Portable Gas and Electric Heaters for Tent Camping

Let’s face it, tent camping in the wild is primitive, relaxing, rejuvenating, and sometimes just plain COLD. Trying to get some sleep while shivering from the cold can really take the enjoyment out of getting back to nature. And in the early morning, when it’s usually the coldest, climbing out of that warm sleeping bag can take a lot of motivation. However, now-a-days we no longer have to suffer. Portable gas and electric heaters for tent camping can keep us warm and comfy.

Both gas and electric models are available for very reasonable prices. But how do I know which one is best for my needs? And how do I use one without burning down my tent? Great questions.  Let’s answer them as we explore these handy devices.

Types of Heaters for Tent Camping

First of all, I need to say that there are currently NO perfect solutions for heating the inside of your tent. There are a few good ones, but each of them have inherent advantages and disadvantages and though rare, people have become injured and even died while improperly using a tent heater. Carefully following manufacturer instructions are critical for your safety. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s take a look at the best choices available for tent campers.

When it comes to keeping warm inside of your tent, there are three practical methods available: Gas, Electric, and Chemical.

Catalytic Propane Gas heaters

Two companies, Coleman and Mr. Heater, are by far the two biggest players in this arena. A third company, Zodi, make excellent and very sought after propane gas tent heaters. Unfortunately, they are revamping their popular “Hot Vent” series of heaters and are currently out of stock on previous models. You can occasionally find their heaters used for sale and possibly remaining stock from dealers – or just wait for the new models to be released. Given their excellent reputation and quality, I thought it was worth mentioning them here.

Coleman’s well known “Cat” series are sold at many sporting goods and major discount stores and online. Current models include: SportCat™, BlackCat™, and GolfCat™. Both the SportCat™ and BlackCat™ heaters offer a model with InstaStart™ Technology as well – so no need for matches. Features include:

  • BlackCat™ – 3,000 BTU output operates up to 7 hours from one 16.4 oz. propane cylinder, 2 heat settings (Hi and Low), compact folding legs that integrate into a collar for easy storage, integrated easy-to-grip handle.
  • SportCat™ – 1,500 BTU output operates up to 14 hours from one 16.4 oz propane cylinder, portable integrated handle, detachable base with expandable duck feet to provide a stable stand for the heater.
  • GolfCat™ – For use on golf carts, not specifically for tent use.

Mr. Heater offers well made catalytic propane heaters known as the “Buddy” series. Three models are available: Big Buddy, Portable Buddy, and Little Buddy.  All models include an accidental Tip-over Shut-off switch and Oxygen Depletion Sensor (ODS) safety shut off. I consider both of these features extremely important when using inside a tent and wonder why they are missing on the Coleman models. Features include:

  • Big Buddy – 3 heat settings (LO-4,000 BTU, MD-9,000 BTU, HI-18,000 BTU), connects directly to two 1 lb. disposable cylinders or to a 20 lb. cylinder w/optional hose, blower fan operated by 4 D-cell batteries or AC adapter, 3 to 12 hours of heat with two 1 lb. cylinders (based on LO, MD, HI setting), Piezo igniter system, CSA certified
  • Portable Buddy – 2 heat settings (LO-4,000 BTU, HI-9,000 BTU), connects directly to one 1 lb. disposable cylinders or to a 20 lb. cylinder w/optional hose, Fold-Down Handle for compact storage, Swivel Out Regulator for easy fuel connection, 3 to 6 hours of heat with 1 lb. cylinder (based on LO, HI setting), Piezo igniter system, CSA certified
  • Little Buddy – 3,800 BTU, One button ignition/on function, operating time approx. 5 1/2 hours of heat with one 1lb. cylinder, connects directly to one1 lb. disposable cylinder, comes with cylinder base stand for stable operation, Piezo igniter system, CSA certified

Zodi, a lesser known player in the market, makes external tent heating systems. Their “Hot Vent” series units stay on the outside of the tent for maximum safety and use two foil hoses and a small fan to blow warm air into the tent. Touted as “The Safest Tent Heater Ever!”, the units are designed with a sealed heat exchanger keeping dangerous gases and smelly odors safely outside the tent. Features include:

  • Models available with single or double propane cylinders
  • 3 to 8 hours of heat with one 16oz propane cylinder
  • 10,000 BTU will heat 4-6 person tent in under 10 minutes
  • Powerful 12 volt blower provides great air flow (requires 12 volt battery)
  • 3 ft flexible input & output accordion style hoses delivers hot air
  • SAFE design, heater stays outside, no carbon monoxide enters tent
  • Comes with propane cylinder base for stable operation
  • Available with soft or hard storage case

Electric Space heaters

Electric space heaters are another option for heating your tent assuming you are camping at a site with hookups. Of course this is more common for RV camping, but many RV’ers bring tents along with them and though rare, some tent-only campsites do have electrical hookups.

Electric space heaters can be classified into two basic types: Convection and Radiant. Convection heaters provide warmth by moving air over a heated surface and are designed to heat an entire room. Radiant heaters use a glowing quartz or other type of metal element and reflector to provide heat to a specific area.

Ceramic heaters are a newer type of convection heater. These heaters have ceramic plates and aluminum baffles. When electricity passes through the ceramic, it is heated. The heat is then absorbed by the aluminum and a fan blows the hot air into your room. And a Ceramic heating element means there are no glowing elements or open flames. Ceramic heaters tend to be more energy efficient and safer than other types because their outer plastic case remains cool when running.

Pelonis is a well known manufacturer of ceramic heaters and are favored by the RV camper crowd. Their Ceramic Disc Furnace heaters generate heat using a patented Honeycomb Disc Technology, which is well known for its high efficiency heat output. They have several models available including fixed and oscillating types. Most models have important safety features such as built-in tip-over switch and automatic overheat shut-off. They can be purchased at online stores like Amazon.com and Campingworld.com or at home improvement stores like Home Depot.

There are many other recognized brands on the market such as DeLonghi, Lasko and Holmes. Each offer Ceramic space heaters similar to Pelonis with various features such as: dual heat and fan settings, fixed or oscillating air motion, and adjustable thermostat control. The most important consideration, given the confines of a tent, are the unit’s safety features. So be sure to have that at the top of your list when shopping.

Chemical Heat Packs

Though not technically a way to heat the inside of your tent, chemical heat packs are a great alternative way of staying warm inside your sleeping bag. Just toss one of the larger packs into the sleeping bag 15 minutes before going to bed and voila, warm and toasty comfort! They are available in two types: Single use and Reusable.

HeatMax makes several sizes of their single-use heat packs from small hand and toe warmers to a large 9 x 12-inch Survival Heat pack – perfect for sleeping bags. These packs last from 10 to 15 hours after activating depending on the size of heat pack. They reach their optimal temperatures in about 10 – 20 minutes. Features of the 9 x 12-inch Survival Heat pack include:

  • Provides up to 15 hrs of real heat
  • Cold weather survival tips included on inside and back of pack
  • Individually sealed in airtight package to guarantee a shelf life of six years
  • Portable (No wires or batteries), odorless, disposable and safe
  • Nontoxic, nonflammable, environmentally friendly, contains all natural ingredients

Bent Grass Concepts makes a reusable pack called Heat Wave Instant Reusable Heat Pack. These amazing devices come in four sizes including a large 8 x 12-inch pack – great for sleeping bags. To activate the heat pack, simply press down on an internal metal button which begins a physical chain reaction causing the liquid to crystallize and generate heat. The heat is generated as the liquid converts to a solid. This process is called an exothermic reaction. To recharge the pack, simply place it in boiling water or a coffee pot for around 10 minutes to convert the solid back to a liquid. Features of the heat pack include:

  • Medical grade latex free vinyl exterior
  • The liquid contents are (non-toxic) sodium acetate and water
  • Will heat up to 130 degrees Fahrenheit within seconds with each use
  • Produces therapeutic heat for up to two hours or more, depending on heat pack size and application
  • Can be reused over 500 times
  • No electricity or microwaving required
  • Lifetime warranty

How Do I Safely use a Tent Heater?

I don’t know about you, but the idea of bringing fire or high voltage electricity inside of my tent just doesn’t seem very smart or safe. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission estimates that more than 25,000 residential fires every year are associated with the use of space heaters (gas and electric), causing more than 300 deaths. Of course, we are talking about fires inside houses, apartments and other permanent dwellings, not camping tents. But, the risk is just the same. Following manufacturers recommendations for safe operation are imperative.

Propane Heater Safety

When using any propane device, common sense is a must. Here are some important safety tips recommended by Coleman, Mr. Heater and Zodi:

  • DO NOT operate the heater while sleeping. This means tent heaters are really only intended to heat your tent prior to going to sleep or in the morning before getting out of your sleeping bag. And, a 16.4 oz. propane cylinder just won’t last through the night.
  • Always provide ventilation when operating a propane heater. Proper ventilation is needed to maintain optimal fuel combustion which minimizes Carbon Monoxide (CO) output. Always leave a window or door partially open. Yes, this lets in cold air, but hey you won’t die from suffocation, a fair trade-off.
  • Maintain the minimum safety clearance around the heater. They put out very hot air and the heater itself can become hot. Hot enough to burn nylon and other combustible materials.
  • The Zodi “Hot Vent” heaters must always be positioned OUTDOORS in a well ventilated area. For more efficient heating, you can recycle the air by placing both tube ends inside your tent. Because this heater must stay outdoors and be attached to a car battery to power its fan, using it to warm your tent first thing in the morning may not be a popular activity.
  • Keep children and pets away from the heater.

Electric Heater Safety

Although electric heaters do not deplete available oxygen or produce carbon monoxide, they have their own risk when operating. Here are some safety tips recommended by the U.S. Department of Energy and leading manufacturers:

  • Electric heaters should be plugged directly into the outlet. If an extension cord is necessary, use a heavy-duty cord of 14-gauge wire or larger.
  • Buy a unit with a tip-over safety switch, which automatically shuts off the heater if the unit is tipped over.
  • Buy a unit with an automatic overheat shut-off sensor.
  • Keep all liquids at a safe distance away from the unit, even when not in use.
  • Maintain sufficient space around the heater and never block the airflow.
  • If stored for long periods of time, run fan only for first few minutes to blow dust and dirt out of heater element.
  • Keep children and pets away from the heater.

Heat Pack Safety

Chemically activated heat packs are very safe by nature. However, there are a few minor safety considerations:

  • Heat packs can sometimes cause irritation to people with sensitive skin
  • Liquid contents may cause burns after boiling, if leaking occurs
  • Heat packs, whether single or multiple use, should never be microwaved

Tent Heater Comparison Chart

I really like charts. Here is a handy one showing the advantages and disadvantages of each type of heater.

Coleman - BlackCat, SportCat• Very portable, lightweight
• Uses Catylized process to efficiently burn fuel for lower CO output
• Available w/InstaStart technology
• Competitively priced
• All models lack important shut-off safety features
• Tent must have adequate ventilation to avoid CO hazard
• No built-in fan to blow heat
• Many people complain SportCat (1,500 BTU) does not produce enough heat
• Cannot carry fuel of any type on a plane
Mr. Heater - Big Buddy, Portable Buddy, Little Buddy• Portable
• Built-in safety features
• connect directly to 1 lb. disposable cylinders or 20 lb. cylinder (except Little Buddy)
• Piezo igniter system
• CSA certified
• Tent must have adequate ventilation to avoid CO hazard
• Big Buddy is bulky inside small tent
• Low Oxygen sensor prevents using above 7,000ft
• May experience nuisance shutoffs due to windy conditions
• Cannot carry fuel of any type on a plane
Zodi - Hot Vent II• Durable, steel construction
• Will heat 4-6 person tent in under 10 minutes
• 3 to 8 hours of heat with one 16oz propane tank
• No carbon monoxide enters tent
• Can use larger 5 gallon propane tank for extended use
• Cannot operate in windy conditions
• Cannot be placed on uneven ground
• Requires 12v battery for fan operation
• Does not have electronic igniter system
• Cannot carry fuel of any type on a plane
HeatMax - Survival Heat Pack• Shelf life of six years
• Provides heat for up to 15 hrs
• Portable, compact
• Non-toxic, non-flammable, contains all natural ingredients
• completely safe for air travel
• People with sensitive skin may burn more easily using product
• One use per pack
• High cost per use
Bent Grass Concepts - Reusable Heat Pack• Reusable over 500 times
• Low cost per use
• Liquid contents are non-toxic and food grade
• completely safe for air travel
• Heat last only 1-2 hrs
• Heat pack may cause skin irritation
• Liquid contents may cause burns after boiling if leaking occurs
• Over-boiling will cause damage to the heat pack

As you can see, staying warm and cozy inside your tent in not as simple as you might think. It certainly takes a little planning ahead. And since there really is no perfect, single solution, the best approach is to have multiple heating devices when tent camping. For example, use the Zodi heater to quickly heat your tent just before bedtime, then activate a reusable heat pack to warm the inside of your sleeping bag before getting up in the morning. If hookups are available and the weather permits (not raining), use an electric space heater in the evening and morning. And don’t forget about using a better quality sleeping bag. This can sometimes be the best option of all.