As the temperature continues to drop and winter creeps closer the urge to go camping starts to wane with the thoughts of twenty-degree mornings. Your down or Polargard mummy bag will keep you toasty warm, but you're going to have to get out of that bag and get dressed sooner or later, and having to get dressed when you can see your breath is not exactly the best experience camping has to offer.
Of course a roaring fire and a good sleeping bag aren't the only ways to stay warm. If you are sleeping in a tent it is important to have a barrier between you and the ground. Although air mattresses and inflatable sleeping pads are convenient, they aren't going to insulate you well if the temperature drops below 40 degrees. As a matter of fact, they can start sucking the heat away from you. A foam sleeping pad will provide the best insulation, and when combined with an air mattress the most comfort. Wearing socks and a hat will also help keep you warm while you are in your tent.
Until recently your choices for having a heater in your tent were pretty limited. Even putting a candle in a jar with holes punched in the lid is outright dangerous. If you were lucky enough to have electricity at your campsite, a rare find at public campgrounds, you could use a small electric space heater. That came with a number of potential complications including the risk of burning your tent down, or nasty electrical shocks. The best way to get warm really came down to how quickly you could get a fire started when you woke up in the morning. Recent advances in technology have changed this.
Gas catalytic heaters have been around for a long time and have been used by shipping companies, cargo ships and the military to keep men and material warm. Size restrictions, technology barriers and weight have kept this technology out of civilian hands, but not anymore. Coleman now offers a line of catalytic heaters that are safe to use in an enclosed area, and are made specifically for car camping when things get cold.
Removing the 3.75 pound unit from the box, it doesn't look like it could heat much, but good things can come in small, inexpensive packages. When connected to a standard propane cylinder (those green canisters you can find just about anywhere) all you need to do is push a button. Suddenly 3,000 BTU's of radiant heat flow from the Coleman BlackCat. It really is amazing how quickly the BlackCat can warm up a six to ten man tent.
Of course in our proud litigious society the product doesn't come without a long list of disclaimers. After reading the instructions and all of the ominous warnings you may be scared to use the BlackCat at all. It comes down to following two golden rules, keep everything at least two feet away, and provide at least six square inches of ventilation.
Because the BlackCat doesn't have an open flame, it has a very limited ability to set things spontaneously on fire. That doesn't mean that you can't get into trouble. Anything that gets to close for to long can melt and items that are readily flammable can be ignited. We recommend placing it on top of a cooler so it is safely off of the floor of your tent. If you're going to use a catalytic heater while you're sleeping (this is NOT recommended), make sure when you roll around that your bag or you skin won't come in contact with the heating element. You're better off using the heater to warm things up before going to bed and warming things up when you wake up in the morning.
One of the biggest limitations to having any heater in a tent is the issue of having to keep a safe perimeter around it, and the BlackCat won't work well in the cramped conditions of a two-man tent. We don't think many backpackers would use the BlackCat anyway. Although it is very light for the amount of heat it produces, we don't recommend throwing a catalytic heater into your backpack.
Because the BlackCat is flameless, it doesn't produce huge amounts of Carbon Monoxide, a silent and deadly killer. That doesn't mean you don't have to have any ventilation for your tent. When you are camping you should always leave a vent or window open to allow moisture and stale air to flow out. In the end things will be warmer by removing some of the natural dampness that builds up through the night. If you seal off your tent completely, you can run a risk of exposing yourself to dangerous levels of Carbon Monoxide. What makes Carbon Monoxide so dangerous is the first symptom is losing your ability to reason, and things quickly go downhill from there.
Recently Coleman has added a new heater to the lineup, the self-contained PowerCat. Using the same catalytic technology as the BlackCat, the PowerCat produces the same 3,000 BTU's of warmth, but it offers other improvements. A fan can be run to help circulate the warmed air, powered by two D cell batteries. The portable unit uses an eight-ounce fuel cell instead of the standard issue green propane canisters, although more convenient to carry, they can be more problematic to find.
The bottom line is if you are going to use a heater in your tent you should be extremely careful. Powerful heaters made by Century and others aren't designed for the enclosed space of a tent, electric heaters can also be dangerous, assuming you can even find a place to plug it in. If you do want to explore heating your tent you should take a long look at the newest line of catalytic heaters. Efficient and safe, when used properly they can take the chill out of the air, and make getting out of the sleeping bag just a little bit easier. The other benefit is they can help you squeeze a few more weeks of camping out of the season, before the snow starts to fly.