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10 Pro Tips For Staying Warm in a Sleeping Bag

10 Pro Tips For Staying Warm in a Sleeping Bag

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. Hundreds (if not thousands) of frosty nights sleeping outside over the past three-plus decades have taught me 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.)

No matter how cold you normally sleep outside, or whether you’re camping in the backcountry or at a campground, these 10 tips will keep you warmer in your sleeping bag.

 

#1 Clean Up

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.

 

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Big Agnes Picket SL 30 sleeping bag.

Big Agnes Picket SL 30 sleeping bag. Click photo to read my review.


 

#2 Change Into Dry Clothes

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.

 

#3 Dress Smartly

Inside your bag, 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, which provides added insulation for your entire body.

 


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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.

#4 Use a Hot-Water Bottle

Stick a water bottle (like a plastic Nalgene bottle, not an insulated or vacuum bottle, which would not release any heat) filled with hot water in the foot of your bag. If that’s not enough, put a second bottle filled with hot water in the middle of your bag. (Make sure they’re sealed tightly.)

 

#5 Sleep on Insulation

Use an insulated pad or air mattress rated for the lowest temperatures you expect to encounter. Mats and pads with an R-value of between 3 and 4 are intended for three-season temperatures—generally, above freezing—while those with an R-value of over 5 are intended for use on frozen ground in below-freezing temperatures. If needed, add a second foam pad under your primary air mat if you’re sleeping atop frozen ground or snow.

 

The Sierra Designs Nitro 800 20-degree sleeping bag.

The Sierra Designs Nitro 800 20-degree sleeping bag. Click on photo to read my review.

#6 Augment Your Sleeping Pad

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.

 

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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 Underfoot

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

 

#8 Use a Bag Liner

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

 

#9 Eat Some Fat (The Fun Tip)

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

 

#10 Use Your Partner

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.

 

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See my “Pro Tips For Buying Sleeping Bags” and all of my reviews of sleeping bags, air mats, and backpacking gear that I like.

 

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About The Author

Michael Lanza

A former field editor for Backpacker Magazine, Michael Lanza created The Big Outside to share stories and images from his many backpacking, hiking, and other outdoor adventures, as well as expert tips and gear reviews to help readers plan and pull off their own great adventures.

12 Comments

  1. Anni

    That “eat some fat” was interesting… never considered that, but makes sense.

    Reply
  2. John Kelly

    Michael,

    Great tips. A few that work for me. I carry wet ones for clean up, especially when it is cool/cold or at elevation. I carry down booties for those same conditions. They are light but great warmth.

    When buying a bag make sure it is not too tight fitting because it is more difficult to use a liner or add layers. Or too large as there is too much space to warm.

    Head wear can vary from light, medium or heavy. Same with liners.

    For cold trips take a pee bottle. Make sure it is marked or an unique shape. Close it tight.

    If you can, shift your down (if you have a down bag) to the top and sides. When you lay on the down it compresses loosing most of its insulation value. Better yo use that second pad, clothing, your empty pack, etc that you recommend underneath.

    Avoid or minimize the amount of condensation. Similarly avoid/minimize perspiring. Moist down does not insulate as well. Also, dry your bag whenever you can. Even in cool/cold weather keep your tent ventilated.

    Cheers

    Reply
    • Michael Lanza

      All good tips, John. Thanks for sharing them.

      Reply
  3. Jes

    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.

    Reply
    • MichaelALanza

      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.

      Reply
  4. Karo

    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.

    Reply
  5. Tom Brown

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

    Reply
  6. campingstuffexplained

    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…

    Reply
  7. sean

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

    Reply
  8. campingstovecookout

    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.

    Reply

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