REI Magma 10 sleeping bag.

10 Pro Tips For Staying Warm in a Sleeping Bag

In Backpacking, Skills   |   Tagged , , , , , , , ,   |   12 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. 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 Dress Smartly

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 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.

 


Hi, I’m Michael Lanza, creator of The Big Outside, which has made several top outdoors blog lists. Click here to sign up for my FREE email newsletter. Click here to learn how I can help you plan your next trip. Click here to get full access to all of my blog’s stories. Follow my adventures on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Youtube.


 

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 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, and if needed, a second foam pad 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 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 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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12 Responses to 10 Pro Tips For Staying Warm in a Sleeping Bag

  1. Anni   |  April 15, 2018 at 5:26 am

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

  2. John Kelly   |  April 11, 2018 at 8:52 pm

    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

    • Michael Lanza   |  April 12, 2018 at 7:00 am

      All good tips, John. Thanks for sharing them.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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…

  7. 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

  8. 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/.

  9. 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.

  10. 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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