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Nobody likes being cold but winter camping is awesome so I’m going to teach you how to heat a tent.
There’s not one best way to heat a tent, but rather several tips and tricks that will all help a little to make you nice and cozy even at the coldest of temperatures.
Using a few of the ways covered here, you’ll likely fall in love with cold-weather camping and become an expert on how to heat a tent.
The choice of where you pitch your tent can have dramatic consequences on how warm it will stay during the night. So if you want to keep your tent as warm as possible throughout the night, choosing a good location is a critical first step.
Wind is going to be your enemy if you’re trying to keep your tent warm at night. Avoid camping on ridgelines or at the top of slopes as these areas tend to be windy. Don’t camp in open fields for the same reason. Look for an area within trees that will provide windbreaks if possible.
Bracken (fern) is one sign that an area doesn’t often freeze which is why you’ll typically find them in low-lying areas. Camp among the bracken if you suspect other nearby areas will freeze during the night.
Get a Hot Tent or Insulated Tent
A hot tent is a tent that is made to fit a wood-burning stove inside. You can’t just put a wood burning stove in any tent, you need a tent with a stove jack to put a chimney through.
Hot tents are specially made for this purpose so they are made to be slightly breathable and often coated with fire-proofing.
You can check out my recommended hot tents here.
Another option is to buy an insulated tent. Crua Cocoon makes great insulated tents.
If you’re not interested in a whole new tent, there are ways you can insulate your own tent.
How to Insulate Your Tent
If you choose to insulate your tent yourself, be very careful to leave enough ventilation so the tent doesn’t get too stuffy or even short on oxygen as you sleep.
Insulateing a tent is not just about thickening the walls and roof of your tent. You must consider the ground as well. Here are ways to insulate your tent, starting from the ground up:
Insulate Under Your Tent
Even just a small layer between your tent and the ground will help, as the ground will constantly be sucking warmth away from your body all night long. Lay a tarp down before setting up your tent. This is a small layer but can really help a lot.
For even more insulation, make a bed of leaves or soft pine branches and then lay your tarp over it. Make sure it’s as even as possible so you’re not sleeping on any lumps.
Insulate the Gap Between Your Tent and the Ground
Covering the space between your tent and the ground will reduce the draft that gets in between there. Pack gear, leaves, or even moss around the outside of your tent to cover up this space.
Throw a tarp over the top of your tent
The extra layer will help keep warm air in. Just remember that tarps trap air and don’t breathe so you do not want to completely cover a small tent with a tarp.
You must leave some ventilation, otherwise you risk too much CO2 building up the tent which can be dangerous.
Use Space Blankets or Foil
Try to cover as much area as possible to get good insulation, but remember to leave ventilation for breathing.
How to Heat a Tent With a Heater Safely
CAUTION – Never use a gas stove that is not approved for indoor use in an enclosed space like a tent. Most stoves for cooking emit carbon monoxide which is toxic and builds up in enclosed spaces with poor ventilation.
Propane Powered Heaters
Mr. Heater makes great little propane heaters that are approved for indoor use. They have a safety shutoff that detects low oxygen. Also, multiple YouTuber’s have monitored carbon monoxide levels while using these heaters and consistently show levels of zero.
Candle heaters can be a great way to add a little extra heat to your tent. They do get pretty warm and can be nice to huddle around, but don’t expect them to add more than a few degrees to the ambient air of your tent.
As with using any candles, there’s always a risk of it tipping over and catching things on fire…so be careful!
The good news is that they are relatively cheap, small, and light.
Given the simplicity of how candle heaters work, you might want to consider making your own. All you need are some clay pots, a bolt with a nut and a couple washers, a tray, and some candles.
This is a great video for how to build one:
Many people use bread pans rather than a small tray to hold the candles like in this video. The pots should easily sit on top of the bread pan and you might prefer the depth it provides when setting your candles down into it.
Remember to have some ventilation when burning candles in an enclosed space. The candles use up oxygen in the room and any burning can produce carbon monoxide. The candle flame is small so a small amount of ventilation should be sufficient.
There are tons of options for small electric heaters if you are camping at a site with electricity and want to run an extension cord into your tent.
This article is focused on heating a tent without electricity so I won’t go in-depth about electric heaters. I will say, though, that the Honeywell Ceramic Heat Bud is a great cheap option.
How to Heat a Tent Without Electricity
Besides the things already mentioned (insulating your tent, using a tent with a stove jack, or getting a tent heater), there are still a few tricks to heating a tent without electricity.
First you will need a heat source…meaning a fire. Next, you need a way to safely bring that heat into your tent without bringing the fire into your tent.
You can move heat from a fire into your tent by using the fire to warm up something that will stay warm for a long time. In other words, you want something with a high specific heat capacity. Specific heat capacity is simply a measurement for how well something retains heat or loses heat.
The higher the specific heat capacity, the longer something will hold on to heat but also the harder it is to heat up. Things with low specific heat capacity will heat up easily but also cool down easily.
We want something with a high specific heat capacity so we can warm it for a while by the fire, and then bring it into the tent so it will emit heat for a long time.
Water has a very high specific heat capacity so it is ideal for storing lots of heat and emitting it slowly over a long time.
The tricky part is storing the water in good containers that can handle the heat and don’t leak.
How to do it:
You will need metal water bottles or plastic bottles that can handle hot liquid. The bigger, the better. And the more you have, the better.
All you have to do is boil water (or nearly boil) using the fire and fill up the bottles with the hot water. You can then bring them in the tent but make sure they won’t leak or melt your tent material.
You can wrap them in a thin towel or shirt while they are very hot and take it off later after they’ve cooled a little.
Put them close or touching each other and they will stay warm longer. This method will not make your tent toasty warm but it will help a few degrees.
Added bonus: if you wake up and the bottles have cooled down a little, bring one into your sleeping bag with you (one with a very trusty, non-leaking lid). You’ll be amazed at how warm it will keep you.
Stones have a good specific heat capacity and will stay warm for several hours. The trick is where to put them so they don’t melt your tent.
The perfect solution: bring a cookie sheet or two.
If bringing a cookie sheet is not an option, you’ll have to get creative and find something to put the stones on. In order for this method to be effective, the stones should be pretty warm and likely warm enough that you don’t want to put them directly on the floor of your tent.
Caution! Don’t use wet rocks or rocks that are too close to a river as these could store small amounts of water deep inside. When heated, the water expands to great pressure and can explode the rock.
How to do it:
Gather several 1-2 pound stones. Circle your campfire with these stones and allow them to heat up until too hot to handle by hand. If you don’t have a big campfire, you might have to put them essentially in the fire.
Using a strong stick, roll them onto your cookie sheet and take the cookies sheet to your tent. Make sure you place it out of the way and nothing will fall onto it.
As with water, this won’t make your tent toasty warm but should bring it up a few degrees. Keep the stones together so they’ll stay warm longer.
3. Soil (pitch your tent over an burned out fire)
This technique requires a bit of work and planning but can be really worth it if done properly. It works best with small tents but can be effective with large tents with a little more work.
How to do it:
Dig a shallow trench the length and width of where you will sleep and about 4-6″ deep. Spread many hot coals or small heated stones around the bottom of the trench and cover them with at least 2-3″ of dirt.
You can then pitch your tent over the filled in trench and be warm and cozy all night!
Keeping Yourself Warm
You won’t need to warm your tent nearly as much if you just keep yourself warm. Your first point of consideration should be the clothing and gear you have. It’s hard to stay warm if you don’t have the right gear. After that, there are a few tricks to keep yourself warm in a cold tent all night long.
Clothing and Sleeping Gear
A full review of winter clothing and camping gear is outside the scope of this article but here are the main things to consider:
- Insulate Yourself From the Ground – one of the biggest mistakes people make is thinking a good sleeping bag alone will keep them warm at night and a sleeping pad is just for comfort. A sleeping pad’s main purpose is to insulate you from the ground. Without one, the ground will suck warmth away from you all night long.
- Use a Warmer Sleeping Bag than you Think You Need – degree ratings on sleeping bags are confusing…and misleading. The degree rating they advertise is usually much lower than what you will actually be comfortable with. For example, a bag with a 32°F rating will not keep you comfortable at 32°F. You probably want to go with a 15-20°F bag in that situation.
- Stay Warm with Quality Clothing – it’s easier to keep yourself warm than it is to warm yourself up once you’re cold. But people still tend to error on the side of too little clothing when they’re not sure how much to wear. I say, wear many layers and take one off at a time if you’re getting hot.
The Water Bottle Trick
Water is pretty good at keeping heat for a long time (it has a high specific heat for you chemistry folks). You might be amazed at how much heat you’ll get from a water bottle full of warm water in your sleeping bag.
What to do: before bed, boil some water and put it into a trusty, non-leaking water bottle that can handle hot liquid. Nalgene bottles are great for this or you can get one of these nifty hot water bags made just for this purpose. Sleep with it near your feet and you will stay toasty warm all night.
Two people can keep each other warm amazingly well! If you’re camping with someone you don’t mind snuggling up to, sleep as close as possible or “spoon” if you are able to sleep in that position.
How To Connect Two Sleeping Bags
Most sleeping bags will not zip together so don’t make the assumption they will before you’re out in the cold fiddling with two zippers that just don’t work together.
You could buy a double-wide sleeping bag but those are typically not rated for very low temperatures. One exception is the Teton Sports Tracker Double Sleeping Bag which should keep you nice and warm:
Many rectangular sleeping bags will zip together but again, usually not rated for low temperatures.
The only way to zip two mummy-style sleeping bags together is to buy one right-handed sleeping bag and one left-handed sleeping bag. This is so the zippers will be next to each other when they are both laying face up.
If you buy zippers on the same side, you will have to turn one over to match up the zippers, resulting in that bag having the hood on top of your face.
It helps tremendously to buy two sleeping bags of the same model. It’s pretty hit-and-miss trying to zip together two different models but it’s possible. If you have sleeping bags of different models or brands and want to zip them together, you will have to check the type and size of the zipper used in each sleeping bag to see if they match.
Most tents are not designed to keep in a lot of heat so if you want to stay warm in winter, it helps to have an insulated tent, a tent with a stove jack, or get a camping heater that uses propane or candles. You’ll want to place your tent in a strategic location too, one that is not too windy. You can use hot water, stones, or pitch your tent over some buried coals to keep your tent warm throughout the night. And of course, focus on keeping yourself warm with quality clothes and gear.
Camping is even more awesome when you know some cool bushcraft skills. Check out 31 Awesome Bushcraft Skills and How to Master Them!