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How to Stay Warm in a Tent Without Electricity

07.20.20

Camping in the winter is one of the most magical things. Not only do I get to see the beauty of everything covered by white snow, but there’s also no worry of bugs or hot, muggy conditions. Additionally, any perishable food I bring with me stays refrigerated naturally!

However, winter camping can bring with it some challenges, too. Before I started camping in winter, I always wondered how to heat a tent without electricity. Keeping comfortably warm without burning my tent down was the biggest issue I faced, but fortunately, I’ve found different ways to heat my best winter-weather camping tents with great success. I’ll share these methods with you in this article. 

What Is the Best Way to Heat a Tent?

Most campers, when asked what the best way to heat a winter tent is, will simply default to an electric or gas heater. When I was asking how to heat a tent without electricity, a heater is the first thing I thought of, too. 

I find that I feel too uncomfortable with the safety hazards of a gasoline or propane heater to use one in a winter tent, though. All heaters, be they electric, gas, propane, or diesel, can release carbon monoxide.

A propane heater can be expensive to use, too – a single can of propane for a small camping stove lasts for less than a night! Rather than pumping more and more air into an uninsulated tent and letting it escape, I find that it’s much more effective to prioritize insulating the tent itself (or, if necessary, just my sleeping bag).

My favorite way to heat a winter tent is to first look through the best camping tents on the market. While you can use a three-season tent for winter camping, it will lose more heat faster than a four-season or winter-specialized camping tent. My winter tent was expensive, but it’s paid for itself in comfort and warmth on my coldest camping trips. 

Once I’ve chosen my favorite of the best backpacking tents for winter camping, I always take a few extra steps to insulate it even further. This means things like insulating mats for the floor, heat-reflective blankets (these come in handy so often), and raised camping beds to keep my body off the cold ground. 

Even once I had a fully-insulated tent, I still wondered how to stay warm in a tent without electricity. However, I often found that my own body heat was enough to keep things comfortable. If that failed, I could always run a heater for a short time or try some of the tips and tricks below. 

How Do You Heat a Tent for Winter Camping?

I find that most artificial heating methods will bring an insulated tent up to a comfortable sleeping temperature for the night. The easiest way to heat a tent quickly is with a heater, but I prefer to avoid this route. If you choose to use a gas or propane camp stove, make sure you bring along a carbon monoxide detector, just in case.

Back when I was considering how to heat a tent without electricity, I kind of thought that a nearby campfire would be enough. While this helps, it doesn’t help nearly as much as I thought it wood. I prefer to use the indirect benefits of a good campfire instead. 

A hot water bottle warmed next to a campfire can last all night under the right conditions. While just one hot water bottle isn’t likely to heat an entire tent, especially one meant for multiple people, it works wonders tucked in my sleeping bag with me at night. 

If, for some reason, I forgot my hot water bottle or I need a more significant heat source for the entire tent, sometimes I’ll gather some rocks from around the campsite. Large rocks that aren’t too heavy are ideal for this. Then, once they’ve been warmed thoroughly by the fire, I bring them into my tent. They don’t stay warm for as long as a hot water bottle, but they’ll let off significant heat for several hours.

The thing about using rocks to heat a tent is that stones are not ideal for cuddling like hot water bottles are. Instead, I put them in a pot, on a thick carpet or blanket, or on a hard surface inside the tent. Often, the rocks will heat my tent enough that the insulation can handle the rest. 

What Kind of Heater Is Safe to Use in a Tent?

Technically, no tent heater is 100% safe to use in a tent. There is always a chance of fire, poisonous gas, or other catastrophic failures when you use a heating unit. An electric heater is the safest, but since this article is about heating a tent without electricity, there are a few other options to consider. 

We’ve already touched on the propane-powered tent heater and camp stove. These should only ever run in well-ventilated areas, and since a well-ventilated tent is a cold tent, I tend to give them a wide berth. However, I’ve considered giving catalytic gas or propane-powered heaters a try in the past. 

A catalytic tent heater is different from a combustion-style heating unit. Instead of burning gasoline or propane for heat, catalytic heaters use the fuel to catalyze an internal chemical reaction. 

Because a catalytic heater doesn’t burn the fuel for warmth (only energy to run the process), it’s a much safer heater to use in a tent. A carbon monoxide detector is still necessary, as these heaters can release carbon monoxide because of a malfunction, but the chance is much lower. They should never be used without supervision, either.

That being said, if I really felt like I needed a heater (or if I wanted to have a backup on-hand for emergencies), I might consider purchasing a catalytic unit. They’re expensive, but they burn fuel much more slowly than combustion stoves and heaters, so with enough use, the heater would pay for itself. 

That’s not to say that a catalytic heater is entirely safe to use in a tent. As I said, they still require supervision (no sleeping with the heater on, as tempting as it is), and they can melt things or set them on fire if they come too close to the heating element. However, if a heater is necessary, they’re the best option when electricity isn’t available. 

How Can I Keep Warm in the Winter Without Electricity?

I think the best answer to how to keep a tent warm in cold weather is to insulate and plan ahead. Back when I started, I decided not to use combustion stoves in my tent, so I wondered how to stay warm in a tent without them. 

Nowadays, before I leave for my camping trip, I always take the time to set out everything I might need to keep warm. I make sure all my gear is in good working order, and I check and double-check that I have everything I need, plus a little extra for emergencies. 

Long johns, for example, or long underwear, are an incredibly useful garment to pack when winter camping. I wear long underwear beneath my clothes while I’m hiking at my campsite, and I wear long johns to bed. Sometimes I’ll layer fleece or wool pajamas over my long johns if it’s unusually cold.

Thick, warm socks (but not warm enough to make your feet sweat) and a well-fitting winter hat are also important. Since we lose most of our body heat from our heads and our feet, these areas are the most vulnerable when winter camping. I often wear my socks and my winter hat to bed when it’s unusually cold; they help me stay warm and toasty during the night. 

I mentioned elevating any sleeping bags off the ground to get away from the cold dirt, but in addition to that, all sleeping bags should be winter season approved. Some three-season sleeping bags will be enough, but a four-season sleeping bag always does better for me, especially on cold trips. A sleeping bag specifically designed for winter use might be useful, too. 

Sometimes, how to heat a tent in cold weather isn’t the question I should be asking. Rather, I have the most success on the coldest nights by trying to keep my person as toasty as possible. When I’m snuggled up in my sleeping bag with my thick socks and long johns, warm hat, and toasty water bottle, even the tent’s cold air can’t disturb my rest. 

I find that it’s often better to go for quality and not quantity when it comes to winter camping items. One or two pairs of thick sleeping socks are enough, and a down sleeping bag is far warmer than a synthetic one. 

Final Thoughts

I’ve had miserable nights out camping in the winter where I just couldn’t get myself warm no matter what I tried. I’ve had nights where I’ve overpacked on clothes, blankets, and other insulating materials and sweated inside my sleeping bag all night. Maintaining that balance between too warm and too cold is tough when the temperature outside isn’t steady. 

However, as long as I bring any items I might need on my hikes and camping trips, I know I can make it through okay. Plenty of practice has helped me learn what’s best to bring and what I can leave behind.

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