How To Stay Warm While You’re Camping

Sure, staying warm on a camping trip is creature comfort, but it’s also a fundamental need for outdoor survival.

That means you can’t overlook the essentials when it comes to combating the cold. Here’s a few pieces of key guidance on how to stay warm when you’re outside: what to pack, what to wear, and how to keep yourself safe from the elements. 

Do: Plan ahead. 

Use a reliable weather forecasting service (check out Weather Underground, which forecasts with data from 180,000+ weather stations across the country). Take note of the temperature range for the specific location(s) in which you’ll be camping—especially the lowest temperature that you could experience.

Don’t: Leave your extra layers at home. 

When it’s cold outside, you want options. Think about every aspect of your body: feet, legs, core, arms, hands, neck, head. Do you have something warm for each segment? To play it safe, bring an extra pair of all the basics: base layers, socks, gloves, hats and neck gaiter. If you’re starved for space, prioritize extra socks, gloves, and hats, as you’ll want to ensure your extremities stay warm (they’ll be the first body parts to get cold).

Do: Bring insulation.

In cold temps, your body needs help retaining its heat. Wear synthetic or down insulation around your core to maintain your healthy, internal temperature. Synthetic insulation is best for when you know you might be getting wet; down insulation can be lighter and warmer, but its performance can be hampered when wet. In addition to an insulated jacket, look for insulated pants, booties, neck gaiters, and beanies if you’ll be exposed outside for long periods of time. (Don’t forget your sleeping bag, always an extra insulator when needed.)

Don’t: Be fooled by sleeping bag ratings.

Read the fine print. Sleeping bags come with several ratings, usually the marketed temperature rating, the comfort rating, and the lower-limit rating. Look to the comfort rating for a better indication of how warm you’ll feel using the bag. For example, a sack marketed as a 20°F sleeping bag will likely have a comfort rating of 32°F, so you might still feel chilly if temps drop to 20 degrees, though you won’t freeze to death. If you’re a cold sleeper, this comfort rating is much more important than what’s stamped on the bag’s marketing materials. 

Do: Pack emergency heat sources, like hand or toe warmers. 

Activate hand or toe warmers by opening the packaging and shaking them. They’ll emit heat for a couple hours and can drastically improve conditions inside a cold sleeping bag. While standing or hiking in cold weather, keep them in your pockets for your hands, stick them inside your shoes, or stuff them inside your clothes wherever you need a temperature boost. They’re light enough they won’t weigh you down even if you don’t use them.

Don’t: Place your must-be-dry items at the top of your pack.

In case you set up camp in the rain or snow, don’t pack items that must stay dry (sleeping bag, clothes, some foods) at the top of your backpack—pack them at the bottom. That way, they’re the last things removed at camp, reducing the likelihood they’ll get wet. Also consider packing these essential items in a dry sack or zip-locking bags to ensure they stay dry no matter what. 

Do: Double up on sleeping pads.

Pair a closed-cell foam pad with an insulated air pad on top to maximize warmth in your sleep system. Adding an extra pad also helps keep potential moisture or condensation on the ground away from your sleeping bag. Plus, it’s extra comfy. 

Do: Add a bivy sack.

Bivy bags or sacks are like waterproof shells for your sleeping bag. Even if there’s no precipitation, these bags will still help retain heat in your sleep system and further protect your sleeping bag from potential moisture.

Don’t: Sleep in wet or sweaty clothes. 

Heat transfers, so wearing wet clothes to bed will draw the warmth out of your body and into the clothes. Change into dry clothes (even your underwear and socks) before getting into your sleeping bag. If you don’t have a change of clothes, wring out excess moisture and hang your clothes up to dry overnight; if it’s actively precipitating, place the wet clothes at the foot of your sleeping bag. In most cases, snoozing in the nude is better than in wet clothing. 

Do: Use a Nalgene as a makeshift hot water bladder. 

Boil water on your stove right before turning in for the night; fill your water bottle or any closed, non-insulated water bottle (so the heat can transfer to your body, and BPA-free so you can continue to drink from it afterward). Stow the hot water bottle inside your sleeping bag and it’ll act like a heating coal. Place it by your feet to warm your toes, or hug it around your core. 

Do: Fill dead space in your sleeping bag while “preheating” your clothes.

Sleep with your extra layers stuffed into the dead spaces of your sleeping bag. This’ll cut down the dead space in your sleeping bag (thus reducing the amount of air your body needs to warm up, eliminating cold spots) while also warming your clothes throughout the night. That way, when you wake up in the morning, your clothes will be “room temperature” rather than as cold as the nightly temps.  

Don’t: Go hungry.

Stay fueled! When cold weather sets in, your body will use extra calories to keep warm; it’s important to replenish with nutrient-rich foods high in fats and protein. Nuts, complex carbs like potatoes and legumes, and ginger (its thermogenic properties promote blood flow) are all great options. 

Do: Go pee.

Take your leak before you crawl into your sleeping bag, and if you feel the urge in the middle of the night, make the effort to relieve yourself. Your body will expend energy keeping the liquid in your bladder warm, so if you empty out your bladder, you’re freeing up caloric resources that can help keep the rest of your body warm. If outside temps are too cold to face in the middle of the night, consider using a pee bottle inside your tent. 

Don’t: Ignore signs of hypothermia. 

Following these steps should prevent you from reaching hypothermic conditions, but if you do see signs of hypothermia onsetting, seek help immediately. While waiting for help, activate any hand/foot warmers. Boil water for a water bottle. Remove any wet clothes. Build a fire. Wrap up in an emergency blanket (with the reflective side facing the body). Breathe deeply. Signs of hypothermia include: uncontrollable shivering, exhaustion or extreme fatigue, confusion, fumbling hands, memory loss, slurred speech, drowsiness. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.