Cold temperatures keeping you trapped inside? Don’t let the chill deter you from enjoying nature during one of the best seasons of the year. In my opinion, winter is the best time to go camping, due to the lack of crowds and the pristine, arctic beauty.
So here you are, wanting to know how to insulate a tent for winter camping. We’ll answer that question, to be sure, but what you’re really asking is “How do I keep from freezing to death when I’m living in a tent?” Don’t worry, we’ll share a few tips that extend beyond insulating your tent too. But without further ado, let’s dive right into it.
- Smaller tents do a better job at retaining heat.
- Adding layers, such as rainflies or tarps, enhances insulation.
- Picking a sheltered location with wind breaks is crucial for effective insulation.
- Rugs, blankets, or carpets inside the tent create insulation.
- Insulate beneath the tent with leaves, pine needles, or straw.
- Consider investing in a 4-season tent.
Do People Actually Camp in the Winter?
Yes, plenty of people do go camping in the winter, though perhaps not as many as you’d expect. When we surveyed a group of campers to see if they would go camping in the winter, the results were a little surprising, even for us.
As you can see in the chart above, almost half of the respondents said they would be open to camping in the winter. However, a mere 4% said that they’ve actually done it before. That’s a pretty big discrepancy between “desire” and “action,” and we believe tent insulation plays a role in that.
To put it another way, we believe that a lack of knowledge about how to insulate a tent is part of what keeps people inside during the winter. The desire might be there, but the fear of freezing prevents them from acting on it. So, if you fall into the “Yes” category and have a genuine desire to camp in the winter, but you haven’t pulled the trigger on it yet, this article is for you.
Tent Size Matters
Do you know one of the reasons why a mummy sleeping bag is more effective at keeping you warm than a rectangular sleeping bag? It’s because the mummy bag has less space inside! There’s less air to warm, keeping all of the heat close to your body.
The same principle applies with a tent. It might not be “insulating” in the way that you normally think of it, but purchasing a smaller tent is one way to keep your living space warmer. With less space to warm up, the cold air doesn’t have as much of a foothold to hang onto.
If you already have a small tent, great! If not, I’d recommend looking into something like the Mountain Hardwear Trango or the MSR Remote as good options for insulated tents.
One of the reasons why 4 season tents are so effective at staying insulated is because they have multiple layers. The inner layer is usually solid polyester or nylon with a little bit of mesh for ventilation, and then the outer layer is the rainfly, which is a solid tarp.
Whether you have a 4 season tent or a 3 season tent, you can always make it more insulated by adding layers. Throw on another rainfly, tarp, blanket, or some other sheet of material, securing it tightly so it won’t blow away. The more layers you add, the better insulated you’ll be, though you do run the risk of stifling airflow and creating condensation problems if you go overboard.
Adding layers doesn’t just apply to the top of your tent either. A tent footprint can also keep your shelter insulated against the cold ground, so make sure to bring one to slip under your tent.
Find a Wind Break
3 season tents are the most common variety out there. To combat heat and humidity, they typically have a generous amount of mesh, working hard to keep air moving through the structure. While it’s great in hot temperatures, it’s a nightmare when you want to insulate your tent. All the mesh will let the warm air escape, and let the cold air enter.
To help yourself out, pay close attention to where you pitch your tent. An open plane with little protection is the last place you want to make camp, but if that’s your only option, I’d suggest you make use of the other tips we mention. Otherwise, pick a location with a noticeable wind break, like a copse of trees, a large rock, or even a massive snowbank. The more you can prevent the wind from pummeling your tent, the better off you’ll be in your effort to stay warm and insulated.
Get a Rug
It might sound crazy, but trust me on this one. A rug, blanket, or carpet is a very helpful addition when you want to insulate your tent. You’ll have to find something that fits the size of your tent, or cut one down until it does, especially if you’re using a rug. Blankets are more forgiving, since they can be folded up until they fit the size of your tent floor.
Either way, having that thick layer of insulation works wonders at adding comfort and blocking out the chill. Rugs and carpets aren’t exactly the lightest, most compactible items, though, so this isn’t a technique that’s suited for backpackers who want to stay warm in the mountains. However, for car campers who don’t plan on straying far from their vehicle, it’s a very useful trick.
Cover the Tent with a Blanket
That blanket that you’re using on your tent floor can also be thrown over the tent itself. Similar to layering clothing, the more sheets of fabric between you and the outside air, the better insulated you’ll be.
If you decide to toss a blanket over your tent, you’ll need a way to secure it, otherwise the first gust of wind will carry it somewhere else. Duct tape tends to be the most effective, requiring the least amount of time and resources. But if your blanket has a seam that runs around the entire edge, you could cut out a hole in each corner. Thread a line through each, stake them down, and you’ve got a makeshift “second rainfly.”
Use Ground Insulation
It’s not uncommon to feel the cold ground through your sleeping bag as you’re trying to catch a few winks. The radiating chill can be very unpleasant, preventing you from getting a full night’s sleep. While it’s important to insulate your tent against the outside air, you aren’t doing yourself any favors if you decide to leave your tent floor alone.
Specifically, put some thought into what goes beneath your tent. Ground insulation is crucial in your battle to keep the inside of your shelter warm, and there are a few steps you can take without spending a dime. For example, start by looking around for some fallen leaves, pine needles, or bunches of grass that you can lay under your tent. If straw is available, I’d recommend using that as well. Anything that you can use as a barrier between you and the ground will provide more insulation and a little extra padding to make your night more pleasant.
Get a 4 Season Tent
You might be wondering how to insulate a tent for winter camping, but why not do one better by getting an insulated tent in the first place? 4 season tents are created for winter use, having strong pole structures, thick insulation, and aerodynamic shapes to combat strong winds. So if you truly want to camp in the cold season, simply insulating your current tent might not be enough. In more extreme environments, you’ll need that extra strength as well.
Once you have a 4 season tent, there’s nothing wrong with further insulating it. Use any combination of the tips mentioned above to winterize your shelter to a whole new level.
Insulating yourself can sometimes be a more effective option than insulating your tent. In particular, wearing thermal underwear, wool socks, and a hat works well at staving off the chill.
While you don’t have to dress like you’re about to go hiking on a glacier, you may consider layering your clothes before going to bed. I know some people will try to convince you that it’s best to sleep in nothing more than your underwear, if you want your sleeping bag to work properly. However, as someone who’s tried this before on several occasions… I’d still recommend layering your clothes. It doesn’t have to be anything crazier than a pair of long johns and a beanie, but I guarantee you’ll be glad to have the added warmth from the material.
Bring a Tent Heater
It’s sort of like cheating, but hey, everything is fair game when you’re trying to stay warm. A tent heater is the most effective way to keep the interior of your shelter a comfortable temperature, and there are a couple of different options to pick from. Something like the Mr. Heater Buddy is a handy, gas-powered option that works great in tents.
If you happen to have a tent with a stove jack, you should definitely make use of that feature by installing a tent stove. As long as you have enough fuel, and are intentional about keeping the fire going, nothing will keep you warmer than a tent stove.
However, the main risk that you run with any type of tent heater is carbon monoxide poisoning. I’d suggest purchasing a carbon monoxide detector to keep in your tent, just in case levels of the gas become too high to remain inside the tent safely.
Get Your Sleep System in Order
For most intents and purposes, your tent is only there to block out the weather and the insects. If you really want to stay warm in a variety of temperatures, you’ll want to pay extra attention to your sleep system.
Individual sleep systems vary widely, but most are usually made up of some combination of the following items: a sleeping bag, a sleeping bag liner, a sleeping pad, a tent cot, a camping mattress, and a pillow.
In cold temperatures, you’re probably going to want a mummy sleeping bag, to ensure the most heat retention. A sleeping bag liner can add a few degrees to the temperature rating as well, and a sleeping pad will provide a barrier against the cold air seeping up from the ground.
Those are just the basics, though. Unless you’re backpacking, you’ll probably want to bring a cot or mattress to get you off of the cold ground. Car campers can afford to pack a few more creature comforts as well, like blankets, hand warmers, and pillows to create a cozy retreat in freezing temperatures.