too technical on you but thermal mass is the ability of a material to absorb and store heat energy. One of the best conductors of heat would be water which would be a reason why hot water bottles have been used to heat up beds for centuries. We love hot water bottles, especially when they come in a cute stuffed animal format.
Have you ever indulged in a hot stone massage? I’ve only enjoyed the experience once but what an event it was. Before the advent of rubber and hot water bottles, people warmed their beds with warming pans which could be filled with rocks, coals, or embers taken from the fireplace. If you choose your rocks carefully, they can be warmed up in your campfire before bed and then brought into your tent to warm up the air. If you choose to do this, we recommend bringing a dedicated set of stones intended for heating along with a cookie sheet or two. That way you can be sure of having rocks available and they won’t be likely to explode.
You will want to circle your campfire with your dedicated stones and allow them to heat until they actually are too hot to touch. Then, using your heat resistant gloves or a sturdy stick, place them on a cookie sheet. Why a cookie sheet? Well, you don’t want to place hot rocks directly on the floor of your tent which could melt the fabric. The cookie sheet will contain the heat and allow you to carry them safely into the tent. Make sure to place the cookie sheet out of the flow of traffic and where nothing can fall on it during the night. While this won’t dramatically raise the inside temperature, it should bring it up some.
Seal those seams
Now, you don’t want to go to all this trouble to warm up the air inside your tent only to have it leak out due to poor seals and a lack of insulation. New tents don’t arrive with their seams being sealed, typically quality tents will have factory taped seams which are water resistant but not waterproof. Sealing your seams prior to camping will help keep moisture out and warm air in. Don’t forget to seal your rainfly as well. If you camp regularly, you will want to seal your seams every year. There are several seam sealers on the market. We use GEAR AID Seam Grip + WP on our tent.
Block the cold ground
The ground can be very cold even when the air is warm so you will definitely want to protect yourself from it. The first thing you will want to do is insulate your tent from the outside by placing something underneath the tent. If your tent comes with a footprint, that is easiest. If not, we recommend using a tarp. Not only do these protect you from the cold ground, but the tarp will also protect the tent floor from rips and tears. Second, insulate the floor of the tent from the inside by creating a barrier with foam pads, rag rugs, or even a dedicated tent carpet. We use colorful foam tiles for ours but have also used yoga mats in the past. We have not traveled with rugs or carpets but have seen others use them successfully.
I love to be comfortable while sleeping and I do love my air mattress. But unfortunately, they do allow the colder air to circulate. It’s that thermal mass working against us. In this case a sleeping pad is a better choice as it does provide some cushion and is much more efficient for warmth in that it is a third layer against the cold ground.
Warm air rises
Now that we have talked about protecting ourselves from the cold ground, we need to talk about keeping the warm air that rises inside the tent. The first suggestion I have is to place something over the top of the tent to help retain the heat. It could be a tarp, a wool blanket, or even bubble wrap which sounds crazy but works much better than you could imagine.
Did you know that your own body produces about 100 watts of heat? While that might not sound like much, imagine trying to hold a 100 watt bulb in your hand after it has been lit for a while. That hurts! You can use a mylar space blanket to reflect that body heat back into the tent rather than letting it escape if you have a way to hang it inside the tent’s roof. We actually have multiple blankets as we keep them in our emergency backpacks and our camping supplies.
Ventilation is a good thing
On the other hand, if you block all the holes and eliminate ventilation from the tent, you will regret it. We all breathe out condensation which will cause dampness which creates air which feels cold to us. Therefore, you will want to ensure that good ventilation exists and if it doesn’t, you will want to create the ability. The cheapest way to create good ventilation might just be to buy a new tent that has the ventilation you need.
Keeping Yourself Warm
Elevated body temperature
Have you thought about warming yourself up prior to going to bed? While you don’t want to drink a lot before bed, because getting up to go to the bathroom will be cold, eating a high calorie (preferably hot) dinner can help. It can also help by getting in some activity and warming up your blood right before bed. Think jumping jacks or running in place or even enjoying the playground. You might feel silly but as long as you don’t get sweaty (see below about going to bed in DRY clothes), the elevated heart rate can help you warm up your sleeping bag which will help keep you warm all night long.
We always recommend changing into clean DRY clothes layers before crawling into bed if there is the chance of becoming cold in the night. Having these clothes be dry goes a long way to keeping your body temperature regulated. Layering them allows you to add or remove as necessary through the night. Don’t forget that you lose most of your body heat through your extremities so consider sleeping in a hat (or balaclava) and wool socks. One trick to making sure you always have clean dry socks on hand is to take them off in the mornings and keep them inside your sleeping bag. That way they will not get sweaty.
Proper sleeping bag
You will then want to climb into a sleeping bad which is rated for the temperatures in which you are camping. It seems silly to think that you might need more than one sleeping bag but if you are planning on camping in all seasons, you should consider it. Speaking of sleeping bags, don’t forget to consider shared sleeping bags for shared body warmth. This can be a good way to help regulate a child’s temperature but please be careful and only co-sleep once they are old enough to do so safely.
One fun “cheat” would be to buy a box of hand/feet warmers and sleep with them near the bottom of your sleeping bag and some in your hands or by your chest. Do you know how these work? When you open the porous packets, oxygen starts interacting with the salt, water, activated charcoal, and vermiculite creating rust and the byproduct of this is heat. These little packets generate heat for as long as the oxidization lingers which only lasts a few hours but can truly help keep you warm while you sleep.
It can definitely get cold while camping, especially during the shoulder months when daytime temperatures only get into the 60s. However, those can be our favorite times to go camping because we can always put on more layers but if it is too hot, we can’t always easily cool off. We hope some of these suggestions help you out on your next camping trip. And if you have any other ideas, send them our way!