Can You Actually Suffocate in a Tent?

Going camping is a fun way to get outdoors and create memories that will last a lifetime. The outdoors inspires adventurers to push their comfort zones and take part in hiking, swimming, fishing and enjoying time around the camp fire. With all the excitement it’s easy to overlook safety and the last thing you probably consider is the possibility of suffocating in your tent.

Without proper ventilation, it’s possible that carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide could build up in a tent, ultimately resulting in ill effects and, in extreme cases, suffocation. The lack of oxygen in a tent is determined by several factors, such as too many people, lack of airflow, weather conditions, and more.

This article will thoroughly discuss why and how campers may suffer air quality issues in a tent and what can be done to ensure you have a safe trip.

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Can You Suffocate in a Tent?

Suffocation inside a tent occurs when there is a significant lack of oxygen in the air and is primarily caused by a build-up of carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide. 

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that can go completely undetected by the person inhaling it. It’s expelled by burning fossil fuels and, when inhaled, carbon monoxide can build up in the bloodstream, replacing the oxygen in your blood and leading to carbon monoxide poisoning — all in mere minutes. Children, the elderly, and those with compromised respiratory systems will begin to show signs sooner than the average, healthy adult. 

Signs of carbon monoxide poisoning vary, but include:

  • Nausea
  • Tightness of the chest
  • Headaches
  • Dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • Confusion
  • Collapsing
  • Death

Though the effects of carbon monoxide poisoning can be remedied by placing the individual in open, oxygen-filled air, if the person is exposed to the gas long enough, permanent damage can occur in organs such as the heart and brain.

Carbon dioxide is the gas that is exhaled by people and animals and can also occur in the air by burning carbon or organic substances. Carbon dioxide is present in the atmosphere at around 0.03%. It’s odorless, tasteless, and colorless and can go undetected. Though it’s generally harmless, being enclosed in spaces with no ventilation or being exposed to large quantities of it can cause harm. 

High levels of carbon dioxide can lead to adverse health effects, such as:

  • Restlessness
  • Headaches
  • Racing Heart/ Elevated Blood Pressure
  • Drowsiness
  • Sweating
  • Death

Like carbon monoxide poisoning, carbon dioxide poisoning can be treated with clean oxygen in an open space. However, if a person is exposed to high levels of carbon dioxide for extended periods (such as overnight in a tent), damage to organs that require an abundance of oxygen could have occurred.

Causes of Carbon Dioxide Build-up 

Knowing that carbon dioxide can harm a person is only half of the battle. It’s essential to understand what can cause carbon dioxide build-up. If you think you may be in a situation where ventilation will be an issue you can bring a portable CO2 detector to monitor the conditions in your tent.

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Some of the causes of carbon dioxide build-up in enclosed spaces are:

  1. Insufficient ventilation: Because tents are enclosed and designed to protect campers from the outside elements, they must have proper ventilation. Without sufficient ventilation, carbon dioxide will quickly build up, and oxygen will struggle to enter the tent. Mesh material in the canopy or the entryway are important features to look for when browsing for a tent. Windows are also an ideal feature to encourage flow-through ventilation.
  2. Small space with too many people: Tents have occupant capacities for a reason. These capacities are set to ensure that there are not too many people in a tent, resulting in a potentially unsafe environment. Consider how many people your tent is designed to sleep and take care not to exceed the limit.
  3. Snow covers the tent and blocks vents: Believe it or not, heavy snowfall can be a killer for campers. This is because snow can build up and not only block the open vents of a tent but pack against the walls and ceiling of a tent, blocking the breathability of the fabric. If you plan to camp during the winter, make it a point to brush off any snow from the tent during the day and before you go to sleep at night. If heavy snowfall is predicted throughout the night, you may want to set up a time to remove snow in the evening.
  4. Rain soaks the tent: Like snow, heavy rainfall can soak the tent walls and ceiling, minimizing the breathability of the tent’s fabric. In cases of rainfall, it’s recommended that you open the windows or front and back door flaps of the tent to allow air to flow through. Having a tent with large weatherproof porch can help with ventilation in bad weather.
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Carbon dioxide build-up is quite simple to avoid. Even if you’re an avid camper, you should plan your trips during expected sunny weather and be prepared for random storms. Choosing a tent that has quite a bit of mesh material in its fabric and allows windows to be opened will ensure that there is sufficient ventilation.

If you plan to keep your tent up all season, you can also place potted plants throughout your tent to absorb the carbon dioxide and expel more oxygen.

Causes of Carbon Monoxide Build-up 

Carbon monoxide is a silent and quick killer. It’s essential to know the potential causes of carbon monoxide build-up in your tent before the signs of poisoning appear. Prevention is the best remedy and having a battery operated CO detector can alert you to the conditions in your tent. 

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Some of the causes of carbon monoxide build-up include:

  1. Poor ventilation: Like carbon dioxide build-up, carbon monoxide build-up is more likely to happen when your tent doesn’t have the proper ventilation. Open windows, mesh materials, open front and back doors, and the right number of people inside the tent are the best ways to avoid ventilation issues. If the temperatures are too chilly to you can use heated wearables to stay warm while still keeping a vent open.
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  2. Cooking inside the tent: If you’re using propane, charcoal, wood, or any other form of natural fuel, the burnoff of these is carbon monoxide. Cooking inside of your tent without sufficient ventilation will result in carbon monoxide build-up and oxygen depletion. To avoid carbon monoxide build-up caused by cooking, opt for cooking outdoors instead. If you must cook inside your tent, open every flap in the tent while you cook and leave the entryways open for a few moments after the cook stove is turned off to allow the gas to escape.
  3. Using a wood or gas heater: Even during the summers (in some areas), the nights can get cold when camping. Though a heater is likely essential for many campers, wood or gas heaters in an insufficiently-ventilated tent will result in carbon monoxide build-up over time, especially if it’s left on all night. Whenever you need extra heat use a Buddy Heater designed for use in a tent.
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Carbon monoxide build-up is the result of burning fuels in an enclosed area, over an extended period, without proper airflow or escapes for the gas. It is recommended that you substitute your gas or wood units with electric ones, if possible. If not possible, keep your tent open and airy to allow oxygen to enter the tent. Do not allow a gas heater or lantern to remain on during the night when no one is awake unless windows are fully open.

Final Thoughts

The reality of possibly suffocating in a tent can be a scary one for some campers. However, with the proper ventilation, and a bit of common sense and camping safety measures, you can have a long, safe trip with little worry of carbon monoxide or carbon dioxide poisoning.

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Beau is an electrical engineer with a knack for DIY repair and construction. When he's not tinkering with his projects he's on the road travelling and enjoying an exciting lifestyle with his young family.

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