What Kind Of HEATER Do You Need For Ice Fishing? (Explained)
UPDATED 18 MAY 2023
by Robert Ceran
While ice fishing is a hoot and a half most of the time, it can also be exceedingly cold and uncomfortable if you are not properly prepared.
One essential item that any ice angler should consider getting is a heater, since this will keep you toasty even while you’re pulling slab crappie or thick walleye through the ice.
But the problem is that there are many different heater options on the market, and you’ll need to balance their performance with portability.
In this article, we’ll explore the different types of heaters available for ice fishing, and will also discuss how to choose the right one for your purposes.
Do you need a heater for ice fishing?
You don’t need a heater for ice fishing if you only fish for a few hours on relatively warm days, and dress appropriately with multiple layers of clothing.
However, if the temperature falls significantly below zero, or if you want to ice fish at night, then having a heater becomes more or less essential in order to keep you warm.
And even if you only ice fish for a few hours during the day, it’s good to have a heater to warm up your hands once in a while.
If you’ve ever tried tying your ice fishing rigs or swapping out your lures with fingers that are frozen stiff, you know exactly what I’m talking about.
At what temperature do you need a heater for ice fishing?
In my experience, if the temperature drops below 5 degrees Fahrenheit, fishing on the ice gets too cold without a heater (especially if you’re out in the open with wind exposure).
However, if you have an ice fishing shelter and use a heater to warm it up, you can stay toasty and comfortable even at these temperatures, and fish all day long without problems.
And if the temperature falls lower than 20 degrees below zero, it’s definitely too cold to ice fish in the open with exposed skin, and having a heater becomes an absolute must under these conditions.
What type of heater is best for ice fishing?
Now let’s talk about the types of heaters that are ideal for ice fishing.
Since ice fishing requires transporting all your gear over the ice, it’s essential to choose a portable heater that’s easy to transport.
Even if you’re using a snowmobile or ATV, you won’t have a lot of extra space left after you stow your ice auger, ice shelter, ice fishing electronics, fishing gear, & other accessories.
So whichever heater you choose, make sure that it’s small enough to fit on your sled or other ice fishing transportation that you’re using to get around on the ice.
Due to their lightness of weight, propane heaters are the most popular choice among ice anglers.
For example, small portable Buddy heaters are both lightweight and compact, making them convenient to transport on the ice.
And it’s also easy to take along a few extra gas cylinders to last you for a whole ice fishing trip.
But keep in mind that even the smallest portable propane heaters weigh at least 5 pounds (plus that weight doesn’t include the propane cylinders which you’ll also need to bring along).
Electric vs propane heaters
As mentioned above, the majority of ice anglers prefer propane heaters, given that their propane tanks are significantly lighter than the batteries of an electric heater.
However, electric heaters do come with the advantage that they don’t use up your oxygen. In addition, there is no danger of carbon monoxide poisoning, and you don’t have to worry about ventilation when using an electric heater.
So if you’re using a large Fish House RV & it provides enough extra battery power, you can definitely opt for an electric heater.
In that case any 1500 watt portable room heater will do fine for ice fishing, and heaters like this retail for less than 30 dollars at most outlets.
If you’re using a permanent ice house, you also have the option of using a vented propane stove, which largely eliminates the smell of propane inside your shelter.
Portable propane heaters generally aren’t vented, which means you’ll need to deal with their gas odors and will also need to pay a lot more attention to effective ventilation inside your shelter.
As already mentioned, propane heaters come with a couple of hazards that you should consider.
The first of these is that they guzzle up oxygen. Because of this, most portable propane heaters come with an oxygen depletion sensor (ODS), which shuts off their gas supply if the oxygen concentration drops below a critical threshold.
Secondly: if you knock your propane heater over on the floor of your ice shelter, that can trigger a fire. Because of this, a second safety feature of these heaters is a tip-over sensor that turns off the gas supply if the unit leans too far over in any direction.
But keep in mind that most portable propane heaters don’t come with a carbon monoxide detector & you’ll have to purchase this separately if you want to be on the safe side.
In general, it’s important to ensure the effective ventilation of any space that is being heated with a propane heater.
What size heater do you need for ice fishing?
Now let’s discuss the size of the heater that you should get for your ice fishing trip.
Selecting the right BTUs for your shelter size
One of the key metrics that defines the size of a portable heater is the number of BTUs (British Thermal Units) that it produces per hour.
This number is the amount of heat produced by the heater, which in turn determines what size space it can heat.
Some of the most common BTU values for portable propane heaters are listed below, as well as the maximum number of square feet they can heat:
- 4,000 BTU: 100 square feet
- 8,000 BTU: 225 square feet
- 10,000 BTU: 275 square feet
- 18,000: 450 square feet
Most portable ice shelters are around 70 or 80 square feet, and in that case even the smallest portable heaters are big enough to heat them effectively.
For example, the Little Buddy heater generates 3,800 BTU per hour, which is enough to heat up to 95 square feet of space.
If your ice shack or fish house is larger than this, you’ll need to choose one of the larger heaters that comes with a higher BTU number, such as the Mr Heater Big Buddy or Mr Heater Portable Buddy.
In addition to BTU you also need to consider the run time of your heater. This depends on several factors, including the heat setting and the size of the gas tank that you’re using.
If you’re using a Buddy heater, check out our article on Buddy heater run times at different settings.
What are the most popular brands of ice fishing heaters?
The most popular brands of heaters used by ice anglers are:
- Mr Heater Buddy
- Heat Hog
- Campy Gear
There can be no doubt that the Buddy heater series produced by Mr Heater are overall the most popular portable heaters used by ice anglers.
In my experience, Buddy heaters account for more than 60% of all heaters used on the ice.
However, other brands have challenged the leading position of Mr Heater in this area, and are growing in popularity in recent years.