How to Stay Warm in a Tent

The winter of ‘88 the thermometer froze at -30 and the wind chill was rumored to be -60. We were 30 miles up a dirt road, far from any telephone or power lines.

It wasn’t the edge of the world, but you could see it from there.

Rumor had it that the next door neighbor, (20 miles north) old man Bartlett, went stir crazy one cold winter evening and just walked right off the end of that world. Never to be seen again.

Of course that was ridiculous even to my young imaginative brain. Plain as day, he just froze to death. You can’t just leave your house in the middle of winter like that. Warmth….Warmth is life. Which is what has you here wondering wondering how to stay warm in a tent. Wise.

I had a 10-step plan by the age of five for car failure in winter. How would I sustain body heat? Where would I get fire? I was fairly fixated for a while on hollowing out the car seat of padding and curling up inside as the most brilliant way to trap body heat ever imagined! Bring in the catastrophic situation! Have no fear! Heather was here!


Survival. It was a way of life. A mindset. A way of living. And warmth was at its heart. We are, after all, furless, naked, warm-blooded animals with bare attachments…seemingly cursed by nature for survival in inclement conditions. Our only golden key is that we have the ability to utilize resources more than any other species and therein, is our survival. That is how we can stay warm in a tent. 

I wasn’t intending on living in a tent this year. After a series of abrupt life changes, including a move and career change, and with everything flying around me I needed my roots. I needed ground. I am not a purist hipster in search of a different way of living. What I am seeking is a balanced life, full of what I believe in.

I believe in nature, in air. I believe in peace and serenity. I believe in self-reliance and in different ways of looking at the world. Less walls and more wild.

So. Here I am in the middle of a Michigan winter and you want to know, how do I stay warm in a tent? Because you are smart. You are using your brain as you consider the risks and benefits of outdoor living. As you should. 

I’ll outline a few key things I’ve used and learned for both tents with electricity and tents without. Once again I’m all about using resources and if one of your resources is the precious invention of electricity then use it. There is no shame. I happen to have my current tent plugged in but I’ve lived without electricity plenty as well so I can talk to both. Here’s a list of my tips:

10 Tips For Staying Warm in a Tent

bonfire burns in the snow in front of a canvas bell tent by Stout Tent

  1. Get a wood stove. I have a generic military camp stove that I’ve managed to finagle into working fairly well…although I will say I’m craving an upgrade in the Winnerwell department. Getting good heat comes from good wood. Dry, dry, dry. You need a nice hot fire that pulls the smoke in and out. Light it as fast and hot as possible, layering tinder on with plenty of oxygen till your flame is large enough to handle a nice dry piece of wood. Don’t put your wood on until it’s going well. If this is your only heat source it’s important to stoke it at night and dampen down the vents to keep it going. It’s hard to wake up and do it…but also hard to wake up freezing cold.

  2. If you have electricity getting an alternate heater is really nice for taking the edge off. Radiant water heaters are pretty safe and an electric portable fireplace adds ambiance. Make sure it has room away from canvas walls and plenty of uncluttered space around it.

  3. A mattress rather than camping pads. This keeps you off the cold ground. Avoid air mattresses as they have difficulty maintaining your heat because there is no mass to warm.

  4. Feathers. This is huge actually. Down was engineered to trap heat while leaving breathability for the skin of the bird. Invest in a real down feather bed which goes on top of your mattress and a feather comforter. This is an excellent way to maintain warmth and help your body manage its temperature without overheating.

  5. Hides. Nature really does know best. I have sheepskin rugs and elk hides in my tent. They are the best barrier against cold ground and make sitting and lounging comfortable. They also make excellent heat trapping blankets. Not to mention they look and feel very appealing.

  6. Electric mattress pad. This little baby is lovely. I like to turn mine on before I even pull back the covers. Nothing like crawling into a warm bed. It’s easy to over heat with these things…you’ll need to learn what works for you.

  7. Smart clothing! Check out my blog on cold weather clothes. It’s important to have layers that do their job.

  8. It’s hard getting up out of my warm bed into a cold tent and then getting changed for the day into freezing clothes is just downright demoralizing. Here’s a little trick that really helps me. For a smoother transition into the day, pick out your clothes the night before. That way you aren’t shivering trying to figure out what to put on. Place them next to a heater or by the stove so they aren’t icy.

  9. Keep your feet and head warm! Always have a good pair of slippers. I recommend Ugg’s because they are nature at work once again. For a hat, stick with a natural fiber such as wool. It’s warm and lets your head breath and regulate your body temperature.

  10. Change your mindset around comfort. Mentally prepare for the uncomfortable and have steps ready. Example: Materials always on hand to start an easy fire. A good hat and socks to heat you up quickly, etc. Life isn’t always meant to be comfortable, but it sure is meant to be an adventure. Go out and live it wild!

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