To heat a cabin without electricity, your best options are wood or propane gas.
Quick answer: The best way to heat a cabin without electricity is a wood-burning stove or a propane heater. Both wood and propane gas provide lots of heat at a low cost. Heating with wood minimizes your dependency on anyone since it is available (for free) around your cabin.
The 5 Best Methods to Heat a Cabin without Electricity
Let’s take a look at 5 different methods to heat an off-grid cabin without electricity.
#1 Wood-burning stove
The best way to heat a cabin without electricity is with a wood-burning stove.
Wood is objectively the most cost-effective heat resource. To produce 1 million BTUs of heat energy from wood costs just $10.91. That’s by far the lowest cost per heat you can get.
For comparison, the same amount of heat in electricity would cost about $87.98.
But in a cabin, you’re not just looking to cut costs. Accessibility and availability are equally important.
And wood is usually abundant in the areas around cabins. With wood, you don’t have to rely on a third person. Or on any company’s products.
You only rely on your own ability to chop wood trunks to firewood. And in an off-grid situation, it’s always better to not depend on anyone (if it’s not necessary).
That’s why I rank a wood-burning stove as the number one choice for every cabin owner. Don’t have a wood stove? Get one!
“For me, the best heating option for the small wilderness cabin is a wood stove – especially when there is a lot of free firewood on your property.”small-cabin forum member
#2 Propane gas heater
A propane heater is the second best choice for heating a cabin without electricity. Propane gas is very durable, comparably cheap, and also very accessible.
Propane gas costs you $35.28 per million BTU of heat. This means it is technically 3x the cost of wood. But still, it is less than half of the cost of electric heating.
Also, we have to factor in that the price of wood is just for unprepared wood, which you have to put effort into to transform into dried and chopped firewood. Meanwhile, a propane tank can be connected to a propane heater and fired up without any work involved.
So, the reduced cost of wood in comparison to propane gas likely is because you have to invest your own time and work in wood. Which you don’t have to do when heating with propane.
Recommended propane heater for cabins
Anyways, my favorite propane heater is the Mr. Heater Big Buddy (click here to see the review).
It’s an 18,000 BTU heater which is perfectly capable of heating even large cabins. For regular-sized cabins and regular (economical) heating on the 4,000 BTU setting, one 20lb propane gas tank will last you for about 4 and a half days of continuous usage.
That means with 8h of heating a day, that heater will last you for almost 14 days until you have to refill. Pretty good.
Reuse propane gas for cooking in your cabin
The best thing about having a propane heater with a propane tank is that, aside from the heating, you can connect that same propane tank to a propane stove and use it for cooking.
So, if you are cooking with propane gas anyways, then you can get a propane heater just as an emergency backup. You have the gas available anyways.
#3 Portable Generator (Gas, Diesel, or Gasoline)
To heat a cabin without depending on an electric grid, you can generate your own electricity.
Generators that produce more than 2,000W can power a regular 1,500W electric space heater.
For heating a cabin without electricity, gas and fuel-based generators are a good choice. But heating off generators also introduces a few technical issues …
For example, in wintertime Diesel gets thick (from the cold), so a Diesel generator will not run as smoothly and might not be able to produce the required wattage.
In general, using generators for heating is not the best idea.
First, you will have to run the generator outdoors (because of carbon monoxide) and use an extension cord to connect the space heater which is standing indoors.
This means that all the heat the generator produces from the friction is wasted outdoors. This, in turn, means that only a fraction of the available energy in the generator’s fuel is made available to you inside the cabin.
Because of this energy loss, generating your own electricity and using it for heating is inefficient. Instead, you should use the fuel directly for heating using an appropriate heater such as a stove or a gas heater.
“The truth isn’t that electric heat isn’t less efficient, it’s more costly (electric heating is one of the few 100% efficient processes in physics, wood burning is only about 50%). I know it’s splitting hairs, but heating with electricity while attempting to be off-grid is a nightmare.”small-cabin forum member
#4 Kerosene Stove
Kerosene stoves are usually meant for cooking. However, you can use them for heating as well.
They are relatively small heat sources, so a kerosene stove might only be suitable for supplemental or emergency heat.
Please be aware that kerosene stoves are not designed for heating, and therefore, oftentimes their oxygen intake is not properly adjusted, which results in an improper burn that emits carbon monoxide.
As a general rule of thumb: Whenever you use a burning heat source that is not designed for continuous heating (such as small cooking stoves, or burners), then you should regularly vent your cabin.
I’ve included kerosene stoves in this list for completeness, but actually, wood-burning stoves or propane gas heaters are by far the best choices for you.
#5 Oil Lamps
Aladdin-style oil lamps are another method to heat a cabin without electricity. However, usually, these lamps are old, improperly adjusted, and will emit carbon monoxide.
Additionally, the oil to fire these oil lamps is overpriced. You can also use vegetable oil instead. But that’s overpriced as well.
In general, most heat sources except wood and propane are unreasonable money-wise.
You might think that your bottle of oil was just a few dollars. But when you look up the heat capacity of that oil and relate it to the amount of money you paid, it can get well over the hundreds of dollars per million BTU of heat.
So, oil lamps are an emergency heat (and light) source. But I would never rely on them for heating. Oil lamps output only little heat. And the refill costs too much for the little amount of heat you get.
How to heat water in a cabin without electricity
To heat water in a cabin without electricity, a propane gas or kerosene stove with a kettle on top works best.
A wood-burning stove works just as well. It just needs more time to fire up. While a propane stove is ready for cooking instantly, a wood-burning stove needs at least 20 minutes.
Of course, you don’t fire a wood stove just for boiling a cup of tea. And that’s where propane comes in handy.
With an electric generator, you could connect an electric stove or kettle and you would also be able to cook. Running a generator just for cooking is, however, a bit overpowered.
How to insulate a cabin to hold more heat?
Aside from heating your cabin, keeping the heat becomes equally important. Especially when you want to heat economically and you don’t want to chop wood or refill propane tanks all day.
For this, I highly suggest adding roof insulation to your cabin.
Generally, styrofoam works very well. However, in cabins there is an increased risk of fire and styrofoam would not really help. So:
To add insulation to your cabin, add an additional layer of wood to your roof. Ideally, this second layer should leave a gap in the original layer of wood to create insulating air pockets.
Additionally, you can hand carpets on the walls. And you can insulate windows by adding a window insulation shrink kit (click here to view it on amazon).
In an off-grid situation, it’s always good to have a backup for your heating. Here’s how to heat without a heater.
How to stay safe heating a cabin without electricity
Whenever you use a burning heat source indoors, you should install a carbon monoxide and a smoke detector.
Both of these will save your life. And depending on your location and your insurance, these might even be required.