The Ultimate Guide to Safely Use a Buddy Heater in Tent Camping

Keeping warm, while camping in cold weather, can be challenging. Using a Buddy Heater in tent and RV camping has become a popular way to overcome freezing weather. In this post, we’ll guide you through the ins and outs of safely using the Mr. Heater Buddy propane heater while camping. Thanks to its safety features and user-friendly design this heater has become a hit among outdoor enthusiasts.

Buddy Heater next to orange tent. Woman camping in snow

Our Little Buddy Heater joined us on our recent California National Park Road trip. Night temperatures were below freezing in the mountains. And we also were camping in the parks which meant no power for an electric heater. Since Brad has been using a Mr. Buddy Heater in his ice fishing tent for decades, we felt confident this heater was a good choice for our trip. I definitely enjoyed the extra warmth. But we were also super cautious because the risks are very real. We’ll share what we did to keep safe.

What is a Buddy Heater?

Buddy Heaters are portable propane heaters manufactured by a company called Mr. Heater. The Buddy Heater line comes in 3 different sizes, all rated safe for indoor use. They utilize small 1lb propane tanks and work great for camping, ice fishing, garages, and workshops.

Mr. Heater has been manufacturing a variety of heaters since 1984. We personally own 2 different sizes in the Portable Buddy® group and they get lots of use in winter months.

Potential Risks When Using a Propane Heater

Failing to properly use a Buddy Heater in tent camping can result in loss of life so this is a pretty serious part of our conversation. While using a heater in a tent may seem concerning, the Mr. Heater Buddy is designed specifically for this purpose. However, there are limitations to using this propane heater when camping.

But before we talk about Mr. Heater’s safety features, here’s a quick look at the serious risks you should consider:

  • Carbon Monoxide (CO) poisoning is the most serious risk. To put it bluntly: it kills. Any heater that burns fuel will release some carbon monoxide.
  • Low Oxygen Levels will make you sick. Fuel needs to burn oxygen to ignite.
  • Condensation on tent walls. Burning propane releases moisture into the air. That moisture can adhere to the tent walls and start sweating.
  • Starting your tent on fire is just as scary. The hot heater surface could easily catch materials on fire.

Key Buddy Heater Safety Features and Guidelines for Camping

Now that we’ve covered the very real scary risks, let’s talk about the safety features in the Mr. Heater Buddy line of heaters. And we’ll also cover what you can do to be safe beyond those features.

#1 Importance of Ventilation with Buddy Heater in Tent or Camper

When using a Mr. Buddy heater in your tent, it is crucial to maintain proper ventilation. Adequate air movement will help prevent the build-up of dangerous gases like carbon monoxide (CO). As tents and campers are typically small spaces, it’s vital to keep vents or windows partially open while the heater is burning to allow fresh air circulation. We also ran a small battery-powered fan to ensure air was circulating. I felt the fan also helped avoid condensation.

#2 Monitor Carbon Monoxide and Oxygen Levels

Mr. Buddy heaters come with a built-in safety feature called an Oxygen Depletion Sensor (ODS). According to the Consumer Product Safety Commission, an ODS monitors oxygen levels inside your tent. When oxygen levels drop below a safe threshold the gas valve automatically closes which causes the heater to shut off.

In theor,y a drop in oxygen level is a sign that carbon monoxide has risen. However, the levels do not always changing in a direct relationship and CO levels may be high even if the ODS has not triggered. So it’s also critical to have a carbon monoxide monitor when burning a propane heater in any closed-in area like a tent or RV.

#3 Proper Placement of a Buddy Heater in Tent or Camper

Selecting the appropriate location in your tent for your space heater is essential for safety. Always place the heater on a flat, stable surface where it won’t be easily knocked over. Your Buddy Heater has an automatic tip-over shut-off feature. That means if the heater is not on level ground or falls over it will shut off automatically. However, it still has some hot surfaces so being proactive with a safe surface is the best safety rule.

Keep it away from flammable materials such as sleeping bags, clothes, and tent walls. Ensure that the heater has ample space to maintain adequate airflow.

Can You Sleep with a Buddy Heater in Tent?

Mr. Heater clearly states on the box “Do not sleep while heater is operating”. I’ve seen reviews where campers have used a buddy heater overnight and I have to wonder if they have a death wish. While the buddy heater has been designed with many safety features to make it indoor safe, they can’t overcome a system failure. If you are awake, you’ll know if a safety feature fails.

Our solution for camping on a very cold night was to run our Little Buddy® for about 1/2 hour before bedtime. Shut it off and then seal up our pop-up camper for the night and snuggle into our warm sleeping bags. Once you are warm, a properly rated sleeping bag combined with ground insulation will keep you warm.

Then one of us would crawl out of our warm cocoon in the morning and run the heater long enough to take the chill off. Yes, it was often a game to see who would break first and leave our warm bed.

I will confess I got up one really cold night for a bathroom and ran our heater for 10 minutes (with vents open) to take the chill off. That little machine heats a small space fast! But unless you are certain that you won’t doze off, don’t try running the heater during the night.

Little Buddy®Portable Buddy®Big Buddy®
See on AmazonSee on AmazonSee on Amazon
Model #F215100
BTU/Hr3800Low 4,000
High 9,000
Low 4,000
Med 9,000
High 18,000
Coverage95 sq. ft.235 sq. ft.450 sq. ft
Run Time5.6 hrs.Low 6 hrs.
High 3 hrs.
Low 10.8 hrs
Med 4.8 hrs.
High 2.4 hrs
Max. Elevation7,000 feet7,000 ft.7,000 ft.
Weight5.8 lb.10.6 lb.17.1 lb
Size17H x 10.5L x 8.5W
inc. canister
13.25H x 8L x 13.25W17H x 11L x 17.5W
Canister Size1 lb. only1 lb.
20 lb. w/adapter
Two 1 lb.
20 lb. w/adapter

Which Buddy Heater is Best for Camping?

Here are a few questions to consider when selecting which one of the Buddy Heaters is best for you.

What size space are you heating?

The first factor to consider when choosing which buddy heater to buy is the size of the space you are going to heat.

The smallest, Little Buddy®, will heat up to 95 square feet. That’s a 10×10 tent, about the size of a family tent. The Portable Buddy® and the Big Buddy® have multiple settings so you can run it at 4,000 BTUs, which is about the same as the Little Buddy® or you can take them up a notch and heat larger spaces.

So for a smaller space, any of the 3 heaters will work.

However, if you want to use the heater in a larger RV or do double duty in your garage you’ll want the larger sizes. The Portable Buddy® can cover up to 235 sq. ft. while the Big Buddy® covers up to 450 sq. ft.

How much space do you have to set up your heater?

The reason we took the Little Buddy® (the smallest one) on our camping trip was to save space. There isn’t any benefit to getting the larger heaters to heat a small space. They run about the same amount of time and at the low setting give off the same amount of heat. So why not save storage space?

How well does your tent hold heat?

If you are in and out of your tent or camper often then you might find it an advantage to size up. For example when Brad ice fishes with the grandkids, that tent door is always flapping.

Note it is still important to have good ventilation for safe air movement. In this question, we are referring to more than normal activity.

buddy heater in camper
Little Buddy® in our pop up camper

Basics of Buddy Heaters

Propane-Based Operation

Buddy Heaters, manufactured by Mr. Heater, are propane-fueled portable heaters. They are small for convenient warmth in various settings. These heaters utilize a propane fuel source to generate heat, making them a reliable option for both indoor and outdoor use. They run off a 1lb propane canister and you can purchase an adapter to use a 20lb propane tank for the larger heaters.

BTU Ratings

Buddy Heaters are available in various sizes with different BTU (British Thermal Unit) ratings. The higher the BTU rating, the more heat the unit can generate. For example:

  • Little Buddy® Heater: ~3,800 BTUs
  • Portable Buddy® Heater: ~4,000 – 9,000 BTUs
  • Big Buddy® Heater: ~4,000 – 18,000 BTUs

The BTU rating is important for determining the right heater for your needs. A higher BTU is suitable for larger spaces or colder conditions, while lower BTU ratings will cater to smaller spaces and less demanding environments. Make sure to choose the appropriate BTU rating for your space and temperature requirements.

Tip-Over Shut-Off

All Buddy Heaters come equipped with an automatic tip-over shut-off. That means if your running heater gets knocked over it will stop. However, keep in mind that it has hot surfaces that could still burn or damage your tent and sleeping bags. So make sure you have a level and safe place to set up your heater when running.

Oxygen Depletion Sensor (ODS)

An Oxygen Depletion Sensor shuts off the fuel supply to the heater when the oxygen falls below a certain level. I chatted with Mr. Heater Support and they indicated that for Buddy Heaters, that level was around 16%. Because propane needs oxygen to burn, it will remove oxygen from your tent or camper. If the oxygen level gets too low you’ll have serious health issues. This automatic shut-off protects you.

How an ODS affects high elevation use

At elevations over 7,000 feet, the ODS will stop the Buddy Heater from working because the oxygen level in the air drops below 16%. At sea level, the oxygen level in the air is about 21%. At 3,000 feet altitude oxygen is at 19%, and at 5,000 feet it is 17%.

When camping in cold weather, we try to drop down to lower elevations at night. Not only do we find oxygen levels that allow us to run a buddy heater it is also naturally warmer at lower elevations. On our California trip, our mountain campgrounds were between 4,000 and 6,000 feet so our Little Buddy® worked great.

Use In RVs and Small Spaces

Buddy Heaters are a popular choice for heating in RVs and small spaces. When properly ventilated and used safely, these heaters can provide a comfortable temperature. Their portability and efficiency make them an ideal choice for tents, RVs, home workshops, and more.

When using a Buddy Heater in a confined space, always be sure to follow the manufacturer’s guidelines for safe operation and ventilation requirements. Remember that safety should always be your top priority when using any heating device in your living or working environment.

Frequently Asked Questions about Buddy Heater in Tents

Can I leave a portable propane heater unattended in a tent?

No, you should never leave a portable propane heater unattended in your tent. Always supervise the heater’s operation and switch it off before leaving or sleeping.

Which Mr. Buddy heaters are suitable for tents?

The Little Buddy® Heater and Portable Buddy® Heater are both popular options for tent heating. Make sure to choose the right size for your tent and follow all safety precautions.

Can I use propane heaters in large tents?

Yes, propane tent heaters can provide warmth for large tents, but you should ensure proper ventilation and follow all safety guidelines. Do not sleep with the heater running or leave it unattended.

What is the restriction on buddy heaters in Massachusetts and Canada?

Currently, Canada and Massachusetts have not approved propane heaters for use indoors. So Mr. Heater changed the packaging and instruction book for those states to indicate the heaters are only for outdoor use.

A few last thoughts about a Buddy Heater in Tents and Campers

By all means, use a buddy heater to warm up your tent or camper. But keep in mind they are not designed to keep your camping space warm and toasty like your home furnace. When used for camping a buddy heater can warm you up during the day. It’s best used to take the edge off the cold before you fall asleep and again first thing in the morning. Don’t count on it to replace the need for a good quality sleeping bag and ground pad.

Remember to always follow the manufacturer’s guidelines and safety recommendations when using a Buddy Heater in your tent.

We were thrilled with the results we got by using our Little Buddy® when camping in the cold and will definitely bring it along again. I hope this guide to safely using a Buddy Heater in Tent Camping is helpful to your decision on keeping warm on your next trip!


  • Ladona Stork

    The Authors: Hey, we are Ladona and Brad, avid campers and hikers. We are crazy about getting outdoors at every possible moment and have decades of experience exploring nature. Our current goal is to visit all 63 US National Parks and just completed #42. WooHoo! Our mission is to help you plan your own adventures and create memories beyond your imagination!