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The Art of Sleeping Warm at Night

A Chilly Night in the Catskills
A Chilly Night in the Catskills

Have you even spent a cold night in your sleeping bag because the temperature dropped lower than you expected? Here are a few tips and tricks you can use to increase your comfort level on those cold nights without buying any additional backpacking gear.

  • Cover your collar bones with an insulated jacket or fleece sweater to prevent hot air from escaping from your sleeping bag when you move around at night. This is often the ONLY thing I need to do to sleep warmer at night.
  • If you sleep on an inflatable sleeping pad like a Therm-a-Rest NeoAir Sleeping pad, lie flat on your back, not on your side. Your back will heat up the sleeping pad and keep it warm better than your side because more surface area is in contact with the pad. 
  • Wear a buff over your neck. This will keep you warmer at night and on cool days because it will insulate your neck and the veins that flow close to the surface of your skin.
  • Wear a fleece hat, even if your sleeping bag has a mummy hood. Your head radiates a lot of body heat because so much blood flows to your brain.
  • Wear your clothes inside your sleeping bag or under your quilt. I always bring long underwear top of bottom on trips for this purpose, and it keeps the inside of your bag cleaner on multi-day trips.
  • Shield your sleeping bag from the wind if you’re camping under a tarp and the walls don’t reach all the way to the ground.
  • Boil some water and pour it into a Nalgene bottle or water reservoir. Place the bottle or reservoir between your legs over your femoral arteries where they flow close to your skin. This will heat up your blood and make you warmer.
  • Stuff all of your spare clothing into your sleeping bag with you. By filling up the space, your body has less work to do to heat up the insulation. 
  • Eat some fatty food like a candy bar before you go to bed. Your digestion will generate heat to make your warm. 
  • Stay hydrated. You digestion will work better if it has enough water to digest your food. 

What other tricks do you have for staying warm on cold nights?

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5 comments

  1. Poly pro long unders and balaclava, wool socks and fleece jacket are my norm. Peeing in the moonlight, cold yes but beautiful, worth the wake up, unless we are talking below 20F. In addition to a hammock underquilt I use a thin pad under my down bag when it’s real cold.

  2. Mostly good tips of common sense but lets think about the following for awhile:

    “Your back will heat up the sleeping pad and keep it warm better than your side because more surface area is in contact with the pad.”

    To stay warm you don’t actually want to warm anything around you but you want to keep all the warmth (energy) in your body to stay warm! (Well, you do want to loose the same amount of energy you produce while resting to avoid overheating). If you’d want to warm your sleeping pad the best way to do so would be lie naked on top of it and cover yourself with sleeping bag and other insulation (but not putting it between you and your pad). Doesn’t make any sense, right?

    But the tip does work because you will loose some energy into the sleeping pad anyway and by covering bigger area of it, there is less area to loose the energy from the pad and cool down the pad which leads to more energy loss from your body, and a cold nights sleep. (This is also mentioned in the tip but not very clearly.)

    For some reason basic thermo dynamics are often forgot while talking about sleeping outdoors and I really don’t know why…

    And something to add: If cold toes are a problem move the hot water bottle to the foot end of you bag and remember to wear dry, warm socks. And prefer seepign bags with a draft collar.

  3. Some good tips and tricks.

    I like to think of putting myself in a sleeping like trying to heat a cabin. You have two options, either you insulate the cabin really well so you don’t have to light as big a fire inside, or if your insulation is poor, then you build a larger fire.

    The same is true of a sleeping bag. People mistakenly view the bag as making you warm, when all it is doing is insulating the warmth your body produces.

    Most of these articles on staying warm when sleeping out deal with insulating the cabin (i.e. sleeping bag), and only touch on how large you build the fire (i.e. bodies ability to generate heat), when I think the fire is the most important factor as it’s were all the heat is coming from.

    So if you view the body as a furnace there are a few ways you can increase your heat output.

    Get your heart rate up right before getting into the sleeping bag. Do some stomach crunches on top of your sleeping bag or some jumping jacks outside of your tent. Get your body outputting heat before you insulate it.

    Eating fatty foods is good. The reasons they are good are not only because your digestive system has to heat up to break them down but they also help to level out your blood ph. The more neutral your blood ph is the more efficiently it can move heat around your body. I personally sip on olive oil and it works amazing.

    Hydrate. As mentioned, hydration is REALLY important. Your body isn’t even close to being efficient at regulating heat when it is dehydrated.

    Improve circulation. Bring a little nalgene of cayenne hot sauce with you. Cayenne pepper aids in blood circulation which gets heat to your extremities better. If you suffer from cold fingers or toes then cayenne might do the trick. It also tastes really good.

    So, rather than spending a load more money to get a sleeping bag with more insulation, put a little time into thinking about building a larger fire instead. It’s cheaper and actually better for you.

  4. Good stuff here – Naglene trick has saved me once or twice and you can never underestimate the power of a good sleeping pad. Also, you can throw extra clothes underneath or even you empty backpack if it doesn’t have a rigid frame. I’ve emptied my pack and slipped that over the sleeping bag for the extra warmth. Use what you got!

    Two additions to this great list:

    1) Think Shelter too! – You don’t leave the door open at home when it’s cold, so don’t do it in the woods. Put up your shelter with all the rain fly stuff ya got and bunker down. Use a good rain fly or tarp to make a door to the shelter. With other hikers near ya, you’ve got enough gear to protect your space. Minimize drafts and the space around you.

    2) Snuggle Up – Now, certainly evaluate how cold before you ask the dirty hiker next to you if he wants to be big spoon, but sleeping close to others and packing the shelter only puts “more logs in the fire” so to speak. If you’re hiking alone, it’s a great way to meet people. Is that a hot Nalgene between your legs or you just happy to snuggle? Oh, just cold? Now this is awkward…

    And this native American alarm clock? Toss it. Get your rest and dont try to cut it short on purpose. Sleep is so important to recovery and the body works better with more of it. Your body is your furnace out there, so don’t give it the fuel and time it needs to be efficient.

    Lastly, don’t hold going to the bathroom, ever. Not good for ya and it will make you feel colder even if you’ve got all the insulation in the world. Just think, it will feel that much better when you crawl back inside that cocoon of yours. More reason to sleep in and hike late.

  5. Staying warm is a matter of physics.

    As far as is possible, remove all sources of conductive heat. Avoid sleeping on rocky ground, wet spots, plants, etc. Stay dry. Water conducts heat. Do not lean against a tree or rock. And, especially the sides of your tarp/tent. Use a good pad, at least R2.5 in summer and R5-6 in winter to avoid conducting heat out to the ground. Choose loam and needles to sleep on piling these up into a nest under and around your pad.

    As far as is possible, reduce or minimize convective losses. Use a small tarp or set one up in “storm” mode. Don’t worry about condensation as long as it doesn’t transfer to your bag/quilt, it will help to warm up your tent. Add stones and rocks to the edges to hold the tarp down with no air infiltration around the edges. Fold over edges to make a door around the ends. leaving small gaps for ventilation. (I use my pot over a found stick and set the pole back a ways to completely close off the ends.) 4-5″ above your feet & bag and 12-14″ above your face is enough.

    Partial covers, such as shirts, pants, socks, etc. work well but be careful with heavier clothing, it may compress the down too much, making the bag cooler than without. A trash bag over your feet and shoulders is OK, but do not use one over more than 50% of the sleeping bag. You can cover your head under the bag for short term (<1/2 hour.) Longer may wet the insulation around your shoulders, hence, leaving you colder. Do not overfill a bag with extra clothing. It may reduce the loft and making you colder.

    Use a set of long johns, potentially your hiking cloths(if they are damp-NOT wet,) a pair of fuzzy knee length wool socks and a down sweater for sleeping in. With a good pad on good ground, I can take a 40F bag down to about 32F comfortably.

    Using all of the above techniques, I have taken my summer kit (nominally 32F) down to ~20F.

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