Whether you are camping 10 feet from your car or backpacking miles from civilization, you'll have to sacrifice some creature comforts in the name of adventure. However, thermal comfort is not something to sacrifice. Staying warm not only helps prevent hypothermia, it is important for keeping yours spirits high as well. Tent heaters are a popular solution, but insulating your tent and improvising radiators are also effective ways to heat your tent.
If you are car camping, you can use an electric space heater to keep your tent warm. Plug the heater into an available outlet -- some upscale RV parks and campgrounds do provide such amenities -- or a power inverter that draws electricity from your car. Historically, weight- and space-conscious backpackers had few safe methods for heating their tents. However, in recent years, manufacturers have begun producing catalytic propane gas heaters, designed to heat tents without producing much carbon monoxide. Camp stoves and other devices that feature an open flame are not suitable for use in a tent.
Normally, your body does not produce enough heat to warm the tent appreciably; but insulating the tent well can trap or reflect enough heat to cut the evening chill. The smaller your tent, the less air your body must heat, so use the smallest tent reasonable. Place a ground cloth under the tent and a sleeping pad under your sleeping bags to block the warm temperatures in the tent from leaking into the cold ground. You can also spread a Mylar emergency blanket along the inside walls of the tent, which will reflect the radiant heat back into the tent. Wearing warm clothes -- including wool socks, a cap and long johns -- does not warm the tent, but it does keep your body warmer while you are inside.
Heating your tent need not be complicated -- a few warm rocks will radiate heat into your tent for hours as they slowly cool off. Place a few large rocks near your campfire and let them warm up for several hours. About an hour or so before heading in to your tent for the evening, push the rocks away from the fire with a stick and let them cool slightly. Once they are cool enough to handle safely, wrap them in a towel or small blanket and place them in your tent. You can also heat water over the campfire, pour it into a few water bottles, seal them up tightly and place them in your tent as a source of heat.
The Ventilation Tradeoff
Keeping your tent warm is an exercise in tradeoffs. On one hand, you want to keep your tent sealed to retain every bit of warm air possible, but restricting the ventilation too much causes condensation to form on the inside surfaces of the tent. As this condensed water evaporates, it chills the air around it, lowering the temperature inside the tent, and making you generally miserable. In practice, you must often experiment to determine how much ventilation is necessary to keep the tent dry, without letting any heat escape unnecessarily.
Only use heaters that are explicitly marketed and designed for use in a tent. Additionally, follow all manufacturer’s instructions and keep flammable materials away from the heater's hot surfaces. Improperly using a heater can produce dangerous quantities of carbon monoxide, which can have fatal results. Never leave a heater running while you are sleeping -- turn them on shortly before turning in to warm your tent and then back on while trying to find the motivation to crawl out of your warm sleeping bag. Don't place heaters or hot rocks anywhere you might roll over on to them while asleep.
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