There’s no reason to ever be cold when camping in freezing weather. It won’t be as nice as camping in the summer, but you can be downright toasty with the right camping setup. You should always start off by dialing in your sleep system, but what are your options for heating up a tent? Can you use an electric space heater in a tent? Or is there a better choice for camping in cold weather?
A space heater will keep a tent warm, but you need to find a heater that’s designed to be used in a tent. You can use any electric space heater with a reliable power source, but there are other options when you can’t get electricity. That’s where propane, kerosene, candle, alcohol, and battery powered heaters come in handy.
Before you head out and purchase an electric space heater, you need to consider where you typically go camping. This post will primarily focus on electric space heaters, but I’ll go over other options as well.
Different Types Of Space Heaters To Use In A Tent
When most people picture space heaters, they think of the electric heaters they use in their home. You can use just about any electric heater in a tent, but you need to have a reliable power source. That isn’t always possible when you’re backpacking or camping in a primitive campsite.
Luckily there are lots of other options available for heating up your tent in cold weather. I go over 9 ways to heat a tent with or without electricity in detail in another post, but here’s a brief rundown of the different space heaters you can use in a tent.
- Electric Heater: An electric space heater is your best option if there’s a reliable power source nearby. Space heaters use a lot of power (1500 watts per hour), so you need to have a dedicated electrical outlet or generator. This is by far the safest way to heat a tent, but you’re limited to camping in designated campgrounds or nearby a power supply.
- Propane Heater: Propane heaters a portable, highly efficient, easy way to heat a tent. Just make sure you choose a propane heater that’s designed to be used in a tent. It needs to have carbon monoxide and oxygen sensors, tip-over protection, ventless burners, and preset heat settings. Mr Heater Buddy Heaters are the best option, but check out my post explaining how to safely use a propane heater in a tent.
- Wood Burning Stoves (In Canvas Tents): Wood burning stoves are the best way to heat a canvas tent. These are usually used by hunters since they require a heavy setup. There’s an unlimited fuel supply in the woods and all you need to do is run the exhaust vent up through the ceiling of a canvas tent.
- Alcohol Camping Heaters: Alcohol camping heaters are one of the only lightweight options for backpackers. These are small radiant heaters that go over top of your alcohol camping stove. I use a cheap Bulletshaker Heater with my alcohol stove when I’m backpacking in the winter.
- Battery Powered Heaters: Battery powered heater setups are expensive, but it’s just like using an electric space heater. Pair a low wattage cubicle heater (Honeywell Cubicle Heater) with a high capacity portable power station (Goal Zero Yeti 1000). You won’t have heat all night, but it’s great for hanging out in your tent for a few hours.
- Butane Heaters: Butane is a close alternative to propane heaters, but there’s rarely a case where they’re better than propane. They tend to be a little bit smaller and put off more heat, but you run through expensive butane canisters fast.
- Kerosene Heaters: I personally hate kerosene heaters. They’re unreliable and leave behind a nasty kerosene smell on all your gear. The only time a kerosene heater makes sense is when you’re traveling to 3rd world countries where it’s hard to find other fuel sources.
- Candle Lanterns: I have a crazy obsession with candle lantern heaters. They’re cheap, lightweight, provide lots of ambiance, and add about 10°-15°F to the temperature inside your tent. I use a UCO Candlelier Deluxe Candle Lantern that uses 3 8-hour candles (about $1 each).
- Alternative Fuel Heaters: If you can think of a fuel, there’s probably a heater that runs off it. Avoid alternative fuel heaters, because they usually run on highly flammable fuels (like gasoline or diesel) that produce carbon monoxide and can be dangerous in a tent.
Focus On Your Sleep System and Layering Clothing First!
Never rely on a space heater! Space heaters are nice for supplemental heat, but your sleep system (sleeping bag/pad), tent, and clothing provide 90% of heat. Your space heater should only be used to add a little bit of extra warmth so you’re more comfortable at night.
Find a sleeping bag that’s rated 15°F warmer than expected nighttime temperatures. A sleeping bag’s temperature rating is deceptive! The advertised rating is the lowest temperature that it’s safe to use the bag. It’s not the temperature where you will be comfortable using the bag (12°-15°F higher).
You can use a sleeping bag liner for added warmth in an underrated sleeping bag. I use a Sea To Summit Thermolite Liner that adds 25°F to my bags rating, but even a cheap Coleman liner will add 15°F to your bags temperature rating.
Most people overlook the importance of a high R-Value sleeping pad in cold weather. Your sleeping pad protects your body from the cold ground. Go with 5+ R-Value sleeping pad in the winter and 4+ R-Value pad on colder Spring/Fall nights.
You also need to develop a cold weather layering system: moisture wicking base layer, insulated middle layer, and waterproof/windproof outer shell layer. You can check out my winter camping clothes guide for more info.
Electric vs Propane Camping Heaters
There are two options most people consider for heating a tent: propane vs electric heaters. Your choice will depend on whether or not you have a reliable power source. I 0nly use an electric space heater when I’m camping at a designated campsite with a electrical service.
You need to choose a Class A site or better if you plan on using an electric tent heater. Portable generators are another option, but most campgrounds have rules banning their use during quiet hours (usually after 10pm). Most people wouldn’t want to use a generator next to their tent anyway since they’re so loud.
I love propane heaters, but you should always go with an electric heater if there’s electrical hookups available on your campsite. Electric heaters give off lots of heat, they’re safe to use, easy to run, and you can run them all night long without worrying about fuel.
Propane heaters are a great when you don’t have electricity, but most people are disappointed with their heat output. They give off a lot of heat, but tents aren’t insulated well enough to trap heat. It’s a little bit warmer inside a tent (5°-10°F), but they’re actually designed to let out heat (reduces condensation).
You can use a propane heater as supplemental heat, but they go through 1lb disposable propane cylinders fast! Dial in your sleeping bag and pad so you don’t need to run the heater all night. My Mr Heater Buddy Heater goes through a 1lb propane tank in 2-3 hours on high, 3-4 hours on medium, and 6 hours on low.
The only way to get through the night is with a 1lb to 20lb adapter so you can use a full sized propane tank. That type of setup is ridiculously heavy, so don’t plan on using a propane heater on a backpacking trip.
How To Use An Electric Space Heater In A Tent
Using an electric heater to keep your tent warm is fairly straightforward. You just need to choose a campsite with electrical service, since most places ban the use of generators during quiet hours. Run an extension cord to your tent and plug in the heater.
Most camprounds separate their campsites into Class B (aka primitive sites) and Class A/AA/AAA sites. You need to go with a Class A, AA, or AAA site if you plan on using an electric heater.
It usually costs about $5-$10 more per night to upgrade to a Class A site with 50 amp service. Class AA and AAA sites also offer electricity, but you’re paying extra for on site water/sewer. That probably won’t be available in the winter due to freezing issues.
There isn’t a single best electric tent heater, but I recommend going with a compact 1500 watt infrared space heater or ceramic heater, but almost any heater will work. Just make sure it has tip-over protection and adjustable heat settings.
I use a cheap Amazon Basics 1500 Watt Ceramic heater in my tent and it gets crazy hot with the thermostat turned up. It goes at the foot of my sleeping bag a few feet away from all my gear to avoid burning anything. Just make sure you keep wet gear outside, because it will cause condensation problems.
What About Battery Powered Tent Heaters?
There aren’t any affordable battery powered tent heaters on the market. Electric tent heaters use a lot of energy (1500+ Watts) which would require a high capacity battery. There are a handful of high capacity lithium batteries, but they’re ridiculously expensive.
If you want to go the battery powered route look into high capacity portable power stations with a low wattage cubicle heater. You need at least a 1000+ watt capacity battery and a compact cubicle heater that’s 350 watts or less. Just plan on spending a small fortune with this kind of setup.
My Honeywell Cubicle Heater, can run for about 4 hours on high (250 Watts) or 8-9 hours on low (100 Watts) with my Goal Zero Yeti 1000 Portable power station. The high setting adds 10°-15°F to my tents inside temperature which is nice for hanging around my tent for a few hours before bed.
Your sleeping bag/pad should provide all the warmth you need at night. So you shouldn’t need to run your heater all night long to keep your tent warm. The only problem with battery powered setups is you’ll need to keep your trip short or find a way to recharge the power station during the day. Solar chargers add about $600+ to the setup.
Gas Tent Heaters: Propane, Butane, and Kerosene
If there’s no electrical service on your campsite, you should probably go with a gas heater. A propane portable heater is by far the most popular choice, but some people use kerosene and butane gas heaters.
There are a lot of benefits to using a gas heater, but some heaters aren’t safe to use in a tent. Make sure you scroll down to the next section where I go over must have safety features. Here are the main advantages of using a propane tent heater.
- Lots Of Warmth At An Affordable Price: Propane Heaters offer by far the most tent warmth for your dollar. A typical propane heaters will heat over 225 square feet of tent space(that’s a big tent).
- Built In Safety Features: All propane camping heaters are designed with built in safety features. They have tip over protection, enclosed heating elements, and carbon monoxide detectors. Trace amounts of carbon monoxide gets released into the air, but it will quickly make its way out of the tent.
- Lightweight and Portable: Propane camping heaters are designed with transportation in mind. They have lightweight bodies, built in handles, and run off 1lb disposable propane tanks. They’re far too heavy for backpacking, but they’re perfect for primitive campgrounds.
Is It Safe To Use Propane Heaters: Must Have Safety Features
Yes it’s perfectly safe to use a propane heater, but you can’t choose any heater. Carbon monoxide is by far the biggest concern, but here’s a list of must have safety features.
- Ventless Efficient Burner (carbon monoxide): All propane heaters produce carbon monoxide, but some models are better than others. Mr Heater uses a highly efficient burner that reaches nearly complete combustion so it only releases trace amounts of carbon monoxide well within the safety range. Pair that with the fact that tents are well ventilated, plus the carbon monoxide sensor, and there’s very little risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Carbon Monoxide Sensor: The Mr Heater has a carbon monoxide sensor so it will automatically shutoff if you reach unsafe carbon monoxide levels. I recommend shutting off your propane heater before bed and you may want to carry a backup carbon monoxide detector just in case.
- Oxygen Depletion Sensor: This doesn’t apply in a tent since they’re not airtight, but there’s also an oxygen depletion sensor. The only time this would be useful is if you’re using the heater in a small airtight space like a car or camper van.
- Tip-Over Protection: The heater will automatically shutoff if you knock it over. I’ve knocked my heater over a few times and never had any issues inside my tent. It shuts off automatically and the grill guard keeps the heating element away from the tent floor. I do use my heater on a baking sheet just in case, but I don’t know if that’s necessary.
- Safety Guard: There needs to be a metal screen over the heating element to protect your body/gear from the heating element.
- No Risk Of Overheating With 3 Heat Settings: There are 3 heat settings to control how much heat will come out of the heater. The low setting will run for 5+ hours, medium 3+ hours, and high 2+ hours. I recommend using the medium or high setting when in a tent, because the low doesn’t give off much heat.
- Push Ignition: You never use a lighter or any type of flame to heat up this propane heater. It has Piezo ignition that starts reliably every time. I’ve been using my Buddy Heaters for 20+ years and never had any problems starting them.
Mr Heater Propane Heaters
There aren’t that many options for propane tent heaters. Mr Heater’s Buddy Lineup are the only propane gas powered heaters that are safe to use in a tent (that I know of). They have highly efficient heating elements that burn off most of the carbon monoxide, carbon monoxide and oxygen sensors, tip-over protection, and a safety guard over the heating element.
I use the midsized 9,000 BTU Buddy Heater, but they have a larger 18,000 BTU Big Buddy. The 11,000 BTU Buddy Flex Heater is a newer offering with an omnidirectional heater if there’s multiple people in your tent.
They all put out a lot of heat, so you can’t go wrong with any of these heaters. Just understand that the Big Buddy Heater will burn through twice as much fuel as the smaller Buddy Heater. The lowest temperature setting is equivalent to the highest setting on the smaller heater so you’ll burn through a 1lb propane tank in 2-3 hours on low.
Buy A 1lb to 20lb Propane Tank Adapter
There are two major downsides to using a propane heater. They’re far too heavy to take backpacking and you run through a crazy amount of fuel. My Mr Heater Buddy Heater goes through a 1lb propane tank in 2-3 hours on high, 3-4 hours on medium, and 6 hours on low.
You can’t around the weight/portability concerns, but I use a full sized propane tank with my heater. All you need is a 1lb to 20lb propane tank adapter (I like Gaspro). You can run the heater on high for 2-3 days straight with a 20lb propane tank.
Butane and Kerosene Heaters
Butane and kerosene tent heaters fall into the niche user category. Consider a butane heater if you need a lightweight option, and kerosene heaters are good for 3rd world countries where it’s hard to find propane/butane.
Butane is the closest alternative to propane, but it has a few advantages. The tanks come in a variety of sizes so you’re not limited to 1lb propane tanks. It also burns slightly hotter than propane, but butanes unreliable in sub-zero freezing temperatures.
Kerosone is another option, but it’s a dirty fuel. Your fuel lines will clog up at the worst possible time and it will leave a nasty smell on everything. The only time where it makes sense to use a propane heater is when you’re camping in 3rd world countries. It can be hard to find 1lb propane tanks and butane canisters, but you can find kerosene anywhere.
How many BTUs should I look for in a gas tent heater?
Go with a heater that’s a minumum of 9,000 BTUs. That’s enough heat to make a major temperature difference inside your tent without burning through a ton of fuel.
During winter camp temperatures of 20 °F and over choose a heating system of 2,500 – 5,000 BTUs. Calculating BTUs is based on the following equation: tent volume length – width – height x temperature difference / current external air temperature / desired interior temperature.
Alcohol Space Heaters
There aren’t a lot of heater options when you’re backpacking into the backcountry. Electric heaters are obviously out and propane heaters are far too heavy to carry in your pack. Choose either a candle lantern or alcohol heater if you plan on backpacking.
Alcohol camping heaters are by far the lightest option for backcountry camping. This is a great choice if you’re already carrying an alcohol camping stove. It slides right over your stove and puts out a surprising amount of heat.
I use a cheap Bulletshaker Mini Heater with my REDCAMP alcohol stove. Just toss it on your stove after dinner and let it go to work. It will heat up to about 700°F in 20 minutes so make sure you keep it in a safe space away from all your gear.
You can get about an hour out of the 100ml fuel canister, but you can also use it with Sterno canisters which have a 2hour burn time.
Candle lanterns aren’t viewed as a typical camping heater, but they will heat up your tent. I would compare it to a tiny 200 watt heater. It’s enough supplemental heat to increase the temperature by about 10°F.
When you pair it with the 5°-10°F temperature increase inside a tent that can make a huge difference. I can wear a t-shirt in my tent on a 45°F night when I’m using a candle lantern. Plus it’s hard to beat the ambiance of a burning candle.
I have a UCO Candlelier Deluxe Candle Lantern that uses 3x 8 hour candles ($1 each). I’ll light it up for 2-3 hours of supplemental heat while I’m hanging out in my tent and I can use the same candles all weekend long. I wouldn’t go to sleep with a candle lantern burning, but it is a sealed lantern so it shouldn’t terribly dangerous.