10 Pro Tips: Staying Warm in a Sleeping Bag

In Backpacking, Skills   |   Tagged , , , , , , , ,   |   9 Comments

By Michael Lanza

Head into the mountains in summer, or almost anywhere in fall or spring, and you can encounter nighttime and morning temperatures anywhere from the 40s Fahrenheit to below freezing. I’ve spent enough frosty nights outside over the past few decades to learn a few things about how to stay warm. (My coldest night was -30° F, in winter in New Hampshire’s White Mountains; I don’t recommend it.) Here are my 10 tips for making your camping experience more comfortable.

Western Mountaineering Summerlite bag.

Western Mountaineering Summerlite bag.

1.    At the end of each hiking day, wash the dried sweat from your body; it can act like a heat conductor, chilling you. I swim in a lake or creek when possible, or wet a bandanna or other cloth to wipe myself off.

2.    Wear a hat, socks, and extra layers on your body, but avoid putting on so many layers that you isolate your core, which is your body’s furnace, from your extremities, which get cold more easily. It’s often more effective to wear just one or two light to midweight layers (think: one or two base layers, or a base layer and a light insulation piece) on your body and line your bag with other extra clothing as added insulation for your entire body.

3.    Change into dry clothing to sleep, as opposed to the clothes you sweated in while hiking; damp clothes promote conductive heat loss from the body.


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4.    Stick a water bottle filled with hot water in the foot of your bag. In really cold conditions, put a second bottle filled with hot water in the middle of your bag. (Make sure they’re sealed tightly.)

5.    Use a pad or air mattress insulated for the lowest temperatures you expect to encounter, and if needed, a second foam pad if you’re sleeping atop frozen ground or snow.

6.    If you’re using a short pad (to save weight in milder temperatures), lay your empty pack beneath your feet to insulate them from the ground, which can drain heat from your body even in summer.


Get the right bag and gear. See all of my reviews of sleeping bags, air mats, and backpacking gear.


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Death Canyon Shelf, Grand Teton National Park, one of my 25 favorite backcountry campsites.

Tent Flap With a View: 25 Favorite Backcountry Campsites.

7.    Pile extra clothing under the foot end of your bag to give your feet more insulation against the cold ground.

8.    Use a sleeping bag liner, which can add the equivalent of several degrees of rating to a bag.

9.    Eat a snack high in fat right before bed, like a candy bar, to fuel your body through the night.

10.    If you’re sharing a tent with a partner who doesn’t get cold as easily as you, ask that person to sleep on the tent’s windward side. If you have two warm-sleeping partners, sleep between them, or at least position your bags and pads close together to benefit from one another’s body heat.

See also my article “How to Choose a Sleeping Bag” and my reviews of sleeping bags I like.


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The morning after sleeping under the stars at Precipice Lake, Sequoia National Park.

The morning after sleeping under the stars at Precipice Lake, Sequoia National Park.


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9 Responses to 10 Pro Tips: Staying Warm in a Sleeping Bag

  1. Jes   |  July 31, 2017 at 12:42 pm

    So I have a crazy-pants tip to add to the list I swear had worked for me: No matter how cold and uncomfortable it is outside, make sure to completely empty your bladder before going to sleep. If you need to go in the middle of the night, do it. Don’t hold off until morning.

    My pseudo-science theory as to why this seems to work: instead of your body working hard to keep all that pee at a toasty 98 degrees, it can use that energy to keep the rest of your bits warm.

    Take it or leave it . But I’ve decided a few seconds of cold booty is worth hours of greater warmth in my bag.

    • MichaelALanza   |  July 31, 2017 at 2:14 pm

      Thanks, Jes. I first heard that tip years ago. I’ve debated it with friends who have science backgrounds and insist that the body would not burn any more energy heating urine that’s inside the body that’s at body temperature, anyway. My take is that staying well hydrated certainly helps keep you warm, and I relieve myself right before bed in hopes of not having to get up during the night; but if I have to, I do get up, because it’s hard to sleep otherwise. Keep a warm puffy jacket handy to slip on if you have to get up.

  2. Karo   |  August 18, 2016 at 4:42 am

    Some really great tips – thanks so much! I’m a cold sleeper and staying warm in the night is always one of my main points of focus.

  3. Tom Brown   |  August 17, 2016 at 10:30 pm

    Thanks for the great tips, will definitely help with my kids when camping in the mountains were it gets quite cold at night.

  4. campingstuffexplained   |  August 15, 2016 at 8:22 am

    I use Coleman Trinidad warm weather sleeping bag (http://campingandcamping.com/coleman-trinidad-sunridge-warm-weather-sleeping-bag-review/) for my summer camping trips.

    For colder weather I have two more sleeping bags. One is a 3-season sleeping bag, another one is a 4-season sleeping bag.

    There is definitely no need to spend 300 or 500 USD for a summer sleeping bag. Don’t get fooled by the “amazing features”. A warm weather sleeping bag can be as simple as it can be…

  5. sean   |  September 11, 2015 at 10:06 am

    i would add to store fuel and batteries in your bag so you can use them the next day

  6. michaellanza   |  October 26, 2014 at 5:04 am

    I wouldn’t get sleeping bags for kids that young. Check out the answer I gave a reader to that question: https://thebigoutside.com/ask-me-tips-on-sleeping-bags-for-backpacking-with-a-4-year-old-and-for-her-parents/.

  7. campingstovecookout   |  October 25, 2014 at 10:38 pm

    I usually don’t have much of a problem staying warm since I use a nice down bag, but our kids, 4 months and 2.5 years get cold. We usually try to have them sleep near mom and haven’t stepped out to get them their own little bags yet.

  8. The Road We've Traveled   |  October 1, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    This is something I always struggle with. Thanks for the tips!

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