How to Sleep Warm At Night When Backpacking

How to Sleep Warm at Night When Backpacking

Have you ever spent a cold night shivering in your sleeping bag under a backpacking quilt because the temperature dropped lower than you expected? Here are a few tips and tricks you can use to sleep more warmly using the gear and supplies you have on hand.

    • Change out of any wet or damp clothes and put on dry ones. Dry clothes will keep you warmer because they can trap more warm air.
    • Wrap a jacket or sweater around your neck in order to seal the top of your sleeping bag (or quilt) so hot air warmed by your torso doesn’t escape around your neck. This produces the effect of a draft collar and it really works. 
    • Put on all of your dry clothes, including your rain gear, inside your sleeping bag or under your quilt. Wearing more layers will help increases your warmth at night. In dire circumstances, loosely stuffing dry leaves inside your sleeping bag (under your quilt) will also help. 
    • If you sleep on an inflatable 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. 
    • Move around in your sleeping bag (or under your quilt). Do sit-ups or crunches or leg raises to burn some calories and generate more body heat.
    • Wear a polar buff over your neck. This will keep you warmer at night because it insulates your neck and the veins that flow close to the surface of your skin.
    • Wear a fleece or wool 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.
    • Shield your sleeping bag or quilt from the wind by sleeping in a shelter, inside a bivy sack, or even a trench dug into the snow.
    • 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 any extra clothing or gear into your sleeping bag (or under your quilt) with you. By filling up space, your body has less work to do to heat up the insulation. 
    • If you have a pack liner, like a plastic garbage bag, stick the lower half of your body inside it like a bivy bag. You may perspire inside because you’ll get warm, but it will block the wind and prevent your body heat from escaping. If you don’t have a pack liner, you can use your backpack instead. This really works!
    • If you have a tent, especially a drafty tent, pitch it really low in order to block out any drafts. In an emergency, you can ditch the tent poles and wrap yourself up in the tent body or tent fly like a bivy bag. Don’t worry about condensation. You just need to get through the night.
    • Don’t lie on wet ground. It conducts heat away from your body/sleep system 25 times faster than dry ground.
    • Eat some fatty food like a candy bar or sip away at your olive oil during the night. Your digestion will generate heat to make you warm. 
    • Stay hydrated. The resulting increase in blood volume will retain more body heat. 
    • If you have to pee, pee. Your body will operate more efficiently if you rid it of waste products.

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About the author

Philip Werner has hiked and backpacked over 7500 miles in the United States and the UK and written over 2500 articles as the founder of SectionHiker.com, noted for its backpacking gear reviews and hiking FAQs. A devotee of New Hampshire and Maine hiking and backpacking, Philip is the 36th person to hike all 650 of the hiking trails in the White Mountain Guide, a distance of approximately 2500 miles, completing a second round in 2021. Philip is the author of Backpacking the White Mountain 4000 Footers, a free online guidebook of the best backpacking trips in the White Mountains in New Hampshire and Maine. He lives in New Hampshire.

22 comments

  1. Great idea wrapping neck with suff as draft collar. Always feeling the draft collar isn’t tight enough. Thank you!!

  2. A Thermacare lower back heat wrap will heat up your whole bag. Keep the heating elements on your stomach if you’re a back/side sleeper.

  3. The “your head radiates a lot of body heat” or the similar “you lose an outsized amount of heat through your head” is oft-repeated but false. You lose heat through your head, but it’s of a similar amount to other areas of your body of similar surface area. The advice of putting on a hat remains wise, but the rationale is incorrect.

    • I disagree with this but don’t have the scientific evidence to provide it. I believe that the places where you lose the most body heat are the spots with the most blood flow that are close to the surface of the skin. That’s why putting a hot water bottle over your femoral artery will make you warmer.

      • https://www.bmj.com/content/337/bmj.a2769.full

        Andy is correct. The upper body is more sensitive to heat loss but doesn’t actually lose more heat than other parts of the body unless it isn’t insulated.

      • I can’t read the article. Just the responses.

      • That looks like the Langdon Shelter that I froze I this past November!
        I put a high priority on keeping the feet warm, warm without heating pads. I’m really liking the OR Aerogel booties I got since then.

      • That’s actually the Mountain Pond Shelter. I came across 2 guys who spent thanksgiving evening there.

      • The heat loss from the head has been exaggerated, however it is still heat loss. Conserving heat when cold is still beneficial. Also. most of us feel warmer when our head and neck is warm, so in the end, that is the critical issue. For many, women in particular, keeping out feet warm also makes a big difference. Warm beanies, neck gaiters and an extra pair of socks are pretty light and well worth having.

      • When cold the body heats vital parts with higher priority (vital organs, brain). With your head not covered by your quilt, your body focusses on keeping it warm, while others parts get, or at least feel colder.

  4. Great advice, Philip! And I’ve found that sleeping on your back is always warmer, all things being equal, than sleeping on your side. And if there is a limit to how many hats a person can wear on a cold night, I haven’t reached it yet.

    • I find this an interesting point. I’ve always thought that curling up in a ball like a cat keeps you warmest and that’s usually what I do when I’m freezing at night. Next time I find myself cold and camping I’ll try this instead!

  5. I’ve found that changing from my hiking clothes to my sleeping clothes inside the sleeping bag will generate enough activity to warm the bag right up. I then keep my hiking clothing in the bag overnight so it won’t be such a shock to the system to change into them in the morning. Of course, my approach is only useful if the hiking clothing is cleanish. If covered in slushy mud or something like that, well… try something else!

    • I’ve had to slip into still-damp, extremely cold trousers that spent the night hanging outside my hammock overnight. Talk about *brisk*! It’s not as bad as putting on a cold bra, but it’s still pretty chilly.

      I sleep with my hiking shirt, bra, and undershorts underneath me — socks, too, if they’re clean enough. But the trousers? Nah – they’re NEVER clean enough. Maybe I’m a mud magnet.

    • One thing I find effective is to vigorously rub my legs, buttocks, and upper arms — to get the blood moving (similar to doing exercises as mentioned); it gets blood to the surface of those areas and helps warm the bag.

  6. Phil’s comment is generally correct.

    Heat loss through the head is contextual to situation: water immersion, inside a sleeping bag, exposure to air and to lower temperatures. Obviously, if the rest of your body is within an insulated bag (ie., a sleeping bag), your uninsulated head will be subject to increased (proportionally) heat loss. While it is true that a whole body at rest in ambient temperature will not lose as much heat through the head as previously believed, a body in a sleeping bag will. The heat you lose from your head is small compared to the rest of your body, and varies with temperature and exercise. Head heat loss is linear with temperature, meaning the lower the temperature, the higher percentage head heat loss. At 0 degrees Centigrade , up to about 30 to 35% of heat could be lost through your head at rest.

  7. Hmmm. Doing midnight sit-ups while drinking olive oil…. Can I try that out in Your sleeping bag first? In case it doesn’t go so well….

    • I guess that’s where ‘putting on your rain gear’ comes in.

      Anyway, all these tips make sense. Thanks for the list!

  8. Staying warm in A.T. Shelters… I’ve gone in and out of backpacking the A.T. for over 40 yrs. In our present day, backpacking equipment and clothing has really become technical. Before I ever heard the name “Footprint”, dealing with the tent undercover, I would carry a section of 6 mil. plastic (black plastic last the longest). Often I would chose to sleep in a Shelter, instead of my tent. Many of the A.T. Shelters suspend you up off the ground and the Cold nights air rushes up through the floor and makes it very cold to your back/sleeping pad. I found that if you take your ‘footprint’ (or plastic) and place it under your sleeping pad, it blocks the cold air and helps you save body heat. It Also helps prevent any punctures to your sleeping pad, if you have one that has to be blown up. Also… if it still becomes really cold, you can wrap the ‘footprint’ (or plastic) around your sleeping bag and regulate it to help save heat. (If you are carrying a hammock, you can do the same thing with your overhead tarp, inside the shelter.)

    • Oooh, next time I’m in a shelter I’ll try this! Great idea!

    • I always use my foot print in the shelter. Besides reducing the breeze it helps keep my sleep pad and quilt a bit cleaner. I cannot usually stay warm in shelters on cold nights, I can’t keep my body heat in. I always wondered if I used the footprint to hang right in front of my sleep pad if it would help keep me warm. Anyone ever try this?

      Also, I use a Zpacks Duplex. On dry cold nights I have kicked up dry leaves at the foot end and partway up the sides to block the cold wind, with much success. Emphasize DRY nights or you will end up with tons of condensation.

  9. On a very cold night when I realized the foot end of my sleeping bag got wet, I spent the night wearing every article of clothing and an emergency bivy. Sleeping in a vapor barrier was miserable and I didn’t sleep much, but that barrier was the difference between being cold and getting hypothermia. When I woke the next morning, my tarp and my boots were frozen. It was a miserable night, but a vapor barrier is a critical piece of survival equipment I’ll always carry in the future.

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