As temperatures drop towards winter, don’t let the cold keep you from camping and backpacking. There are so many ways to stay warm and extend your adventures no matter what the conditions.
A question we have seen come up is: “What about battery powered tent heaters and do they work?” Battery powered tent heaters do exist but the reality of the situation is that these are very small, low power personal heaters. They might be useful for heating up gloves or boots but won’t do much for a space as large as a tent.
Personally, they seem like a waste of space for me. If you really want a heater for your camping adventure and won’t have access to power, it may be worth looking into portable propane heaters as these will have a real ability to heat a tent.
Some may think that it’s impossible to camp in the cold and be warm at the same time, but it’s not! Below we’ll dive into all the ways you can stay warm and what heating products will actually work for your camping situation.
Is An Electric Heater Safe In A Tent?
If you do choose to heat your tent with a portable heater, electric heaters are the safest as they do not produce flame or emit CO2. This being said, you should always be cautious when using any heater inside a tent.
Only use heaters specifically designed for camping, and never leave your heater unattended or sleep with it running. Turn your heater on half an hour before bed, warm up your space and turn it off before you go to sleep.
The downside to the electric heaters is that you must have a power source. This could come in the form of a paid for, powered campsite, your car battery or an inverter. Whatever option you choose, remember to consider the weather and the waterproofness of your connections.
Being in any small enclosed space with a heater generally comes with some precautions, even more so when you are inside a tent made of relative thin material, designed to create a micro environment. Firstly, as previously mentioned, never sleep with your heater turned on. Secondly, research your products and know the instructions/warnings associated with them.
Never take an open flame inside and make sure you have proper ventilation, despite the cold. Always follow proper use and maintenance directions, and if using a gas heater inside, consider having a carbon monoxide detector and allow plenty of air flow in and out of your tent.
Lightweight Heaters For Backpacking
As camping heaters aren’t quite the most essential option while backpacking, the range of options is quite small and the heaters themselves quite large.
The problem with electric heaters is the extra components you must carry in order to have it functioning. If using an electric heater, you obviously will need a power source. If hiking to a powered camp sight, it can be as easy as plugging into a permanent outlet. However, most of the time when backpacking this will not be the case.
With no car battery or permanent plug in, you will have to carry an alternative power source such as a portable battery and these done have much power, thus your heater will not be too strong or last very long.
A small propane heater is probably your best option if you really require a tent heater whilst backpacking. The small devices are fueled by specially designed, disposable propane tanks. Some models come with an oxygen level detector, which is worth the price to ensure your safety while in use indoors.
In my opinion, if you are really committed to backpacking in the winter, it is much better to invest in good quality gear which will keep you warm and can be used over and over on future trips.
Often it’s scary to invest those hard earned dollars into expensive gear and you may not think it is worth it, BUT I’m sure you will appreciate that extra snug sleeping bag on a cold winter night, after hiking 50 miles through a blizzard, knowing you weren’t carrying the extra weight of a heater.
Alternatives to Battery Powered Tent Heaters
Besides using a portable propane/butane heater, there are several gear related ways to boost your warmth levels. Investing in good cold weather gear is the better bet vs lugging around large batteries or canisters of fuel – especially on a backpacking trip where staying lightweight is everything!
Also read: 49 Ways to Lighten Your Backpacking Load
• Hand and foot warmers
Super easy to find in any outdoor or snow shop, pocket hand warmers can be your best friend on those cold winter nights. Relatively inexpensive to buy a box in bulk and always pack a few for emergencies. The air activated sachets of warmth simply heat up in 5-10 mins once you open the packet.
Put them in your gloves to keep your hands toasty, or stick them to your socks for a similarly pleasant sensation for your feet!
Even though they are only meant for your hands and feet, you can always place them anywhere else you may be extra cold. I have used them as an alternative to a heat pack on my lower back and I have friends who swear that placing two on the front of your hip bones can warm up your whole body.
The last handy use for foot warmers with sticky backs is to stick one to your phone. It may sound silly, but I’m sure if you have spent any extended time in extreme cold conditions you would know how fast your phone battery can die. Sticking a warmer to the back of your phone or keeping it in the same pocked as a hand warmer, keeps the battery going oh so much longer.
• Hot water bottle
This one is my favorite tip for cold camping. I’m always surprised when even veteran backpackers haven’t heard about the Nalgene hot water bottle. Invest in a large water bottle which can handle boiling water. The classic Nalgene is capable of this however I am sure there is probably others also on the market.
Use you bottle for normal drinking water throughout the day, then fill with boiling water before bed. Place inside, at the foot of your sleeping bag to use as a DIY hot water bottle and keep you cozy and warm all night long.
Another secret of mine is to also place your clothes for the next day inside the bottom of your bag with your bottle. When you wake up, you can hold onto that warmth that little bit longer as you don’t have to get dressed into frozen clothes.
• Better sleeping bags
As previously mentioned, it is well worth investing in a good sleeping bag. Sure they can be pricy but a good sleeping bag will be your best friend on those cold nights. Not only this, the more intense cold weather bags are often also more specifically designed for backpacking. This means they will be more lightweight and won’t weigh your pack down like a cheap synthetic alternative.
• Tent structure and location
Having an appropriate tent for you destination is imperial to staying warm. Contrary to popular belief, not all tents are equal. When buying or renting a tent, always check its rating, a summer tent is not going to hold up in anything other than a warm, windless summer night.
3 season tents are fine for winter camping in warmer destinations but if you want to get anywhere close to snow camping you really want to invest in a 4 season tent. 4 season tents are structurally made to withstand higher winds, colder temperatures and generally more intense conditions. The thicker, wind stopping material will keep out more of the cold weather and increase your enjoyment inside.
Aside from having an appropriate tent, the location of your tent is also important. Try not to camp in exposed areas such as ridge lines, or large fields. I know it can be tempting to place your tent on top of the mountain with that beautiful view for sunrise, however if it is that cold, I guarantee you will have a better night tucked away from the elements.
Try to find a natural wind break such as a cluster of trees, cliff face or below a ridge line. If there is nothing already around, you can try and make one from rocks, logs or even snow!
Good thermals are also a must when cold camping. You only need to carry one set (top and bottom) and they will dramatically increase your warmth.
There is a great debate as to whether you should actually wear them to sleep inside your sleeping bag or not. As thermals are designed to trap and retain your body heat (as is your sleeping bag), many say that if you wear thermals to sleep in your bag, your body heat isn’t able to escape and transfer to the material in the bag and warm it up.
Personally, I have found that if it is extremely cold and I have on both my thermals to keep my skin warm, and a Nalgene hot water bottle to heat up the bag, I have been comfortable. On the other hand, I have friends who say it is better for them to sleep in long sleeves but not thermals and let the sleeping bag do the work.
Mostly, layering comes down to preference, play around with your options and find out what works for you!
If you absolutely insist on using an electric heater while camping. You’ll need a significant power source, like a Goal Zero Yeti 1250 and then combine with a small, energy efficient electric heater, like the Lasko 100 which could work well for heating a small tent. For portable gas heating you can go with an indoors rated Mr. Heater Little Buddy.
Another option is to target a specific area of your body and heat it with a small battery powered heating system If your toes and feet are the place that is always cold, maybe all you need is a pair of heated socks like the Snow Deer heated socks. I was even able to find heated thermals/long underwear: Sunwill Thermal Underwear