How To Sleep Warm Outside in Winter
Cover image: Winter hiking and camping is best with warm feet. Our insulated line (Women's Bridger 9-inch BDry featured here) is the warm-feet-sturdy-hiker-go-for-miles boss.
I woke up in my tent in the middle of the night and, of course, needed to use the bathroom. We were camping on snow, and white frost caked the outside of my sleeping bag. At 2:00 a.m., I wasn’t excited about extricating myself from my sleeping bag, pulling on clothing and my insulated Oboz, and the acrobatics of getting out of the tent without disturbing my friends. But I did it anyway—mainly because I didn’t want to spend the hours until morning wishing that I had.
Home sweet home. Image: Andrewskurka.com
Outside my tent, all my hurry to return to my sleeping bag disappeared.
The clouds that had dulled our mood while we trudged in our snowshoes and stamped snow for the tent had moved on. Bright stars peppered the sky. In the moonlight, it looked like the snow was making its own light, turning the trees into black figures with blue shadows. The night was quiet, and I had it all to myself.
Winter camping is often like that—extra effort and energy to do even simple things, punctuated with moments that burrow into your memory and stick, and get you to say “Of course I’ll go” every time.
If you want to try winter camping, my suggestion is to start small. Before you snowshoe ten miles into the backcountry, start with a one-night campout. See what works for you, and move on from there.
Even for one night, you’ll want to plan ahead and know how to sleep warm. So, here are some steps to take to sleep warm while you’re winter camping.
One of the best parts of winter camping is skiing or snowshoeing to your campsite. Image: Molly Herber
Eat a Snack
When you think about sleeping warm, a good place to start is to remember the ways your body heats itself. Number one? Calories. The energy your body creates when it breaks down calories is released as heat, so make sure your body has plenty of calories to use.
Start by eating throughout the day—a winter overnight is not the time to skimp on snacks, and you’re likely burning more calories than you normally do just by being outside. Before you go to bed, eat a snack or drink a hot beverage, something sugary like cocoa (one of my favorites is hot chocolate with butter and nido powdered milk). On really cold nights, you can even pack a candy bar or other snack inside your sleeping bag to munch on during the night (most animals are hibernating, so the rules for food storage may be different, but check local regulations for guidance).
Your body also warms itself up by moving. Before you get in your sleeping bag, do some jumping jacks or have a dance party with your buddies. If you start warm, you’re more likely to stay warm. And if you wake up chilly in the middle of the night, doing sit-ups inside your sleeping bag can help you warm up without getting out of the tent.
Get Off the Ground
Contact with cold things makes us cold—you might have experienced this when sitting on bleachers at a chilly soccer game. So you can imagine that if you’re sleeping directly on snow, you’re going to lose a lot of body heat.
Keep yourself warm by having an appropriate sleeping pad (and sleeping bag). When I’m camping on snow, I’ll usually use a combination of a foam and an inflatable pad. You’ll also like having a foam pad because you can stand or sit on it while you’re cooking or hanging out in camp, one of the easiest ways to get chilly feet.
Don’t Wear Too Many Layers
It’s tempting to think that wearing all of your jackets and pants inside your sleeping bag is the best way to keep warm. But think about how your sleeping bag works—it warms you by trapping your body heat and not letting it leave. If you’re wearing a big parka that’s designed to keep your body heat in, then it’s harder for your sleeping bag to do its job.
So, before you get in your sleeping bag, take off any outer shell layers like rain jackets or wind pants and any wet clothing. Depending on how cold it is and how good a sleeping bag I have, usually I’ll just stick to my long underwear layers and my fleece layers. Remember to wear your hat and neckwarmer, since your head and face may still be exposed depending on your sleeping bag.
Fill the Void
Now that you’ve taken off some layers, what do you do with them? Keep in them in your sleeping bag! While you need some empty space so that your body heat can fill the bag, if there’s too much space then you’re likely going to be cold—your feet are especially prone to this. So, you can stuff your dry extra clothing into those big spaces. I usually put the layers under my feet as added insulation against the ground, and I also like to wrap an extra jacket around my hips, since they tend to get cold.
Even better than filling the void with clothing is a hot water bottle. Before you go to bed, tuck a hot water bottle inside your sleeping bag—it’ll already be warm when you get in. This has the bonus benefit of making sure your water isn’t frozen in the morning. And nothing is more luxurious than tucking your toes next to a personal heater.
Pack Dry Socks
Staying dry when you’re in a cold environment is incredibly important, since wet clothes can lead you more quickly to hypothermia. One way to make sure you always have dry socks is to keep a pair stashed inside your sleeping bag (some folks call these “vampire socks,” others call them “sacred socks”). I do this every time I go camping, even when it’s warm out, and I’m always grateful for that bit of coziness. This goes for all of your layers, too. If you have a sweaty shirt on, change into a dry one once you’re done exercising for the day, and for sure by the time you go to sleep.
Of course, this isn’t everything you need to know about winter camping, but it’s a great way to get started. Whether you’re the one who’s counting down the days until the heat comes back or ready to take your love for winter to the next level, camping on snow is a great way to keep going to the places you love all year round.
Molly Herber is a NOLS instructor and writer who lives in Wyoming. She loves the smell of her backpack and does her best writing before 7:00 am. Find her work on the NOLS Blog and follow her on Instagram and Facebook.