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How To Keep A Tent Warm In Cold Weather

Camping in Winter can be a lot of fun, but it can also be uncomfortable during those super cold nights. Here are a few tips on how to keep your tent warm while camping.

Choose The Right Tent For The Cold Weather

When you first get in to camping, you'll probably buy a tent which suits your needs for that trip. We all know it's easy to get bitten by the camping bug, so you'll go more and more often. Eventually you're camping in areas and temperatures that are no longer suitable for the original tent you bought. You've convinced yourself that you need to buy a new tent (you can be convincing!), but which one to buy?

Do you buy an all-rounder, or something that is particularly good in a specific climate? Do you buy a tent for the family, or something smaller and bring a long a separate tent when the whole family joins?

It's not an easy decision, but if you're looking for something to keep you warm during the winter nights, here are a few considerations.

Tent Size

The capacities listed on tent specification are laughable sometimes, with some brands being more notorious for this than others. A tent is sometimes listed as a four person tent, which while technically true, means you'd be literally touching shoulders and breathing on each other while you sleep. However, there's no denying that more bodies in a smaller space provides a lot of heat. If you're after a tent that will stay warm during the night, consider a smaller tent but one that still provides enough space for everyone.

3 Season or 4 Season Tent

You might be asking, what's the difference between a 3 season and a 4 season tent?

Well, a 3 season tent is engineered and designed for Spring, Summer and Autumn. Here are common features found in a 3 seasons tent:

- Lighter material than a 4 season tent

- Various shapes to maximise comfort

- Lighter poles

- Less points to tie the tent down

- Are often cheaper than 4 season tents

A 4 season tent takes into consideration some more extreme weather in its design such as snow, heavy rain and strong winds. As a result you can expect the following:

- Heavier than a 3 season tent

- More durable than a 3 season tent

- Heavier, stronger poles

- Often limited in exterior shape to mitigate against the build up snow, or reduce the kite effect in heavy winds.

- Often more expensive than 3 season tents.

The choice is really yours, and you can't go wrong with either. I do most of my camping on the East Coast of Australia, and there have been some chilly nights but I've mostly been able to get by with a 3 season tent even in the colder months.

Where to pitch the tent to maximise warmth

If you are camping in an area that experiences rain, it is important to put a tarp up for rain. This will help to keep the tent dry and warm.

Pitch your tent in an area that blocks the wind

I know most people try and avoid technology while camping, but hop on your phone and check the weather forecast and wind conditions. Consider how heavy the wind will be, and which direction it will blow from.

If possible, you can protect your tent from the wind by blocking it with your car or using natural cover such as dense bushes, rocks or corners. If the wind won't be too strong, you could also consider using an awning or tarp to further mitigate the wind chill factor.

Ways To Warm Up A Tent And Keep It Warm

Use a Heater

I acknowledge this is a bit obvious, but there are plenty of heaters on the market. Now before I go any further, I just want to say that you should be extremely cautious when using a heater inside a tent. There are plenty of risks to doing so, such as burns, fires and LPG heaters may release carbon monoxide. I cannot safely recommend a propane gas heater inside the tent at all.

If you were to go down this route, I would stick with a small electric heater and not go above the lowest setting. Always be supervising and never fall asleep with it on.

Ventilate the air in the tent

Following on from the previous tip, keeping air circulating through the tent seems counter intuitive to keeping it warm but it actually has to do with condensation. When it's cold outside and your body heat, breath and other sources of heat warms up the inside then condensation can occur inside. This starts making everything inside damp, which drastically cools down the interior and makes things pretty uncomfortable.

Insulate the tent

Thermal blankets, which are also called emergency blankets, foil blankets, space blankets or mylar blankets are able to retain and reflect a large portion of the released heat. Covering the inside of your tent in this blanket, particularly near the roof, will keep a lot more heat inside. Be careful not to block any ventilation points when hanging it up.

Hot water bottles

This was always a personal favourite of mine when I was younger. Use your camp stove to bring some water to a boil and fill up a hot water bottle. Make sure you have a cover for the bottle, I've personally been burnt on a hot water bottle without a cover and it's not pleasant! Once covered, place it inside your tent or sleeping bag. It should stay warm for quite a while and combined with our above tips, will slowly start heating up the tent.

Hot Rocks

If you don't have access to a hot water bottle or electricity, then here's another tactic you can use but please exercise caution! Find some large rocks nearby and heat them up in the camp fire. I suggest not putting it directly in to the middle of the fire, but rather about 10 cm to 30 cm away from the edge of the fire and leaving it for at least 10 minutes. This will give the rock (depending on the size) enough time to fully absorb the heat throughout, but not be a ball of molten lava. Once fully heated through, lay a towel next to the rock and roll it on the towel. Tie up the towel, and place in your tent to radiate some heat.

I know I said it above, but I just want to say it again - please be very careful when doing this! Do not make the rock boiling hot, exercise extreme caution when moving the rock and do not leave the heated rock unsupervised in the tent or around children!

Fridge / Freezer

If you have an electric camping fridge or freezer, then despite what the name says you also have a mini heater. Fridges and freezers cool the air by various different heat exchange processes, so while the inside of your fridge may be cold, it releases a lot of heat externally to make that happen. Placing your unit in a strategic spot such as in your vestibule might help blow in some warmed up air. Be careful not to block any of the air vents on the unit, no matter how cold you might be getting.

Reusable Heating Pads

Those reusable heat packs you often see for muscle aches can be used at night to both passively heat up the tent or  warm you up directly by placing in your sleeping bag, clothes, pockets or just holding on to.

Boil some water during the day to reset them, then at night prior to heading inside, activate a few and leave inside the tent. They stay hot for about 30 minutes and usually get to about 55 degrees. It won't keep you warm all night, but have enough of them around and they'll definitely be better than nothing!

Electric Blanket

Electric blankets consume quite a lot of power, so it's best to only do this if you're camping at a powered campsite, but I find this to be a much safer approach to some of the other methods listed. Place a thermal blanket on the floor of your tent and then lay the electric blanket over the top. Turn the electric blanket on and then feel the tent warm up. For an added bonus, feel free to sleep on the electric blanket.

Keep warm while sleeping

I know you probably came here for tips on how to heat up the tent air itself, but I can't understate how much of a difference a few of these tips make for having a good night sleep in cold weather.

Choose the right sleeping bag

Similar to choosing your tent, a sleeping bag designed for the conditions your in can make a huge difference. It's a tough choice between getting a sleeping bag suited for the cold, then being hopelessly hot during the warmer months. My tactic is to buy one rated for the shoulder seasons and then pair it up with a few of the others suggestions in this article during the colder months.

Don't use an air mattress

You read that right. If it's particularly cold then an air mattress will actually retain a huge amount of the cold air and keep it right below you. Sleeping on a sleeping mat, electric blanket or yoga mat on the ground may actually be a warmer alternative.

Sleep with socks and a beanie

Our bodies radiate a huge amount of heat from our hands, feet and head. Sleeping with warm socks and a beanie will give an extra layer of protection from the cold temperatures.

Do some squats

A few jumping jacks, push ups or squats before hopping in bed will definitely get the blood pumping and keep you warmer

Summing Up

There are plenty of ways to heat up your tent, but my top 3 tips would be choosing the right tent to begin with, pitching it in an area and a way that mitigates against the wind and rain, and then staying warm while you sleep. There are some other ideas I've outlined, but as always please stay safe and use your common sense!

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