Winter camping can be a fun and adventurous outdoor activity, but it does challenge you to get creative in order to stay warm. Whether you’re camping out for the northern lights or car camping at your local campground to get some fresh air, we’ve put together 7 steps for how to insulate a tent so you can have a warm nights sleep. Following these steps in order will help you set up your tent in the most optimal conditions to help ensure the warmest night sleep available.
Steps for How to Insulate a Tent
- Bring a Smaller 4-Season Tent
- Utilize a Wind Break
- Prepare the Ground
- Cover the Tent
- Insulate the Inside Ground
- Fill It With the Proper Gear
- Warm the Inside
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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. 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.
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.
About the Author
Ashley is an adventurous soul who loves all things nature, especially warm sunshine, hiking, wildflowers, and mushrooms. If she isn’t writing content for Know Nothing Nomads, she’s probably in a forest looking at big mountain views and tiny pieces of moss on the side of the trail.