Camping and Deadly Gases

Portable camping heaters can cause injury or even death if not used properly. Photo credit: Terrie Brockmann (c) 2015

Portable camping heaters can cause injury or even death if not used properly. Photo credit: Terrie Brockmann (c) 2015

In the early spring and the fall, campers rely upon portable camping heaters to make them more comfortable at night. Generally, people choose to use propane or butane heaters over electric ones. You need to exercise caution when using devices that burn fuel. Each year, campers die from fires or the outgases gas-combustible devices emit.

The odorless, tasteless carbon monoxide gas can occur with any type of combustible fuel including:

  • Butane
  • Charcoal
  • Diesel
  • Gasoline
  • Kerosene
  • Propane
  • White gas
  • Wood

Use Indoor Safe Heaters Only

Not all space heaters are safe to use indoors, including a tent or trailer. Be sure that the heater you purchase bears the description “indoor safe” or similar wording. These heaters are more efficient and burn almost 100 percent of the fuel. Newer heaters burn more effectively but older gas heaters are not efficient enough to ensure your wellbeing.

Modern space heaters have a safety switch that turns off the heater if something or someone knocks it over. Most older heaters do not have this protection. Before taking a heater on a camping trip, turn it on and test the shut-off switch by tipping the heater over. Your life is worth the extra effort.

Trailer Heaters

One of the saddest tragedies involving a camping trailer heater happened on October 12, 2007 in Madison, Wisconsin. DeVere Clay, his wife Barbara, and their two grandchildren Hope and Erin Briney died of carbon monoxide poisoning. The Clays were Clydesdale horse breeders and the four were attending a horse show in Madison. The investigating officer reported that “the propane heater appeared to be old…” according to several reports.

The Clays thought that opening a ceiling vent would protect them. Regrettably, the gas is heavier than air so the carbon monoxide stayed low, asphyxiating them.

Campers often believe that they are safer in trailers but as this unfortunate accident shows, they may not be. Be sure your camper has a working carbon monoxide detector. To ensure that you are safe from device malfunction, you can purchase a portable carbon monoxide detector to use in conjunction with the built-in unit.

Deaths in Tents

I’ve heard people say that a tent has enough ventilation to dispel the poisonous gases. Modern tents are more air tight than the older canvas tents of the 1950s and 1960s. Inefficient portable camping space heaters are as dangerous in tents as they are in hard-sided campers and motor homes. In Sweetwater County, Wyoming, a man and his son died in an ice-fishing hut. Authorities blame the propane heater and advise that in order to safely use these devices “‘…your tent, hut or camper (must) be well-ventilated.'” 

Even if you escape death, carbon monoxide poisoning can affect you for the rest of your life. In 1994, Catherine Mormile stopped to rest in a tent during her third Iditarod race in Alaska. The faulty propane heater was slowly filling the tent with the deadly gas. After three hours, Mormile rose to leave but found that she was dizzy, weak, and cruelly affected by the gas.

That episode affects Mormile even 12 years later. In the years directly following the poisoning, she found that her IQ dropped significantly. She had to learn simple skills, like reading and writing, again as well as recover her physical skills.

Use a Battery-Operated Carbon Monoxide Detector

Protect yourself by using a portable battery-operated carbon monoxide detector in your tent. Place it on the floor near your sleeping area. Be alert and do not cover it with clothing or supplies or it will not detect the deadly gases. 



In the beginning, you may think that you had a touch of sunstroke. The warning signs are similar:

  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Headache
  • Mental confusion
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath

Other indications may include flu-like symptoms:

  • Blurred vision
  • Chest pains
  • Diarrhea
  • Numbness
  • Stomach pain
  • Weakness

People with breathing problems, such as asthma, or with heart problems will probably be more susceptible to the gas.

Get Fresh Air Immediately!

If you notice these symptoms, get outdoors. Fresh air is one of the best treatments. If you are vomiting, have a throbbing headache, or cannot stand, seek emergency medical treatment immediately.

When you are feeling better, return to your tent or camper and turn off the heater or device. If you are in a large camper that has a generator, turn that off since generators are a prime source of carbon gases. Ventilate your tent or camper. Keep in mind that carbon monoxide is a heavy gas and the highest concentration is near the floor.

Contact the park rangers if you need help resolving the situation. They are trained in this matter. Do not assume that there is no problem.


Poisonous gases from camping heaters are not the only hazard of using combustible fuel devices. Across the nation, several stories of tent fires hit the news feeds.

In Ames, Iowa, on January 22, 2016, four college students’ tent burned down and investigators blamed the propane heater. Fortunately, no one was injured.
In Estacada, Utah, on August 14, 2009, a propane heater or stove exploded and severely burnt a man.

When used properly, propane heaters can keep you warm at night. Photo credit: Terrie Brockmann (c)2015

When used properly, propane heaters can keep you warm at night. Photo credit: Terrie Brockmann (c)2015


Enjoy a Safe Camping Trip

In the cool fall and spring, authorities see more problems with camping heaters. Not all incidents end in tragedy. However, as Mormile has found, even temporary exposure without death, can be devastating.

  • Be safe by choosing a heater designed for indoor use.
  • Have a working carbon monoxide detector.
  • Know the symptoms.
  • Seek medical attention if you suspect you have had poisoning from the deadly gases.


Amerigas RV Propane Safety 
Roadtreking Carbon Monoxide and Propane Issues Spike in Spring for Rvers 
Illinois DNR Take Precautions to Avoid Carbon Monoxide Poisoning in Cabins, Boats and Campers 

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