On its own, you wouldn’t think that a single candle would give off much heat. You might be surprised, however, especially if you were able to harness that heat source. You should also keep in mind that a single, wax candle is not the all-encompassing definition of what constitutes a candle either.

Candle lanterns are the best way to knock the chill off inside of a tent, especially smaller tents. However, you can also create a DIY tent candle heater of your own. It’s a great example of a technology that’s been around for a very long time.

Candles spread heat through radiation, rather than convection or conduction. The type of lamp that the candle is fitted into facilitates that radiation by accumulating warmth and heat itself, in a centralized manner.

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We’ve written an in-depth article on how to stay warm in your tent.

How using a candle lantern warms up your tent

Trying a new way of lighting my way through the sand dunes at night
Photo by Jeremy Bishop / Unsplash

According to UCO, their three-candle lantern variation is capable of putting out 5,000 BTUs of heat. Considering the fact that even a fat candle can only put out about 32 BTUs of heat, that’s an astounding claim.

Since UCO Candle Lanterns are the most common and popular brand for warming up tents, we will use them as our primary example. The UCO comes with a large candle that is made out of paraffin, however, you can also purchase beeswax and citronella. Here’s how you use it:

  • Remove the screw-on bottom of the UCO Candle Lantern
  • It will expose a long spring and plate
  • Depress the candle down onto the spring
  • Replace the bottom of the candle lantern
  • Light the candle by sliding down the glass at the top

The spring continues to raise the candle as it melts away, so the fire from the candle always remains near the top until the candle is burned out for good. Right above the flame is a metal plate and openings just below it for the heat to come out and spread as the metal plate warms.

The metal plate is not something that you want to handle with bare fingers as it gets extremely hot. This is where the heating element and the overall efficiency of the candle lantern come in. There is also a hanging bail along with the chain that comes with it.

There are two kinds of candles that UCO puts out, a single candle UCO Candle Lantern, and a UCO Candelier Lantern. The Candelier Lantern is the one that UCO claims puts out 5,000BTUs of heat.

There are plenty of online calculators that you can use to see how many BTUs are necessary to heat up a specific size space. For instance, it will take 789 BTUs to heat up 28 square feet of space by 10°F.

Once the heat from the candle is transferred to the bail, chain, and heat shield, it is effectively spread out, creating a more effective heating system than you would get with the candle alone. The bigger the candle, the more flame you get from the wick, and the more flame you get, the more heat to the heat shield.

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We’ve written an article on how to prevent condensation in a tent. It might be worth a read if you’re planning to heat your tent with candles.

What else can you use a candle lantern for in your tent?

This was taken after a three-hour trek through a valley in the John Muir Wilderness.
Photo by Thomas Aeschleman / Unsplash

If there is one thing that you can expect when you crawl into a small, 2 to 4-person tent on a cold day, is side effects from your body heat. Sure, it’s going to raise the temperature inside your tent but it’s also going to create condensation.

Unless you want to wake up thinking that you fell asleep in a rainstorm, you might want to consider using a candle lantern. Not only will a candle lantern raise the heat level in your tent, along with your body heat, but it will also dry out the surrounding air, eliminating condensation.

Three-candle variations, such as the above-mentioned candelier lantern, will do even more to raise the heat level while reducing the moisture in the air, effectively eliminating condensation problems in the winter.

Condensation, if not properly dried, also facilitates mold growth, especially if you break camp without drying out your tent. Mold and mildew growth can cause a lot of problems down the road and is something you want to avoid.

You can also use some candle lanterns for heating up food, water, and other beverages, as we mentioned above. If you have an adequate, flat heat shield at the top of the candle lantern, you can easily set a cup of coffee, a bowl of soup, or other, small items that you want to heat up on top of it.

Single candle lanterns may not be enough for adequately heating up food but it’s worth a shot if you have room for it and don’t mind diverting your heat source into something else for a small amount of time.

Are there risks involved when using a candle lantern in a tent?

Fire 259
Photo by Ricardo Gomez Angel / Unsplash

Well, you’re dealing with a flame, and whenever there is a flame inside of a tent, it’s worthy of a certain level of concern. Fortunately, most candle lanterns are shielded with glass or metal chimneys, and 99 times out of 100, the candle will just go out in the event of a fall.

The risk of starting a fire

They say that you shouldn’t leave these things on overnight and that is very true. However, if you’re looking at a temperature plunge that’s well below freezing, what are your options?

  • Clear the area around, beneath, and above your candle lantern
  • If you set it on a surface, ensure that is a sturdy and non-combustible surface
  • Don’t place multiple candle lanterns right next to each other
  • Clear away all flammable substances, such as paper, blankets, or sleeping bags
  • The candle needs to be situated where it won’t be kicked, bumped, or otherwise disturbed throughout the night
  • Keep kids and pets away from the candle

Our advice is to simply put the candle out. You don’t want to risk a fire breaking out in such a confined space. Obviously, we can’t control everyone, however, if you must keep the heat going throughout the night, then you really need to invest in something other than a lit flame heating device.

It’s a great idea to set your candle lantern on a non-flammable surface, such as metal fold-out tables, and don’t leave the candle unattended. Another common problem is placing multiple candle lanterns right next to each other.

Creating a larger, central heating position makes a lot of sense as a centralized combination of multiple candle lanterns will put out a lot more heat than several candles separated from one another.

The problem is that multiple candle lanterns in close proximity have been known to get so hot that it actually turns the metal structure and glass to molten metal and melted glass, both of which are bad things to have in a tent.

It’s also a good idea to keep pets and little kids away from the candle lanterns. Just bumping into one can burn them badly and turning it over is certainly a fire hazard.

There is also a risk of carbon monoxide

Candles do put out carbon monoxide and this is one of the primary reasons that you shouldn’t go to sleep with your candle lanterns lit. It takes quite a bit and it’s not likely that a single candle lantern is going to be enough to create the level of carbon monoxide that’s harmful to people.

However, smaller tents improve the odds of being vulnerable to carbon monoxide poisoning, as well as the harmful fumes that candles are known to put out.

This is especially true if there is no ventilation and there are multiple candle lanterns burning inside of the tent. If you sleep with these candles burning and the carbon monoxide reaches poisoning levels, you will simply never wake up.

You can help reduce potentially toxic fumes by selecting beeswax over paraffin. While paraffin isn’t known for being poisonous, there are a lot of unknowns about it, including the fact that it releases VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) and the chemical, toluene.

Final thoughts

Heating a tent with a candle isn’t a difficult process but you are limited by the type of candle that you use. A single, lone candle won’t do much in the way of providing heat to a large or even a small tent. However, a candle lantern is specifically designed to do just that and, depending on the type that you purchase, will do so quite effectively.