When you’re camping in the cold, a propane heater can help you stay warm. Using a buddy heater in your tent can keep you warm but is it safe and will it actually work?
The good news is that when used safely, buddy heaters can definitely be used to heat up your tent.
When used improperly there are some serious risks to operating a propane buddy heater in your tent. You’ll have a much warmer and safer sleep on your next camping adventure after checking out these quick tips.
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Safe Use Of a Buddy Heater
No one thinks the worst will happen to them until it does, and you can make sure that your camping trip doesn’t go up in flames, literally, by following the safety guidelines that are in the buddy heater manuals.
Provide Proper Ventilation
I’m sure you didn’t come for a physics lesson, but the physics of the airflow in your tent is going to play a large role in how safely you can use your buddy heater. Airflow is going to be important for both making sure your heater works well and minimizing carbon monoxide.
You’re going to want to have one vent at the bottom of your tent, and one vent at the top. The vent at the top will not only allow for air to be continuously circulated, it will also keep moisture and condensation from building up in your tent. While not a safety hazard itself, humidity will make you colder which defeats the purpose of your buddy heater.
Built In Safety
Buddy heaters use propane for their heat source and while they have many built-in features that allow you to use them safely, carbon monoxide and other hazards still pose a risk. Carbon monoxide is a dangerous gas because it is both odorless and tasteless, and it can make you pass out before you even realize you’ve inhaled it.
While buddy heaters have an oxygen sensor that turns it off in low-oxygen situations, if that sensor fails then your heater could be pumping out carbon monoxide instead of the CO2 it normally makes.
The vent at the bottom of the tent will allow oxygen to come back into the tent as it gets used up, and prevent a low oxygen situation. The low-oxygen sensor is why your buddy heater will keep turning off at super high altitudes, so if you’re planning on camping at higher than 7,000-8,000 feet you may want to have a backup plan.
Create a Solid Base
While it would be nice to just plop your heater down and fire it up as soon as you open up your tent, you’re going to want to make a good base for your heater otherwise you risk it tipping over.
If you have a sturdy rigid cooler or camp chair they can provide a much more solid base than the floor of your tent. elevating your heater off the ground will also reduce the likelihood of it getting knocked over accidentally as well.
The square shape models of buddy heaters have a wide base and have a low center of gravity to help them stay upright. The smaller style of heaters use the propane cylinder as the base and have a higher risk of tipping over if not set on a solid level surface.
Most buddy heaters will have a safety mechanism that shuts it off in the event it does tip, but once again you’re relying on a failsafe that has the potential to be defective.
Non Flammable Base
For your base, your best bet is to use metal because it can heat up without getting damaged and it’s non flammable. If schlepping a metal base around won’t work for your setup, you can also place the buddy heater on the floor of the tent.
Using the floor is not ideal since it’s rare to find a perfectly flat area to camp on, but it can still be used if the ground is level enough. In this case you’ll want to use a sheet of aluminum foil to go between the buddy heater and the tent floor. The foil isn’t flammable itself, and it’s also a poor conductor of heat so it won’t be likely to make your tent floor melt underneath.
It should go without saying, but you don’t want to set your heater directly on any material that is flammable. Even though the safety switch should turn off the heater if it tips over, you still don’t want to take any chances with starting a fire.
Inspect Burner Before Use
Portable propane heaters are great because they are easily packable and can be easily stored. It’s important to inspect the burner area before use to ensure there is no flammable material that may have gotten on it inadvertently.
Organic debris like leaves, sticks and grass can snag on the protective grill while the heater is being transported used outdoors. Dust, bugs, webs and sawdust are items that can build up on the heater depending on where it’s stored while not in use.
To ensure safe use and reduce odors wipe off the element, cover and body of the heater before turning it on, especially if it’s been sitting in storage for a while. Keeping it a case will prevent any materials and dust from contacting on the element and make it easier to transport and store. Most cases also have a few pockets to store 1lb fuel canisters making it easier to keep it all together.
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- Shoulder strap
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Keep Away From Flammable Gear
Speaking of fire, you can still have a hot time in the old town on your hands if your heater gets too close to other flammable things in your tent. You’re going to want to keep your buddy heater away from anything that could catch fire, as well as anything that could melt.
Your sleeping bag is a potential fire hazard, even though I know it feels nice to have the heater close. You also don’t want to have the heater too close to the sides of the tent – especially if it’s polyester or nylon – because if your tent melts then you’re really going to get a taste of winter camping, not to mention the fire risk. The same goes for any mesh windows your tent may have.
You also have to be careful not to stack your gear up around your heater, even non-flammable materials, or it will impede airflow and create a potentially dangerous situation. If you can make everything in your tent practice at least two feet of social distancing with your heater, you’re much less likely to catch fire.
Do Not Operate While Sleeping
Ideally you shouldn’t use your buddy heater while sleeping just because there are many things that can go wrong without you realizing it such as a tip over, low oxygen, or other issue that your buddy heater is supposed to catch but may not if there’s a malfunction.
You can still sleep snug as a bug without running the heater overnight if you have a sleeping bag that is well-insulated. Turn the heater on once the sun goes down until you’re ready to go to sleep, then when you wake up turn it back on until the chill gets out of the tent before getting out of your sleeping bag.
While it would be easy to leave it at ‘do not operate your buddy heater while sleeping’ and move on, there are some occasions that will call for you to use it overnight. If this is the case, you will most likely wake up if there’s a fire or your heater melts a hole in your tent, but you won’t wake up if your heater starts making carbon monoxide.
You can get a portable carbon monoxide detector to keep in your tent with you, and in the event the worst happens you’ll be able to take action before it’s too late. If your alarm does go off, immediately shut off the buddy heater, open all of the ventilation you can in your tent, and try to breathe as much from the outside air as possible.
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Sizing a Heater to Your Tent
You can find buddy heaters in a range of sizes, from handheld to practically warehouse-rated. Choosing the heater that’s the right size for your tent is not only going to help you warm up faster, it will also factor into safety.
If you’ve ever shopped for a window AC unit, you’ve seen that they come with BTU ratings which stands for British Thermal Units. The BTU rating corresponds to the square footage of the area they are able to cool down, and likewise in buddy heaters it represents how large of an area can be heated.
You generally need 20 BTUs for every square foot of space being heated, times the height of your tent. So if you have a 20 square foot tent that’s five feet high, your heater will need to be at least 2,000 BTUs. That’s not accounting for the ventilation you’ll need which will draw off some of the heat, not to mention the fact that tents are poor insulators.
For a one person tent you’ll want to go with at least a 3,000 BTU heater, while for a large family tent you may want one that’s at least 7,000 BTU and maybe even larger depending on the exact specifications of the tent.
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- Accidental tip-over safety shutoff
- Automatic low oxygen shutoff system
If you do need a heavy duty heater for a family-sized tent, you’re going to want to take a look at how you’re fueling it. The larger the heater the more propane it’s going to use, and those little one pound canisters are going to get dried up fast. You can certainly pack a bunch of the little guys and change them out as needed, or you can look at bringing a larger tank.
You may not be firing up a grill, but you can also use that 20 pound propane tank for your heater. You’ll need to pick up an adapter hose to go from the heater to the larger tank, but you can find those at most camping supply stores as well as the large hardware chains.
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Some of the same principals apply to using a camping stove, Check out our guide covering all the details on the safe use of a camping stove indoors.
You can use a buddy heater to make your next camping trip that much more comfortable, and as long as you follow the right safety guidelines and choose a setup that fits your space you shouldn’t run into any issues.
Besides using a heater there are some other options to fight the cold while camping. For more in-depth details check out our guide on How To Stay Warm In A Tent.