If you’re looking for a heater for car camping, safety should be your primary concern.
Lots of portable heaters are out there, but only some are safe for enclosed spaces, like a car or a tent.
You’ll also want to ensure that your heater throws off a decent amount of heat. Only a few of them have a proven track record of warming up people when the going gets cold.
In a Hurry? Here's My Top 3 Picks
What Makes a Heater Safe for Car Camping?
- No open flame
- Grate in front of heating element
- Tip-over auto shut-off
- Oxygen sensor with auto shut-off
Types of Heaters
- Propane Heaters
- Ceramic (Electric) Heaters
- Fan (Electric) Heaters
- Oil Heaters
These run off of bottles of propane, and heat with fire. That flame can either be exposed or behind safety panels. You’ll definitely want the latter if you’re camping in an enclosed space.
Ceramic (Electric) Heaters
These use ceramic plates, heated with electricity. There’s no risk of carbon monoxide poisoning when using these in an enclosed space, as there’s no flame.
But they usually require a corded electric connection.
Fan (Electric) Heaters
These are similar to ceramic heaters, but use a metal coil and fan instead of ceramic plates. They also run off electricity.
These look like old-school radiators and use diathermic oil heated with electricity. They’re not suitable for camping due to their large size and heaviness.
4 Best Heaters for Car Camping
Mr. Heater has long been a trusted name in the portable heater business.
The Buddy has no open flame and is safe for indoor use. It runs on 1 lb. propane cylinders that screw into the port.
It’s a big sucker, though, so you might not want to use it in a small tent. While there’s no open flame, the front can get pretty hot, and you don’t want to touch it while it’s on.
It throws off 4,000 to 9,000 BTUs and can run for a maximum of 2.4 hours at full blast, or almost 5.4 hours on low.
Its safety features include an auto shut-off if it tips over and an oxygen depletion sensor that turns off the unit when the oxygen level gets too low.
Just be cautious with any heater in an enclosed space. One reviewer said the Buddy set off his carbon monoxide alarm, even with an open window.
Always bring a backup carbon monoxide alarm with you — don’t rely on any heater’s internal sensors alone.
The Buddy’s little brother is another great option for those who don’t need a huge heater.
Its 3,800 BTUs should be more than enough to heat a small tent. Its heating element is angled upward, so it circulates heat more evenly.
Like its older brother, it runs off 1 lb. propane cylinders.
It also comes with the safety features of the regular Buddy, including an auto shut-off feature if it tips over and an oxygen depletion sensor that turns off the unit when the oxygen level gets too low.
As with any propane heater, bring a backup carbon monoxide detector with you so that you can rest assured you’re not being poisoned in an enclosed space.
A corded electric heater will give you peace of mind about carbon monoxide, as there’s no flame to worry about.
The drawback? You’ll need to plug these models into a generator or ensure your campsite has power.
But if you can find a plug, a 500-watt heater will keep you toasty and safe all night in a small tent or car. It’s also very quiet.
Plus, it comes with an auto shut-off if it tips over, which is important for safety.
You can even use this at home if your office or bedroom gets too cold. I’ve used electric space heaters in crappy apartments with bad insulation. They can be lifesavers.
Also, Amazon Basics is a trusted brand with generally good customer service.
Some reviews say the front grill gets very hot, though, so be careful about where you put this if you’re using it close to where you’ll be sleeping.
If you’re looking for something a little beefier, the GiveBest ceramic heater has three times the wattage of the Amazon Basics brand.
You’ll also need a generator to plug this into, or power at the campsite. However, if you’re going the glamping route, it’s hard to beat a big ol’ electric space heater.
It also comes with an auto shut-off if it’s tipped over.
Note, however, that some reviews say it fails to turn on after a while. GiveBest is one of those unknown brands that’s a gamble when it comes to customer service.
Other Ways to Keep Yourself Warm
If you grew up in a cold climate, you’ve probably seen these at gas station counters. They’re an OG in the personal heating business for a reason: They work.
They’re basically little bags of sand that heat up when you shake them. They last for up to 18 hours, and they can get pretty hot.
So hot, in fact, that the company says not to put them directly against your skin.
If you stuff these things in your boots or gloves, you’ll keep your digits cozy and warm for at least half the day.
The drawbacks: They’re disposable, they take about 15 minutes to fully warm up, and let’s be honest: They don’t quite last for 18 hours.
You might feel a tiny bit of warmth at that point, but most of it will be long gone. And the company is right — you shouldn’t put these against your bare skin for very long. You can actually end up with burns from doing that.
A modern twist on a classic.
These hand warmers can last between 8 and 15 hours depending on the heat level. They come with a 10,000 mAh battery, which is over three times the size of an iPhone 13 battery.
You can also use it as an emergency power bank for your phone or other devices. That’s a big bonus, as anyone who’s camped in the cold knows how quickly phone batteries can deplete.
The warmers come with micro USB and USB type C charging ports.
They’re much bulkier than the HotHands warmers, though. You couldn’t fit one inside a glove, which is a big point in favor of the analog warmers.
Why leave your heated blanket at home?
This cozy fleece blanket is powered by a battery bank that sits in its own pocket. Its heat settings range from 95 to 122 F and it heats up within a few seconds.
It has a zipper, so you can wear it like a shawl and it won’t slip off while you’re using your hands.
Some of the reviews say the blanket isn’t as warm as corded versions. However, that’s to be expected given its limited power source.
Safety Guide for Using Car Camping Heaters
There are a ton of different types of portable heaters, but only some are safe for use in enclosed spaces like cars or tents.
Never, ever have an open flame in your car or tent. Some heaters won’t specify that they should not be used in tents or cars.
Or they’ll say that the area should be well ventilated — which might sound safe, as air can pass through many tent materials or you have the ability to crack a window.
But an open flame keeps itself going by burning oxygen, which you need to breathe. In an enclosed space like a car or tent, that can disappear quickly.
There’s a good chance air won’t pass through tent material fast enough to replace the oxygen that’s being sucked out by a flame heater.
And if you’re cracking the window in a car to let in cold air, what’s the point of having a heater in the first place?
Even if a heater is rated for safe indoor use, bring a backup carbon monoxide alarm just in case.
Also, tent material is often extremely flammable. You never want anything inside your tent that produces a flame — even if it’s behind a cage, with tip-over safety mechanisms.
The exception is if you’re using a tent with a chimney specifically designed for a wood stove in the middle.
Car Camping Heaters Buying Guide
Choose a heater that will automatically shut off if it tips over or if the oxygen in your tent or car is depleted.
Even then, you should always have a backup carbon monoxide monitor — don’t trust the one that came with the heater.
If people say that the heater sets off their C02 alarm or melts the front plastic, don’t buy it.
Lastly, check on whether the company provides a warranty should the heater fail.
How Much Heat Will You Get, and for How Long?
Look for the BTUs that the heater produces — higher means warmer, but it’ll use more power.
And think about how long the heater can run, along with how much fuel you can bring on your trip.
Always bring more fuel than you think you’ll need. Remember the Scouting motto: Be prepared.
Safe vs. Unsafe Heaters for Car Camping
Electric heaters, like 12V heaters and ceramic heaters, are safe options, but are usually corded.
That means you’ll have to run them off a generator or your car battery while camping. And you don’t want to wake up to a dead battery.
Instead of a heater, you could also use hand warmers. Disposable hand warmers are a camping mainstay and often prevented my digits from freezing off when I was in Scouts.
Nowadays you can also buy rechargeable electric hand warmers — what a world we live in.
Another option is a heated blanket with a battery or one that connects via USB to a portable battery bank.
The Cheapest Heater Is No Heater
If your gear is good enough, you won’t need a heater. I’ve tent camped in backcountry blizzard conditions and never come close to an emergency situation because I was well prepared.
If it’ll be cold, bring a sleeping pad with good insulation, a warm sleeping bag, and extra clothes.
Put more insulation under you than on top. The cold ground will suck the warmth right out of you.
Can you sleep in your car with the heater on?
You should not do this. Car heaters require the engine to be on. Never go to sleep with your engine running, as exhaust can rise inside the car and poison you while you sleep.
Also, the heater can drain your car’s battery, leaving you stranded.
Can you run a space heater in a car?
It depends. Never use a space heater with an open flame inside any enclosed space, as it will deplete the oxygen. Take great care before running any other heater inside a car.
The front of the heater will likely get very hot, and a car contains many flammable things. It’s not safe to go to sleep with any kind of space heater inside a car.
Can you run a heater off a 12V battery?
Yes, as long as you have an adapter. You’ll have to convert DC to AC, then convert it to 120V before a normal electric heater will work off your car battery.
But keep in mind that you will drain your battery this way. You don’t want to strand yourself just to keep extra warm.
For my money, the Mr. Heater Buddy is more than enough to heat a tent, car, or even RV in cold conditions. It doesn’t have an open flame and it’s safe for indoor use.
If you’re in a smaller space, the Mr. Heater Little Buddy is a great option as well.
I wouldn’t risk buying a heater from a brand with no history behind it. Heaters can go wrong in many ways. If you’ll be in an enclosed space, you want one you can trust.
Stay away from heaters that have an open flame, as they can be fire and carbon monoxide hazards in open spaces.
Also, while connecting a heater to your car battery can be convenient, you run the risk of depleting the battery for the ride home.
If your gear isn’t warm enough for cold weather camping, I suggest upgrading that first, before buying a portable heater. But everyone’s preferences are different.
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Jack Hauen is a freelance writer and backpacking aficionado. When he's not writing, he can often be found in the Algonquin backcountry, wheezing through a portage that looked smaller on the map.