Camping with kids is a special opportunity. Time well-spent in nature makes all of us better. This is especially true with children. Camping invites positive memories, it provides stories for years to come, and it reminds us to slow down and appreciate the simple things: A starry night, a laugh by the campfire, a game of cards while snuggled in a tent.
But we also need to be honest—camping can sometimes be a little tricky (especially if you are inexperienced) and it can go sideways fast if you aren't prepared. But that's no reason to be discouraged—the challenge is actually part of the fun. And with a little forethought, anyone can become a camping pro.
The goal of this series is two-fold: First, to encourage more outdoor adventures, especially with kids. Second, to provide straightforward, actionable camping advice that is helpful to newbies and seasoned veterans alike.
This particular article explores THE ART OF STAYING WARM IN A SLEEPING BAG. The truth of the matter is that a sleeping bag, even a good one, will only perform at its best if used correctly. The art of sleeping warm requires that you understand how to get the most out of your sleeping bag by using it correctly, which means boosting its built-in strengths as well as adjusting for its shortcomings. This is particularly important when camping with kids. Remember, if they're having fun you'll have fun too . . . and a shiver-fest is never fun.
Whether you're heading out for your first family campout or for you umpteenth, these ten proven techniques will upgrade your sleeping bag’s performance and keep you and your kids cozy.
10 Sure-fire Ways to Stay Warm in a Sleeping Bag
Let’s start with something a lot people, even avid campers, don’t know: Temperature ratings on sleeping bags and sleeping pads are all based on the assumption that the user is wearing a beanie and quality long underwear (top and bottom). This means that the sleeping bag or the pad that boasts that it will keep you cozy down to, say, 15 degrees, actually won’t—unless you are dressed the way the testers were dressed. Plus, the testers are typically adults whose internal heaters and comfort thresholds are very different from those of wee tiny kids. And finally, since temperature ratings are the responsibility of the manufacturer, there’s no reason to fully trust them.
So, if you want your sleeping bags to have a chance of performing close to its advertised potential, you need to remember that long undies and a beanie need to be part of the equation. The testers wore them for a good reason—layering up keep us warmer.
PRO TIP: Layer up, but don't overdo it. Wearing a down puffer jacket to bed, for example, might feel warm at first but after a while you'll wake wake up sweating, which will gradually make you cold, not hot, because the sweat will cool your skin. It's very difficult to warm up again after this happens. I suggest wearing a moisture-wicking pair of light long underwear. Also, when you slip into your sleeping bag, you're better off being a touch chilled (you'll warm up quickly enough) rather than a touch too warm. If you can tolerate sleeping in socks, they are also a good idea.
One more thing: There is a stubborn segment in the camping community that–despite science and common sense—somehow still insists that sleeping near-naked is the proper way to stay warm in a sleeping bag. This is foolishness. Layers = warmth. Don’t drink their kool-aid.
Insulate from Below
Sleeping pads are a must, not only for comfort but for warmth. A sleeping pad acts as an insulating layer between your body and the ground. During a warm summer night the ground generally isn't too cold, but in spring, fall, and winter you will definitely feel the cold if you forgo a proper sleeping pad.
Sleeping pads come in a variety of sizes to accommodate different needs. While it might be tempting to buy a kid-sized pad that is shorter and takes up less space, I suggest you take the long view (literally and figuratively) when buying a pad for your kids. Longer is better. Here’s why: A short pad that works one year will be too short in a year or two—and loads of body heat is sapped away when the feet start dangling off the end of a pad and come in contact with the ground.
Be aware. Like sleeping bags, sleeping pads are rated for different temperatures, and as I've mentioned already, these ratings should be taken with a grain of salt. Be smart. Choose a pad that will work best in the situations that you will most often need. You know your kid best, and you should have a pretty good idea what kind of weather you'll most likely deal with. If your kid is a cold sleeper, then there's nothing wrong with erring on the side of caution. Buy a pad that is rated slightly warmer than you need. But don’t over-buy by too much. Cold weather pads can be bulky, very expensive, and for most uses their features are overkill.
If you’re car camping and you have a big tent and lots of available space, cots are a great option. The good ones are comfortable and keep you up off the ground, well above all the cold that lurks closer to terra firma. They also provide lots of space underneath for gear storage.
PRO TIP: Don’t be the lame parent who makes his or her kids sleep on yoga mats. Not cool. A yoga mat will provide little to no cushioning and very little insulation from the cold ground. A yoga mat is also bulkier, and generally speaking, stinkier, than a pad designed for camping. In a pinch, a yoga mat can, however, be used underneath a proper sleeping pad to add a little extra protection from the cold and a little more cushioning. If you're car camping and you happen to have one stuffed in your trunk, why not add it to your set up?
Use Kid-specific Sleeping Bags (or Modify Your Adult-sized bag)
Tempted to make your kid use one of your old sleeping bags? You might want to think again. It’s easy to assume that a sleeping bag that was once good at keeping you warm will also keep your kid warm, but it’s not entirely true. Extra space inside a sleeping bag creates something called “dead air.” The less dead air in a sleeping bag, the quicker the body can warm up the bag and the easier it is to keep the bag warm. While you probably have very little dead air in that adult-sized sleeping bag when you use it, your tiny kid in the same bag is likely surrounded by acres of dead air.
PRO TIP: In cold weather, your fancy adult sleeping bag will only work for your kid if you do one or more of the following: One, fill up the extra space with clothing, thus removing the dead air—this is the cheap option, and it works fine. Two, add a kid-sized liner—this option costs a little more, but it has many benefits (see the "Use a Liner" advice in the next section). And don't forget, if you're giving your kid a hand-me-down sleeping bag, that bag has likely lost a bit of its heating capabilities since you first bought it.
Use a Liner
Let’s face it. Kids often get our hand-me-down sleeping bags. It’s a practical necessity and guilty secret nearly all camping families share. One way to compensate for this reality (without paying big bucks for kid-specific sleeping bag) is to buy a small bed liner. You can buy a bed liner at any outdoor store, and they cost a fraction of the price of a good sleeping bag. These handy items come in two main types:
- Mummy-shaped liners that are designed to slip inside sleeping bags
- Rectangular-shaped liners (also known as travel sheets) that are designed for use on beds or inside rectangular sleeping bags.
Why use a liner? Liners are great for a number of reasons. First, a liner can add anywhere from 5° to 15°F of extra warmth to your sleeping bag, depending on the liner material. Second, as I mentioned before, a liner allows you to improve an old bag rather than buy a new one, which is always good. And third, kids are gooey and dirty and a liner creates a washable barrier between them and your sleeping bag—this might be the best reason of all.
PRO TIP: On hot nights, your kids can use a liner by itself and forgo the sleeping bag.
Pee before Bed & Don't Sleep Hungry
The main reason for having the kiddos empty their bladders before going to bed is so that they don’t have an accident. This is so obvious that it’s hardly worth mentioning. But there’s a secondary reason too: The heat loss that arises from getting up in the middle of the night and going outside can be enormous. On cold nights, it's hard to warm up again, especially for kids. Also, make sure the kiddos are well-fed before they go to sleep – when it's really cold the metabolism will keep the internal furnaces running hot.
Fluff up the Sleeping Bag
An hour or so before going to bed, you should make sure that all your sleeping bags are laying out in your tent. This allows the fill (whether it’s synthetic or down) to puff up and then work the way it’s designed to work.
PRO TIP: Generally speaking, a sleeping bag that doesn't expand when it is unpacked and laid out is not a good sleeping bag for camping in cold weather. There are exceptions, but as a general rule those fat sleeping bags that Walmart sells for about 25 dollars are fine for basements and backyard camping, but they'll keep you up and shivering if you're in the mountains. Yes, sometimes you do get what you pay for.
Give your Kids a Breathing Lesson
It's a simple rule: Breathing inside the bag. Bad. Breathing outside the bag. Good. Breathing creates moisture, and moisture is better dispersed in the tent than in the sleeping bag where it turns the sleeping bag into a soggy heat-sucking monster.
PRO TIP: Serious winter campers prevent moisture from building up in their tent by venting the tent. It seems counterintuitive to crack open a door or window but it helps with condensation build up, which in the long run will keep you warmer.
Cozy up to a Hot Water Bottle as You Settle in
Fill a nalgene bottle with hot water before going to bed, wrap it in a shirt or towel (if it’s really hot), and then let your kiddo snuggle with it as he or she settles in for sleep. It’s fun, and it will heat up a sleeping bag lightning-fast.
PRO TIP: If it's particularly cold outside, you don't want your kiddos to sleep all night with the water bottle because once that bottle eventually cools off, it will start absorbing their body heat rather warming them up. Warn the kids ahead of time that they shouldn’t fall asleep with the bottle in the bag. This is easier said than done, I know, but it's good advice.
Zip it. Zip it Good
Kids, especially little kids, have a hard time zipping up a sleeping bag themselves. Unless you help them, there’s a good chance that they’ll fall asleep with the bag only partly zipped up, which means that they’ll lose lots of heat through the opening, or worse, they’ll slither out of the bag in the middle of the night leaving them them cold and shivering on the tent floor.
PRO TIP: Sleeping bags that are designed for extremely cold weather have a "draft collar," which snugs up the bag to prevent hot air from escaping when you move around in your sleep. When air escapes it's called the "bellows effect." The takeaway here is simple: If it's cold, make sure your kid's bag is zipped tight to shut down the bellows; if it's hot, do the opposite.
Being that tent size is often limited, snuggling with kids usually happens whether you like it or not. But when it’s cold, don’t resist. Your body heat will help them keep warm and theirs will do the same for you.
PRO TIP: My kids battle to have our dog sleep closest to them. He only weighs 40 pounds but he's an incredible furnace.