Coleman Black Cat Heater
By Esther Yu and Steve Mann
Few effective solutions exist for a chilly night in a tent: among them a fire, a sleeping bag, and several warm layers of clothing. One of Coleman's newest products provides a fourth solution. The Coleman Black Cat heater is a lightweight, small heat source that can be used both inside and out.
Although there are few heat sources designed for indoor usage, the Black Cat catalytic heater is intended specifically for this purpose. The propane-powered catalytic heater provides heat through an eight-inch heating head just a few inches wide. With a bottle of propane, the Black Cat provides a lot of heat in a compact body, especially when compared to electric heaters designed for homes. Minus the propane fuel, the heater weighs in at a demure 3.75 pounds. That's a very small, lightweight luxury for any car camper.
We've all heard the warnings: "Never use a heat source inside a tent." Coleman explains that the Black Cat resolves the main objections and dangerous aspects of indoor heat sources: an open flame, and oxygen depletion with the accompanying carbon dioxide poisoning. First, the Black Cat burns without an open flame. Place fabric close to the heater and it will not immediately catch fire. Of course, at sufficient temperature and with prolonged exposure, or contact, many materials will melt. Thus, Coleman recommends keeping materials at least two feet from the heater head. You can sit the Black Cat on a tent floor, or on top of a picnic cooler, without problems, but you need to be very careful about falling asleep and moving your sleeping bag, flesh, or anything else into contact with the heater. This limits the heater's usefulness in confined spaces, such as a two person tent, but is very workable in a family tent--just watch out for the dog and the children.
Second, the Black Cat's catalytic heat source burns cleanly, i.e. the surrounding air must drop to a very low level of oxygen before it produces measurable levels of carbon monoxide. Normal air contains an average of 21% oxygen; the Black Cat burns cleanly down to about 9 to 12% oxygen. To maintain the proper oxygen level, Coleman specifies that you keep at least a six-inch long opening for ventilation.
Indeed, in today's litigious society, the obligatory disclaimers and warnings accompany the Black Cat heater. At first, upon opening the box and reading these warnings, any semi-cautious person might fear for their life when contemplating using the heater inside a tent. In reality, the precautions necessary for safety inside are quite simple: keep all flammables at least two feet from the heater head, and provide a fresh air opening of at least six square inches for ventilation. Obviously, these precautions also limit the Black Cat heater's applicability for backpacking (or small tents), the heaters weight with a propane bottle precludes its usefulness when it must be packed anyway.
Aside from all the warnings, the heater is surprisingly effective for its small, lightweight package. It has to be lit outside, but the process is simple: attach a propane fuel bottle, turn the heater on, then hold a match to heater head until a flame ignites. Soon the head goes flameless. Once the heater is placed inside the tent, it begins warming the air almost immediately. For additional safety in lighting the heater, Coleman will introduce an electronic ignition model at the beginning of the year 2000.
We tested the Black Cat camping with a family in a large tent at a local campground on a cool late fall night. We left the heater running on top of a picnic cooler, to keep it off the floor, back from the tent walls, and away from the kid's sleeping bags, for about four hours. With a window zipped open several inches, the tent stayed noticeably warmer.Our imaginative test crew found several additional uses for the Black Cat. Climbing Editor John Walter takes the Black Cat bouldering in late fall and winter. When his fingers get chilled to the bone, he stokes up the Black Cat and warms those ice-cold digits. Scott Clayton, our fly-fishing editor, noted that the Black Cat would be great for ice fishing. (We know, you don't ice fish with a fly, but the idea is still a good one.) One final idea: the heater makes a convenient emergency heat source for camping, in the car, and at home.
The match-light models suggested retail price is $49.99. The electronic ignition model will retail for $54.99. That's fairly inexpensive, especially considering that the additional fuel costs an average of only $3 more and lasts for at least six hours. The (usually) green propane bottles are almost universally available in most grocery stores. The heater comes with a retractable stand.
Summary: The versatile Black Cat Heater effectively warms up small, enclosed spaces and generates a few feet of heat in front of the heater head in open spaces. Considering its effectiveness, and variety of potential uses, the Black Cat's price is amazingly affordable. The heater can be very safe if you follow the simple precautions and use a touch of common sense.
Esther Yu is a Contributing Editor. Steve Mann is GearReview.com's Editorial Director
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