Whether you’re looking for instant warmth from an LP-gas source or prefer building a wood campfire, portable heaters and firepits can keep you toasty outside when temperatures drop
For all the technology and sophistication of today’s RVs, much of the fun of camping is spending time outdoors. But nature isn’t always as accommodating as we’d like, and sometimes cold weather drives us back inside when we’d rather be outside conversing with friends or enjoying a clear, starry night.
Portable firepits and patio heaters take the bite out of chilly temperatures, they’re quick and easy to set up and break down, and they can be stowed away in a minimum of space. Available in a variety of materials and styles, designed to burn wood or propane, they add light and heat to otherwise cold and dark days and nights spent outdoors.
It’s the Pits
Firepits can be simple round bowls on legs, bucket-shaped designs or ornate globes, and some can hold a grill for cooking. Some fold up for easy packing, while others are larger and bulkier, and might be better suited to full-time RV living where you stay put in one place for a long time rather than a more nomadic life.
Tips for Firepits
While the fire is going, don’t leave it unattended, and save some wood for later instead of starting a roaring blaze right off. Firepits with wire-mesh covers keep embers inside and keep small children and pets from falling in. Don’t use a firepit inside a screen room or under an awning made of flammable material — or better yet, under any awning.
And remember that loose, flammable clothing can burn or melt from heat alone, not just direct flame. Keeping a bucket of water close by is always a good idea, no matter how large the flame or firepit.
Before you pick a firepit, consider its size, weight, how easily it stows away in your RV and how much effort it takes to maintain it. Copper, stainless steel and aluminum are all popular materials and are lightweight, rust resistant and easy to clean. Cast iron is heavier and more susceptible to corrosion. Some materials like copper need to be cleaned regularly to keep them from staining. Others develop a pleasing patina of rust that adds to their appearance.
Most people burn wood in their firepits for that campfire look and smell. Of course, you have to plan ahead and bring the wood you need or hit up the camp store to buy a supply. Check local laws in advance. Some states have restrictions on importing firewood, and regulations are in place for moving wood beyond a 50-mile-radius of an emerald ash borer zone.
Charcoal can substitute for wood, putting out a long-lasting, even heat but without the visible flame. For areas where wood fires are prohibited, LP-gas-fueled firepits do the same job without the ash and sparks. You’ll need to carry an additional propane cylinder or plumb into your RV’s LP-gas supply.
Whatever firepit you choose, make sure you’re allowed to have open fires at the campground. Wildfires devastated countless acres of forest and destroyed millions of dollars’ worth of homes and property last year, so campground operators and national park rangers have no sense of humor about fudging the fire regulations.
Firepit safety begins by clearing the area around the pit of anything combustible; 10 feet in all directions is the minimum. Place the pit on a nonflammable surface away from overhanging branches, and stack the extra wood upwind of the pit. Use only dry kindling to start the fire, not combustible liquid that can flare up, and throw the match in the fire. Keep a shovel and a bucket of water nearby in case you have to douse the flame quickly.
If you put the firepit too close to your RV, a small shift in the breeze can blow smoke inside, and the heat of the pit can damage the exterior. Ask other campers if the wind tends to change direction throughout the day, and position the pit accordingly, because it might be too hot to move later on. Strong, gusty or unpredictable winds are reason enough not to burn anything that can throw off sparks.
When it comes to fuel, remember that a firepit is not for trash disposal. Don’t burn garbage, paper or anything that can spark, or soft woods like pine and cedar, which are also prone to sparking. Most campgrounds that permit open fires sell firewood. It’s tempting to save a few bucks by bringing scrap wood from home, but construction-grade wood is sometimes treated with chemicals that put out poisonous gases when they burn.
When the coals burn low and it’s time to hit the sack, don’t just let the fire burn out. Pour water on it until it’s thoroughly wet, and stir the ashes with a shovel to make sure. The pit itself can retain heat for a while, so leave it out overnight and load it up the next morning. Stir the cold ash to make sure the fire is out and dispose of it in a metal container. And be respectful of other campers — you don’t want the smoke from your fire blowing into a neighbor’s RV.
Firepits with open flames aren’t always practical or desirable. LP-gas patio heaters range from portable models small enough to put on a picnic table to full-size units that are more or less permanent. With no open flame or sparks, they’re often allowed in fire-ban areas, but always check with the campground or rangers first.
LP-gas heaters are generally easier to use, and set up and break down with less effort than firepits, though many of the same commonsense safety tips apply. Heat output is quickly adjustable, too, meaning less time fussing with a heat source to get comfortable. Just don’t be fooled into thinking LP-gas heaters get cool as soon as you turn them off. Like firepits, they retain heat for some time, so make sure they’re cold before you move them.
Whether wood or LP-gas lights your fire, there are way too many firepits and propane heaters to list here, so we’ve chosen some standouts to get you started looking for the right one for your next starry night.
Set the Night on Fire
The Bessemer Patio Fireplace by Fire Sense ($129.99) has a porcelain-enamel bowl and lid, an adjustable vent in the base of the bowl and a steel grate for wood fires. The powder-coated steel support frame has wheels and a handle grip, and there’s a high-temperature painted spark screen above it. The mobile fireplace is about 28 inches in diameter and weighs 32 pounds.
The Blowing Leaf Fire Sphere from Esschert Design ($383) is laser-cut from 3mm steel, making it sturdy and long lasting. Its two-piece design allows the base and sphere to be separated for easy cleanup and transport. It weighs 40 pounds and is available through Gander Outdoors and Amazon.
H.Bee Fire collapsible firepits ($200 to $450) come in four sizes and two types of steel: 3⁄16-inch Corten “weathering steel” and 3⁄16-inch hot-rolled structural steel. The large size has a burn area of 25 inches across and an average depth of 7 inches; the small model measures 15 inches across and 5 inches deep. All models use slotted, laser-cut panels that can be assembled without tools and store flat when not
Shown here in the Wildlife design, the Patina Products Fire Pit ($229.99) has a natural rust finish that ages beautifully over time. The safety ring surrounding the wood- or charcoal-burning pit functions as a footrest and handle, and sturdy welded legs prevent wobbling. Weighing 50 pounds and manufactured from cold-rolled steel, the firepit comes fully assembled for immediate use and is guaranteed not to burn or rust through for five years.
Available from Gander Outdoors and Amazon, the Rust Fire Bowl from Esschert Design ($76.98) features a rusted-steel fire bowl on a solid square base. It weighs just over 47 pounds and measures 22 by 22 by 13 inches. The fire bowl is designed for a low flame to light up the night or roast marshmallows.
The Fireside Outdoor Pop-Up Fire Pit ($119.95) sets up in a minute without tools and is said to be cool to the touch 90 seconds after the fire is extinguished. It packs smaller than a camping chair and weighs less than 8 pounds. The included heat shield allows fires on any surface without damage, reflecting 98 percent of the heat to keep the ground cool. Made of never-rust materials, it includes a fire mesh bottom for airflow and 80 percent less smoke.
The easy-to-assemble Stone River Fire Pit/Grill Combo ($197) is made from cold-rolled steel with decorative cutouts in several styles. The Wildlife model shown here is about 28 inches in diameter and weighs less than 27 pounds. It comes with an inner mesh screen welded in place to keep coals and sparks contained, and can be converted into a grill for open-flame cooking.
The Voyager Portable Fire Pit ($179.99) from Airxcel weighs less than 20 pounds and features folding legs and a locking lid for transport and storage. The 54,000-Btu firepit has a 15-inch-diameter burner opening with variable high to low settings. An 8-foot hose with an attached regulator is included (LP-gas only), and the Voyager can be used anywhere with LP-gas. It comes with large white pumice stones, and is available through Amazon and Camping World.
The 540 Degree Tank Top Heater ($106.84) from Mr. Heater mounts to a 5-gallon LP-gas cylinder and has an adjustable 360-degree burner head that swivels. Pumping out 30,000
to 45,000 Btu per hour, the heater is easy to light, is made of stainless-steel components and has a safety shutoff switch in case of tip-over.
The Gunnison Hanging Patio Heater from Fire Sense ($159.99) runs on 120-volt AC and is claimed to be less expensive to use than LP-gas heaters. It draws 1,500 watts and reaches 100 percent of its heat output in seconds. Measuring 20 inches in diameter and weighing 7 pounds, the heater comes with a 7-foot nonretractable power cord and an on/off switch, and must be used on a dedicated circuit. Fire Sense claims it gives off no harmful emissions or residues and can be used indoors.
Camco offers several portable LP-gas campfires through Amazon, Camping World, Overton’s and other retailers. The Little Red Campfire ($151.33) and Big Red Campfire ($163.84) can be set up within minutes and have realistic-looking log pieces and 9½-inch-diameter ring burners. A sturdy lid and security latches make transportation safe and easy. The Little Red has an 11¼-inch-diameter fire tray and includes an 8-foot propane hose for use with standard LP-gas cylinders. The Big Red has a 10-foot hose, a 13¼-inch-diameter fire tray and a maximum output of 65,000 Btu.
The propane Sequoia Fire Pit by Camp Chef ($119.99) comes with a base, a high-pressure burner, lava rocks, two roasting sticks, a regulator and a 5-foot hose, plus a carrying bag. The pit diameter is almost 15 inches, and overall height is 12 inches.
The radiant 4,000- to 9,000-Btu Portable Buddy Heater from Mr. Heater ($114.32) has a single-control start knob and fold-down handle. It features low and high heat settings and an accidental tip-over safety shutoff. The Portable Buddy connects directly to a 1-pound propane cylinder or can be connected to a larger cylinder with an optional hose and filter. With its small footprint and Oxygen Depletion Sensor, the heater is also designed for indoor use.
Lightweight and portable, the propane-powered Outland Firebowl ($135.99) sets up in minutes with no tools. The company claims that the all-weather enamel-finished Firebowl is approved for use during many campfire bans. It comes with a cover and carrying kit, a pre-attached 10-foot hose to keep the 5-gallon LP-gas cylinder out of sight, an adjustable regulator for varying the flame height, and a natural lava rock set to enhance the flickering effect of the smokeless flame.
The Table Top Patio Heater from Fire Sense ($139.99/ hammered bronze, $149.99/stainless steel) puts out 10,000 Btu and comes with a one-step piezo igniter. It features adjustable heat settings, stainless-steel burners and heating grid, an auto-shutoff tilt valve and a safety grill guard. It uses a standard 1-pound propane cylinder (not included), stands 35 inches tall and weighs 19 pounds.
In the Heat of the Night
For more permanent RV-park stays, large-size standing heaters, like the ones found at home-improvement stores, can keep a crowd toasty. Producing 40,000 Btu or more of heat, these operate off 5-gallon LP-gas cylinders at the base, which helps stabilize the heater. It is not recommended to run them off the RV’s LP-gas system.
Left: The Fire Sense Patio Heater ($349.99) puts out 46,000 Btu of heat and comes with two stainless-steel burners and a double-mantle heating grid. The heater is 89 inches tall and weighs 40 pounds.
Right: The 88-inch-tall, 65-pound Pyramid Flame Heater ($329.99) pumps out 40,000 Btu of heat. Both have tip-over protection to help keep them upright, wheels for mobility, a safety auto-shutoff tilt valve and an electronic ignition system.
Jerry Smith has been a freelance writer for more than 30 years. He’s not picky about the topic as long as it rolls. If it has two, three, four or more wheels, he’ll write about it. He travels with his editorial assistant and morale officer, a golden retriever named Dickens, from their home base in Oregon to wherever the sun is shining that day.