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How to Safely Cook in a Tent

Flameless radiant burner stoves like the MSR Reactor or the MSR Windburner are two of the safer stoves you can cook with in a tent because they don't have exposed flames
Flameless radiant burner stoves like the MSR Reactor or the MSR Windburner are two of the safer stoves you can cook with in a tent because they don’t have exposed flames

Cooking in a camping tent or ultralight shelter can be quite hazardous, but sometimes you don’t have an option because bad weather prevents you from cooking outside. What are the hazards you have to watch out for and how can you cook inside a tent safely? What’s the best camping stove for safely cooking in a tent?

  1. Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
  2. Setting your Tent on Fire
  3. Severe Burns
  4. Food Odors can Attract Animals

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Camping stoves give off carbon monoxide when you cook with them. This is a odorless invisible gas that’s generated as a by product of burning carbon-based fuels including canister fuel, white gas, alcohol, solid fuel cubes and even wood. Inhaling too much carbon monoxide can kill you or cause severe brain damage. The best way to avoid carbon monoxide when cooking on a camping stove is to use it in a well ventilated place, either outside, or in your tent’s vestibule (See, what is a tent vestibule?) with the outer door wide open. If you’re tent doesn’t have a vestibule, unzip all the doors and fold them back, allowing for plenty of ventilation. Contrary to myth, carbon monoxide is not heavier than air and will diffuse evenly through the air inside a tent if you don’t ventilate it.

Setting Your Tent on Fire

If you use a camping stove in your tent, there’s a very real danger that you could set it on fire while you’re inside it and severely damage or destroy it. Not having a shelter in cold or stormy weather because you’ve burned it down, can be as life threatening as being burnt and seriously injured. Many conventional tents (like those sold by major manufacturers) have been treated with fire retardents, that will slow or stop the spread of flames. However, many tents and ultralight shelters from smaller manufacturers have not been treated, requiring extra caution if you use a camping stove in one.

Priming flare up on a white gas stove
Priming flare up on a white gas stove

Severe Burns

Certain fuels like white gas or alcohol are dangerous to cook with inside a tent because you want to use a stove and fuel type that is easy to see and that you can retain complete control over without spillage. When priming a white gas stove, it’s normal to set it on fire in a huge fire ball when excess fuel is pumped from a pressurized fuel bottle. You want to avoid this because you can get burned in the confines of a small tent or vestibule or it can set your tent on fire (see above). Spilled white gas can also become a fire hazard. If you must use a white gas stove, prime it outside your tent and only then bring it inside when you can control the flame height. Alcohol is also very difficult to see when it’s burning and it can to tough to tell if your stove has been extinguished or not. .

Odors can attract Animals

If you cook in a tent, it can retain a food smell and attract animals, like bears, mountain lions, and coyotes, to come investigate. In order to reduce food smells, avoid cooking strong smelling foods like fried bacon or fish inside your tent, and bring freeze-dried or dehydrated meals that you can rehydrate with boiling water.

The WindBoiler Radiant burner is flameless
The WindBoiler Radiant burner is flameless

Best Stoves for Cooking in Tents

The best stoves for cooking tents and ultralight shelters are all-in-one canister stoves that come with an integrated pot and camp stove combination like the Jetboil Flash, Jetboil Joule, the MSR Reactor, and the MSR WindBurner.There’s very little flame up when you light these stoves and they’re fairly windproof so you can still cook efficiently in a breezy vestibule if the wind is blowing.  I prefer the MSR Reactor and the MSR WindBurner because both stoves are effectively flameless. They heat up a radiant burner which is a rounded convex surface, covered by a wire screen, that sort of looks like the surface of the sun when it’s been lit and burning gas. While the burner pulls in air through side ports to enable combustion, it is completely covered and enclosed by the Reactor/WindBurner pot.

Isobutane canister stoves are the easiest type of flame to control in a tent:

  • White gas stoves usually flare up in a huge fireball when lit as part of the stove priming process.
  • It’s hard to see the flame of an alcohol stove and tell when it’s gone out.
  • Solid fuel tabs smell bad when burning and leave an unpleasant odor behind.
  • Wood is hard to control both in terms of flame height and flying embers.

Some stove manufacturers sell hanging stove kits for canister stoves. They’re sold to counter the tippiness of canister stoves but are best used outside in the open air in snowy conditions suspended from skis or branches. Using them in a tent moves the stove flame unnecessarily close to the ceiling of your tent and should be avoided. You’d be much better off bringing a wider snap-on pot canister stand and small piece of reflectix to set your stove on (the ground) to insulate it from snow when cooking or melting snow in your tent in winter. (See MYOG Reflectix Insulated Stove Base for Winter Camping)

Think low and away, when it comes to flames near the ceiling or wall of your tent.

See also:

Written 2017. Updated 2018.
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27 comments

  1. The reactor is a solid choice overall, if you can stomach the weight and it’s inability (or unsuitability rather) to simmer-and-stir.
    However, the radiant burner is not concave. It’s not even convex (the word you were looking for), but dead flat. It’s only the wire screen that has a curvature ;-)

    I would however not argue the reactor produces less CO than any other stove. I simply believe it’s a very bold statement and very difficult to verify. On the other hand, I’ve never had any problems opening a slight piece of the fly and having some wind enter the vestibule, so as to not have a built-up of poison.
    You should think of it that way, then you won’t forget :-)

    • A lot of people think you have to simmer pasta and ramen noodles. You don’t actually. Bring your water to a boil, which is insanely fast with the Reactor, throw in your noodles and soak them with the lid on. They’ll cook without anymore fuel expenditure. Great way to save on fuel. Works with all stoves.

      https://sectionhiker.com/forget-boiling-how-to-cook-dried-pasta-and-stretch-your-stove-fuel/

      What do you really need to simmer ever? That’s a good question. Who makes scrambled eggs, bacon, fried fish, or French toast on modern day backpacking trips?

      • I simmer Skurka’s rice and beans recipe but that’s

      • Some noodles may do okay this way, but i’ve noticed with a number of the freeze-dried meals—even the better ones like Good-To-Go, whose instructions say to just add boiling water and wait 20 minutes—that some of the ingredients are still a bit crunchy for my taste. As a matter of course now, i empty the contents into a pot, add water, and simmer them for a bit before letting them sit.

        I usually carry a small bag of dehydrated Just Veggies (from Karen’s Naturals) to add to noodle or rice meals that need a bit of vegetable matter. They also need to be simmered a bit unless one likes one’s veggies on the crunchy size. They get a head start in the pot, and noodles are added when they’re almost done.

        One trick for reducing cooking time with certain grains like rice, quinoa, etc. is to pre-soak them (starting at lunchtime or even breakfast) in a container with some water. They soak up the water while you hike and the cooking time will be reduced considerably. Winter complicates this technique, obviously.

        I found a brown rice that cooks in about seven minutes. Beats “regular” rice which takes half an hour or so. And the rice-based, “thread” noodles cook in less time than thicker, wheat-based noodles.

  2. I was doing a section SOBO in Georgia on the AT one January. At a shelter one very cold night, I met a NOBO attempting a thru-hike who declared, “I have a ton of fuel. I’m just going to burn my stove inside my tent to keep me warm all night!”

    We quickly told him no, but explaining why that was such a terrible idea was difficult. I later heard he did finish the trail, so I assume he gave up on using his stove to keep himself warm in his tent.

  3. There was some discussion on the carbom monoxide issue last year in Finland and a local magazine did some laboratory testing. Winter ski trips are common here and many people cook in tents, either in the vestibule (digging a little trench gives more room for both cooking and sitting) or they have a stove box in the arctic explorer style. Weight is not as much of an issue when pulling a sled.

    To summarize the findings: generally the risk for carbon monoxide build up in a well ventilated tent is not high. However, there is a problem when using a ribbed heat transfer pot that sits close to flame. What happens is that when the hydrocarbons in fuel are broken up, the loose C atom finds an O atom and forms carbon monoxide. Normally it would be in hot enough environment with plenty of oxygen to find a second O to form CO2, which is not poisonous for humans (in low concentrations, we are not talking rebreather diving here). However, if the airflow is diminished by the heat transfer ribs and the hot gases from the flame are cooled by the bottom of the pot, the CO molecule can not find the second oxygen atom before it is too cold to join up and you have lots of carbon monoxide.

    So, besides ventilation in general, make sure your flame is getting enough air and that the flame has room to burn all the CO to CO2.

    Reference, sorry, in Finnish: https://eralehti.fi/retkeily/hengitatko-teltassa-happea-vai-hakaa/

    • MSR gets real touchy in my experience when you write about using the Reactor and WindBurner stoves in less ventilated settings. Their lawyers are very liability adverse.

    • Thank you for sharing that article. Very interesting findings. I was going to say something about Roger’s tests until I saw him/them mentioned in the text. Google Translator gave me a lot of chuckles but it worked well enough!

  4. This post reminded me of this story:

    http://www.aspentimes.com/news/weekly/aspen-times-weekly-a-family-forever-changed/

    Things can go wrong – and they do sometimes.

    I have gone stoveless in the last few years and I’ve never really missed it. I’ve never gone winter camping though!

    Thanks for all of your posts Philip – I really enjoy your trip reports.

  5. My favorite line from any instruction manual is from the MSR Whisperlite manual. After lighting the priming cup, “A brief soccer ball-size flame is normal.”

    When I walk Scout leaders through the process of lighting a white gas stove, I read that line aloud. A few people always make that size with their hands.

    • The MSR priming directions (actually, ALL of their directions and manuals these days) have changed so much and they are not nearly as good as they used to be. It’s no wonder people get soccer ball flames since the good information has been left out. White gas, shut off the valve as soon as fuel exits the jet. Kero, shut off the valve as soon as you see the priming cup get wet. This important detail used to be in the owner’s manual. Nearly everyone I’ve seen in the last decade running white gas puts way, way too much fuel out for priming…and Poof!

      • Have to agree when I saw Walters comment. I can start a white gas stove without a fireball every time. Just takes patience. Let a little gas into the priming cup and shut it off. Light it. Let the small amount burn off and then open the valve slightly to let fuel flow normally. Then open up the flow more as needed and to keep the flame lit.

      • A “soccer ball-size flame” is rare, even when I’m teaching people who’ve never seen a white gas stove. But that is still a good guide for a danger radius, because a bit of breeze will push the flame that far. Or farther.

        We light lots of stuff on fire when I’m teaching. Fritos are an excellent firestarter. Cashews are harder to light, but burn for quite a while. Chapstick? That stuff is about half petroleum jelly.

    • I would recommend anybody who uses pressurized liquid fuel stoves to get out to a safe spot (sand or concrete) and light up their stove without pre-heating it. That way you learn what happens when you mess things up and a) it is not that scary if it happens, because it has happened already and b) you know better how to avoid it. Also listen to the sounds of the stove and look at the flames to learn what it does. With my own stove I know to wait for the puffing sounds that mean the vaporization chamber is hot enough, if I don’t hear that sound, I go into careful re-thinking mode.

      Also, I have seen the Trangia alcohol burner make fireballs, too. The Trangia burner is double-walled cup with tiny holes on top of the wall, about same as most other alcohol burners. You just need to get the burner hot enough to start to boil the alcohol. Have seen it happen in over-heated cabin when using the Trangia close to the wood burning stove. And I can replicate it in summer temperatures by using the winter kit, a small heater under the burner.

      The joys of playing with fire.

      • Hikin Jim has described a priming method I have yet to try for liquid fuel stoves, but sounds very useful for eliminating fireballs.
        He squirts alcohol into the priming cup and primes with that instead of white gas, only opening the pressurized line when the stove has warmed up.

      • Alcohol sounds nice and clean, but one more thing to carry and keep track of. Years ago I bought those tubes of nasty priming paste for the times when I burned kerosene. Works well as long as you don’t use too much and let it drip off while it’s afire, probably fussier to pack and use than alcohol, but it was nice for avoiding all the soot. Absolutely agree that people should just practice with their stoves and get to know them. And change those rubber bits on a regular basis.

  6. On short camping trips, my brother would put a charcoal briquet in his Sierra Zip stove and leave it in the vestibule of his tent and he said that would keep the tent about 10 degrees F warmer for the night. He made sure to have plenty of ventilation.

  7. Hey, Philip

    Your points on carbon monoxide is definitely true. The problem i also found with it, is that it can cause choking or labored breathing. I wouldn’t advice anyone to be in an enclosed area where such gas is being emitted.

    To be safe than sorry, its best we cook outside the tent or as you said “use it in a well ventilated place”.

  8. Another good reason to have a lightweight hiking umbrella: in the rain you can move away from your tent or hammock downwind and do your cooking. And eating and cleanup. No food smells near the tent to attract unwanted visitors or guests. If you can take the extra weight, a standup overhead tarp is better for continued rain. More than 24 hours in any tent is some kind of water torture. I once spent 3 boring days in the Hoh rain forest in Olympic Park, under a 15 foot square black plastic tarp over our tent and site. We collected the clean rainwater, we had a fire, could stay dry, cook, and sit outside the tents, playing cards and yakking, waiting for the rain to stop, and occasionally fishing in the riiver. Rain didn’t stop so we left. There were 3 of us to carry the gear so it wasn’t heavy for any of us.

  9. I have slept with a candle lantern burning all night. They put out about 1300 btu an hour if I remember correctly and it also reduced condensation. Does anyone know if these pose a CO risk?

  10. I think it’s not a good idea to cooking in a tent.
    Thanks for sharing!

  11. Shelters made of DCF (formerly known as Cuben Fiber) have a low melting point so additional caution is warranted. Best to open a door or use stove exclusively in a separate vestibule.

  12. If possible you can put the stove outside and sit in the doorway or under the vestibule. One advantage of a front-entance tent is you can lie in your sleeping bag and cook in front of the door.

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