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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44 Responses to The Art of Sleeping Warm at Night

  1. Korpijaakko July 3, 2013 at 3:14 am #

    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.

  2. romney July 3, 2013 at 5:34 am #

    I find it warmer on my side because I can curl up a bit. My back doesn’t feel the cold as much as other areas.

    Along with a hat, I like to wear something on my hands. Homemade woolly wristwarmers are usually enough. Loose clothing seems warmer – I guess it holds more air and allows blood to flow unrestricted?

    If my feet are really cold I find it helpful to flex my ankles or tense some large muscles like I’m doing very small calisthenics! I don’t know whether it really gets the blood moving round a bit more, but it feels like it.

  3. Tim July 3, 2013 at 7:25 am #

    If you sleep on a ground cloth, any excess can be pulled up and over the sleeping bag.

    I use my emergency Mylar reflective blanket as a ground cloth and can fold the extra on the sides up and over myself for some extra warmth and wind protection.

  4. Willow July 3, 2013 at 8:48 am #

    And for you go-liters out there, use your rain gear to wrap around the bottom of the outside of your sleeping bag to keep your feet warmer!

    • Philip Werner July 3, 2013 at 10:04 am #

      I’ve also taken the trash bag liner out of my backpack and pull it over the bottom half of my sleeping bag. You can also do this with your backpack. The downdide of using something to wrap the outside of your sleeping bag is that you’ll sweat inside it. Sleeping bags do breathe.

      • Glenn July 3, 2013 at 10:15 am #

        The trash bag idea works great. I have not noticed sweating being an issue. The bag is still open and somewhat loose at the top. The secondary benefit is if my feet extend past my poncho shelter the sleeping bag is still protected from the elements.

        In cold weather I will drape my coat or rain gear over the upper portion of the sleeeping bag. Becareful wearing too much inside the bag as it can compress the insulation and defeat the purpose.

  5. JJ Mathes July 3, 2013 at 12:11 pm #

    Spend a couple of minutes fluffing up the loft in your sleeping bag before getting in.

    I’ve slept in my wind shirt and wind pants several times, rain jacket and rain pants work too, if they’re dry of course

  6. pebbleshoo July 3, 2013 at 12:28 pm #

    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.

    • Philip Werner July 3, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

      Excellent points.

    • wgiles October 3, 2014 at 8:50 pm #

      I’ve heard this argument before and I really have to question the idea of exercising just before going to bed. If I do, I will be wide awake when I need to be sleepy. By the time I wind down enough to sleep, the effects of the exercise will be gone. Exercise is stimulation. You don’t want to be stimulated when you are trying to sleep.

  7. Alissa July 3, 2013 at 12:59 pm #

    I recently overheard some hikers saying that the trick to keeping warm is to sleep in very few clothes at all, to allow your sleeping bag to do what it was designed to do best – or something like that. At 30 degrees, I was too cold to give that questionable advice a try!

    • Philip Werner July 3, 2013 at 2:45 pm #

      They just wanted to see you naked, :-) Seriously, you will be warmer if you wear underclothes. That sleeping naked theory is a myth.

  8. Outdoors July 3, 2013 at 3:44 pm #

    Vapor Barriers are hardly mentioned these days. Heavily debated in the past, but seem to work for me. For 7-10 day trips with nights in the lower ranges bags can start to gather water vapor over time from the body each night. Vapor Barriers can get to be smelly if you dont wash them during your trip.

    Vapor Barriers keep the loft correct and dry even in bivy sacks. Such a strange concept with all the marketing on breathable fabrics these days. Truth is just like rain gear our bags wet out as well. Weigh a down bag at the start and end of your next adventure. You will see a gain in weight. Add a vapor barrier you will see that change. Its not the weight that is important. It is the loft and insulation lost. Hydrophobic down? Look up how much your body sweats each night. No down can be that hydrophobic. Marketing.

    Call me strange, but I gave up down sleeping bags two years ago. Vapor Barrier and Combat Shield Insulation is the only way to go. Will keep you warm when you like it. Will keep you alive even if sleeping in a river.

  9. PeteJ July 3, 2013 at 8:13 pm #

    I am surprised that no one has mentioned putting on some clean warm socks, If your feet are cold nothing will get you warm, or at least make you think you are warm.

    As for the hat, I have a fleece hat that has a face mask that I use to keep my hat on, being hair challenged, keeping a warm hat on my head on a cold night is very important.

  10. Vegas Chick July 4, 2013 at 6:12 am #

    Another great way to stay warm is to urinate when needed instead of holding it all night. Your body is warming up something it doesn’t have to. I don’t like to crawl out into the cold night, so I use a Go Girl to pee into an empty Gatorade bottle and leave under vestibule.

    • Brandon September 14, 2013 at 10:26 pm #

      This makes no sense. Having a bladder full of urine just keeps you awake and uncomfortable, and if you’re cold to boot, well, you’re that much more aware of it. There is no way for the urine to absorb heat, since it starts out at body temperature, and is too far inside your body to transfer heat anywhere else. If anything, being full of pee could conceivably keep you warm, like a hot water bottle. Probably not though. But you’re right, crawling out of the bag to pee sucks, because you then have to rewarm your sleeping bag, so a pee bottle is a great idea.

      • Herr Tisch July 30, 2014 at 1:55 am #

        Survival courses I’ve attended – Military, BSA’s HAT, and the Inclement Weather Survival School (IWSS) – all advocate deification / urination as required; regardless of time of night. Beyond the obviousness of keeping one awake (and floating eyeballs and all…), the literature is as Vegas Chick states: “Your body is warming up something it doesn’t have to.”

        Per HAT’s study guide, in order to maintain stasis, your body strives to keep all parts near your normal body temperature; to include waste yet expelled. Not being a physician I’ll let those among us more qualified to comment on the veracity of that position, I’m merely parroting what was taught in programs attended.

        • Walter Underwood October 2, 2014 at 6:00 pm #

          Note that a 500ml pee bottle is too small. Trust me on that. My reflexes are not good enough to shut off the stream when it fills to the brim. And that was NOT a rental sleeping bag.

  11. Geoff Gafford July 4, 2013 at 8:39 am #

    I’ve found that a brisk walk just before turning in helps as it warms the body up and gets the blood circulating so you hopefully start off warm in the sleeping bag and any heat that is then lost warms up the inside of the sleeping bag.

  12. pebbleshoo July 4, 2013 at 1:21 pm #

    Here’s a question. If holding on to pee makes you colder could this be used in the summer to stay cooler at night? I know there are health issues with not urinating but putting that aside for the moment, does not peeing keep your core temperature lower in hotter climates?

    I know for myself that I already utilize the “Native American Alarm Clock” if I need to get an Alpine Start (i.e. over drink water before bed so that needing to go will wake me up early).

  13. Grandpa July 6, 2013 at 12:00 am #

    if I plan to sleep in long johns, I’ll be warmer if I crawl into my sleeping bag with all my clothes on and then strip down to the long underwear in the bag. All those gyrations really warm up the bag.

  14. Chris July 8, 2013 at 2:36 pm #

    1. Jumping jacks or some light exercise before bed.
    2. Pee before you climb in your bag because your full bladder will take away needed body heat.

    Good article, thanks!

  15. Silvia Cooke July 11, 2013 at 12:01 pm #

    I carry a silk scarf and wrap for such times. I find that if I wrap the surong-sized wrap around my waist and down my legs I stay much warmer. I also put the silk scarf (bandana-size) on my head or around my neck to stay warmer. These two items are light and easy to pack.

  16. Walter Underwood September 12, 2013 at 4:06 pm #

    On snow, I use my Crazy Creek chair as an extra insulation layer under my pad. Unbuckle it, lay it flat, and put it under your torso. It makes a difference.

    This would probably help on an elevated platform, too. Platforms can be really cold because you have free air underneath.

    • Up2U September 15, 2013 at 3:41 am #

      Isn’t that what a crazy creek chair is made for? I never take both a thermarest and a crazy creek, just one or the other..I sleep warm though..I have a zero degree bag that takes me as low as I’ve ever gotten even in the snow..

      The urine making you colder makes no sense…I can never sleep with a full bladder anyway…all it does it keeps me awake, which is worse than being slightly cooler

      • Walter Underwood September 15, 2013 at 4:22 pm #

        One snow camping trip I took my aged Ensolite pad and it had somehow lost its insulating value over a couple of decades. That was a long, cold, sleepless February night.

        Now I take a blue foam pad, my three-season Therm-a-rest, and still add the Crazy Creek chair. I can feel when I roll off of that extra layer.

  17. Robbie Gamble September 12, 2013 at 10:43 pm #

    I learned the nalgene hot water bottle trick a couple of years ago, and it makes all the difference on those shoulder season nights. It’s like going to bed with a little atomic reactor.

  18. Michael Candell September 12, 2013 at 11:28 pm #

    Change ALL your clothes before getting in the bag. You’ve been sweating all day and moisture conducts heat away. If using Pac boots with changeable liners, wear the dry liners in the bag or get winter booties. If I have a heavy coat with me, I put that over the end of the bag.

  19. Ahab September 15, 2013 at 8:17 am #

    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.

  20. Ahab September 15, 2013 at 8:19 am #

    I meant “DO give it the fuel and time it needs to be efficient.” My mistake.

  21. Dan September 15, 2013 at 8:57 am #

    one of the best ways I’ve found to stay warm/get warm is cover your head completely inside your sleeping bag….you will soon put your head back out of the bag. Also having another person close works well. insulation from the wind and the cold ground in the form of a pile of leaves or evergreen boughs(before cutting or breaking evergreen boughs from trees or shrubs be aware of laws and ordinances against such activity, although breaking a law in a life threatening situation where there is a real danger of succumbing to hypothermia would overrule) will also assist in staying warm.

  22. Lloyd September 15, 2013 at 11:04 am #

    If you happen to have a campfire toss a few smaller than fist sized rocks into the fire.
    Keep them there till they’re glowing and then put them in a damp sock using sticks as tongs. I used wool socks that didn’t scorch provided that they were damp. The damp sock can be put into a dry sock. It keeps my feet toasty far longer than a nalgene.
    **Be sure NOT to use a porous river rock than may explode in the fire.

  23. Bill September 16, 2013 at 6:24 pm #

    I suggest that you bring your mate or dogs. Does anyone remember Three Dog Night?

  24. Bill September 16, 2013 at 6:30 pm #

    … on a different serious note beyond mate and dogs … stay dry plus use layers of clothing and bedding. A ground cloth is essential. A plastic cocoon will help but can work against staying dry.

  25. Jim Troyer October 30, 2013 at 5:50 am #

    Make a bed of hot coals to sleep on. I make a 6-7′ long 4-6″ deep fire pit and fill it with 2-3″ diameter branches. About an hour before turning in I burn them down to the point where the flame go out then cover them over with the dirt taken from the pit previously. The coals will smolder all night and you’ll stay toasty on the coldest nights, I guarantee. You can even drag a tent over the pit if desired. Be sure to pour water over the area before leaving camp in the morning. Thank Jeremiah Johnson for this tip ;-)

  26. Mike March 5, 2014 at 4:27 pm #

    In response to an earlier post up top.
    I have been using a pee bottle for years now. Got tired of crawling out of the tent at 2 or 3 am in the rain or cold only to come back in with wet cold feet. Now it only takes about 15 seconds to do my thing and i’m back in my warm bag. Proud to hang my empty pee bottle off the back of my pack no shame here.

  27. Scribe October 2, 2014 at 4:53 pm #

    Another light weight addition to my pack in unpredictible weather conditions are those hand and foot warmers that you use while skiing. They say they last 7 hous, but my experience is less than that. Nevertheless, they cost a buck or so, but when the temps dip and you’ve tried all else – double sleeping pads, hot water bottle, full tummy, empty bladder, dry clothes, mates (optional) – they really come in handy if you sleep cold, like me. I always carry fleece gloves, hat, and wool plus fleece socks to sleep in. I have tried most of the suggestions listed, except the heated rocks. All good stuff! Thanks for another great post.

    • Grandpa October 2, 2014 at 5:35 pm #

      A problem with heated rocks is they tend to conflict with lightweight hiking protocols.

      • Walter Underwood October 2, 2014 at 5:58 pm #

        I tried the air-activated iron hand warmers, but they are more weight than they are worth. I used to take them snow camping with the Scouts as an emergency item, but gave up on them. I put them in my boots overnight to dry them out and they never heated up. Not quite never. I put the trash in my pockets, and then they got very warm.

        If you need to warm someone up, put hot water in water bottles with socks over them. Tuck the bottles in armpits and crotch.

        If everything fails, put on the headlamp and hike out. That will keep you warm and get you out of danger.

  28. Marco October 2, 2014 at 8:28 pm #

    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.

  29. k1ypp October 2, 2014 at 10:36 pm #

    I prefer to do like Luke Skywalker and slice open a Tauntaun. They’re very rare, even on the Appalachian Trail, so I usually opt for a black bear. They do resist, so be forewarned.

    All good suggestions above. I found the dry socks to work best. I tend to do well in very cold conditions and used a hammock for the entire trail. It was late September when I crossed Maine and I found that I needed to carry a piece of the blue foam pad to put under my butt. The rest of the body was fine, but the butt tends to compress the sleeping bag and that causes it to lose the ability to insulate. The foam was only about 2 feet by 1.5 feet (0.6 x 0.5 m). Your mileage may vary.

    For more on how Luke Skywalker faired:

    http://io9.com/5931217/science-proves-luke-skywalker-should-have-died-in-the-tauntauns-belly

  30. Debra Colchamiro October 3, 2014 at 10:04 pm #

    Bring a ThermaCare Heat Wrap – lower back & lumbar. Open it, wrap it around your waist with the heated elements either against your belly or against your back, whichever way is most comfortable. It’s like sleeping with a space heater inside your sleeping bag.

  31. john albright October 14, 2014 at 12:17 am #

    buy a good sleeping bag,buy a good pad and try a air pad that goes in the bag and then get a kifaru shelter with a wood stove and you’ll never be cold again and their lightest shelter(paratarp with annex and parastove will only add about 3.0lbs to your load)been using one for a long time and it’s just awesome,light and warm..

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