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Sleep-Warm Tricks for Cold-Weather Camping

Want to be a happier winter camper? Consider this.

On a recent hiking adventure in the mountains of New Zealand, I woke up, sat in my sleeping bag, took in the view and thought about the beautiful hike I had in store for that day. I felt great.

My camping companion then sat up. "Oh, what an awful night!" he grumbled. "I was freezing to death, then I kept waking up, and I couldn't ever get comfortable. It was the worst." He looked pathetic with dark circles under bloodshot eyes.

The worst part? It wasn't a particularly cold night. It didn't even freeze. Using a few simple ideas, my friend could have put his own physiology to work for him, and I bet he would have had a better experience.

Windy winter afternoonThis post assumes that you already own a quality sleeping bag and sleeping pad. If not, read the REI Expert Advice article on sleeping bags for backpacking or take a look at REI's sleeping bag selection to get started.

As an instructor for the Wilderness Medicine Institute of NOLS, here's how I stay warm all night in even the coldest of conditions:

1 hour before bedtime:
Stop drinking water. It is very important to stay hydrated in the outdoors, which is why I drink throughout the day. Indeed, dehydration is a key contributor to hypothermia. But the last thing you want is to have to pee in the middle of the night. I stop hydrating well before bedtime, and I am extra careful to avoid diuretics like caffeine in the evening which will also cause me to wake up to urinate.

30 minutes before bedtime:
I fire up the stove and boil a pot of water. I pour the boiling water into 1 (or more) "hot Nalgenes" as we call them in the industry, even though any water bottle will do. I protect myself from burns by the nuclear-hot bottles by wrapping them in extra clothing or stuffing them into old wool socks. I like to put these in my sleeping bag about 10 minutes before I get in to make it cozy. Hot water bottles will stay warm for a surprisingly long time—sometimes until dawn—and they keep my hands and feet warm and happy.

5 minutes before bedtime:
I eat a huge snack. Why? I want my body to have plenty of calories on hand to burn all night long. That's my basal metabolism doing its job, which it can't do if my body is running low on fuel. Optimal all-night fuel is high in fat, so choose cheese over crackers. Peanut butter is an old standby, and I just spoon it in.

2 minutes before bedtime:
Furious exercise! I jump up and down rapidly 20 or 30 times until I am out of breath and just on the verge of sweating, which primes me for a toasty night's sleep. It is very important to enter the sleeping bag feeling warm. There's no magic in a sleeping bag—it's just insulation. If you are cold to start with, the bag will just keep you cold.

At bedtime:
Seal up the sleeping bag. If I'm using my ultralight bag, which doesn't have a built-in draft collar, then I make one from a spare jacket. (Roll up the jacket, leaving the sleeves out to the sides, and then loosely wrap the fat scarf you've created around your neck.) In my bag, I make sure I have on all the components of my "sleeping suit:" loose long underwear, wool hat and the critical "sacred socks." My sacred socks never leave the sleeping bag, for they are sacred! The best socks for sleeping are very loose and non-elastic so they don't inhibit the delicate circulation at your feet. Fleece or loose-fitting wool are great.

In the middle of the night:
If I do wake up in the middle of the night, I fire up my internal furnace again. Without leaving my bag, I eat a high-calorie, high-fat snack* and perform a hundred or so crunches to get warm again. (Do prepare whomever you're camping with to expect this; otherwise they may wake up and, in a dreamy daze, conclude that you are having a seizure or something.)
* Important: Do not bring any food in the tent if you are camping in bear country. Read more about this in the REI Expert Advice article on proper food storage.

Winter campers in the morningIn the morning:
Wake up refreshed and loving the outdoors.

To learn more about wilderness medicine, visit WMI of NOLS. For an excellent primer on cold-weather camping, be sure to check out the REI Expert Advice article on winter camping.

What are your sleeping tips for winter camping?

Winter camping photos courtesy of John Hovey/WMI.



Posted on at 3:21 PM

Tagged: NOLS, WMI, Wilderness Medicine Institute, camping, sleeping and winter camping

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urban escapee

These are all great tips. In addition to these, I'll stash my clothes for the next day in my sleeping bag for the night. It keeps the clothes warm and dry, it's a lot easier to change in the morning when your clothes are nice and toasty.

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Cler the Geo Girl

I do the same thing with drinking before bed because I loathe having to get up to go to the bathroom. I had not considered a "hot water bottle" which is a much more environmentally friendly idea that hot-hands warmers (which I often use for my poor, always freezing, toes.)

I had never thought to try doing sit-ups to get my metabolism going at night though, that's a great idea. We spent a few nights in a "high camp" recently (just above a glacier) and even in my fantastic sleeping bag I spent a lot of time shivering.

Some great tips, thank you!


Something that is related to the water bottles-- I put a roundish rock about the size of a very large grapefruit in the fire at just about dinnertime (make sure it's not moist at all or else it'll crack). When It's almost red, I shovel it out and pour water on it. When the water has stopped evaporating, I wrap it with two layers of foil and a towel that I don't care about. It stays warm well through the morning and there's no chance of it leaking or spilling. (be sure to cool it down with water though, I had a buddy that forgot and it burned through his sleeping bag, an extra blanket, and was well on it's way through the pad toward the tent floor. He was smoked orange from the head down for 3 weeks afterward!)


Wool fabric over my face - closes off that last draft and lets me breathe without getting claustrophobic.


Great list of tips. I had not thought of the specific time intervals before sleep.

I often put on dry socks to sleep in which helps me with my feet.

Also, don't make the mistake I made on a winter trip to Yellowstone. Younger and stupid, my friend and I cooked in the tent. Water vapor saturated our down bags. Cold for the week.

Not pretty.

Jeff on Maui

When it gets very cold, I always wear a fleece balaclava over the head and fleece gloves to keep things really toasty.


Good suggestions, some I hadn't tried. Here are my tips:

Trailgater79 Staff Member

I change my baselayer clothes (long underwear) before going to bed. Often times, I've sweat through my clothes during the day and the oil on my skin limits what my baselayers are supposed to do. Putting a dry, long underwear on before getting in the sleeping bag feels awesome. It's so easy to think about adding more layers on when you're cold, but I swear, get to the core first!


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