How to Stay Warm While Sleeping Outside

Growing up, I had the fortune of having parents that took me camping. I had a thin foam sleeping pad and a 50-degree kids sleeping bag. I never slept well and I always froze at night. I thought that’s what camping was!

Turns out, I was wrong. Lucky for me, as I’ve gotten older and more experienced I’ve learned a lot about staying warm and comfortable while sleeping outside. For the past three years I’ve spent more than 100 nights a year sleeping under the stars. I get really cold really easily and I take my sleep seriously—I want to be comfy out there! Following these tips can go a long way toward keeping you warm and comfortable, and getting a good night sleep.

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The Basics

Step one: Get yourself a weather-appropriate sleeping bag. Duh. But something many people don’t think about is that the ground conducts tons of heat away from your body. The barrier you put between you and the cold earth plays a big role in how warm you’ll be. A foam pad is a good start. If you sleep cold or the temps are low, making the step up to an inflatable and even an insulated sleeping pad makes a huge difference. Pay close attention to the pad’s R-valueto know exactly how warm and insulating it will be. Not all pads are created equal. And don’t forget that sleeping pad insulation is additive, meaning on real cold nights or if you’re sleeping on the snow, stacking a foam sleeping pad and an inflatable pad increases the insulation even more.

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Debunk the Myths

Some people will tell you that you should sleep with hardly any clothes on, or even naked, to get the most out of your sleeping bag and that this will keep you warmer in the end. Those people have never slept outside, in the cold, naked in their sleeping bags.

Their theory isn’t totally baseless, though. The idea is that by wearing extra layers inside your sleeping bag, you crush the loft of your bag and thus take away from its insulating capabilities. It may seem like the best thing to do on a cold night would be to bundle up in all your layers then squeeze yourself into your sleeping bag, but if you’re wearing too much you can actually compromise the effectiveness of your sleeping bag’s insulation (not to mention your comfort). You can definitely wear some of those layers to bed (there’s no need to get in naked), but don’t wear so many that you feel your sleeping bag squeezing back in on you—Leave enough room for the down to expand to its full loft.

Keep these other tips in mind before heading to bed:

  • Keep a pair of “sacred socks” in your sleeping bag so you always have a warm and dry pair for sleeping. Never get in your sleeping bag with wet or cold socks.
  • Wear a hat. It’s not a myth that you lose a lot of heat through your head! Consider wearing a hood too, if necessary.
  • Make sure all your layers are dry. Dry clothes equal warm clothes.
  • If you’re winter camping or in really low temps, consider puffy booties, pants, and/or a jacket to sleep in. These are like mini sleeping bags for all your appendages and can work wonders! They’re also great pillows if you don’t sleep in them.
  • If you’re sleeping bag is too big for you and has extra space that you aren’t filling with your body, consider stuffing extra layers in those areas so your body can heat the air around you to keep you warm rather than losing all that warmth to dead space in your bag. This is especially helpful for shorter folks in longer bags. Keep those toes warm!

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Feed the Fire

Staying warm is all about keeping your internal furnace burning throughout the night. We’ve talked about insulating that furnace and now we’re going to talk about fueling it!

Eat a snack

Having some calories in your system right before bed gives your body fuel to burn and helps keep you toasty. If I’m not in bear country I like to keep a Snickers bar with me while I sleep. This gives me quick burning sugar for immediate warmth and the protein in the peanuts keep the burn going a while longer.

Drink something warm

The best way to get warm is to start warm. A hot drink helps warm you up from the inside. My favorite: Brew peppermint tea and put cocoa mix in it. If I want extra calories I’ll put in a scoop of butter or some light olive oil. Have you ever tried hot cocoa with peanut butter mixed in? It’s like drinking a Reese’s and adds some bulk to keep your furnace burning.

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Use a hot water bottle

Fill a small water bottle like a 16oz Nalgene with near-boiling water, put it at the foot of your bag and relish in your new personal sauna. If you’re super cold, hold the bottle between your thighs, right on your femoral arteries—Warming that blood as it circulates will keep the rest of your body warm.

Take a lap

My dad always said I had a heater in my tennis shoes and would send me on a little run if I complained of the cold. I might not like to admit it, but he was right. A brisk walk before bed, a set of jumping jacks, a quick dance party, or shadow boxing routine—whatever you need to do to get the blood pumping to keep you warm right before you tuck in for the night—can go al long way. Again, the easiest way to get warm in your sleeping bag is to already be warm when you get in it, but if you’re already in your bag you can simulate this by contracting all your muscles as hard as you can and then releasing them several times.

Bonus points: Go pee!

Seriously. I know it’s cold and dark out there. But go do it. Your furnace works really hard to keep all that liquid inside you warm, and when it’s doing that it has less energy to keep the rest of you warm. It may seem like getting out of bed will actually result in you being colder when you get back in, but the result is often surprisingly the opposite. Don’t hesitate to get up and take a leak.

 

Do you have other creative ways of staying warm? Have you found a sleep system that works well for you? Share your ideas in the comments below!

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