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Very little can ruin an otherwise great camping trip than suffering through some freezing nights unprepared. All it takes is a minor item or two packed into your gear, or maybe even a few you find in nature, and you can easily help solve this disaster before it ever happens to you.
There are some tricks that experienced woodsmen know well for keeping warm, and you can use them as well. They are easy to do, require little in the way of extra work, and can pay off big time for keeping your tent safely heated on chilly nights.
Once you understand the fundamentals of keeping tents warm, you will better understand how these ways work and which might be the best for your scenario. Just take a glance at them all, because you never know which one might be a workable option when you don’t come prepared for freezing temps on your next spring or fall camping trip.
Fundamentals of Heating a Tent
There are a couple of aspects you can look at when it comes to how to heat a tent safely. The first of those is insulation. This can be anything from your clothing down to an insulated tent or even a bedroll that insulates your body from the ground. The reason the last one is important is that the ground will just suck the heat straight out of your body and you will never stay warm directly laying on frozen ground. So, bedrolls are important. Even a yoga mat works in a pinch to keep you separated from the cold ground, or you can lie down some pine boughs evenly in a bed beneath your tent. This will keep you from losing body heat directly to the ground itself and is the first step in staying warm in a tent.
Another way that people insulate tents in freezing climates is to first locate their tent in a well-sheltered and warm area rather than on a ridge or peak somewhere. Look for areas with ferns growing if you are in that sort of climate because these only grow in places where it rarely freezes. Also, if you insulate the small gap between the bottom of your tent and the ground, then you will be better off. Lots of terrain offers something you can use to do this with, such as sheets of moss or piles of leaves.
You can also insulate a tent by simply placing a tarp over the top. Most tents are designed to breathe a bit, so make sure you allow for some exposed area for that to happen so you do not build up carbon dioxide that you breathe out during your sleep. The tarp will cut off all airflow and add a barrier to the outside air. This is magnificent when used in windy conditions or climates that have high-temperature variations.
The next feature to look at is your sleeping bag situation. Sleeping bags come with temperature ratings, although these can be misleading. For example, if you were out in 32-degree weather, then you would want a sleeping bag rated for 15-degrees or better and not just a 32-degree rated bag. This is because they do not keep you warm anymore at that temperature they are rated at and below. So always err on the side of caution and go with a bag rated for half the temperature you expect to encounter at the very least.
Also, it is important to dress for the occasion and always pack for one layer colder than you think you will need, just in case. You never know when this will come in handy. So, if you are questioning those long underwear, then go for it and add them to your bag just in case. Then, when it comes time to sleep, you should start dressed one layer more than you think you will need, and you can peel it off if you are too warm, but it is better to start too warm than too cold.
How do you safely heat a tent?
If you were wondering how do you heat a tent without electricity beyond just your body heat, then you have two avenues you can take. You have natural and artificial. They both offer some pros and cons and it is important to be aware of your options because you never know when knowing one of these tricks could save your rear end one day.
The first pathway to safely heating a tent is natural. To do this, you must look at materials with a high heat specificity rating. This measurement is one of how much a material will keep and let off heat, but also of how fast it will warm up. You want a material that is slow to warm up and holds its heat for long periods. This will allow it to continue to warm up your tent throughout the night as you sleep soundly inside.
The best of these materials is water. Water holds heat in and slowly releases it into the atmosphere over a long period. To take advantage of this fact, you just need to heat some water in a camp pot or tin and then pour it into some leak-proof containers that will not melt easily. There are aluminum options and some hard, dense plastic ones too that will also work. Just make sure you trust it not to leak, even when filled with boiling water.
These bottles full of boiling water can be placed throughout your tent as the evening progresses. This will keep it warm and toasty throughout the night. When coupled with some insulation, you would be surprised how much of a difference this makes.
If you trust the bottles, then when they cool off a bit and it’s cold in the middle of the night, you can grab one and toss it into the foot of your sleeping bag, and have toasty toes. It is a pleasant relief sometimes.
Now, if you do not have access to trustworthy water bottles, then do not worry because there is another option. You can always use stones. You want to use stones that are not near a water source thought, because these rocks hold moisture for long periods of time and when they get heated they rapidly release pressure, sometimes making them explode. So, just avoid this altogether and find rocks farther uphill from the water source. Ones that have seen no moisture other than rain for a long time.
You take these rocks and place them very near your hot coals from your campfire and let them heat over a couple of hours during the evening as the fire rages on. Then you simply wrap them in a thick shirt or towel and place them in your tent. You spread them out if you want to rapidly heat the tent before bed and then close together when you want them to hold on to their heat. When you put them up against one another, they will release heat slowly over the entire night.
Another great trick for heating a tent without electricity, you can dig a small trench the size of your sleeping mat or tent and build a second campfire there. Let that fire rage on until you have a solid bed of coals and then burry it all backup. Then you set your tent up on that location just before going to bed. This trick requires that you know exactly how to set your tent up and can do it in the dark. Otherwise, you are going to bed early because those coals will only release heat into the ground for about 6 to 7 hours.
This will heat your tent from underneath and if you take advantage of that heat by insulating your tent as well, then you will have a happy and toasty sleep all night long. An added tip with the rocks is to pack a couple of baking sheets with you you can place the rocks onto on the floor of your tent instead of directly onto the tent material because they can get hot enough to melt through most of them.
Another trick is to use a warm tent. These are tents that are built with a smoke jack for your chimney to go through, and you can have a wood fire stove burning inside your tent all night to keep you nice and warm, even in extremely cold environments. Just make sure you know how to set it all up correctly and be ready. It is quite simple really, and anyone can figure it out. If you live in frigid climates, then this is the best way to go. Even though they go for a few more dollars and the stove itself costs a penny or two you will be the happiest camper on the mountain, no matter how cold it is.
Can you have a heater in a tent?
The second route you can take to heating your tent is artificial. This can be don’t by using an indoor propane-rated heater, which there are some specifically made for using inside of a tent. There are even small and large-size versions depending on what size tent you are trying to heat. Just be careful and make sure you understand how it works. Many of them need to be placed up to two feet away from anything while inside your tent to keep stuff from melting.
So, rolling over in the middle of the night and burning up your sleeping bag is an actual threat with this option. There is also carbon monoxide poisoning that you have to worry about and prepare for by making sure you have the minimum amount of ventilation required, especially if you have insulated your tent over the top.
Some brand name options have been tried and tested by YouTubers. They fire them up inside a tent and monitor the carbon monoxide (CO) levels constantly just to see how much it rises. The best of these heaters do not even register any CO as they provide adequate heat to withstand subfreezing temperatures when paired with a little insulating of your sleeping arrangements.
You might even take the added precaution of bringing along a carbon monoxide detector with you on your camping trip. This goes for nearly all the artificial heat sources, but most importantly with the propane or gas heaters, even when rated for indoor use. Do a little homework and make sure the unit you get has been repeatedly tested and has received many excellent reviews.
As a pro tip, a lot of moisture gets released when you burn propane. Enough that you should open your tent zipper up a tiny bit to allow it to escape and keep from building up inside the tent. Getting wet when it’s cold out can be a death sentence when the heater runs out or is otherwise turned off. You will also want to hang your sleeping bag open during the day to allow it to fully dry out when using these sources for heating your tent during a camping trip.
Next, you have your electric heaters. These need a power source of some sort, like a gas generator or even just an inverter ran from your vehicle’s battery for short uses. Just be cautious because you do not want to wear out your car’s battery while on multiple day camping trips trying to heat your tent.
That being said, electric heaters are an excellent option if you have the power source available to run them. There are even recent advancements in technology that have come out with portable rechargeable battery-powered heater units. Usually, these are small ceramic heaters that work for a couple of hours of solid heating of your tent, and they are relatively safe to use while you sleep.
With these, you do not have the same worries about CO building up, although it is still possible, so see to it that your tent can breathe a little bit. Just remember this when you are doing your insulating and you will do just fine.
For other safety tips relating to using a heater inside of a tent while camping, check out this page with government-produced guidelines on these matters. They have some important tips and precautions that you may not have considered. There are many dangers associated with using a heater inside a tent, more so than using them in other locations. So, be sure to read through all the wonderful safety information provided on that official page. You may just save yourself a colossal headache or hazard before it ever presents itself.
If your electric heater is the plug-in type and you are using the generator or inverter method, you need to be sure to be careful how long you run the cord to reach the heater too. This is because long lines lose some electricity and cause a heavier load than necessary when you are running the heater, especially at high temperatures. This means having your power source very close to your sleeping area, so if you are a light sleeper, then the gas generator option may not be the most appealing to you.
If you can withstand the noise and it is especially cold outside during your next excursion to the woods, then a gas generator can power other great creature comforts as well and is a substantial addition to any camping gear. It also has the added bonus of being a great backup power source in case of an emergency at home. They are something every homeowner should look at purchasing anyway, so having one available for your next camping trip could be just the excuse you need to get yourself one of these amazing pieces of equipment.
You can add other items to your camping gear when you have one of these too. Things like a heated blanket are possible and wonderful items at keeping you nice and toasty all night long during your camping trip in any weather. Just remember to never place a heated blanket inside of your sleeping bag. This is a big no-no because they let off a certain amount of heat on the outside face. Containing all this heat by not allowing it to escape naturally can cause burning issues and overheat of both you and the blanket.
There are other portable heater options available too. There are some DIY versions or ones sold as kits, like candle heaters. These run by using a candle to heat a piece of metal that radiates the heat and raises the ambient temperature of an enclosed space slightly. They are an interesting option, but by far the most dangerous choice you could make to heat your tent is to bring open flame inside while you are sleeping. So much could go wrong that these are only recommended as a last resort or for those skilled enough to use them safely.
Finally, as a serious back-up, and an emergency-only option for heating your tent, you can burn substances such as Sterno or even hand sanitizer. Sterno comes in little tins with a wick that you simply light and let it burn for heat. With hand sanitizer, you simply find a dish, the bottom of a soda can will do in a pinch, and fill it up with the sanitizer and then just light it on fire. It will burn for an hour or two with a very low flame, just big enough to produce a couple of BTUs of heat.
As I said, these are serious emergency use only and are an absolute last source of heat if you are freezing to death out in the woods. You should never use these unless absolutely driven to do so, and if you do you need to take plenty of safety precautions. For example, allow for a bit more airflow in the tent to let the CO escape, but also for the moisture that gets released when you burn materials like these.
How much warmth does a tent add?
This depends on what tent you have. Some insulated winter tents hold on to a lot of your body heat and add plenty of warmth during frosty nights. They protect you from the ground sucking heat out of your body and also from the wind piercing through the tent material and freezing you out that way too.
Your typical tent, however, supplies little in the way of protection from the cold. So preparing yourself and coming with a plan in place for keeping yourself and your family warm on cold spring and fall nights is important.
No matter if you choose to heat naturally or artificially, you need to have a plan in place for weather that is at least ten degrees colder than you expect to experience. You can use water, rocks, moss, leaves, and plenty of other natural resources that you find out in the surrounding woods to make things better. These may even completely solve your heating issues. This is easier when you couple it with insulating materials like a tarp and bedroll/mat or some sort.
Or you can go fully artificial and heat using electric heaters and keep yourself nice and toasty all night long,2 even in subzero temperatures. Some people consider this cheating, but it is a viable and necessary option in many scenarios.
Finally, you can dress the part and come fully prepared to fend for yourself. This will ensure that you are ready for anything and can enjoy all the glorious moments that come up during every camping trip. They are much easier to notice when you are comfortable and not trying to heat yourself half the day.