Whether you’re camping in the shoulder seasons (spring or fall), braving winter’s chill, or even just experiencing below normal temperatures in the summer, having an extra heat source in your tent can make all the difference. But is it safe to use a heater in a tent?
Are heaters really safe to use in a tent?
Surprisingly, yes, there are several different types of portable heaters you can get—many that are specifically made for camping—that can be safely used in a tent. The level of safety, however, depends on a few different factors—like the size of your tent and the heater’s built-in automatic safety features. But in general, as long as you’re using a reliable brand and following all the manufacturer’s instructions, it’s safe to use a heater in a tent.
Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule. If you’re camping in extremely dry conditions, for example, you might want to reconsider using a heater in your tent. The same goes for if you’re camping at high altitudes, where the air is thinner and drier. In these cases, it’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid using a heater in your tent altogether.
Types of portable heaters
Tent heaters come in two main varieties: propane and electric.
Propane heaters are generally more versatile, as they can be used both inside and outside of your tent. They’re also more powerful, making them better suited for larger tents and colder temperatures.
Electric heaters, on the other hand, need to be plugged into an outlet, which makes them a lot more inconvenient to use if you don’t bring along a portable generator. They also typically have a lower wattage and aren’t as effective at heating up a larger space, but they’re generally safer to use.
In most cases, when you’re camping, convenience is a big factor. Given that propane heaters are far more convenient than electric heaters, they’re generally the better option.
How propane heaters work
Propane heaters work by using a small, portable propane tank to power the heater. The tank is connected to the heater via a flexible hose, and when you turn on the heater, the propane is burned to create heat.
There are also different types of propane heaters you can get:
Radiant propane heaters, for example, use a reflector to direct the heat in a specific direction. This is great if you want to target a specific area, like your feet or your lap.
Convection propane heaters, on the other hand, work by circulating the hot air around the tent using a fan. This is ideal if you want to evenly heat up the entire space.
In general, radiant propane heaters are more efficient, as they don’t use as much propane to produce the same amount of heat. Convection heaters are better at evenly distributing the heat, however, which is why they’re often used in larger tents.
How much heat does a propane heater create?
The amount of heat a propane heater creates depends on its BTU rating. BTU stands for “British Thermal Units” and is a measurement of the amount of heat required to raise or lower one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit.
As a general rule, the higher the BTU rating, the more heat the heater will produce. For example, a heater with a BTU rating of 10,000 will produce more heat than a heater with a BTU rating of 5,000.
When choosing a propane heater for your tent, it’s important to select one that’s appropriately sized for the space. A heater that’s too powerful, for example, can quickly overheat the tent, which can be dangerous.
A good rule of thumb is to choose a heater with a BTU rating of about 40 to 60 BTUs per square foot of tent space. So, if you’re camping in a 10×10-foot tent, for example, you’ll want to choose a heater with a BTU rating of around 4,000 to 6,000.
Be sure to check the manufacturer’s instructions for more specific recommendations on sizing your heater.
What to look for in a propane heater
When choosing a propane heater, there are a few things you’ll want to keep in mind. Here are some of the most important features to look for:
CSA and/or ANSI certification. These are safety certifications from the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) or the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) that indicate the heater has been through standardized testing and is safe to use.
An automatic shut-off feature. This is an automatic shut-off valve that will turn the gas off if the flame goes out. This is a critical safety feature that will help prevent fires.
A low-oxygen sensor (ODS). This will shut off the gas if the oxygen level in the tent drops below a certain level.
A tip-over switch. This will shut off the gas if the heater is accidentally tipped over.
3 popular portable propane heaters to check out
There are a few different propane heaters on the market that are popular among campers, but here are a couple of our favourites (all of which are use radiant heating methods):
The Mr. Heater Portable Little Buddy propane heater is a great option if you’re looking for a compact and lightweight heater. It has a 3,800 BTU rating and heats spaces up to 95 square feet, making it deal for a smaller tent. The heater connects to a 1-pound disposable propane cylinder and can be started by pressing and holding the ignition button.
If you’re looking for a bit more power, the Mr. Heater Portable Buddy propane heater is the next size up to the Little Buddy with a rating of 4,000 to 9,000 BTUs. This one heats spaces up to 225 square feet. Like the Little Buddy, this one also connects to a 1-pound disposable propane cylinder and can be started by rotating the ignition knob and pushing down on it.
Lastly, if you want to invest in a heater that can heat up larger spaces, you may want to consider the Mr. Heater Portable Big Buddy propane heater, which comes with a 4,000 to 18,000 BTU rating—meaning that it can heat spaces up to 450 square feet. It connects to two 1-pound disposable propane cylinders and can be lit by pushing and rotating the ignition knob.
All of the above heaters are CSA/ANSI certified and come with built-in safety features like accidental tip-over safety shut-off and automatic low oxygen shut-off (ODS).
Avoid buying second-hand heaters
It may be tempting to look for used heaters in online marketplaces or local garage sales, but it’s generally not a good idea to buy second-hand heaters. You just never know whether heater has been properly maintained or if it’s up to current safety standards.
It’s always best to buy a new, certified heater from a reputable dealer. This way, you can be sure that the heater is safe to use and that it will function properly.
When using a heater in a tent isn’t safe
It’s worth mentioning that no heater is 100% safe. Even the newest, certified, and most technologically advanced propane heaters come with some inherent risks. Here are some of the biggest dangers to be aware of when using a propane heater in your tent:
Carbon monoxide. All gas-powered heaters, including propane heaters, produce carbon monoxide (CO)—a colourless and odourless gas that can be deadly if inhaled in high concentrations. A propane heater with an ODS sensor will shut off the gas flow if the oxygen level in the tent drops too low, but even this isn’t necessarily a foolproof safety measure.
Fire risk. There’s always a risk of fire when using any type of gas-powered heater. This risk is heightened when you set up your heater in a confined space like a tent where it could come into contact with flammable material like clothing, sleeping bags, or even the side of the tent. This is where the automatic tip-over/shut-off feature becomes extremely important.
Explosion risk. Propane is a highly flammable gas, so there’s always a risk of explosion when using a propane heater. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions carefully when setting up and using your heater to minimize this risk.
Damage to gear. The radiant heat emitted by a propane heater can potentially melt or burn clothing and gear—even if they’re not in direct contact with the heater. This is why it’s important to keep your gear at least a couple of feet away from the heater.
Burns. Propane heaters get extremely hot, so there’s always a risk of burns if you come into contact with the heater itself or its exhaust fumes. Be extra careful when handling and using your propane heater to avoid this.
How to safely use a heater in a tent
Although there are risks associated with using a propane heater in a tent, you can still enjoy the warmth and comfort of a heater in your tent as long as you take some basic safety precautions. Here are a few tips to keep in mind:
Read the manufacturer’s instructions. No shortcuts with this. You need to properly understand how the heater works and what you need to do to operate it safely.
Match your heater’s BTU rating to the size of your tent. A heater that’s too powerful for your tent heightens your risk of problems. On the other hand, a heater that’s not powerful enough won’t do much to heat up your tent.
Make sure your tent has good ventilation. It’s always a good idea to open any air flaps or unzip any windows or doors when using a heater in your tent. This is important for two reasons. First, it will help prevent the build-up of carbon monoxide. Second, good ventilation will help the heater operate more efficiently.
Set the heater up on a heat-resistant elevated surface. A small, sturdy table would work well. This will help prevent anyone from knocking it over while stepping around in the tent.
Use a fire-resistant mat. Place the mat under the heater to further protect against fires.
Mind your tent walls. The radiant heat emitted by a propane heater can potentially damage the walls of your tent. Be sure to keep the heater at least a couple of feet away from any tent walls.
Run it on a low setting as often as possible. Not only will this help conserve fuel, but it will also minimize the risk of problems like carbon monoxide build-up or fires.
Keep clothing and gear away from the heater. This includes anything else that could potentially melt or catch fire. A good rule of thumb is to keep anything that’s not heat-resistant at least two to three feet away from the heater.
Bring a carbon monoxide detector. This is a good idea even for ODS heaters. It can help give you peace of mind and serve as an early warning system in case of problems.
Don’t leave the heater unattended. This is just common sense. If you’re not going to be in the tent for a while, make sure to turn off the heater before you leave.
Inspect your heater regularly for damage and leaks. If you notice any damage, do not use the heater and contact the manufacturer.
Propane heater FAQs
How long will a 1-pound propane cylinder heat my tent?
This really depends on the heater you’re using and the heating setting, but in general, a 1-pound propane cylinder will typically heat a small tent for about four to five hours on the low setting and for maybe about two hours on the high setting. If you plan on using your heater frequently and/or on its high setting, you’ll need to bring more propane.
How can I tell if my heater is leaking propane?
If you notice a strong smell of propane, that’s a good indication that there’s a leak. You can also check for bubbles in the tubing that connects the propane tank to the heater. If you see any bubbles, that’s an indication of a gas leak.
Can I leave a heater on in the tent overnight?
It’s not recommended to leave a heater on overnight, even if you’re planning on sleeping in the tent. The risks of carbon monoxide poisoning and fires are just too high. If you need to heat the tent overnight, it’s best to leave it on for 30 minutes to an hour or so before you plan on going to bed to help warm up the space, then shut it off before you go to sleep.
What’s the best way to store my propane heater when I’m not using it?
When you’re not using your propane heater, be sure to disconnect the propane tank and store the heater in a cool, dry place. If you plan on storing it for an extended period of time, it’s a good idea to cover it to protect it from dust and debris.
What’s the best tent to use with a propane heater?
For the best results, use a tent that’s specifically designed for cold weather camping or mountaineering. These tents typically have thicker walls and more insulation to help keep the heat in. If you don’t have a cold weather tent, you can still use a regular tent, but you’ll need to be extra careful with ventilation to avoid problems like carbon monoxide poisoning.
What are some alternatives to using a heater?
If you’re not comfortable using a heater in your tent, there are other ways to keep warm inside your tent. You can try a portable heated blanket or sleeping bag, or you can invest in a tent stove. Tent stoves are designed for using in canvas tents and are extremely popular among those of us who like winter camping in very cold temperatures (think 30°F/-1°C or below). You might also want to check out our guide to keeping your feet warm in your sleeping bag.
We hope this article has helped clear up some of the confusion about using propane heaters in tents. If you have any additional questions, feel free to contact us or leave a comment below. And remember, always use caution when using any type of heater in your tent and never leave it unattended. Stay safe and happy camping!
Ross is an experienced backcountry canoe tripper and winter camper from Ontario, Canada. He loves looking at maps, planning new routes, sport fishing, and developing his nature photography skills. He’s also certified in Whitewater Rescue (WWR) I & II and Wilderness First Aid (WFA).