How to Insulate a Tent for Winter Camping

How to Insulate a Tent for Winter Camping

Despite what some might think, camping in winter is lovely. Even though it is cold, if you love snow like I do, winter landscapes are just as gorgeous as any other. Plus, the biggest perk has to be that there’s barely anybody else around.

Some people prefer only to rely on their own body heat to combat the cold, which can be understandable when you consider the fact that the amount of energy generated by our bodies is similar to the energy of a 100W light bulb.

I do not feel safe solely relying on my own body heat though, because let’s face it – you must stay warm and it’s particularly important to emphasize that the colder it gets. Outdoor winter camping can get very cold so it’s important to stay warm at all costs.

I am not going to mention certain things like layering, as I am going to focus on the tent itself, but if you are interested you can find an article all about other winter tent camping tips like layering for winter click here.

How to Insulate a Tent for Winter Camping

Choose the Right Tent

The first and most important thing is the actual tent itself – the material it’s made from and the size. You can’t use a tent that is ideal for warm conditions because the material just isn’t cut out for it. Summer tents are large and spacious with lots of windows for more ventilation.

In order to enjoy camping in winter, you need a tent that is specially made for it. These tents are much smaller, because the smaller a tent is the easier it is to warm it up and retain that warmth. They also tend to be more insulated tents which also helps with heat retention.

Hot tents are the best choice because they have enough space to keep a small stove in there with you, and they are made with stove jacks so that you can safely use the stove inside. Moreover, these tents tend to be much thicker than the average tent to protect you from snow.

With regards to material, most tents are made out of man-made fabrics such as polyester or nylon, but when compared to cotton those are not good insulators at all.

The reason polyester and nylon are so popular when it comes to tents is because they are lightweight materials, but when camping in winter it is expected to be carrying on more weight in order to be comfortable throughout the trip.

Canvas is traditional to use for tents, but nowadays canvas tents are made from cotton anyways.

Not only is cotton/canvas a great insulator, but it’s also a breathable fabric.

So, a 4-season tent made out of cotton seems like the best option. Do keep in mind that not all four-season tents have built-in insulation though. After reading this article you’ll know exactly what to look for, if you don’t already own a good tent, and how to improve insulation.

Ground Insulation

So how to keep the tent warm? Well ground insulation is a great idea!

If there is nothing between you and the cold ground other than your tent’s material, then something needs to be done about this. Getting warm, let alone staying warm, is impossible until you insulate the ground.

Ground insulation is one of the first things that you can do, and it’s one of the easiest because all you need is a ground mat/tarp or even a rug, blanket, or towel. Simply place your ground insulation down before you pitch your tent.

There are mats and pads that are designed for this purpose and they are very easy to carry, as they usually come with their own carry bag.

This won’t just help retain heat inside of your tent, but you’ll also sleep even better because of the softer ground.

If it is raining or snowing, you should only extend the tarp until the edges of your tent and not further. This is because if rain or snow is able to land on the exposed areas of the tarp, then water can run down the tarp and soak the tent’s floor – defeating the entire purpose of that tarp being there in the first place.

Depending on how cold it is though you might need more than one, because in very low temperatures just a tarp is not enough. For me personally I need about three: an inflatable one at the bottom, a closed cell foam mat with the silver side facing me, and then a 3” foam pad on top of that.

Waterproofing

Most people test the rainfly of their tent, and sometimes the whole tent too, by spraying it down with a hose and then checking for leakage. This is usually done before or after waterproofing (or both).

Waterproofing consists of sealing seams, refreshing the urethane coating, and refreshing the durable water repellent (DWR).

All of these things don’t just help with stopping any moisture from getting into your tent, but they will in turn contribute to insulating the tent too.

Personally, I have never applied any sort of waterproofing to my tents (but that’s because I am usually reviewing a certain tent and so I test the tents as they are), but when going camping in winter it is definitely a must to do everything that you can to ensure protection from the elements in cold conditions.

Location & Barriers

Before you decide on a location and get on with pitching your tent, take a few things into consideration – is the area low, where snow is likely to settle? Avoid slopes and such and make sure to pitch your tent on elevated ground. Flat and relatively dry surfaces are ideal. If snow has already settled, you’ll want to clear that away until you expose the dirt underneath, so I hope you’ll have the tools necessary to do that with you.

If possible, pick a spot that has some natural barriers, or rather ‘windbreaks’ or ‘wind fences’. This can be anything from rocks to shrubs and trees, and it can help a great deal with keeping the tent warm because your tent will be shielded from icy winds.

If there aren’t any windbreaks around, you can create a barrier by pulling one side of your rainfly down and staking it to the ground in a way that creates a leaning windbreak.

If there are trees around but they are not close enough to work as a barrier, just find two which are close enough and hang a line between them to hang a tarp over it. It may seem like something small and insignificant, but it actually makes a world of difference.

Heat Packs

Heat packs are great because they will keep you warm all night long. If they start losing heat, I have noticed that if you just expose them to some air and give them a shake, they start to heat up again.

Alternatively, if you don’t really fancy investing in some heat packs, you could just take a hot water bottle with you. It is a bit more hassle since you have to stay boiling some water every few hours, but for me it’s enough just to prepare it before bed and keep it with me inside my sleeping bag – I always get to sleep a lot faster since I’ll be cozier.

Yet another option that’ll keep you warm is an electric blanket, but these are even more hassle because they need power. Heat packs are definitely superior in this regard.

Use a Blanket

You could just use any blanket you have lying around the house, but if you’re going to be in very cold conditions then I recommend a thermal blanket at least or, even better, a space blanket.

You may be thinking, well this is a rather obvious one – everyone covers up when they’re feeling cold. Well, that’s not actually what I am talking about.

What I found to be most effective was attaching said blanket to the ceiling of my tent (I just used duct tape), and the blanket will reflect my own body heat back to me. The amount of warmth being retained inside seemed to double and it didn’t even take long.

I have heard that you could just use foil instead of a blanket, but I haven’t tried that out yet because I immediately went for the blanket idea and it’s been working well for me.

You could also place double-sided reflective foam on the floor of your tent to reflect even more body heat back to you. Depending on how cold the conditions are going to be, if you place a thick footprint underneath your tent, as mentioned in ground insulation, that should be enough.

Use a Heater

There are plenty of safe heaters that you can use inside your tent. Electric tent heaters are one type, which require an electric source. These are not ideal unless you have a generator with you, or if you are camping at an RV campsite.

Another option are propane heaters, which don’t require any external power source. They are designed to emit heat without a flame, so they are perfectly safe. However, propane does emit CO2, so you would need to use this in a tent that has openings for the CO2 to escape.

Also, you should never fall asleep with a propane heater on. Only use it before bed to heat up the tent and then switch it off before you go to sleep.

Leave Wet Gear Outside

Any wet gear that you may have (boots, jackets, etc.) should be kept outside because they ‘eat up’ all of the warmth that is being retained inside your tent. Especially gear that is covered with some snow.

Even a tent that has been insulated with all of the tips mentioned above can still get cold because of things like this. In order to keep a tent insulated properly, there can’t be one thing missed of forgotten.

Natural Insulators

This option is one for the ‘survivalists.’

If you’re up for it, you could see what nature has to offer – such as dry/dead leaves. They are great for placing underneath your tent to add to your ground insulator/s, or covering your tent in leaves to keep warmth in while simultaneously deflecting cold air from the outside. It’s really a great option to insulate the tent floor.

It is very important that the leaves are completely dry though, otherwise they don’t work as slight insulators.

Share Body Heat

This may be another one that goes without saying, but if you are camping with another person or other people, have all of the sleeping bags placed close together.

If you are going camping with just your partner, you should consider getting a double sleeping bag. Not only does it add some intimacy by enabling you and your partner to snuggle up to each other, but it is the perfect solution to staying warm all night long.

Separate the Entryway & Bedroom

Since you should be in a small tent, it is highly unlikely that your tent already has a divider between the door and wherever you sleep. If you are able to add something between the two, this will help reduce the amount of warmth escaping whenever someone uses the door.

This can be done by simply taping a divider or blanket to the wall, similarly to as mentioned in ‘use a blanket’ section above.

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