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Are Camping Heaters Safe? (The Truth)

There are many things to consider when deciding how to keep your tent warm on those frosty nights, the biggest factor is the type of camping you’ll be doing. From thru hikes to car camping to mountaineering to overlanding, you need to be able to find a safe camping heater solution for your trip.

Camping heaters are generally safe if you follow a few common-sense safety rules. However, you will need to research to decide which heating option will work best for you. Understanding the different types of camping heaters and how they work will help you stay warm safely.

There are just as many heaters on the market as there are camping styles, and each has its own set of parameters. It’s important to understand the various types of heaters and how to use them safely. Below, we go into detail on these many options and safety measures you should take.

Which Heaters Are Safe To Use In A Tent?

Heaters that are safe to use in a tent are those specifically designed for camping. There are a multitude of heaters available that are safe for tents and areas around the campsite. It is important that you buy a heater specific to camping from a reputable source.

Tent heaters generally come with distinct safety features that you might not find on heaters designed for home use. You should also have a basic understanding of the different options and fuel types that are available for camping heaters. Deciding between liquid gas, propane, kerosene, or diesel can be overwhelming if you don’t understand the characteristics of each one.

Matching your camping style with the most appropriate type of heater will narrow down your choices, making the selection process much easier. While all these options are considered safe for tent use, using any one of them inappropriately could result in disaster.

It’s important to know that any open flame will produce carbon monoxide. Thus, whenever using a heater that emits carbon monoxide, it’s equally important to have a carbon monoxide monitoring device as an additional safety feature.

Kerosene Heaters

Kerosene heaters operate via a wick within a burning apparatus mounted over a kerosene-filled tank that in turn, produces an open flame. Kerosene heaters are an ideal choice for larger tents because they release more heat.

Using a kerosene heater in a smaller tent poses a greater risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. It’s also important to note that open flame heaters require proper ventilation to prevent a build-up of these toxic fumes.

Campers should be aware that some kerosene distributors will add dye to their kerosene to make it burn differently. This not only creates more impurities, but it also produces more fumes, increasing the overall risk of carbon monoxide poisoning. Always purchase 1-K kerosene, which is the purest form and designed for indoor use, making it your safest option.

Diesel Heaters

Diesel heaters with heat exchangers are an extremely safe and popular way to heat small, enclosed spaces. However, depending on the type of camping you do, they’re not always the ideal choice. They’re particularly popular with overlanders who use this method to heat their rooftop tents.

While these heaters could also be used by car campers, they’re not a viable option for backpackers or mountaineers. Not only are the heaters too big to pack in a small space, but there are also extra parts like ductwork that must be accounted for.

A diesel heater works by pulling cold air from outside into a combustion chamber and sending it through a heat exchanger to release heat. The exhaust is generally set up on the outside of your tent, making this option exceptionally safe in terms of carbon monoxide. However, since it runs on diesel fuel it can get quite expensive, especially in today’s market.

Propane Heaters

Propane heaters are the most common form of camping heaters, but still may not be ideal for backpackers due to their weight. They work by simply attaching a propane bottle directly to a heating element. When the gas is ignited, the flame burns over ceramic burner tiles and the heating surface directs radiant heat outward.

As with any open flame, there are always risks involved. Since combustion requires oxygen, just as with kerosene, it’s important that your tent allows for adequate ventilation to prevent suffocation. However, these heaters generally have tip-over and low-oxygen safety shutoffs.

Electric Heaters

If you’re a convenience camper that enjoys designated campsites, then electric heaters are the easiest and most convenient option. Simply plug them in and turn them on just like you would in your home. Whether they’re ceramic, radiator, or halogen, all are capable of easily maintaining temperature control on your next outdoor adventure. 

While electric heaters aren’t specifically designed with camping in mind, most modern-day electric heaters come with sufficient safety features that prevent any substantial risk. Look for heaters that have cool-touch casings, and safety shut-offs for overheating and tip-overs. Oscillating heaters are more efficient because they evenly disperse heat throughout your tent.

However, even electric heaters can become unsafe if they are left on too long or if they accidentally get knocked over. There’s always a risk for overheating, so one that has an adjustable thermostat would provide a bit more safety. Electrical heaters can also be of particular concern anytime live electrical wiring is exposed to water.

Candle Heaters

Many backpackers prefer candle heaters because of their small size and light weight. These nifty devices work very much like terracotta heaters, be sure not to forget to pack your candles. They don’t produce an immense amount of heat but can take the chill off. Remember heat rises, though, so these heaters are better left closer to the ground than hung at the top of your tent.

One hack that many campers use is to hang a small, lightweight chain from the tent roof that extends almost to the floor. Then attach the candle heater to the chain. Overtime, the heat from the candles will warm the chain, which in turn will also radiate heat into your tent.

This poses some additional risks, so use at your own discretion. You must be super careful and make sure that you don’t burn yourself on the chain. Candle heaters are designed to provide heat without compromising your health, making them one of the safer ways to provide warmth on those chilly nights.

Woodburning Camp Stoves

Although not the most popular, you can even get a woodburning stove for your tent. These are safest with heavy-duty canvas tents. Depending on your camping needs, there are a variety of manufacturers that make collapsible woodburning stoves for the purpose oftemperature control.

They come anywhere from small, pocket-size versions to large, full-size stoves. Small, pocket-sized stoves can still be used with nylon/polyester tents, but you must exercise caution because you don’t have the ability to regulate your flame with the turn of a knob.

The biggest risk would be allowing your flame to get too big. However, using sound judgement, it should not be difficult to mitigate the risk. One of the first things to do is make sure you have a solid, non-flammable barrier between the stove and the tent floor.

Summary

Two of the safest heaters include the diesel heater and the candle heater because they significantly reduce any risks for carbon monoxide poisoning. By ensuring that your heater is specifically designed for tent usage and applying a few precautionary measures, each of these heaters is safe to use in a camping tent.

Are Camping Gas Heaters Safe?

In general, camping gas heaters are just as safe in a tent as electrical heaters are in the home. Applying a few safety rules will keep you out of harm’s way. Anything that exposes a flame comes with risks.

This is why most people question the safety of camping heaters to begin with. All things are capable of catching fire if they get too hot, and most campers know that tents are highly flammable.

However, just like having a wood-burning stove in your home, there are general dos and don’ts to ensure overall safety. When deciding where to place your camping heater, make sure it’s in a position where it will not be easily knocked over. It’s also a good idea to practice situational awareness and position yourself in such a way that you are not at risk for serious burns.

Additional actions that can be taken to increase safety include minimizing the length of time your heater runs without a break. When heaters run non-stop, they tend to overheat becoming more of a fire hazard. As with any open flame, they should never be left unattended.

Tent Heaters And Carbon Monoxide

The biggest threat of tent heaters is their open flame that could potentially cause carbon monoxide poisoning. Any flame requires oxygen to burn, and as it burns it releases carbon monoxide, which is a poisonous gas. Carbon monoxide is colorless, odorless, and tasteless, which is why it’s so important to have a carbon monoxide monitoring device when you’re using a heater in a closed space.

If too much carbon monoxide builds up inside your tent, it can cause dizziness, headaches, nausea and vomiting, shortness of breath, blurred vision, and confusion. In extreme circumstances, it can cause serious tissue damage and even death.

While all of this might sound scary, it’s no different than having a fireplace in your home. You just need to exercise caution and make sure that you have proper ventilation. Carbon monoxide poisoning is only a serious issue when you don’t have an adequate oxygen supply.

As flames consume oxygen and the oxygen is not replaced, suffocation and asphyxiation can occur. Therefore, it’s imperative to always make sure that your tent is well-ventilatedto decrease your exposure to these poisonous gases. Anytime you’re running a heater with an open flame, make sure your windows, doors, and/or vents remain open to some degree.

As long as you have proper airflow, your oxygen is being replaced. So anytime you’re running a heater with an open flame, it’s necessary to make sure your windows, doors, and/or vents remain open to some degree.

Electric vs Gas Heaters For Camping

Electric heaters are only a viable option for car-campers that have access to electricity or those that have a generator, which makes them useless for most campers. However, the major advantage of electric heaters is that you don’t have to worry about carbon monoxide poisoning. This requires less ventilation, which means less heat escaping.

However, they do pose a safety and fire hazard if they get knocked over. Newer models typically have a safety feature with an automatic shutoff to minimize these risks, but older models are different. Electric heaters also consume a lot of power so depending on your generator set-up, this could be a problem.

If you’re using an electric heater, chances are you’re going to need an extension cord to reach your power source. Anytime you leave your plugs exposed to the elements overnight, there’s a slight risk involved, particularly if it rains. This can become a fire hazard and pose a risk for igniting nearby objects in the environment.

Gas heaters are very portable and more versatile.You can take them practically anywhere. Gas heat also tends to run hotter than electric heat, thereby warming both you and your tent faster. Just like any flame, however, they can easily cause fires. Placing anything in the vicinity of your heater becomes a fire hazard.

How To Safely Use A Heater In A Tent

First, make sure that your heater is placed on level ground. This will require a little bit of forethought when selecting your campsite. If your heater falls over it can easily become a fire hazard, especially if you’re using a liquid fuel that could spill out. Not only can this be hazardous to your health, but it can also ruin all your hard-earned camping gear.

It’s also a good idea when selecting your tent spot to evaluate the surrounding area and ensure adequate distance from flammable objects within the environment. When camping with younger children, it’s imperative they aren’t playing in the vicinity of your heater in such a way that they could get burned or knock the heater over.

Keep An Eye On Your Heater

Tent heaters are designed to be monitored during their use. Running your heater while sleeping significantly decreases its safety. Almost all accidental fires, injuries, and deaths occur when the victims are asleep. While the idea of sleeping through the night without a heater might seem undesirable, there are many other things you can do to preserve warmth without jeopardizing your life.

It’s also important to understand that your camping heaters don’t provide endless fuel, which is especially important for backpackers. Most camping heaters are not designed to run for more than 8 hours, so you need to be mindful of the amount of fuel you’re burning throughout your camping trip. Otherwise, you might find yourself without any heat at all.

Maintain Adequate Ventilation

Under all circumstances, always make certain that your tent is well ventilated to mitigate the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning. Provide adequate ventilation anytime there is an open flame present.

It’s equally important to make sure that you have your heater serviced on a routine basis to guarantee that it continues to function properly. Preventative maintenance not only goes a long way to ensure that you have adequate heat for your next adventure, but it will also help you avoid any unnecessary accidents.

Alternative Ways To Keep Your Tent Warm

Ground Barrier

There are plenty of other things you can do to help keep your tent warm, especially once you turn your heater off before going to bed at night. One of the most important things you can do is to make sure you have a good ground barrier so that you’re not losing heat to the ground.

In addition to having a footprint, having a sleeping pad or other barrier between you and your tent floor will help preserve your body heat. It’s also in your best interest to invest in good camping gear, which is probably more crucial for those that continue camping during the colder months. An example could be a mummy-style sleeping bag that will keep your body heat throughout the night.

A Good Tent

Choosing a good, insulated four-season tent is your best bet to keeping your tent warm at night as they’re designed to withstand colder temperatures and maintain body heat. It’s important to remember that four-season tents generally come with fewer windows and less ventilation, so it’s vital to exercise additional caution when using any kind of gas heater in conjunction with a four-season tent.

Wear The Right Clothes

When sleeping, you should choose moisture-wicking clothing to keep your skin dry. Your body is constantly perspiring whether you realize it or not. Wearing cotton clothing will absorb your perspiration giving you that damp feeling, which will make you colder.

Electric Blankets

If you have electricity or a generator, you can use a 12-volt or electric blanket to sustain you through the night. Some campers will pour boiling water into a thermos and tuck that into their sleeping bag at night, while others will use hand and feet warmers. Wearing a winter stocking cap can help prevent heat loss through the head, especially if you don’t have a mummy-style bag.

Hot Rocks

If you can start a fire, you can heat some rocks, then wrap them in a towel and place them in your tent to emit a little heat throughout the night. Make sure you have a solid, non-flammable barrier between the rocks and the tent floor.

Emergency Bivvies 

Emergency bivvies are also an option and don’t have to be reserved for emergencies. These devices are specifically designed to preserve your body heat and prevent hypothermia. Not only do they prevent drafts, but they are also designed to heat your sleeping system by 4 to 8 degrees, which can be most welcoming on cold nights.

Final Thoughts

Camping heaters are safe when used properly and monitored when in use. Understanding fire hazards and providing adequate ventilation to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning, along with other safety measures, will ensure that you stay safe while keeping warm.