Even on the best days, ice fishing isn’t for the faint of heart. Frigid temperatures, gusting winds and sideways snow can drive even the most avid ice anglers indoors.
When conditions get rough, it seems like the only anglers left on the ice are those with shelters. And not just any shelter either. A heated shelter!
That’s right, if you want to be toasty warm while you catch fish through the ice on the coldest days, you’ll need a good heater to put in your shelter. But not all heaters are equal. We have learned over the years that some heaters are better than others and we want to share what we have learned.
If you are in need of an ice fishing heater, then you’ve come to the right place. Don’t just pick any random heater off someone’s Amazon list. Instead, take a look at the heaters that make it on the short list of trusted gear. Diehard ice anglers want the best and we think only a few heaters make the cut. Take a look and see if you agree.
When is a heater necessary for ice fishing
Despite the fact that ice fishing takes place when seasonal temperatures are at their lowest, not every day on the ice is brutal. We have had many single digit days when a heater isn’t actually necessary. If the sun is shining and the wind isn’t blowing, you can be quite warm if you are dressed right.
A heater in your ice fishing shelter becomes an indispensable luxury when winter weather is less agreeable. A windy, cloudy day on the ice will sap the heat right out of you, even if you are in a shelter.
In addition, sunshine and negligible wind is not enough to make up for sub-zero temperatures. Cold is cold and a heater will be the only thing that keeps you fishing on the ice.
To sum it up, a heater is necessary during ice fishing for anyone who doesn’t have the luxury of fishing on only the nicest days. Most of us have limited time to dedicate to fishing. You go when you can go regardless of the conditions. If that means you are enduring biting winds or cold, wet snow then so be it. As long as you have a heater for your shelter, you’ll be out there catching fish.
No matter how good you heater is, having the right shelter is equally important. Don’t miss our guide to picking the best ice fishing shelters for any situation.
The importance of safety
The importance of safety can’t be overstated. The only heaters worth having in your ice fishing shelter is one that won’t kill you. Carbon monoxide is a real safety concern. You are unlikely to be at serious risk with good ventilation. However, more than a few of us have dozed off sitting in our pop-ups, which means a propane heater without any safety features could cause you serious harm.
Luckily, today’s best heaters have automatic low oxygen shut-offs, tip over protection and quality parts to combat gas leaks.
Whatever heater you decide on, please do not settle for a propane heater that is not rated for indoor use. The only time you can get away with that is if you use it outside your shelter or with plenty of adequate ventilation.
For anglers especially concerned with carbon monoxide poisoning, utilize a portable, battery powered CO detector in your ice fishing shelter.
How many BTUs do you need
You can get into some pretty complex calculations trying to figure out how many BTUs you’ll need to warm up an ice fishing shelter to your liking. However, there are too many factors to consider to make this worth while. Think about the following:
First, do you want your shelter warm enough to wear a t-shirt or do you just want to take the chill out of the air? Next, is the shelter insulated or uninsulated? And finally, what size is your ice fishing pop-up? These are just a few of the biggest factors when choosing a heater’s BTU range.
In general, a heater with an adjustable range from 4,000-12,000 BTUs is sufficient to make any ice fishing shelter more comfortable. With insulated pop-ups designed for 2 to 3 people, you can get away with a BTU rating around 4,000 BTU. Larger pop-ups or uninsulated shelters are better suited for heaters that pump out around 10,000 BTUs.
Again, until you pack a heater on the ice and pair it up with your specific shelter, there really is no concise way to determine how well it will work. However, to get you in the right ballpark, we put together a simple chart that provides approximate BTU output needed for different shelters. The data relies less on specific calculations and instead utilizes our experience on the ice. You’ll want to use your own experience to adjust as needed.
|Shelter Size and Type||Recommended BTU Output|
|2-3 person uninsulated||9,000|
|2-3 person insulated||4,000-9,000|
|4-5 person uninsulated||>10,000|
|4-5 person insulated||9,000-12,000|
|6 person or larger insulated||12,000-18,000|
What makes a good ice fishing heater
All good ice fishing heaters have 5 things in common. What level of importance you assign each trait is up to you. But if you find a heater that checks all 5 boxes, then you can’t go wrong.
1. Indoor safe
The only heater we are willing to drag out on the ice must be outfitted with the best safety features. Things like a low oxygen shut-off sensor, tip-over protection and a heating element grate are no brainers that allow a heater to be used inside an ice fishing shelter. Without out those features, you are taking a big risk.
It doesn’t take long to fill up your ice fishing sled to the limit with all sorts of gear. The more portable your heater, the better. It should be fairly light and run on small, 1 pound propane canisters or a 1 to 2 gallon propane tank. Obviously, you can pack more weight if you have a snow mobile and towable sleds.
3. Sufficient BTUs
At a minimum, get a heater that puts out around 4000 BTUs. Better yet, opt for a propane heater that has an adjustable range with 4000 BTUs being the lowest setting.
There’s no point having a heater that is a pain to start or keeps failing when you really need it. A reliable heater is a must. Get a heater that starts right up, even when it is super cold.
5. Readily available
You never know when your heater needs to be replaced so make sure you stick with a heater that is readily available. That way, you can find a last minute replacement that you know works with your setup.
Best heaters you can trust on the ice
It’s up for debate but when it comes to propane heaters you can trust, there really is only one game in town. Mr. Heater propane heaters seem to corner the market and for good reason. They are well designed, reliable and highly portable. Plus, they have a full line up of indoor safe heaters to satisfy just about everyone.
That’s why we pretty much only recommend Mr. Heater’s Buddy Heaters. Other brands that make similar portable propane heaters are just riding on Mr. Heater’s coat tails. You may as well stick with the best, so here is the Mr. Heater lineup we think you should choose from.
1. Mr. Heater Little Buddy
There are times on the ice when we don’t want to turn our shelter into a winter sauna. Sometimes enough heat to warm the hands, thaw out a frozen reel and melt the ice off our rod guides is all we need. For that, the Little Buddy Heater is what you should get.
This small propane heater is super portable (easily fits in a 5 gallon bucket) and operates for almost 6 hours on a 1 pound propane cylinder.
All while pumping out 3800 BTUs. It’s not hot enough to justify wearing a t-shirt in your pop-up but it does take the edge off on more mild temperature days.
The ignition is pretty reliable and it has all the expected safety features for using in an enclosed space. However, we are not huge fans of the base. It is easy to knock over if you aren’t carful since it’s top heavy when screwed onto a 1 pound bottle. Keep in mind too that you can’t hook this heater to a larger propane tank.
All in all, this is a good heater to have for solo anglers fishing in a smaller 1 or 2 person insulated pop-up. Or for hole hoppers needing a portable heater just to warm the fingers.
- 3800 BTU output
- Uses 1 pound propane cylinders
- Run time on 1 pound cylinder: 5.6 hours
- Weighs 5.9 pounds
- Fits in 5 gallon bucket
- Indoor safe
- Piezo ignition
- Price: about $70
2. Mr. Heater Portable Buddy – Our top pick
The Portable Buddy Heater is the heater we trust to keep us warm on the ice. It has served us well for years and spews enough heat into a 3 person ice fishing pop-up to make any day on the ice more comfortable.
Unlike the Little Buddy, the Portable Buddy has two heat settings. On low, it produces 4000 BTUs and on high, you can boost the output to 9000 BTUs. You can either attach a 1 pound cylinder or use an optional hose to connect a separate propane tank. A one or two gallon propane tank is ideal for a full day or two on the ice.
1 gallon propane tank on Amazon
2 gallon propane tank on Amazon
This is probably the most versatile heater for ice fishing. It’s portable enough to fit in your ice fishing sled while still throwing out enough heat. It does use a piezo ignitor, which sometimes we have trouble with. You can solve that minor issue by bringing along a lighter.
- 4000 and 9000 BTU output
- Uses 1 pound propane cylinders or larger tank with hose
- Run time on 1 pound cylinder: 5.4 hrs on low, 2.4 hrs on high
- Weighs 10.6 pounds
- Fits in sled
- Indoor safe
- Piezo ignition
- Price: about $80
3. Mr. Heater Big Buddy
For anglers with a big ice fishing shelter or those that want to fish in absolute comfort, the Big Buddy is what you need. With a max output of 18,000 BTUs, it is the hottest, indoor safe propane heater you can get.
Since it runs on two, 1 pound propane bottles, it is still fairly portable but it weighs a hefty 17 pounds. If you opt for this heater, you probably are using a snow mobile with a daisy chain to get around anyway. Bring extra cylinders or use a 2 gallon or larger tank since this heater chews through propane in a hurry on the high setting.
- 4000, 9000 or 18,000 BTU output
- Uses two, 1 pound propane cylinders or larger tank with hose
- Run time on two, 1 pound cylinders: 10.8 hrs on low, 5.8 hrs on med, 2.4 on high
- Weighs 17.1 pounds
- Fits in sled
- Indoor safe
- Piezo ignition
- Price: about $150
*As a note, we are not sponsored in anyway by Mr. Heater. While we do get an affiliate kickback if you use our links, our opinions of Mr. Heater are gained from experience and are not financially motivated.
We want our readers to trust our gear recommendations because they are honest and thorough. We recommend only the gear we actually use and that many of our fellow ice anglers use and love.
What about tank topper heaters
Tank toppers are very powerful heaters that screw right onto a large propane tank. They usually have a variable BTU range starting around 10,000 BTUs with some toppers reaching 45,000 BTUs. That’s probably a bit much for most ice fishing shelter setups.
In addition, most tank top propane heaters are not indoor safe, which means you should not use them in your ice fishing shelter.
However, for ice anglers without a shelter, they are fair game and awesome for staying warm on cold days. The Mr. Heater Single Tank Top Heater is the best choice for ice fishing without a shelter. It turns out up to 15,000 BTUs of intense radiant heat and pairs up nicely with a 2 gallon propane tank that will provide about 12 hours of burn time on high. On low (10,000 BTUs), you can get around 18 hours of heat from a 2 gallon tank.
Tank toppers are not nearly as portable as the Buddy Heaters and only the Single Tank Top Heater with base or the Mr. Cooker can be fitted with a 1 pound cylinder. And you’ll get less than 2 hours of heat on the 1 pound cylinder.
You should also take care to sit down wind of the heater otherwise you’ll miss out on most of the warmth generated.
One last thing
No matter what heater you end up getting, you should know that extreme cold can make it difficult to light a propane heater. Propane doesn’t flow as easily in below freezing temperatures, making built-in piezo ignitors less reliable.
Always bring along a full lighter or two. Long BBQ style lighters are the best but keep it in a pocket so it stays warm. That way, no matter what, you can trust that your heater will keep your ice fishing shelter toasty warm.