When you are camping in cold weather, a heater can take the edge off and make the experience more comfortable and enjoyable. That said, using a heater in a tent comes with risks that must be understood and managed.
To be clear on one point right upfront, we do not recommend you leave a heater running unattended in a tent or use one while you are sleeping. Heaters can produce dangerous gases and catch tents and clothing on fire, and must be used carefully.
How do you heat a tent for winter camping?
We use tent heaters to warm our tent before bed and in the morning. Currently, we have a Mr. Buddy catalytic propane heater. Making sure there is plenty of ventilation by cracking the tent door slightly, we will run near the heater on a cold night before going to sleep. We make sure everything flammable is cleared away from the heater (4 feet away at least). In the morning, once we repeat the process, keeping the heater running until we are ready to leave the tent. In either case, it’s very important to make sure you don’t fall asleep while the heater is running and forget to turn it off.
We will also sometimes use our heater as a kind of small campfire, outside of the tent, to stay warm in winter.
What heaters are safe for tents?
If you’ve spent a winter night shivering away in your sleeping bag, you’ve no doubt asked yourself: Are there heaters for tents? Well, yes, but with caveats. Tent heaters that can be used safely in a tent or camper when appropriate precautions are taken fall into two categories: electric heater and catalytic gas heaters. A third type, gas-fueled combustion heaters (open flame), is sometimes used in some semi-permanent canvas tents with chimnies (for venting), but really aren’t applicable for most situations as they produce high levels of carbon monoxide, and open flames present a high risk for accidental fires.
Electric Camping Heaters
Electric heaters offer the advantage of not producing noxious gases or presenting an open flame, which means you could run them without fear of dangerous gas build-up. However, they draw a lot of energy, which means they are really only practical in situations where you have access to RV hookups at a campground or if you have a free-standing gas-powered generator you can plug into.
Catalytic Camping Heaters
Catalytic gas heaters run on propane using catalyzed chemical reactions to produce heat without a flame. The obvious advantage is that there is no open flame to ignite flammable fabrics, which greatly reduces the risk of catching a tent or other fabrics on fire.
Another advantage over traditional gas heaters is that catalytic heaters don’t produce carbon monoxide, a deadly gas responsible for many accidents deaths. That said, they do deplete oxygen and can lead to unhealthy levels of carbon dioxide in an enclosed space if the area isn’t properly vented. Most tents should have enough ventilation to allow enough oxygen into the tent, but check the user manual for guidance and configure your tent or camper accordingly.
Best Camping Heaters
There are many catalytic heaters on the market nowadays that are designed for camping and other outdoors uses, such as hunting, as well as other heaters that are really intended for more domesticated situations. Here, we’ll cover tent heaters that are popular for camping and come highly rated by people who own them.
Mr. Heater Portable Buddy Heater
This is the camping heater that we use currently. The Mr. Heater Portable Buddy Heater is a catalytic heater that uses propane. These well-designed heaters are compact, easy to use, and reliable. The heater can produce between 4,000 and 9,000 BTUs per hour, and run for between 3 to 6 hours on a 1 pound gas cylinder depending on how hot you run it. It’s rated to heat an area of up to 225 square feet and will work at elevations up to 7000 feet. The gas canisters are standard and available at most camping stores, and can even be found at some grocery and hardware stores.
- BTUs per hour: 4000 – 9000
- Run time: 3-6 hours
- Oxygen depletion sensor: Yes
- Tip-over safety switch: Yes
Mr. Heater Little Buddy Heater
The Little Buddy heater from Mr. Heater is smaller than the Buddy Heater noted above. With a single output choice of 3,800 BTUs per hour, it is rated to heat up to a 95-square-foot area, which makes it suitable for most heating most tents. We chose the larger model because we also use it for other purposes, such as working on our Overlanding rig in our garage and for outside meals. But the Little Buddy packs down smaller and might be the right choice if you are looking for something a bit more compact.
- BTUs per hour: 3800
- Run time: 5.6 hours
- Oxygen depletion sensor: Yes
- Tip-over safety switch: Yes
Stanley 5,100 BTU Heavy-Duty Space Heater
Stanley’s 5,100 BTU Electric Space Heater is a sturdy electric heater that can hold up to abuse. You can choose from two heat settings and adjust the fan speed to your needs. The 1500-watt heater draws one kilowatt, which means you’ll want to have some kind of shore power or a large battery system to run it. A small portable power station will only run it for a few minutes on a charge, which might be enough to warm up a tent before bed and in the morning. But don’t expect to get a long run time on this or any electric heater using a smaller battery system.
A note on automatic shutoff switches
Most modern heaters will include mechanisms for shutting them off automatically in certain situations. For instance, heaters will typically shut off if they tip over. Catalytic heaters typically come with an oxygen depletion sensor that will trigger the heater to shut off if the oxygen level drops too low. These are terrific safety additions, but they aren’t a substitute for attending to the heater yourself.
If you go to sleep with a heater running your tent, for instance, you are trusting your life to the oxygen depletion sensor working and shutting the heater off before you suffocate should oxygen levels drop dangerously low. Again, we don’t recommend using a tent heater unattended, including while sleeping.