There are lots of reasons why people camp in their cars in cold weather and need a car camping heater. Maybe you are on your way to bag an alpine peak, heading to an out-of-town ski resort for the weekend, or going hunting. To stay warm in your car or tent at night, consider adding a portable heater to your camping gear. We have reviewed the best heaters for winter car camping including which ones are safe to bring in a tent or truck camper and tips on how to heat your car while camping.
Safety notice: Fire, burns, and carbon monoxide poisoning are always risks with car camping portable heaters. Never use a heater in an unventilated area or a moving vehicle. Do not leave a heater running unattended or while sleeping.
Types of Portable Car Heaters for Camping
There are two main types of car camping heat source – propane and electric. Propane heaters such as catalytic heaters use propane gas canisters to fuel them. Electric heaters plug into a power source such as a 120V outlet or a 12V car battery. Before we dive into specific product recommendations for car camp heaters, let’s look at the pros and cons of both types of car camping heat sources.
Propane heater car camping pros:
- Power source is easy to access (purchase the fuel canisters at any outdoor store)
- Propane fuel is affordable
- Easy to use
Propane heater car camping cons:
- Risk of carbon monoxide poisoning
- Not environmentally friendly
Electric heater car camping pros:
- Never need to buy replacement fuel
- No carbon monoxide risks
Electric heater car camping cons:
- Will likely need access to a 120V outlet or a generator
- Uses a lot of power
Are there 12V heaters for car camping? While there are fans that you can plug directly into your car’s 12V power outlet, heaters use much more power than fans. There are a few small heaters on the market that plug into the car’s 12V outlet, but they generally aren't sufficient for car camping. They are more used to defrost windows than heat the whole car’s interior. However, there are some battery-powered heaters for car camping that connect directly to your car’s 12V battery (or to an auxiliary 12V battery that you use for camping).
If you are a regular camper and/or hunter, it may be worth investing in a generator so that you can have 120V power access wherever you go. There are gas and solar-powered generators. For car and tent campers, solar-powered is by far the best option. These generators are quiet and safe to use indoors. Jackery is a reliable brand and has small generators made specifically for tent and car campers. The other option is to get a power inverter for your car, however, be careful as this can drain your car battery. Car batteries are not meant to consistently pull high amperage.
Alternative Fuel Sources for Camping Heaters
Two other types of heaters are less popular but still worth a mention – diesel heaters for car camping and stove/heater combos.
Diesel heaters produce gas byproducts that must be vented outside your tent or car. They are powered using diesel fuel and your car’s 12V battery. Diesel heaters are expensive compared to other options and can be loud. However, if you are looking for a durable winter car camping heater, this may be a good option for you. Diesel heaters can work well in very cold weather and stay on all night.
Stove/heater combos are popular among survivalists due to their functionality, stealthiness, and durability. These heaters are usually silent, and some options can be used safely indoors or in a tent.
What to Look for When Shopping for a Heater for Car Camping
In addition to the type of power source the heater uses, there are several factors to consider when choosing a portable heater for car camping. Think about which ones are most important to you based on where you live and the kinds of outdoor recreation you do.
A small heater for car camping is most likely not going to produce as much heat as your home’s heating system, so you should have realistic expectations about what your portable heater can do. Look at the BTUs (British Thermal Units) to see how powerful the heater will be. Higher BTUs mean more heating power. The downside of that is that the higher the BTUs, the more power the heater will likely need to operate. You can find portable car heaters for camping with BTUs as low as 5,000 or as high as 18,000. Also, measure the square footage of the tent or vehicle you camp in and choose a heater that can heat a space that size.
This is different from the power source. There are two common heating methods for modern portable heaters – radiant heat and convection heat. Many propane heaters use radiant heat. Old oil-powered heaters also used radiant heat. Radiant heaters directly transfer heat to people and objects in the room. They do not heat the air or circulate air, and you need to have a direct line of sight to the heater to feel its warmth. They also aren’t intended for long periods of continuous use. For these reasons, radiant heaters work great for small spaces like cars or tents when camping in cold weather.
Convection heaters heat the air by sucking cold air in, warming it, and pushing it back out into the room. An electric heater for car camping is likely going to use convection heating. With a convection heater, you are not going to feel the warmth as quickly as you would with a radiant heater, but once it heats the air, you will likely stay warm longer after turning it off.
Look for a heater with a handle to make it easy to carry. Three other components affect the portability of a space heater:
Obviously, the smaller, lighter, and more compact the heater is, the more portable it will be. Some propane heaters are even small enough to carry on a winter backpacking trip!
There are inherent risks to using a space heater for car camping. Getting a heater with built-in safety features can help reduce those risks. Many heaters will automatically turn off if tipped over. This is probably the most essential safety feature if you plan to use your portable heater in a car or tent. Navigating small spaces is difficult, and even when being careful, things may get knocked over. Other safety features include detectors for low oxygen levels or carbon monoxide and automatic turn-off after a certain amount of time in case you fall asleep.
Best Heaters for Car Camping
We researched the various types of car camping heaters on the market. Below are our top picks of car heaters for car camping based on their heating power, portability, safety features, reviews, and overall value.
Propane Heaters for Car Camping
The Mr. Heater Portable Buddy Heater is basically the gold standard of portable propane heaters. It’s ideal for heating small spaces and relatively cheap compared to other modern portable heaters with a similar amount of power. One downside of these popular little heaters is that they do not operate well above 7,000 feet of elevation. If you want to go camping in the mountains of Colorado, California, or Washington, you may need a different heater.
- Power: Up to 9,000 BTUs
- Run time: Up to 6 hours per 1 lb. propane canister
- Portability: Weighs 10.6 pounds and has a built-in stand and fold-down handle
- Safety features: Automatically turns off if tipped over or low oxygen is detected
If you have a small car and/or tent, the Mr. Heater Buddy may feel like overkill. Consider the Mr. Heater Little Buddy instead. It can be used in your car, tent, camper, or outside and heats up to 95 square feet. It only weighs five pounds and is small enough to attach to your pack and bring along for a day hike as well.
- Power: 4,000-9,000 BTUs
- Run time: Up to 5.6 hours per 1 lb. propane canister
- Portability: Weighs 5 pounds and has a handle and a removable stand
- Safety features: Automatically turns off if tipped over or low oxygen is detected
For a cheaper option, check out the APG Portable Space Heater. It is extremely lightweight and a popular choice for cold-weather backpackers. This small heater twists onto butane fuel cylinders. You can use the same fuel for your butane camping stove and your heater to save space when packing for a camping or backpacking trip. If you’d rather use propane fuel for this heater, you can get a butane-to-propane adapter.
- Power: Unknown
- Run time: Depends on the fuel canister size
- Portability: Weighs .7 pounds
- Safety features: Temperature control knob
Electric Heaters for Car Camping
For a durable portable heater that will last, go with the Stanley Heavy-Duty Electric Heater. This well-made portable heater has a low and high heat setting and a fan-only option. It’s very quiet and can heat spaces up to 165 square feet. This heater is a great addition to your camping gear for any season.
- Power: 5,100 BTUs
- Run time: Unknown
- Portability: Weighs 3.8 pounds and has built-in stand and handle
- Safety features: Temperature control knob and automatically turns off if tipped over
If you are on a strict budget and can plug into a 120V outlet, go with the Amazon Basics Ceramic Small Space Personal Mini Heater. This is a great option if you are going to be camping at a campsite that has an electrical hookup or if you have a generator or inverter.
- Power: 500 watts (equivalent to 1,700 BTUs)
- Run time: Unknown
- Portability: Weighs 1.4 pounds and has a built-in stand
- Safety features: Automatically turns off if tipped over
Top Diesel Heater for Car Camping
VEVOR is the top brand for diesel heaters that are car camping and tent camping safe. These diesel heaters use a 12V power source such as a car battery. You can adjust the settings based on your altitude and the outside temperature to maximize operating efficiency. I also love the remote control feature!
- Power: 5,000 watts (equivalent to about 20,000 BTUs)
- Run time: Up to 10 hours on one tank
- Portability: Weighs 18.3 pounds and has a built-in stand and two handles
- Safety features: Temperature control, timer, and overheating protection
Best Stove/Heater Combo
Looking for a safe heater for car camping that doubles as a camp stove? The VESTA Self-Powered Indoor Space Heater and Stove from InstaFire is our top pick. It’s safe to use indoors including in a tent or car. It does not emit odors or sounds, so it’s ideal for hunting or survival situations. It uses canned fuel which has a long shelf-life. When in heater mode, a small, quiet fan in the device is activated and can warm spaces up to 200 square feet. You can control the amount of heat output by adding or removing fuel cans.
- Power: Varies; can use up to 3 fuel cans at a time
- Run time: 6 hours per fuel can
- Portability: Weighs 7.6 pounds and has a built-in stand and handle
- Safety features: Fuel does not emit toxins and will extinguish if tipped over
Tips for Cold Weather Camping
Want to stay warm without a heater? There are so many creative ways to stay warm when camping in your car or tent even if you don’t have a portable heater.
- Use sleeping bags, pads, and clothing that have an R-value. This tells you how insulating they will be. The higher the R-value, the more insulating the product will be.
- Get some Hot Hands. These self-heating, single-use bags come in a variety of sizes. You can put them in your pockets or sleeping bag, but be careful about falling asleep with them near your skin. They can get too hot and cause burns.
- Boil water in a Nalgene water bottle. Then, put it in your sleeping bag with you, and it will provide warmth for hours. This trick is common with backpackers who can’t lug a heavy portable heater on their trips.
- Buy Reflectix or a similar type of insulation. Measure and cut the material to fit your windows. It also provides added privacy! You can usually find this foil insulation for sale in large rolls at your local hardware store.
- Use a heated blanket for car camping. Many car camping heated blankets have a 12V plug, so you can power them directly from your car’s 12V outlet rather than needing an additional power source. Look for one that has different heating levels, a timer, and an auto-off feature for safety.
Some people also make their own small heaters out of materials they can find at home or the local hardware store. There are YouTube videos if you want to learn how to make a safe DIY car camping heater.
Final Thoughts on Car Camping Heating
Years ago, I tent-camped in Zion National Park in the winter with low temperatures of 15 degrees. My friends gave in and slept in the car, but it was still well below freezing and icy inside. We didn’t have a portable heater. I wish I knew then what I know now – you can stay warm and cozy in almost any conditions with the right gear.
With the right heater, car camping can be enjoyable all year round. Our overall pick for the best portable heater for car camping is the Mr. Heater Little Buddy. It’s the right size for any vehicle, safe to use indoors, lightweight, and compact. Whether you go with a propane or electric heater for car camping, make sure to follow all instructions and safety precautions from the manufacturers.