Mom Goes Camping

The Best Tent Heaters (And How to Use them Safely)

best tent heaters

Tent heaters aren’t a replacement for a good sleeping bag and pad, but they can help take the edge off when camping in cold weather. This means you get to extend your camping season.

But a lot of people are afraid to use tent heaters because of safety concerns.  There’s no reason to be scared: Just make sure to get the right heater and use it properly. This guide will cover everything you need to know about which tent heater and how to use them safely.


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Best Tent Heaters for Camping

There actually aren’t that many heaters that I can (with good conscience) recommend for use in a tent while camping.  Most are simply too risky to use in small, cramped spaces.  But the heaters below have good safety features and are suitable for small spaces like tents.

 

1. Mr. Heater Buddy Propane Heaters

The brand Mr. Heater makes several propane heaters which are safe for indoor use.  These are the most popular tent heaters, and for good reason.  All of the heaters in the Buddy line come with impressive safety features including:

  • Oxygen depletion sensor (ODS) and automatic shutoff
  • Tip-over automatic shutoff
  • Incredibly easy to use
  • Protective grill over heating element to reduce fire risk
  • Have their own regulators and don’t need a filter
  • Not likely to clog like other propane heaters

 

All of the heaters in this series (except the Little Buddy) also have adjustable heat settings.  They can be used with 1lb disposable cansiters or with a hose connected to a large reusable propane tank.

As far as fuel consumption goes, the heaters are fairly efficient.  The Buddy heater uses 0.044 gallons/hour at 4,000BTU.  That means a 1lb propane tank will last you approximately 5 hours at this setting.

There are a few downsides of the Buddy heaters for camping.  The oxygen depletion sensor means that they won’t work at elevations of over 7,000 feet.  They also aren’t great for outdoor use because wind can blow out the pilot.

Below are the sizes that the Buddy heaters come in.  Avoid choosing one which is too large: It will heat your tent too quickly and then you’ll have to constantly shut it off/turn on to get a nice temperature.  The  4,000-9,000 BTU Buddy heater is probably the best option for most tents.

Buddy Heater Comparison

 
Little Buddy
  • BTUs: 3,800 (Up to 95 square feet)

  • Connects to 1lb disposable cylinder

  • Heater Weight: 5.9lbs

  • Size: 11 x 11 x 11 inches

  • Buy Here
  • Buddy Heater

  • BTUs: 4,000 and 9,000 settings (up to 225 square feet)

  • Connects to 1lb disposable cylinder or 20lb tank

  • Heater Weight: 9lbs

  • Size: 7 x 13.4 x 15 inches

  • Buy Here
  • Hunting Buddy

  • BTUs: 6,000 to 12,000BTUs (Up to 300 square feet)

  • Connects to 1lb disposable cylinder or 20lb tank

  • Heater Weight: 9lbs

  • Size: 2 x 15.5 x 16.5 inches

  • Buy Here
  • Big Buddy

  • BTUs: 4,000; 9,000; and 18,000 settings (Up to 450 square feet)

  • Connects to 1lb disposable cylinder or 20lb tank

  • Contains fan that operates on four D batteries

  • Heater Weight: 16.7lbs

  • Size: 19 x 12 x 17.75 in

  • Buy Here

  •  

    2. Camco Olympian Wave 3 Catalytic Propane Heater

    The Olympian Wave 3 propane heater is incredibly popular with campers (as well as for van living, RVs, and cabins).  It is a catalytic heater, which means that it uses a flame-less technology to provide heat.  This in itself makes the Olympian Wave 3 safer than other propane tent heaters.   Though not recommended, you could keep this tent heater on all night.

    As a catalytic heater, the Olympian Wave 3 is also much more efficient. If kept at the lowest setting, you could keep the Olympian Wave 3 running continuously for 6+ days on a single 20lb propane tank.

     

    Olympian Wave 3 vs. Mr. Buddy Heaters

    The Olympian Wave 3 is superior to the Mr. Buddy heaters in many ways.  The Wave 3 is:

    • Much more efficient
    • Produces the least amount of carbon monoxide
    • No open flame
    • Produces a more pleasant-feeling warmth
    • Doesn’t dry the air inside the tent
    • Operate completely silently

    However, the Mr. Buddy heaters still get the #1 spot for best gas tent heater.  The main reason is that the Mr. Buddy heaters are easier to use when camping.

    The Wave 3 heaters don’t have a built-in regulator like the Mr. Buddy heaters do.  So, you will need to get a regulator hose and an adaptor with a low-pressure shut-off valve.  The Wave 3 can be used with a 1lb disposable gas tank, but they are really meant to be used with larger propane tanks.  The small disposable tanks get cold and then the output is affected.

    Which to get?

    If you need something small and easy to use when camping, then go with a Mr. Buddy heater.  If you are going somewhere very cold and need a steady supply of heat, then choose the Olympian Wave 3 heater.  There are larger sizes available too, but the Wave 3 is probably enough for most tents.

    Specs:


     

    3. Zerhunt Ceramic Heater (Electric)

    This tiny electric heater is perfect for heating tents.  It has two settings: 750 watts and 950 watts.  For most small tents, the lower setting will be enough to get you warmed up.  There’s a fan to blow the hot air but it is only 40 decibels.  To put that in perspective, rustling leaves are 20dB and a quiet conversation is 50dB.

    There are three main great safety features on this tent heater. The first is the overheat protection. It will automatically turn off if it gets too hot.  There’s also tip-over protection, so you don’t have to worry about it melting your gear if it accidentally falls over.

    A standout safety feature (which you don’t find on many other small electric heaters) is the timer.  You can set the timer for 2 hours, 4 hours, or 8 hours.  You should never fall asleep with a tent heater on (no matter how safe it is!).  The timer helps ensure that the heater will turn off if you accidentally fall asleep without turning it off.

    The downside to it having tip-over protection is that the heater won’t work on very uneven surfaces.  You’ll really need to put it on a flat platform so the tip-over sensors aren’t triggered.

    Specs:

    • Watts: 750 or 950 watt settings
    • Size: 5 x 5 x 8.5 inches
    • Weight: 4lbs
    • Overheat protection
    • Auto-shutoff when tilted or tipped over
    • Timer
    • Only 40db noise level
    • Carry handle
    • Buy Here

     

    4. Trustech Portable Ceramic Heater (Electric)

    Here’s another great little tent heater.  It also has safety features which make it suitable for using inside a tent, including tip-over shutoff and overheat protection.  I still like the Zerhunt heater above better for an electric heater because it has a timer.  This one doesn’t have a timer option, so you really have to be careful that you don’t fall asleep with it on.

    The reason you might want to choose this Trustech heater though is that it’s angle is adjustable.  The heater sits on a wide base and you can tilt the actual heater part up to 45 degrees. This makes it possible to adjust the airflow so the heater isn’t blasting hot air in your face while you bundle in your sleeping bag.

    There are two heating settings: 750 watts and 1500 watts.  Most tents will be fine with the lower setting but the higher option is good for larger tents or if you need to heat up faster.   It’s very small and compact.  There isn’t a carry handle but you can easily move it by its base.

    This tent heater is slightly loud.  The manufacturers don’t list the decibel rating, but it’s likely around 50dB.  On the plus side, the noise will prevent you from accidentally falling asleep with it on!

    Specs:

    • Watts: 750 or 1500 watt settings
    • Size: 25 x 5.3 x 9.8 inches
    • Weight: 8lbs
    • Overheat protection
    • Auto-shutoff when tilted or tipped over
    • No timer
    • Adjustable angles
    • Buy Here

     

    5. Texsport Propane Heater

    This propane heater by Texsport is one of the most basic tent heaters you can find.  It attaches to 16.4. or 14.1oz disposable propane tanks.  At up to 2,890 BTUs, it will heat up small tents decently.

    As far as safety features go, there is a protective grill around the heating element.  It will also automatically shut off the gas if the flame goes out.  But there isn’t a carbon monoxide or low-oxygen shutoff (ODS).  That’s why it is marketed as an outdoor heater and not a tent heater.

    The lack of ODS might be why you choose it: Unlike the Mr. Buddy and Wave 3 propane heaters, it can be used at high elevations.

    Specs:

    • BTUs: Up to 2,890
    • Connects to 16.4 or 14.1 oz disposable propane bottles
    • Heater Weight: Approximately 16oz
    • Auto-shutoff if flame goes out
    • NO low-oxygen or CO shutoff
    • Size:6 x 10.5 x 5.5 inches
    • Buy Here

    Are Tent Heaters Safe?

    Most heaters are not safe to use in a tent.  However, that doesn’t mean you need to be scared about using a heater while camping.  You just need to get the right heater and take these precautions.

     

    Don’t Sleep with a Tent Heater On

    Tent heaters are not meant to be used all night long.  Don’t sleep with your tent heater on!  Rather, use the heater to take the edge off at night and in the morning.

    But what if it’s really cold? Your sleeping bag, sleeping pad, and a good set of layered PJs should be what keeps you warm at night – not a heater.

    The heater gets turned on before going to bed so you don’t freeze while getting ready for bed. Likewise, it’s great to turn on the heater in the morning while still snug in your sleeping bag.  Then the tent can warm up a bit before you change into your daytime clothes.

    Tent heaters can also be used periodically throughout the day if needed.  But they aren’t meant to be kept on for a long period of time.   The one exception to this is the Wave 3 catalytic gas heater.  While it’s still not best to leave it on while sleeping, it’s the safest option.


     

    Tent Heaters and Fire Risk

    With both electric and gas tent heaters, you’ve got to worry about fire risk.  Even heaters which advertise “cool to touch” can still get very hot.  If anything blocks the airflow of the heater or it topples over (which is pretty easy to do in a crowded tent), the heater can overheat and start a fire.

    As a general rule, you need at least 2 feet of space around the heater to prevent a fire.  (The Toledo Fire Department actually recommends three feet!). That means no sleeping bags, pads, blankets, clothes, or anything near the tent heater!

    Chances are your tent isn’t large enough to use a tent heater in safely.  As a general rule, a 4-person tent will fit 2-3 people comfortably.  A 6-person tent will fit 4-5 people comfortably.  And so forth.

    When using a tent heater though, you’ve really got to size up.  Calculate that the tent heater will take up the space of 1 or 2 additional people.

     

    Tent size when using a heater:

    • 3 or 4-person tent for one person plus a heater.
    • 4 or 6-person tent for two people using a heater.
    • 8-person tent for a family of four or five using a heater.
    • 10-person tent for a family of 6 or 7 using a heater.

     

    Overheating and Tipping Over Features

    Safe tent heaters will have switches that cause them to automatically shut off if they get too hot or the heater tips over.  These features are commonly called “overheat protection” and “tip-over switches.”

    Don’t rely on automatic controls for something this serious though.  Tents are crowded, the ground is uneven, and it can get windy – meaning it’s fairly likely that the heater will tip over or something will get knocked in front of it.

    Make the tent heater safer by:

    • Put the heater on a platform. This keeps it off the uneven ground and also keeps the heater from getting wet if there is water on the tent floor.
    • Make sure the platform is heavier than the heater. This will keep it from becoming top-heavy and toppling over.
    • Secure the heater to the platform. A good amount of electrical or duct tape around the base of the heater will do the trick.

     

    Extension Cords for Electrical Heaters

    Chances are that you’ll need an extension cord for an electric tent heater.  What a lot of people don’t realize is that power strips should never be used with electric heaters. The power strip simply can’t handle the high energy demands of the heater and it could cause a fire.

    Use these guidelines:

    • Check the gauge of your extension cord: Most extension cords and power strips are only made for low-wattage devices. For portable heaters, you’ll need a cord that can handle higher wattage. For example, a 15amp heater will likely need at least a 14 gauge cord. This one is great.
    • Only use cables rated for outdoor use: Otherwise moisture or the elements can damage the cord and result in a fire.
    • Check the cable before use: Make sure there are no tears/cracks/damage before using.
    • Don’t use heater and other appliances at the same time: Never plug in devices like your phone at the same time as the heater. This can cause the wire to trip and cause a fire.
    • Never use 2wire to 3-wire adapter: Two wire cords are not grounded and typically only meant for indoors. Never use one of these cords or an adapter so you can use one with a 3-pronged heater.
    • Protect the connection point: There are covers you can buy for keeping water and moisture from getting in where heater and extension cord meet.

    Sockitbox (above) will waterproof your cord connections. Get it here.

     


    Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

    With electric tent heaters, there is no risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.  But, with any heater that works on combustion (butane, propane, wood…), carbon monoxide poisoning could occur.

    Carbon monoxide is a deadly gas that builds up in your bloodstream.  The gas is odorless and invisible, so you probably won’t realize that you are being poisoned until it is too late.  Symptoms include headache, nausea, and shortness of breath (amongst others).  CO poisoning can cause permanent tissue damage or death. This is not a joke: hundreds of people die every winter because of heaters used indoors.

    Newer gas heaters have more complete combustion, meaning less CO is produced.  However, less is not the same as none.  Regardless of what type gas heater you use in your tent, there is still a risk of CO poisoning!

     

    Ventilation Requirements

    The key to using a gas heater safely in a tent is ventilation.  Most two-layer tents already have pretty good ventilation in the mesh walls.  However, if snow has built up around/over the tent, then CO gas won’t be able to escape nor will fresh oxygen be able to enter.

    Canvas tents tend to have very bad ventilation.  You’ll need to open any windows and probably keep the door cracked while using the tent.

    How much ventilation do you need?  You’ll have to check with the manufacturer’s specifications.  The 3,800 Little Buddy heater, for example, requires 4 square inches of ventilation.

     

    Doesn’t Ventilating the Tent Defeat the Point of Using a Heater?

    No. Propane heaters produce a lot of heat quickly. The amount of heat lost through a small opening is less than the heat produced. You’ll still be warmer with the heater on, even with the tent cracked open for ventilation.

     

    Use a Battery-Operated CO Detector

    Even if your gas heater has a built-in CO detector, you’ll still want to bring a battery powered CO detector.  Built-in features simply aren’t reliable enough!

    CO detectors are fairly cheap and they can also detect smoke.   Get one and keep it in your tent while using a propane heater!

    The First Alert CO and smoke alarm is a reliable detector that works on batteries.  Get it here.


     

    Oxygen Depletion

    In addition to CO emissions, you’ve also got to worry about oxygen depletion with gas heaters (this is not an issue with electric heaters).  This is a completely separate issue from CO poisoning.

    The reason is that burning fuel uses up oxygen in the space.  The oxygen levels can get to dangerously low levels.

    A good gas tent heater will have oxygen depletion sensors: if oxygen levels get too low, the heater will automatically shut off.   You can also get a low-oxygen detector.  Unfortunately, these are pricier than CO detectors.  Since the risk isn’t as high as with CO poisoning, you can probably skip this detector.

    Note: Some gas tent heaters won’t work at high altitudes because of the low-oxygen shutoff switch.


     

    Electric Tent Heaters

    In most cases, an electric heater is the best way to heat a tent while camping.  They are cheaper, easier to use, and have no risk of carbon monoxide poisoning or oxygen depletion (which are concerns with tent heaters that work on combustion, like gas or propane heaters).

    But not all electric heaters can be used with campground electric hookups.  And, since electric heaters aren’t made to be used in small spaces or outdoors, they can be a fire hazard.

     

    Sizing an Electrical Heater

    Most electric heaters are designed to heat entire rooms.  They are going to be way to powerful for heating a small tent.  This is a situation where you don’t want something too powerful: the heater could dangerously overheat.

    To figure out what size electric heater you need for a tent, you’ll first need to figure out the square footage of your tent:

    Standard Tent Sizes in Square Feet:

    • 4 person tent = 55-70 sq feet
    • 6 person tent = 90-100 sq feet
    • 8 person tent = 120=130sq feet

    As a general rule, you’ll need approximately 10 watts of power for each square foot.   The equation is:

    Total wattage / 10 = square feet that can be heated

    Or

    Total square feet x 10 = wattage required

     

    So, that means a 750-watt heater would be enough to heat a 75 square foot tent.  Or a 1,500 watt heater could heat a tent up to 150 square feet.

    Tip: Look for heaters with adjustable settings.  You probably only need the low setting!


    Types of Electric Tent Heaters

    It used to be that we called portable heaters “space heaters.”  Now, there are many different types and technologies.  All electric tent heaters can be broken down into these main types:

    Ceramic Heaters (Best Choice for Tents)

    These are a newer type of convection heater.  The difference is that they have a ceramic element inside of them.  When electricity goes over the ceramic element, it is heated.  This in turn heats an aluminum baffle which blows the heated air into the tent.

    Pros:

    • Energy efficient
    • Produce a good amount of heat
    • Heat up quickly
    • Are much safer than most electric heaters
    • Ceramic element continues emitting some heat even after turned off

    Cons:

    • Tend to be a bit heavy

     


    Oil Filled Electric Radiators (Second Best Choice for Tents)

    These radiators are filled with oil.  Electricity heats the oil inside the radiator which then heats the air. They take a while to heat up but continue to emit a comfortable heat for a longer period of time.

    Choose an oil-filled radiator if you want to run your tent heater for longer periods of time, not just for quick warming up before going to bed.

    Pros:

    • Don’t dry out the air as much
    • Keep heating for a while even when turned off
    • No noise, fans, or lights

    Cons:

    • Heavy and less portable
    • Take longer to heat up
    • Energy efficient when running for longer periods

    Infrared Radiant Heaters

    Radiant heaters don’t heat the air in a space like convection heaters do.  Rather, they work by emitting heat straight out towards an object and heating the object directly.  They don’t rely on moving air, so there aren’t any annoying sounds

    In general, radiant heaters aren’t recommended for tent heating.  However, infrared heaters are a newer type of radiant heaters that could work.  They don’t get as hot (so are safer to use) but are still able to heat your body with very little energy.

    Pros:

    • Very efficient
    • Quickly warms whatever is in front of them
    • No noise
    • Doesn’t create stuffy air

    Cons:

    • Produce red light
    • Don’t heat air in the tent: must run continuously to keep you warm
    • Are safer than other types of radiant heaters

    Types of Electric Heaters NOT Recommended for Tents:

    • Fan heaters: Too loud and not very efficient, especially in a drafty tent
    • Halogen lamps: These heat up very quickly but get very hot. While quiet, they produce a lot of light. They usually aren’t allowed at campsites because of their safety issues and high energy consumption.
    • Electric blankets: An electric blanket sounds like a great thing but it won’t work as well as you think. They don’t heat up the tent, so you still freeze when changing your clothes. You have to stay curled up in the blanket to get any heat. You’re better off with a good sleeping bag and layered clothes

     

    Campground Electrical Hookups

    Unless you are running your electric heater on a portable generator of your own, you’ll need to choose a campground which provides electrical hookups. Don’t assume that you’ll be able to plug the tent heater into the campsite hookup!

    At many USA campgrounds, the electrical hookups are designed for RVs.  This means that they are 30 or 50 amp hookups.  Usually there is also a standard 15amp outlet is at the hookup, but not always.

    If the campground doesn’t have a 15 amp outlet, you can use a 30 amp male to 15 amp female adapter to plug in your heater.

    UK and EU Campers: Be warned that many campground hookups only have 5amp hookups.  This will only provide about 1.15kW of power.  You can still run a tent heater on it, but it will need to be one that uses 750watts or less.


     

    Propane Heaters

    If you are going dispersed camping or to a campground without an electric hookup, then you’ll probably using a tent heater which runs on propane gas.  Butane is also an option, but the cans of butane get used up quickly and there aren’t as many heater options.

     

    Types of Propane Heaters

    Propane heaters are either going to be convective heaters or catalytic (radiant) heaters.  There’s actually a big difference between the two.  Most people go with a convective heater like the Mr. Buddy because they are more affordable and easier to use.

     

    Convective Heaters

    Most propane tent heaters (including the Mr. Buddy heaters) work via convection.  That means they heat the air around them.  There are some benefits to this – such as if you are using a heater to heat a large tent.  However, this makes them less efficient than radiant heaters which only heat objects in front of them.

    The heat will dry out air in the tent.  While this does make the tent stuffy, at least you won’t have to deal with condensation.  It’s also great if you need to dry out wet gear.

    Convective heaters also require a flame to work.  While today’s propane heater are generally very safe, there is still always going to be a risk when you’ve got gas and flames involved.

    Pros:

    • Heats air in tent
    • Easy to use
    • More options available
    • Cheaper to buy

    Cons:

    • Creates stuffy air in tent
    • Not very efficient to run
    • Fire and CO poisoning risk

     


    Catalytic (Radiant) Heaters

    Catalytic heaters produce heat with a flameless catalytic combustion.  First a catalyst is preheated.  In this case, it’s an electric heating grid with ceramic or platinum element inside.  When the structure and gas come in contact with oxygen, it creates heat.

    Because no flame is required and the catalytic combustion takes place at relatively low temperature, catalytic heaters are inherently safer than other propane heaters.   However, because oxygen is required for the combustion process to occur, catalytic heaters won’t work at elevations above 7,000 feet.

    The heat produced by catalytic heaters is radiant. This means they will heat objects in front of them and not the air around them, so they are much more efficient.  The Olympian Wave 3 is the most popular catalytic propane heater for tents.

    Pros:

    • Produce almost no CO gas
    • Flameless and thus safer
    • Very clean burning

    Cons:

    • Require oxygen and won’t work at high altitudes
    • Produce some vapor
    • Still risk of CO poisoning
    • Heater is more expensive

     

    Sizing a Gas Tent Heater (BTU Requirements)

    The amount of heat needed to heat your tent is measured in British Thermal Units, or BTUs. To figure out your tent’s BTU requirements:

    1. Find the cubic feet of your tent by multiplying length x width x height.
    2. Determine how many degrees you’ll need to increase the temperature. For example, if it is 30F outside and you want it to be 45F inside, then the amount is 15F.
    3. BTUs required = Cubic Feet x Temperature Increase x 0.133
    4. For Celsius, use this equation: BTUs required = Cubic Feet x Temperature Increase x 0.2394

    *Avoid the urge to get a too-large gas heater for your tent. Otherwise the tent will get hot very quickly and you’ll have to turn off the heater.  Then the tent will get cold quickly, so you’ll have to turn the heater back on.  That means you’ll be constantly turning the heater on/off.


     

    How Much Propane to Bring

    A lot of larger portable gas heaters have tubes so you can connect them to a propane tank.  This is much more affordable than using small canisters of gas to fuel the heater.   Regardless of what size tanks you bring, you should still calculate how much propane you’ll need.

    • Look at how much gas the heater uses per hour.
    • Determine how many hours you will use the heater per day.
    • Multiply this by how many days you will be out.
    • Remember it’s better to be safe than sorry. You don’t want to run out of gas and end up freezing!

     

    The final word on tent heaters?

    You don’t have to be scared about using a tent heater, but you do need to be cautious.  When using a propane heater in a tent, make sure you actually read the manual and provide enough ventilation.  With electric tent heaters, make sure you are have suitable cords for outdoor use.  And, with either type, make sure that the heater won’t get knocked over and there aren’t any objects in front of it.


    Some resources for this article include:

    https://www.snowys.com.au/blog/can-you-use-a-gas-heater-in-a-tent/
    http://www.electrical101.com/extension-cords.html
    https://www.askthebuilder.com/extension-cords-size-chart/
    https://www.sylvane.com/heater-buying-guide.html

    Title image credit: “Tent camping at 15 degrees ain’t bad wit” (CC BY 2.0) by andyarthur

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    About the author /


    Diane Vukovic is an avid traveler, outdoor enthusiast and couchsurfer. She loves finding ways to explain complex topics to her 9-year old daughter and hunting beetles with her 1-year old. Follow MomGoesCamping on Facebook and Twitter @MomGoesCamping to stay in touch!

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