The Happy Camper: Winter Hot Tenting Safety

Kevin Callan talks about safety when hot-tenting in the cold winter:

Credit: Kevin Callan

Lately, I’ve fielded a lot of questions about the safety of sleeping in a hot tent during the winter.

It seems like the idea of being confined inside a canvas tent heated by a roaring woodstove appears quite hazardous. I guess it can be. Things can go wrong. The two main concerns are carbon monoxide poisoning and having the tent burn down. Both are quite rare — but both can happen.

Carbon monoxide poisoning is the less likely of the two. Hot tents are well vented. My Snowtrekker canvas tent has two vent holes at either end, and I always zip-open the front door a bit before going to bed. The stove itself is the main way that toxins are removed from inside the tent. It sucks fumes outside. Once the flames go down at night, the stove will start leaking carbon monoxide. As long as the tent isn’t airtight, fumes will still escape through the stovepipe. Just ensure the stovepipe is exiting the tent away from the prevailing wind. You don’t want smoke blowing down the pipe and into the tent.

You definitely don’t want your tent burning down. It’s your heat source and escape from the freezing temperatures. So, even if you’re able to escape the fire, you’ll still have to survive the cold night.

Fires can happen when candle flames touch the tent wall or when the woodstove is not properly managed. You can use LED flashlights to light up the tent or contain the candles — that’s a relatively easy fix. With the stove, the first priority is to make sure the pipe sections are properly secured. You don’t want them to separate while the stove is at full burn. (Some hot tenters prefer to wire their pipe sections together for this reason.) Also, make sure to set the tent up out of the wind. You don’t want the tent walls and stovepipe moving around uncontrollably. Always have leather work-gloves ready to handle the stove, or if a pipe becomes separated.

Usually, the main issue when it comes to a woodstove is human error. It’s very close quarters inside the tent, and it’s very easy to stumble onto the stove. Not only could you be badly burned, but you could also hit the stove and separate the pipe sections. That would be disastrous. Communicate with your tent mates. Tell them when you’re going to move about. Place your hand on someone’s shoulder to help keep balanced.

Another issue is knocking against the stove while you sleep. Some hot tenters prefer to let the stove go out at night and depend on a good sleeping bag to keep them warm. Others get up every couple of hours to feed the fire through the night. I burned a gigantic hole in my sleeping bag on one trip. I’m a restless sleeper and sometime during the night I rolled over and touched the bottom of my sleeping bag on the stove. Thankfully, I wasn’t burned and I used duct-tape to patch the hole. I now form a barrier of wood upright into the snow, creating a fence around the stove. I also make sure not to store my woodpile too close to the stove. It can ignite if the stove gets too hot.

So, what’s the safety procedure in case your tent burns down? Escaping quickly is the first priority. When I go to bed, I always keep my flashlight handy — and a knife so I can cut myself free if I have to. Like in a house fire, always keep low to the ground. Most important, however, is to store safety gear outside the tent. Never have all your gear inside the tent. I have the following items cached near my toboggan, just in case.  

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