There's nothing worse than going camping and being cold all night. Best case scenario, you're uncomfortable and have a hard time sleeping. Worst case, you freeze to death and die (I said worst case...).
So what can you do to avoid being too cold at night?
Easy, get a heater, right? Not so fast. There's a LOT of things you need to be aware of before you choose a heater.
Did you know some heaters create carbon monoxide that can build up and kill you in your sleep?
Did you know some heaters weigh a whopping 10 pounds?
In this article I'll break down the best portable heaters on the market and weigh the pros and cons of each option. I'll also cover some alternatives to these portable heaters that might be a better way to keep you warm without breaking the bank.
Why You Should Trust Me
I am a backpacking fanatic. I live in Michigan and have backpacked the Manistee River and Manitou Island. I flew out to Colorado last year and spent a week in the Rawah Wilderness.
Whenever I get a chance to get out in the wilderness I take it.
I've spent hundreds of hours reading reviews and first hand testimonies from other backpackers on what they liked and didn't like about every piece of gear.
I hate when I buy a crappy piece of backpacking gear only to upgrade later; I like to buy the right gear from the beginning and not have to worry about it breaking down or wearing out in 6 months.
How Your Space Heater Can Kill You
Before we talk about how to find the best space heater or what features to look for, we have to cover some of the dangers of using a space heater.
Most portable heaters run off of propane. When propane combusts, it can create carbon monoxide if the combustion isn't complete. Carbon monoxide is undetectable by humans since it is invisible and odorless.
If carbon monoxide builds up enough, it can kill you.
The only way to detect carbon monoxide is by using a detector. Even the portable heaters that claim to shut off in the presence of CO aren't telling the full truth, but we'll get into that later.
Just know that carbon monoxide is serious business and you don't want to risk having a faulty heater that creates a buildup in CO inside of your tent.
Features to Look for in a Portable Heater for Camping
First things first, almost any portable heater is going to be heavy. No matter what heater you choose, it isn't going to be something you would want to take backpacking with you. Since most portable heaters use propane to create their heat, you'll have to lug around a tank of propane with you just to run the heater.
The best use case for a portable heater would be when you're in an RV or car camping. This will let you carry a larger propane tank and you won't have to worry as much about how much your portable heater weighs.
These are the features you'll want to look for when selecting a heater:
- Compact size
- Fuel Type
- Heat output
- Low weight
- Safety/automatic shutoff
- Noise level
The whole point of a portable heater is that it's portable (duh). So the first thing to figure out is how big of a heater you need.
You should try to buy the smallest heater that still has sufficient heat output. We'll cover the heat output calculations in a section just below this so don't worry about that yet.
By choosing the right size heater you can save money on the purchase price, the ongoing cost to run the heater and make your life easier by not having to haul around a gigantic heater. Even if you're planning to use the heater in an RV or only while car camping, you don't want to lug around a 50 lb heater that heats up your entire living space in 3 minutes. It'd be better to choose a 10 lb heater that does the job in 20 minutes but is actually manageable for you to move.
To sum up our process in figuring out which heater to buy, it will be:
- Figure out how much heating capacity you need.
- Find the smallest and most cost effective heater you can that meets those heating requirements.
Before we figure out what size heater you need, let's cover the different types of fuel real quick.
The two most popular types of fuel are propane and electric powered heaters.
In general, propane heaters cost more than electric heaters but they work better.
Propane heaters cost more up front and the ongoing costs to run them is higher as well because you have to refill their fuel tanks.
The benefit of a propane heater is that they usually have a higher heat output (measured in BTUs, we'll cover that next). The downside is that they can produce carbon monoxide if they don't have full combustion when burning the propane fuel.
Electric heaters are nice if you will only be using the heater in a place where you'll have access to an electrical outlet. Most campgrounds will provide these and the electricity is 'free' (aka included in your entry fee). This means it's free to run your heater as much as you want and you don't have to worry about running out of fuel. Electric heaters are also flameless so there's no risk of carbon monoxide poisoning.
The downside to electric heaters is that you must have an electrical outlet or battery power. This makes electrical heaters inferior to propane heaters for stuff like hunting or ice fishing where you could be away from electrical access for long periods of time.
There are a few heaters on the market that use butane instead of propane but it's not very common. All of the heaters I'm going to cover in this article will be either propane or electric because they're the most practical and cost efficient options on the market.
The amount of heat generated by a propane heater is measured in BTUs or British Thermal Units.
If you're the curious type, 1 BTU is the amount of heat required to warm up 1 pound of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit.
Electric heaters will usually list their heat output in Watts.
To convert BTUs to Watts, just divide by 3.41.
Example: A heater with a heating capacity of 1,000 BTUs/hour would be equivalent to 293 Watts.
Looking at the BTUs per hour or Watts on different portable heaters is a quick and easy way to compare different models.
Another way to figure out what size heater you need is to figure out the square footage of your tent. Just multiply the length and the width and you'll get the area of your tent in square feet. Most heaters will list the recommended area that they can comfortably heat and you should try to get as close as possible to matching the heater output to the size of your tent.
If your heater is too large (i.e. The heater is made for a 200 sq. ft. tent and your tent is only 100 sq. ft.) then you'll get too warm and you'll waste fuel putting too much heat into your space.
If your heater is too small for your tent then you'll be cold all night and the heater will struggle to keep up.
Most portable heaters are made for car camping. They usually weigh at least a couple pounds and run off of a fuel tank which is the exact opposite of ultralight.
But even if you're planning to use your heater exclusively for car camping, you'll probably still want to find a heater that's not too heavy. In addition to being bulky and taking up extra space in your car/truck, large portable heaters are more difficult to carry around your campsite and will be more difficult to set up.
Since they're intended to be used for car camping, the weight of the portable heater won't be the make or break part of your buying decision. But if all other factors are equal I'd recommend buying the smaller/lighter weight option.
With any portable heater that burns liquid fuel, there's the possibility of carbon monoxide build up.
Carbon monoxide can kill you and is impossible for humans to detect! You need to make sure the heater you're buying is 100% safe and comes with an automatic shut off.
The automatic shutoff on these heaters doesn't work by detecting carbon monoxide, but it actually looks for a low level of oxygen. Oxygen is displaced by carbon monoxide so these heaters monitor for low oxygen levels that could indicate a carbon monoxide build up.
Unfortunately these aren't always 100% reliable in certain situations like camping at high altitudes. Higher altitudes have lower oxygen levels in the air and can sometimes cause the automatic shutoff in these heaters to malfunction.
The other type of safety feature you'll want to have in your heater is an automatic shutoff in case it tips over. Most heaters come with some type of anti-tip shutoff which can detect if they have been knocked over and will cause them to shutdown immediately.
Since you'll probably be using your heater while hanging out at camp or while you're sleeping, you'll want to choose a heater that isn't too loud.
Unfortunately this isn't really a standard feature that most manufacturers list on the product specs so you'll have to hunt around and try to read some other people's reviews to see how loud the heater is.
A good rule of thumb is that the smaller the heater, the quieter it will run. Since these heaters put out less heat they burn fuel more slowly which means less noise.
The Top 3 Portable Heaters for Camping
Now that you've got a good understanding of the features to look for and how you can compare different models, let's take a look at the 3 best portable heaters available today.
Top Choice - Mr. Heater Little Buddy
Mr. Heater is a well known and respected manufacturer of portable heaters. They have a lot of different models but the Little Buddy is their smallest heater and is my #1 choice for camping.
The Little Buddy heater weighs 5 pounds and can put out either 4,000 BTU/hr or 9,000 BTU/hr. This means it can heat up to a 95 sq. ft. area for 5 1/2 hours.
Remember earlier how we mentioned the auto-shutoff not working properly at high altitudes? Mr Heater recommends you only use this heater below 7,000 ft. of elevation or the automatic shutoff might cause your heater to turn off frequently.
The Little Buddy heater runs off of 1 lb. propane tanks. One of the best things about the Little Buddy is it's small size. The heater is less than 12" tall and the 1lb propane tanks are equally small. This heater is easy to take with you hunting, camping, hiking, and pretty much anywhere else you could think of going.
While there aren't any portable heaters made specifically for backpacking, this is the closest you'll get. 5 pounds is by no means ultralight but it's possible to take this with you into the back country if you want to.
Runner Up - Mr. Heater Buddy Indoor Radiant Heater
It doesn't have the catchiest name but this heater is the #1 seller for good reason. This heater can cover up to 225 sq. ft. of your camping space with heat for over 5 hours on a single 1 lb. propane tank.
This heater is meant for both indoor and outdoor use and has an adjustable output that ranges from 4,000 BTU/hr up to 9,000 BTU/hr.
This unit is very similar to the Little Buddy that was my top pick, but it weighs twice as much and can heat a much larger area.
This heater would be the best option if you want something sturdier and capable of heating a larger area than the Little Buddy.
As always, Mr. Heater makes sure their product is safe as always. It comes with auto shut off features that can detect low oxygen levels (which is why it shouldn't be used above 7,000 feet of elevation). It also has an auto shut off if the pilot burner goes out and another shut off in case it tips over.
Other Options - Texsport Portable Heater
The Texsport heater has a unique design that allows it to reduce it's weight and cost. The Texsport heater costs about half as much as the Mr. Heater heaters but doesn't come with the same safety features.
The Texsport heater only has an auto shutoff feature for when the flame goes out. It does not have an oxygen detector so it won't be able to shut off if you get a build up of carbon monoxide in your tent/camper.
The maximum heat output of the Texsport is only 2,890 BTU/hr so you probably wouldn't want to use this in a space much larger than 75-100 sq. ft.
The benefit of it's unique design is that the Texsport weighs just 1 pound. This makes the Texsport the most lightweight heater on the market.
Mr. Heater is the most recognized brand in the portable heater space and their camping options are pretty impressive. Compact, efficient, safe and coming in at a very affordable price point, you'll be hard pressed to find better options on the market.