How to Insulate a Tent for Winter Camping
Here are the 7 best tips to insulate your tent for winter camping.
1. Bring a Smaller 4-Season Tent
The smaller the tent, the less space you have to heat and maintain warmth, so bring the smallest tent you could need on this trip. While a larger 6-person tent for a 4 person camping trip can allow for extra room and breeze during the summer, you will end up being way too cold using this setup in the wintertime. Plus, a smaller tent means less supplies needed to insulate less square footage, therefore saving you money and setup time.
In addition to bringing something small, you should make sure it’s a 4-season tent and not a 3-season tent. When it comes to winter camping, the 4-season tents are designed to withhold more heat and withstand more intense winter conditions like wind and snow. They accomplish this by using a thicker inner tent body, very little mesh, and by using a rain fly that is more secure and goes all the way to the ground.
2. Utilize a Wind Break
When selecting the perfect spot to set up your tent, make sure you’re taking into consideration wind direction. A prevailing wind hitting your tent is one of the fastest ways to lose heat (think about how sweat works in a breeze), so you should set up in a place that avoids it. First, observe where the wind is coming from and compare that to a forecast, which you should always check before going anywhere outdoors! Consider the shape of the terrain you’re in, such as a valley that would funnel wind differently than open ground. Try to find natural wind breaks such as hills, large boulders, or even groups of trees. Use these to your advantage and set up your tent within their wind shadow.
If you cannot locate a natural windbreak, you should consider making one. There are a few ways you can do this: 1) use your snow shovel to create a snow barrier on one or multiple sides of your tent or 2) use rocks to create a barrier or 3) use a tarp that you can affix in a way that blocks the wind as much as possible.
3. Prepare the Ground
The next step in preparing your campsite for winter camping and taking the proper steps towards the best tent insulation possible is preparing the ground. If you’re camping on top of snow, take the time to compress the snow so it becomes more firm and packed. Snowshoes are the quickest way to accomplish this, but you could also use your shoes or a shovel. If you’re in an area with loose brush such as pine needles or leaves, cover your packed area and this will create the beginnings of your insulating layers. Top this off with your tent footprint, or perhaps a thicker tarp if you’re concerned about the viability of your thin footprint.
If the snow is deep enough, you could combine your windbreak with the ground prep, as seen in the image above. You will pack down the ground around your tent, but dig a trench for the actual tent setup. The walls left over between the packed snow and dugout snow will serve as a windbreak.
4. Cover Up the Tent
We’ve seen various suggestions for covering your tent with everything from bubble wrap to a tarp. Our personal favorite is a reusable Mylar thermal emergency blanket, which is designed specifically to reflect heat back on the wearer. Securing one (or several depending on tent size) to the outside of your tent will help reflect that rising warm air back down. And instead of letting that heat escape, we can better retain it now.
If you’re in a position where covering the outside of your tent isn’t enough, you can also cover the inside of the tent walls with more emergency blankets, an insulating material such as fleece, or even a roll of the same stuff we recommend using on the interior floor of your tent – see below.
5. Insulate the Ground Inside
Now that we’ve taken the time to insulate the tent from the outside, let’s take some time to work on insulating from the inside. We’ll begin with the ground, where we’ve already created a layer beneath the tent floor but now it’s time to add more. There’s several different types of material we can use such as foam padding or air bubble reflective foil. The foam padding would be easier to stand on in your tent and would provide adequate insulate, while the reflective foil wouldn’t be as comfortable but would provide more insulation. If you’re car camping and have the space, you could always cover the foil with a blanket or rug for comfort.
Double Bubble Reflective Thermal Aluminum Foil
This reflective heat barrier is an amazing product for the cost, and has so many good qualities. It reflects 97% of radiant heat and is non-toxic, non-carcinogenic, fiber glass free, and safe to handle. Made in the USA and waterproof, this is easily the most affordable and well-rounded option.
6. Fill it With the Proper Gear
The next step for sleeping in a winterized tent is stocking it with the proper sleep setup for a warm night’s sleep. For your sleeping pad or cot, using something with a high R-value is critical. The R-value of a sleeping pad tells you how well it can keep heat from leaving or entering, and the higher the number, the better the product is for winter camping. We love our HEST sleep system, which has a amazing R-value of 11.8! Next is your sleeping bag, which should be rated for comfort for at least 10 degrees lower than the temperature you’re expecting. You could also try using a heated sleeping bag. There’s a big difference between the comfort rating and the survival rating on a sleeping bag, so make sure you’re looking at the right number. You can add on a sleeping bag liner to this setup for even more warmth, or even a battery operated heated blanket.
7. Warm the Inside
Now that you’ve taken the proper steps to insulate the tent from the ground up, you can work on heating your tent from the inside. The quickest way to heat up the inside is to use a propane heater like a Mr. Buddy Heater. You could also use a wood burning tent stove and a hot tent, but that is really only for people camp in cold weather all the time. It uses a small propane canister to provide heat while still being rated safe for indoor use. Just make sure you follow our steps for keeping yourself safe, since there are some risks associated with propane heaters when they’re used indoors. If you have an electric hook up or power station, you could use an electric space heater. Or if you don’t you can always try a battery powered heater
If you don’t have access to a heater or electricity, there are still several ways to stay warm in a tent. Some ideas include boiling water and storing it in a Nalgene to cuddle with in your sleeping bag, eating a hot meal before bed, doing light exercises, or even using a candle to heat a tent.
Please note that for extreme winter camping, you should consider using a canvas tent that allows for a wood fire stove to produce extra heat. These steps are intended for casual winter campers who are trying to stay warm on colder nights, not long term winter camping or adverse conditions. Some of these steps can be applied to winter backpacking trips, although you’ll have to be more selective about the extra gear to carry for insulation, such as Mylar emergency blankets and lightweight foil instead of blankets and propane heaters.
Can I Use a Summer Tent for Winter Camping?
The short answer is yes, you can use a summer tent for winter camping. That being said, you can’t always use a 3 season tent year around and it depends greatly on your tent and the conditions you’re going to encounter. Here are some ways to determine if your 3-season tent is ideal for winter camping or not:
- If your 3 season tent doesn’t have a lot of mesh, or if it has a way to seal off the mesh it does have.
- If your 3 season tent has high wind resistance in the form of a shorter max height. This also helps keep it warmer on the inside.
- If your 3 season tent has a high waterhead rating, which is necessary for keeping you dry on the inside.
- If your 3 season tent has aluminum poles and not fiberglass poles, which are essential in keeping your tent upright and strong.
- If you’re camping in conditions where you probably won’t encounter snow. Or if you do encounter snow it will just be a dusting.
- If you only camp in the winter a couple times here and there and have trouble justifying the price tag of a true 4 season tent.
If you can answer all these questions with confidence, then you can use your 3 season tent while winter camping. If you aren’t sure then you may need a 4 season tent, especially if you’re going to encounter snowy conditions.
Note: if you’re considering using a summer tent, you’ll need to be exceptionally confident in the weather forecast, ensuring that you won’t be hit by unexpected snow or winds. Even then, you’re rolling the dice a bit, relying on external conditions to remain favorable. I’ve been out in conditions where the forecast was promising, only for Mother Nature to throw a curveball, and let me tell you, a summer tent in those conditions would have been far from ideal.
So, can you use a summer tent for winter camping? Technically, yes, but it’s a choice laden with risks and caveats. It leaves you less prepared for sudden changes in weather and could turn an otherwise enjoyable winter outing into a struggle against the elements. It’s generally a better idea to invest in a tent that’s suited for winter conditions if you’re planning on braving the cold outdoors.
What is the best way to insulate a tent?
These are 7 steps to insulate your your tent for winter camping:
1. Bring a Smaller 4-Season Tent
2. Utilize a Wind Break
3. Prepare the Ground
4. Cover the Tent
5. Insulate the Inside Ground
6. Fill It With the Proper Gear
7. Warm the Inside
How do you insulate a cheap tent?
If you don’t have a higher quality 4-season tent, you can use items like reusable Mylar emergency blankets, foam pads, blankets, air bubble insulating foil, wind breaks, and more.
How do you winterize a tent?
To winterize your tent, you’ll first need a 4-season tent, and then we can outfit it for a warm night’s sleeping using our 7 step process for how to insulate a tent for winter camping.
What do you put under a tent in the winter?
For winter camping, start with a ground tarp or footprint under your tent for added protection. Layer a closed-cell foam pad for insulation against the cold ground, and consider adding a winter-rated inflatable pad for extra warmth. If available, a packed snow base can also serve as a natural insulator beneath your setup.