Cold nights with no protection except for a sleeping bag are your least favorite part of camping, which is why you’re considering buying a tent heater. Your buddy has had good experiences with one, but you’ve also read a few horror stories online. Are tent heaters really safe?
Yes, tent heaters are safe when camping if you use an electric one, as there is less risk of fire and the heater cannot produce any carbon monoxide fumes. If you must use a butane or propane tent heater, please follow the suggested safety tips found below.
Are you still a little fuzzy on the types of tent heaters? In this article, we’ll go over each kind. We’ll also recommend some of the safest heaters that money can buy. You won’t want to miss it!
What Is a Tent Heater?
There’s something so pristine and peaceful about camping in the cooler months. You can drink in the rich, colorful beauty of the autumnal foliage and appreciate firsthand the stillness of a snowy morning at sunrise. During the day, while you’re hiking, fishing, and otherwise moving, you don’t mind the cold as much. It’s once darkness falls that you start shivering. Sleeping especially is difficult.
This is precisely why tent heaters exist. A cold-weather camper’s best friend, a tent heater is handy for RVers and travel trailer owners who want to extend the duration of their usual season.
So what is a tent heater? A tent heater, at its most basic, is a heat source that can warm up your tent or enclosure so you can sleep soundly.
Tent heaters come in all shapes, sizes, and styles. If you’d rather bring a small, handheld heater, that’s one such option. You can also lug around one that’s nearly the size of a generator if you need to warm up a large space. The power source of a tent heater also varies, with three sources common. Those are butane, propane, and electricity. Let’s talk more about your tent heater options now.
Butane Tent Heaters
Butane is a liquefiable gas with no color. Since it’s easily flammable, it makes a great choice for a tent heater fuel source. The heat output of a butane heater is measurable in British thermal units or BTUs. You can buy canisters of butane that are small enough that they shouldn’t take up valuable storage space.
The clean-burning properties of butane are definitely advantageous, and when it burns, butane produces less carbon monoxide. That doesn’t mean butane is carbon monoxide-free though, so you must have a portable carbon monoxide detector at the ready.
Propane Tent Heaters
The second type of tent heater is propane, which uses liquefied petroleum gas or LPG. Like butane, propane has no color nor smell, although manufacturers will sometimes add an artificial odor for safety’s sake.
A propane tent heater will have tanks attached that you can remove when you want to refill them. You can light a match or trigger the ignition system to start burning the propane. A propane tent heater’s output is measurable in BTUs as well, with the average output around 2,500 to 5,000 BTUs an hour.
Yes, propane tent heaters release carbon monoxide too, more than burning butane. That’s why many propane-burning tent heaters feature an auto-shutoff should carbon monoxide quantities begin to dangerously accumulate in the air.
Electric Tent Heaters
The third power source for tent heaters is electricity. With no gas, you don’t have to worry about carbon monoxide fumes. Electric tent heaters are known for running more quietly compared to both butane and propane heaters, which is another noteworthy advantage. Instead of measuring heat output in BTUs, for electric heaters, you read the output in watts. Small electric heaters may run on only 500 watts and larger ones up to 1,500 watts.
There is one significant difference between electric and gas-powered tent heaters that we must discuss. The former cannot work without a power source, be that your generator or a campsite’s electrical hookup. Butane and propane heaters will run for as long as their heat source is burning, no external power required.
Can You Camp Safely with a Tent Heater?
That brings us to the question, is using a tent heater safe while camping? It can be, but there are obvious hazards. We’ll start with the most serious of these, which is the release of carbon monoxide gas.
Carbon monoxide is colorless, flavorless, and odorless. Any creatures that rely on hemoglobin to transport oxygen–you know, like us people–can suffer from carbon monoxide poisoning if the concentrations of the gas are 35 particles per million (ppm) or higher. If you have carbon monoxide poisoning, you might experience the following symptoms:
- Blurry vision
- Inability to breathe
- Slight headache
What happens is that rather than use oxygen in the red blood cells, your body replaces it with carbon monoxide. Without oxygen being sent to your organs and tissues, death can occur. Even if it doesn’t, you could experience cardiac complications and/or brain damage, the effects of which can be permanent.
If you’re in an enclosed space such as a zipped-up tent or a camper trailer, death from carbon monoxide poisoning is an even bigger risk. For that reason, burning a propane or butane tent heater overnight is very, very ill-advised. Butane may release fewer carbon monoxide fumes, but as we said before, that doesn’t mean there’s no carbon monoxide period.
Electric tent heaters are the safest option by far and one type of heater that you can reliably use overnight. However, even electric heaters can tip over if you position yours incorrectly. At that point, the tent heater becomes a fire risk. You must make sure that your heater has an auto-shutoff feature so it doesn’t burn for hours and overheat, which again makes it a fire hazard.
The Top 4 Safest Tent Heaters for Camping
Whether you’re camping by yourself or with friends or family, safety is paramount. Here are 4 of the best tent heaters for safety.
OPOLAR 1500W Ceramic Space Heater
A favorite of wintertime campers everywhere is the OPOLAR. This Amazon’s Choice electric space heater is made of durable ceramic. You get to set the thermostat, switching between one of three different modes. You can run the fan without any heat on those warmer autumn and winter days. The second mode is low heat at 1,000 watts and the third mode is high heat at 1,500 watts.
With overheat safety, the OPOLAR can power itself down when its internal parts begin warming up so a fire doesn’t start. The structure of this tent heater is such that it’s less vulnerable to tipping. Should the OPOLAR ever fall over, it will turn off immediately. The heater runs at a volume of 50 decibels so it shouldn’t disturb the slumber of even lighter sleepers.
Mr. Heater MH12B Hunting Buddy Portable Space Heater
Another very renowned tent heater is the Mr. Heater Hunting Buddy, which runs on gas. This portable space heater has a built-in oxygen depletion sensor so the heater can turn itself off before carbon monoxide fills the air. You can also take solace in the accidental tip-off feature, which will power off the heater instantly if it tips to one side.
The swivel regulator is adjustable so you can determine how powerfully the included cylinders are running at any one time. Each cylinder is 1 pound and uses liquid propane; you can dispose of the cylinders between uses. The hose and filter system of the tent heater connects to your supply of remote gas easily for quick setup on those cold, brisk evenings.
You can start your Mr. Heater by pressing the knob and then turning it. Thanks to electric ignition within the heater, there’s no need to fumble with matches when your hands are already chilly. Mr. Heater can warm spaces of 300 square feet and produces between 6,000 and 12,000 BTUs of heat per hour.
Honeywell 360-Degree Surround Heater
Also an Amazon’s Choice product is the Honeywell 360-Degree Surround Heater. Select from a digital or manual setup for this heater. The manual interface features an adjustable knob that you rotate to set the temperature as well as another knob for the heat settings. You can then switch from low to high heat.
The plastic housing of the Honeywell tent heater never warms up, nor does the handle, so you could grab and move this heater while it’s running should a situation ever call for it. The surround heater has 360 degrees of tip-over protection to power down if it tips over on any side. You can program the thermostat or set the auto-off timer so the heater runs for a few hours and then powers down on its own. The Honeywell heater will also turn itself off if it starts getting too hot internally.
Running on 1,500 watts, the 360-degree all-around heat will keep you warm no matter where in your tent or travel trailer you decide to sleep. The plug connections are soldered, as are the heating element connections within the Honeywell. Those heating element connections also feature sleeves made of tough silicone. All wiring is covered in silicone as well.
Amazon Basics 500W Ceramic Personal Mini Heater
For autumntime camping, this ceramic mini heater from Amazon Basics is a good pick. It can produce heat up to 500 watts. The heater has tip-over protection. It’s also built with ceramic coils that take seconds to begin warming up. You can choose from colors like white, neon pink, dark blue, and black.
Tent Heater Usage Tips
You just bought one of the tent heaters on the above list. Although these are some of the safest heaters around, don’t let user error reduce the integrity and safety of your heater. Make sure you follow these tips whenever operating your tent heater.
Only Sleep with an Electric Tent Heater Running
We really can’t stress enough that propane and butane tent heaters will release carbon monoxide, with more of this gas being produced the longer you run the heater. Opening a window can introduce more oxygen into your tent or travel trailer, but the last thing you want is cold air, as that’s why you’re using a tent heater in the first place.
For short-term daytime use, a gas heater is fine, but overnight, only operate an electric heater. Do know that higher-output electric heaters can be louder than you’d expect. You might want to reduce the heater wattage if you can’t sleep with a lot of background noise.
Put Your Tent Heater on Level Ground
Although many tent heaters have auto-shutoff tip-over protection, that’s a feature you don’t want to use unless you have to. To that end, where you put your heater matters. You won’t have to worry about this when camping in your RV or travel trailer, as any flat, level surface will do. When you’re pitching a tent though, choose a spot not only for its seclusion, but for how even the ground is as well.
Don’t Keep Your Heater Too Close to Where You’ll Sleep
Yes, you want optimal warmth from your tent heater, but there’s no need for it to be inches from your face. If it’s that close, then the heater is in proximity to your sleeping bag or blankets, which are flammable. Put the heater three feet or further away from you. If it’s a high-output heater, you will feel its warmth even from that distance.
Use a Carbon Monoxide Detector for Gas Tent Heaters
You have a carbon monoxide detector at home, but that won’t work when camping. Try a portable detector like this one from Sensorcon. It has a measuring range of up to 500 ppm and displays carbon monoxide levels up to 1,999 ppm. You have to wait only 20 seconds for a result, which has an accuracy rating of plus or minus 10 percent when tested in ambient conditions.
Don’t Handle the Tent Heater Immediately After Shutoff
The Honeywell tent heater we reviewed may have safe plastic housing and handles, but to err on the side of caution, when you power down your heater, give it a minute or two to cool down. Then you can touch it. Don’t pack it away until it’s fully cooled down either!
Tent heaters, especially electric ones, can be safe to use when camping. That said, you want an electric tent heater with tip-over protection, auto-shutoff against overheating, and other built-in safety features so you don’t have to stress about fire risks when you’re trying to enjoy a fun camping trip.
To upgrade your camping/backpacking experience check out our recommended backpacking gear. This is the gear that I use whenever I want to stay the night in the outdoors. Keep in mind, however, that these items are not necessarily all the highest-end items. My goal on this page is to recommend gear that is priced really well while still maintaining a high-quality standard. This is the stuff I use.