Are Camping Heaters Safe – Things you should know.

camping heater safety

I love camping and I don’t mind cold weather but I know I’d be miserable if I went winter camping without a heater.  People have been camping with heaters for years but it doesn’t mean that these heaters are safe.  Some people say there is nothing to worry about and others say you’re sure to die in a fiery blaze.  What is the truth?

Are camping heaters safe?  Camping heaters are safe when properly used.  Improper use of a camping heater can lead to co2 poisoning, fires, and even death.  The key to preventing this is learning how to operate the type of camping heater you decide to buy.

Some types of heaters are more prone to co2 poisoning while others are more prone to causing fires.  Most camping heaters will require ventilation but not all.  The amount of heat each type of heater puts out can also be a factor.  Even the weather can affect how certain types of heaters will perform.

There are many different options when it comes to camping heaters and each will have their own safety requirements.  Some camping heaters are better for some situations while others are better for other situations.

The main types of camping heaters you can choose from are:

  • Gas Heaters
  • Wood Burning Stoves
  • Kerosene Heaters
  • Electric Heaters

Gas Heaters

The most popular camping heater is a gas heater.  Propane gas heaters can come in models that need to be vented and ones that do not need to be vented.

The ventless heaters are safer for camping as they’ll have built-in co2 sensors which will shut the heater off if the oxygen gets too low.  In a tent, this shouldn’t be a problem since you’re not dealing with an airtight structure anyway.

In a vehicle or camper, oxygen depletion can become an issue.  In this case, you may want to crack a window.  You’ll lose a little heat doing this but you’ll save in the long run since you won’t have to worry about your heater shutting off on you.

Gas Camping Heater Safety Tips

  • Provide ventilation.
  • Bring along a carbon monoxide detector.
  • Try to turn the heater off when you sleep.

Even a ventless gas heater needs ventilation.  The only reason it is considered ventless is that it has safety measures built into it to shut it down should the area not have enough oxygen.  If you’re in a tent with flaps that can be pulled back or opened, consider doing so.  This could be as simple as pulling a corner of your rain fly up or opening one of the tent’s windows.

These safety measures are designed to work but that doesn’t mean they always will.  Bring a carbon monoxide detector along for added safety.

The best defense against the cold while camping is your clothing and your sleeping bag.  If at all possible, only use your gas heater to warm the tent up before you go to sleep and after you’ve awoken.  Heaters are much safer when you’re awake to deal with any issues that might arise.

Wood Burning Stoves

Wood burning stoves have been used in tents for hundreds of years.  These stoves can run safely inside of some tents but not all.  If you want to use a wood burning stove in a tent, you’ll need to buy a tent that was specifically made for this purpose.

A tent built for tent stoves will have an opening in the ceiling so that you can safely run the stove’s exhaust pipe through it.  This area will have extra protection from the heat as well as from tearing.

A tent like this is usually a wall tent, meaning the sides of the tent go straight up.  This being said, you can find tents made for tent stoves that are not wall tents.  For example, you can buy tepee style tents with a large hole in the center for the stove’s pipe to go through.

In order to keep the floor or your tent safe from your wood burning stove, you’ll need to add another layer of protection.  Some people will put bricks or stones down underneath the legs of the stove and others will lay a flame retardant mat.  The mats are easier to travel with but bricks and stones are usually less expensive and easier to find.

Your wood stove and its exhaust pipe will also need to be cleaned regularly, otherwise, you will have poor air flow and your fire will become smokey.  You’ll also run the risk of increased embers which can end in a fire.

If you plan on safely using a wood burning stove for camping, just be sure you know what you’re getting into.  While a stove is great because you can cook on it and get free fuel for it, it is also a lot of work.

The constant cleaning of the stove and tending of the fire along with the heavy weight of the actual stove makes it less practical than a small ventless propane camping heater.

Camping Wood Burning Stove Safety Tips

  • Provide ventilation.
  • Keep flammable items away from the heater.
  • Burn dry wood.

Any heater that has a flame will take oxygen from the air.  You’ll need to make sure your heater is properly ventilated and that its stove pipe is clear.

With a wood burning stove, you often have less control over the size of the flame.  For this reason, it is doubly important that you keep flammable items away from the heater.

Wood burning stoves can burn wonderfully when operated correctly.  However, fuel them with wet wood and they will put out a lot of smoke.  Smoke inhalation can be deadly.  Always feed your wood burning camping stove with dry wood.

Kerosene Heaters

Kerosene has been used in tents, campers, and houses for quite some time.  These days you won’t see too many of these camping heaters around.  A kerosene heater is safe for camping but only if your tent is large enough to accommodate it.

For example, some kerosene heaters will say that you need to keep them at least several feet away from other objects as the heat coming from them can cause fires.  Kerosene burns very efficiently and very hot so a safe distance with a kerosene heater is different than a safe distance with a propane heater.

A kerosene heater also needs to be vented for safety.  I’ve never seen a kerosene heater with a built-in oxygen sensor so you’ll need to bring a carbon monoxide detector to use a kerosene heater.

My recommendation is that you do not use kerosene heaters for camping as they are inconvenient and harder to keep safe.

Kerosene Camping Heater Safety Tips

  • Keep extra fuel outside of the tent.
  • Use a carbon monoxide detector.
  • Keep your kerosene heater clean.
  • Always use 1-k kerosene.

Kerosene burns hot but it doesn’t burn long.  When you go camping with a kerosene heater you’ll probably need to bring extra fuel.  Never store this fuel inside your tent.  The fuel will only cause more trouble if a fire breaks out and it doesn’t smell that great anyway.

A kerosene heater needs ventilation and a carbon monoxide detector should be placed inside of your tent as well.  This is because kerosene heaters are oxygen depleting heaters.

Kerosene camping heaters burn cleanly and efficiently but only under the right conditions.  Let your kerosene heater get dirty or use the wrong fuel and you’ll end up with a smokey fire.

Most gas stations place dye in their kerosene heaters which causes the fuel to burn differently than pure kerosene.  For this reason, you’ll need to buy 1-k kerosene to get a good and proper burn.

Electric Heaters

If you have access to electricity at your campsite, I’d highly recommend you take advantage of it and use an electric heater.  Electric heaters will not deprive you of oxygen and they do not create flames, embers, or smoke.

The only two safety issues you may have when camping with an electric heater are wet conditions and overly hot conditions.  An electric heater can get hot enough to start fires.

For this reason, I’d recommend that you buy an electric heater with tip-over protection so that it will shut off if it falls over.  I’d also recommend that you bring something to put in between the heater and the floor of your tent.

I’ve taken small pieces of ceramic tile and laid small electric heaters over top of them.  This creates a nice barrier and the ceramic tiles are flat enough that they aren’t very difficult to pack when car camping.

Water can be another issue so you’ll want to make sure to keep your electric heater out of the water.  The ceramic tile can help with this but be mindful of flooding.  Set up camp in a low-lying area and your tent could be flooded.

Hopefully, this is already obvious to you but lying in a puddle of water alongside an electric heater is a great way to get electrocuted.

Electric Camping Heater Safety Tips

  • Get a heater with tip-over protection.
  • Place your heater away from flammable items.
  • Keep your heater out of and away from water.

An electric camping heater is usually the safest type of heater you can bring with you.  If you have access to electricity, I’d recommend you choose to go with an electric camping heater.

This being said, electric heaters can catch fire and can cause electrical issues in the rain.  Take precautions to keep your heater away from flammable items and keep it out of the water and you shouldn’t have any problems.

In Closing

Try to reduce or eliminate your camping heater needs by bringing warm-weather gear and a good sleeping bag.  Use your heaters only when you’re awake and be sure to take the proper safety precautions and you’ll have a great camping trip.

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Christopher Schopf

Christopher Schopf like to write about hiking, camping, snowshoeing, kayaking, and anything else that gets him outside.

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