Heaters in a Tent: What Is Safe and What Is Deadly


Brr…it’s cold! Is it worth camping in your tent when it’s so cold? I admit I was surprised that it’s possible to use propane and other fuels to heat your tent. The first question I had was: is that safe? I decided to do some research on the subject and find out which heaters are safe to use in a tent (if any).

Are heaters safe to use in a tent? Although never completely without risk, using a heater in a tent is safest when you choose an electric heater that has the right safety features, or a catalytic heater with the CSA 4.89 certification. Besides the right heater, it’s very important your heater placement is far enough away from the sides of the tent and from clothing or bedding. Lastly, only using the heater when awake is a wise safety precaution.

Which Heaters Are Safe to Use in a Tent?

There are some heaters that are safer than others, but always remember that no heater comes without risks.

You first have to decide between electric vs. gas heaters.

Electric vs. Gas Heaters

Both electric and gas heaters have distinct advantages and disadvantages. Let’s take a look at a few.

Pros of Electric Heaters:

  • Consumes almost no oxygen
  • Does not require purchasing propane or other fuel tanks
  • Does not produce carbon monoxide

Cons of Electric Heaters:

  • Need an electrical outlet: This narrows many campsite options. You will need a site with an outlet.
  • Need to use an extension cord: Some tents have a port specifically for an extension cord, while many do not. This means you’ll have to figure out a way (probably in the tent door zipper trail) to get an extension cord through your tent.
  • Energy consumption: Electric heaters use a LOT of power, and your campsite, even if it has an electric outlet might not support the electric draw necessary to power the heater. For example, a 1500W heater will draw 12.5 amps, which shouldn’t be a problem for a 30 amp outlet.
  • Any source of heat is a fire hazard: The biggest risk for an electric heater is melting or igniting nearby objects
  • A tipped electric heater could light your tent on fire. Many electric heaters have the safety feature of turning off if tipped.

Pros of Gas Heaters:

  • Portable: You can use a gas heater anywhere, electricity or no, as long as you can carry the heater and the gas.
  • Hot: Gas has a lot of energy and will burn very hot and can warm up a small space quickly

Cons of Gas Heaters

  • Risk of carbon monoxide: Gas heaters vary in their ability to burn without creating carbon monoxide, some gas heaters are known to create deadly amounts of carbon monoxide.
  • Risk of oxygen depletion: If you’re using a gas heater in the open, then this isn’t a problem. But in an enclosed space, it could be very dangerous. Some gas heaters (but not all) come with an ODS (oxygen depletion sensor) for this very reason
  • Any source of heat is a fire hazard: Just like electric heaters, nearby objects are at risk for ignition.
  • Gas heaters can tip: Just like electric heaters, many gas heaters have a safety tipping shutoff feature.

From a safety perspective, electric heaters are definitely safer, albeit less convenient than a portable gas heater.

From my research, however, if you are using gas, catalytic (also called radiant) heaters are the safest type of heaters to use in a tent. In fact, we did some more in-depth research on catalytic heaters and how to use them and put all that information here.

There’s more to it, though. Let’s take a look at some important examples.

Gas Heaters That Are CSA 4.98 Certified

The Canadian Standards Association (CSA) International created the 4.98 certification which is specifically for gas-powered heaters. A CSA 4.98 certified heater requires an Oxygen Depletion Sensor (ODS) and will shut off when the Oxygen is depleted to dangerous levels. It also means the carbon monoxide levels can’t be too high when oxygen is low. (source #1)

TL;DR

If you are going to be using your heater indoors or inTents, ensure the heater abides by the CSA 4.98 (or stricter) certification. Other Heaters are not designed to shut off if the oxygen is too low, and can run even when Carbon Monoxide levels are high enough to harm humans.

I wanted to make sure you didn’t miss this part. Make sure your indoor heater is abides by the CSA 4.98 certification (check the owners manual).

Catalytic/Radiant Heaters

So, above I said that the safest gas heaters to use are the catalytic (also called radiant) heaters does this mean every catalytic heater is safe to use?

No! *insert dramatic bom bom bom music here*

I said the safest type. It turns out there is more to the story here.

Several catalytic heaters are deadly. In fact, this study (source #1) found that many radiant heaters will create enough carbon monoxide and deplete enough oxygen to fatal levels.

The key is the CSA 4.98 certification. Make sure that your catalytic heater abides by this certification, and that will clear up a lot of potential problems you may face.

A couple *must* features to look for in a catalytic heater are:

  • ODS, or oxygen depletion sensor (in fact, all CSA 4.98 abiding heaters will have this feature). This feature will shut off the heater if oxygen levels are too low to be safe. The catalytic process is depleting the oxygen, so this is a must.
  • Tip-detection–Okay, I’m not sure what heater manufacturers call this… but the feature that will turn off a heater that tips over. This is an absolute must if you are planning to use a heater in your tent

Another device you might consider is a battery operated carbon monoxide detector. It may seem excessive, but you can get a sensor relatively inexpensively. This one from First Alert on Amazon uses 9-volt batteries.

Always, always, always, always, always make sure you have enough ventilation when using any gas heater. I’d argue that any ventilation options you have you should take them. Make sure you guy out the tent fly as much as possible to make sure that all windows are unobstructed.

Electric Heaters in Your Tent

Even though you may not get points for roughing it, having a simple electric space heater can make your tent really cozy. There are a few requirements, though.

Just like any heater, you have to make sure that you have enough space between the heater and everything else. Although 4 feet should be enough space, follow the guidelines in your space heater’s manual to make sure you have the space need. This really can’t be understated. It’s so easy for clothes and things to move around while you’re sleeping. If something covers the grill of the space heater, you could be putting yourself in danger.

Electricity and water shouldn’t mix. If it helps, just think of electricity like a cat, and you’ll be fine. If it’s raining outside, then water is going to be around, and since your cord will be running outside your tent, you are opening yourself up to some risks. If you plan to use an electric heater in humid locations you might consider a heater that is made for bathrooms and other humid locations. I’d personally not even try to use a heater when it’s raining, though–something about that situation makes me feel uncomfortable.

Look for automatic shutoff tip detectors–my mission is to call this feature something different every time I talk about it in this article. It’s a small safety feature that could make a big difference.

Look for a space heater with a timer–many space heaters actually will shut off after an hour of use. I’d consider this an ideal feature because sleeping with an unsupervised heater has more risk.

Types of Electric Heaters

Fan Blown Heaters: These heaters are the most recognizable space heaters–some metal has electricity passed through, creating a hot heating element. Air is then blown across the heating element towards the front of the space heater with a fan. The heating element can get very hot, and nearby objects are at risk of igniting.

Very common fan-blown electric heater

Halogen Heaters: These heaters will warm anything directly in front of them, but they do not warm the air (they are not fan blown), so their magic ends as soon as you turn them off. Although the sides will remain cool, the front of the heater can get very hot (as is true for many heaters), making them a safety hazard. You could mitigate some risk I suppose if you were able to suspend these in a way that was away from roof, walls, and floor.

Infrared Heaters: These heaters can work in a vacuum! They work by radiation. These heaters are generally safe to use, but be careful about looking at the light as our eyes can be sensitive to this type of radiation. Another benefit to infrared heaters is that they do not get as hot to the touch as other electric heaters.

Dyson Pure Hot Cool fans: Dyson space heaters have an advantage over many other types of heaters in that the heater itself doesn’t get dangerously hot, but instead the heat is generated internal to the unit. This is an awesome feature in a tent because a coat or a piece of the tent touching hot coils is always a risk in certain space heaters. You still need to keep combustible materials 3 feet away.

How the Safest Heater Can Be Deadly

Even a heater with all the safety features can have tragic consequences. Here are a few reasons:

  1. Oxygen depletion: This is a danger for gas heaters. Even a gas heater with an oxygen depletion sensor is not without risk. Because the sensor is a piece of technology, it can fail. If you are using a heater unsupervised without good ventilation, then you are putting your trust entirely in this sensor.
  2. Carbon Monoxide: Again, a danger for gas heaters. Even catalytic heaters with an ODS can create dangerous amounts of carbon monoxide. It’s possible for extenuating circumstances such as a faulty heater or foreign particles like dust to accumulate on the heating element. Burning dust and other particles create carbon monoxide. Also, if you have a carbon monoxide alarm, you are then relying on the battery and alarm to work properly.
  3. Tipping over: We had a space heater growing up that had an tip detection shutoff feature, but it had to tip a certain distance before tripping the shutoff. It’s possible even for heaters with an anti-tip detection feature to still get tipped over enough to do damage. All heaters have this issue.
  4. Being covered: If you bring an extra change of clothes with you in your tent, or any number of things–all of these things can potentially fall on top of your heater, and most heaters will cheerfully melt or ignite your clothes. It’s possible a heater with an ODS feature will stop when it detects a lack of oxygen, but I wouldn’t rely on that in a pinch.
  5. Ambient heat: Depending on your heater design, heat can leak through the sides, bottom or top of the heater. This is a problem in a tent where there generally isn’t a lot of spare room. Many tents are made of synthetic materials that melt easily, and so if the bottom of your heater is not designed well, it could damage your tent floor, or worse, ignite your tent.

Easy Safety Tips to Safely Use a Heater in a Tent

To combat some of these risks discussed above, remember the following

  • If you want a portable gas heater, make sure it’s CSA 4.98 certified.
  • Clear plenty of space for the heater to be used
  • Don’t use the heater while you’re sleeping–I have to mention this one even if it may not be feasible if you are in really cold conditions. But, the best case is to always supervise your heater. Think of your heater like your 18-month old that just discovered the kitchen cabinets. It may be worth losing a bit of sleep to turn on the heater for only short stints to warm up the tent enough to fall asleep (heaters with an hour timer work great here)
  • Ventilate your tent–this is mostly true for catalytic heaters, but also important for electric heaters (to avoid moisture buildup). That means you shouldn’t use a heater in a snowstorm, as your ventilation can quickly be affected by snowfall.

Which Heaters Are Deadly to Use in a Tent?

We are extremely vulnerable to carbon monoxide poisoning since our bodies don’t automatically respond with the tell-tale symptoms of suffocation.

Any Heater

Remember, any kind of heater can be deadly. Besides unsafe use of a heater, several heaters have been recalled over the years because of safety issues (often for tragic reasons).

If you are careful, you can be safe, but it takes vigilance and some research.

Combustion Based Heaters

Any heater that burns a substance for heat is not suitable for use inside a small space unless you have a chimney. Some canvas tents have a flue for wood-burning stoves, and this works because the air is purposefully circulated out to prevent smoke build up inside the tent.

Otherwise, if you are in a regular tent, never use any heater that uses any kind of flame for heating beyond a pilot light necessary for catalytic heaters.

Gas Powered Lanterns

No gas device made for lighting should be used for heating your tent. Indoor heaters are made with specific key safety features (see the above section about CSA 4.98 certification)

Example of a Propane Lantern

Oil-Filled Heater

Before writing this article, I’d never even heard of an oil-filled heater. An oil-filled heater is an electric powered radiator that is filled with oil. The oil acts as a heat buffer and is not actually burned off.

Electric oil-filled heater

Oil-filled heaters are great since they do not get hot externally, and under proper use, they don’t produce carbon monoxide. Oil-filled heaters heat the area with convection rather than with conduction.

This may sound ideal! A heater that isn’t hot to the touch may seem like the best boon to a tent, but there are two problems with this approach.

  1. Since tents intentionally have strategically placed holes for ventilation, convection heaters will be less effective since the premise of a convection heater is that the cold air will move from the bottom of the room to the top. If you have ventilation in your tent (which you definitely should), then that means all that warm air may move right outside your tent. TL;DR –an oil-filled heater won’t heat the tent as well as radiant style heaters.
  2. Oil-filled heaters are safe to use at home because the ground is completely level. When you’re camping, there seems to always be some kind of slope. This is a major safety hazard for oil-filled heaters since they must be used completely upright. Although oil-filled heaters also have tip sensors, if they don’t operate completely upright, oil can run off the element and cause the oil to burn, which would be a very bad situation in a tent.

That being said. If you have a huge tent and you can provide a level base for your oil filled radiator (such is possible with large canvas tents or huge nylon tents), then these might be a decent option.

Used or Old Gas Heaters

Never use a vintage gas heater in a tent!

As I’ve been doing research, I’ve found that many heaters that have been recalled because of carbon monoxide or body design issues are still being sold at garage sales.

Furthermore, many safety standards didn’t exist before the 2000s (and the safety standards are updated every few years). The newer your gas heater, the more likely it will abide by the newer safety standards.

Radiant Heater/Cookers

Some radiant heaters actually can be used for cooking, such as the Mr. Heater F242300. These are specifically marked for outdoor use only because they do not have the same technology that shuts them off automatically in low oxygen situations. Beware of these as heaters in a tent!.

Examples of Tent Heater Incidents

Besides news articles, the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) has done several investigations on heaters used in tents.

Bernzomatic Radiant Heater

According to the CPSC, 47 people have died from a heater with the model # of TX900 and TX900A. The company actually set up a bounty with a $250 reward for turning in the dangerous heaters. Long after the recall was initiated, people would sell these heaters at garage sales. (source)

Coleman Powermate

Two were killed when using a Coleman Powermate and a Coleman propane lantern in a tent. Although the Powermate has been discontinued, they are still being sold second-hand. The lawyer was emphatic that these types of heaters are risky and said that many have died from using them in similar situations. (source)

Propane Heater Fires

According to Iowa State Daily, this tent was consumed by flames started by a propane heater although the occupants were able to escape.

Dyson Hot Recall

Although the Dyson touts a safer design, several were recalled due to an electrical short. (source) Thankfully, no injuries were reported.

13 Deaths in 2014 From Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

The CPSC (Consumer Product Safety Commission) recorded 13 non-fire carbon monoxide deaths related to portable propane heaters. There were only 9 recorded carbon monoxide deaths from in-house carbon monoxide poisoning from natural gas. Since many more people have natural gas in their home than people who use portable propane heaters, it’s clear there is risk with portable propane heaters.

Is It Safe to Use a Portable Heater in a Tent?

Most of the incidents and issues that have happened due to using electric or gas heaters in a tent are due to misuse and unsafe practices. If you are safe and choose a heater that has all the safety features that you need (see here in this article for more details), then you lower your risk, tremendously.

Probably the smartest thing you can do to lower your risk even further is to never leave a heater unattended (including sleeping). If it’s possible to just use the heater to warm up the tent to go to sleep and then when you wake up, then that is a less risky approach.

So, I can’t say it’s safe per se, because bad things have happened to many people. However, I drive to work every day, which is definitely risky. It’s all about doing whatever you can to mitigate the risks that are there and being aware of your options.

There are also many other alternatives to heaters that can be explored.

What Are Alternatives to Heating in Your Tent?

Portable heaters aren’t the only way to heat up your tent. There are lots of things you can do! Let’s dive into some options:

Hand warmers

Hand warmers are a small and easy way to warm yourself up in your tent. There are air-activated single-use hand warmers (link on Amazon) that are very easy to use. There are also reusable hand warmers (see link on Amazon) that you can boil in water whenever you want to heat them up. Additionally you can find electric or catalytic hand warmers that run on lighter fluid. The catalytic hand warmers present some of the risks as stated above, but are at such a small level the risk is low.

Water bottle in your sleeping bag

There are odd-shaped rubber bottles–which will likely remind you of your grandma–specifically used as hot water bottles to warm you up in bed. However, you may not want to take that camping with you. A reusable water bottle also gets the job done without you needing to bring any extra supplies.

To use a water bottle as a “hot” water bottle – you guessed it – you fill it with hot water. You want to heat water to almost boiling and then fill your water bottle. You don’t want the water too hot or you risk warping your water bottle or leaching harmful chemicals from the water bottle into the water (depending on what type of plastic it’s made of).

By far, my favorite water bottle to use is Nalgene’s wide mouth water bottle. I’ve had this water bottle for years, and it’s been dropped from tremendous distances without any damage. These water bottles are tough and can sustain hot water temperatures.

If you are using a metal or glass water bottle, then your only concern with the temperature of the water would be burning yourself if the bottle gets too hot. Wearing a glove while you do this process is a good way to circumvent that danger.

This process of filling a container with hot water would even work with a hydration reservoir if you use those instead of water bottles. Once your bottle is full of hot water, you can tuck it into the foot of your sleeping bag to warm it up before you head to bed.

Once inside your sleeping bag you can move the water bottle around as needed to keep yourself warm. If you are worried about your bottle leaking (which you really don’t want to happen – being cold is bad enough, being cold and wet is miserable!) put the bottle in a zip lock bag before slipping it into your sleeping bag.

Hot rocks

A primitive option used way before air-activated hand warmers and electric heating pads is good ol’ hot rocks.

While sitting around the campfire place a few rocks (about the size of your fist) in or around the fire to warm up. When they’re moderately hot (not so hot you can’t put your hand near it), pull them out of the fire, wrap them in towels or some kind of tough cloth, and tuck them into your sleeping bag.

A few warnings need to be given about using hot rocks in your tent. Be careful not to get the rocks too hot, you want them warm enough to warm you up, but not hot enough to burn through the cloths you wrap them in. My dad tried this on a camping trip once and ended up burning a hole in his sleeping bag. Also, take care to use the right kind of rock. See my article about which rocks explode here.

Electric Heating Pad or Blanket

If you are car camping and have a campsite with an electrical outlet, you could bring an electric heating pad or an electric blanket. That would really keep you warm! You would just need to bring an extension cord to make sure you can get power inside your tent without having to be right next to the outlet. If it’s raining, double check that your extension cords has no tears in the sheath, whatsoever. If it does, it is not usable in the rain.

Tent Rugs

I didn’t know this was a thing! But many people have used rugs or thick mats as extra insulation to cover the bottom of their tent. It’s still important to use a sleeping pad and sleeping bag since sleeping pads are built to have decent insulation capabilities and a rug may not.

Vapor Barrier Liner (VPL)

A more expensive, less comfortable, but highly effective option is the VBL. A vapor barrier liner for your sleeping bag does two things.

First, it stops moisture being transferred from your body to your sleeping bag. This increases the effectiveness of your sleeping bag.

Second, it contains the moisture being expelled from your body which create a slightly humid environment, which also keeps you warmer. These can run from $30 to $100, not a cheap option. This is something you might consider if you are going to be in very cold temperatures.

A VPL makes your tent warmer by putting you in a tiny sweat bag. You will feel sweaty, but that heat energy won’t be escaping your body.

Sources

CO Emissions from Portable Propane Radiant Heaters (source #1)

Peter Mitchell

Peter is a software developer who loves to take every opportunity to go outside that he can get. Peter grew up going on long backpacking excursions with his family every Summer and now enjoys staying at the beautiful Texas State Parks and swimming in the amazing Texas Rivers.

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