Unless you plan to live off of cold beans and beef jerky every time you head into the wild, you’re going to want a camping stove. Given the massive array of models and types available, you may feel like you can’t see the forest for the fuel canisters, but choosing the best stove doesn’t have to be a headache.
Recreational campers were cooking meals over open flames long before camp stoves came about, so remember that whatever you get, you’re at least a step up from a pointed stick and some smoky logs. Crackling flames are ideal for marshmallows, and glowing coals serve Dutch oven recipes well, but people invented the regulators and fuel lines of today’s camp stove systems for a reason. Stoves are more efficient, can be more reliable in terms of fuel supply (what if you can’t scrounge up any kindling?), and provide more control, allowing for simmering as opposed to boiling being your only option. With a fire, you can move the pan closer or farther away from the heat source, but that’s about it. True expert chefs may be able to cook perfect eggs and flapjacks every time this way. Not so much the average camper.
Backpackers and committed thru-hikers appreciate the ease with which a modern camping stove system can be set up and taken down. There’s no waiting for coals to cool or dumping buckets of precious water on hissing ashes once the meal is done, and some sites—especially those in the dry backcountry—ban fires altogether to prevent anyone from setting off a devastating blaze.
Figuring out the best camp stove to meet your needs can certainly enhance your outdoor experience, but it likely won’t make or break your trip. There’s no one “best” option. With that pressure off, you can relax and take your time in deciding what you need, what you want, and which camp stove will probably serve you well.
The Fuel Question: Canister vs. Liquid
First of all, to get heat, you’ve got to have something to burn.
Traditionally, camping stoves have fallen into one of two categories based on the fuel used to run them. Canister stoves are typically powered by propane blended with butane or iso-butane to both keep the fuel stable and allow it to continue to burn even when it’s not so hot out.
That’s because the pressure exerted by propane alone would burst anything less than a heavy steel container at temperatures found on a nice, warm day, while butane’s vaporization rates get a bit sluggish as the numbers drop on the thermometer. The butane mitigates propane’s high-pressure problem, while, in turn, propane brings the butane along to burn at lower temperatures than it otherwise would. Together, the gases make as perfect a pair as a hungry camper could ask for. Most of the time.
Liquid-fuel stoves are typically powered by refined white gas, which is better at providing a consistent flame in low temperatures. Naphtha, as the gas is known, burns well, and is known for being clean and cheap. Note that a camping stove running on liquid fuel must be primed before it can cook something. Priming ensures that the white gas is vaporized and ready to burn as it leaves the nozzle. On some models, this means pre-burning a bit of fuel poured in to heat the stove to the point it can take over the task itself. Other models have a built-in pump you have to manually operate to force vaporized fuel out in order to get the flame going.
Campers may be able to use a variety of liquids in multi-fuel stoves, though anyone subbing in kerosene or gasoline should be explicitly sure that the camp stove is made to handle it.
There are other fuel options, too. Stoves in the alternative category include models that run off of solid fuel tablets. These are favored by ultralight backpackers who pick the “pocket stove” because of how portable both the equipment and fuel are. Heat comes from little cubes that tend to burn for around 10 minutes each. There are also wood-powered camp stoves that channel energy from burning sticks into usable focused heat, and some versions create energy that can also charge electrical devices.
One Burner, Two Burners, Three Burners, Four
There are three-burner options out there for people who want to cook a perfectly timed multi-course meal or feed a whole lot of hikers at once—and only use one camping stove to do it—but most people make do with single- or double-burner arrangements.
The number of burners you want on a single stove is truly a matter of personal preference, and your leanings will certainly be shaped by your history (or plans) of cooking for a few people or a lot, and whether your menu contains simple, one-pan dishes or complex meals. Need toasted pine nuts for that salad? You’re probably going to want more than a single burner. If lunch is closer to Top Ramen for two, a solo flame will likely serve you just fine.
Scenarios that do call for large amounts of food or several separate pots simmering away at once do happen, especially in group campsites or in situations where meals are more than soup. In such cases, two double-burner stoves can be used to provide more heat. The Jetboil Genesis Base Camp Stove system can be daisy-chained to create four connected burners. That’s one for browning meat, one for sautéing vegetables, one for boiling water for noodles, and one for boiling water for coffee. Or whatever. That’s just a suggestion.
Integrated systems do away with the open burner concept by prompting campers to connect their cooking vessel directly to the heating unit. The overall effect is a single column with a fuel canister at its base. This obviously limits the sorts of foods that can be cooked, but it maximizes portability and efficiency for the backwoods hikers who only need one burner to heat up their freeze-dried chicken tikka masala.
What Will You Use Your Camping Stove For?
Little More Than Boiling Water for Coffee
You really do want to live off of beef jerky, don’t you? A compact integrated system may be your best choice. If your mantra involves the words “less is better,” you’ve got your answer already. A Spartan attitude also hints at a desire to expose yourself to extreme—possibly very cold—situations, so liquid fuel or an inverted canister setup might be the way to go. Read on to learn about low temperature’s effects on your options.
Again, integrated systems work well to quickly heat up calorie-packed meals in relatively small containers, making them perfect for thru hiking and other backpacking adventures. Shorter excursions that don’t require streamlined packs may be appropriate for a single-burner camp stove.
Cooking Simple Meals
One or two burners are ideal for this. You can actually feed quite a few people with this option, as a double-burner camp stove can handle a pan with scrambled eggs on one side and a foil-wrapped stack of tortillas on the other. Or a pot with stew on the right and a pre-baked loaf of bread warming on the other. Or a mess of chili opposite a mess of cornbread. You get the idea. A basic stove is like the classic little black dress: It goes with just about everything.
Feeding a Hungry Group
Take your pick. Multiple burners are going to be a must, and pretty much all fuel choices are open to you—though some campers feel that the lower cost of white gas gives it an edge for group getaways that will consume copious amounts of fuel. Perhaps you can narrow down your options by investigating further criteria mentioned below. Three or four people will probably do fine with just one double-burner camp stove, but you’ll want to expand beyond that for larger parties.
Preparing a Memorable Meal
You need simmering. Canister camp stoves are widely recognized for their ability to do more than bring whatever’s on the burner to a boil, and the latest models have been known to draw favorable reviews from critics who wished their home kitchens allowed so much control.
Liquid-fuel stoves can also offer adjustable flames that go beyond mere boiling and burning. Be sure to invest in multiple burners so you have plenty of heat sources to handle your various ingredients and courses. Wood-burning and multi-fuel camp stoves are not so forgiving to subtle flavors.
When Are You Camping?
Though a propane/butane blend allows canister stoves to safely operate at a variety of temperatures, cold weather isn’t exactly a friend to every model in this option. That’s because the pressure difference between the gases pushes the propane up to burn off a little more quickly than the butane. Since butane has a much higher boiling point than propane, it’s not as good at vaporizing to provide heat at lower temperatures. Cooking in the colder months may fizzle if a canister’s propane runs out, leaving only butane that can’t handle the chill. A merrily blazing burner can fade to nothing, leaving a less-palatable meal in the pot.
If you plan to make winter your prime excursion time, consider taking steps to keep your canisters warm—not hot, but warm, as in snuggled next to you in bed. This can help as short days and long nights keep sunlight to a minimum and freezing temperatures become the norm.
Some stoves work with pressure-regulated canisters or require canisters to be mounted upside-down when in use. Either arrangement—or both combined—can solve the problem of consistent heat output.
Liquid fuel, unlike a vapor made of varying-pressure gases, allows the flame to burn evenly, even when the weather outside is frightful. Consider the benefits of a reliable flame. Also consider setting up a liquid-fuel system and priming it with gloves on our fingers exposed to the frigid air.
Where Are You Camping?
This question has a lot in common with the question of when you’re camping, because if you’re frequently seeking snowy peaks for your excursions, you’re probably going to want to stick with liquid fuel or an inverted canister system due to the conditions you’ll encounter way up there.
The average temperatures in the mountains when compared to valley floors below should actually impact your choice of fuel more than thoughts of altitude. Less air pressure pushing on you and your canisters as you go higher in elevation actually works to a propane mix’s benefit.
If you’re spending time in the wild outside of the United States—or are even heading to civilized areas where you’ll still want to set up a camping stove—you may want to invest in a multi-fuel option, as not every country has shops with propane/butane canisters on hand or naphtha readily available. If diesel is what you can get, diesel is what you’re going to have to burn. Or you can survive on trail mix and cold tea.
How Much Can You Carry?
The weight of a single, small canister system may be measured in ounces, while a large, multi-burner model, such as the Eureka Spire, can tip the scales at 11 pounds, and then you factor in a 20-gallon fuel canister.
If your answer to “How much can you carry?” is “Not much,” then you’ll want to look for a compact heating system that’s portable, light, and easy to set up and break down. Consider models that feature parts that can be collected and stored in the cooking cup. A unit like this is ideal for backpackers aiming to shave every bit of unnecessary weight from their loads.
If weight is that big of a consideration, consider that liquid fuel containers consistently outweigh containers for a canister stove, as do the stoves themselves. But the longer the trip, the more canisters you’ll need, making liquid fuel a potentially more economical choice—in terms of both money and energy you’ll expend lugging it all around.
If your answer is closer to “The stove is going to wind up in the back of one of our trucks or vans,” then a larger option is more to your speed—or carrying capacity. This doesn’t mean you should load yourself down with extra pounds just because you can, but a bigger stove is more appropriate for preparing meals for a group, and is so obviously going to be heavier. More burners typically equal more weight.
Which Fuel is Safer?
Any stove should be well maintained to prevent leaks and other hazardous conditions. Also, canisters, tanks, and other fuel storage vessels should always be kept as stable as possible, and never allowed to overheat.
In terms of selecting the type of stove and fuel based on flammability, note that propane canisters tend to self seal, preventing any gas from escaping when they’re not screwed into a fuel line. Liquid fuel containers don’t necessarily have that feature, which can lead to spills. Accidentally dribbling white gas onto a surface isn’t bad in and of itself—it’s not sizzling acid, and it evaporates quickly—but it definitely creates the potential for flames arising in unintended areas should a stray spark or excess heat set it off.
On a related note, the always-closed nature of propane canisters means figuring out how much fuel you have left at any given time is a matter of guess work. Hefting the container to hear how much is still sloshing around inside isn’t necessarily accurate, even for estimates, since cold-weather use might have burned off all of the propane, leaving nothing but iso-butane inside. You can simply open a refillable white gas container and eyeball the amount of the stuff you have left.
If you do use refillable containers, note that you should never pour in so much white gas that it reaches the top. As matter expands when it heats up, an overly full bottle can quickly develop unwanted pressure.
From a “safe for the Earth” standpoint, the fact that you can re-use your liquid fuel containers gives that option an edge. Depending on where you live, you may have to follow certain regulations or precautions to dispose of single-use propane canisters.
How Much Maintenance Are You Willing to Do?
Canister camp stoves are fairly low-maintenance items. You do have to keep them clean to ensure proper function and, you know, hygiene. Regular inspections can help to lower the risk of unexpected problems. Spraying soapy water onto hoses and connections while the stove is running—preferably when it’s being tested at home, not when you’re at a crucial cooking moment in the woods—can reveal any leaks or loose seals via the formation of bubbles.
Liquid-fuel camp stoves require a bit more maintenance. While white gas is considered to be very clean burning, it can start to degrade once exposed to air. Older fuel can generate sediment, which can gum up the free flow of your heating system. The problem is even more common when using a multi-fuel stove, as other liquids tend to leave more residue. Clogged hoses can lead to poor performance, and even potentially dangerous situations, so periodic cleanings and occasional new parts are realities with this model.
Got a Light?
Pretty much every canister camp stove you encounter today is going to have an automatic lighter, known as a Piezo igniter. Starting the stove is often as simple as turning a knob and pushing a button. If the ignition system malfunctions for some reason, you can still bring the heat by lighting the stream of gas with a match.
Liquid fuel camp stoves, as noted above, likely require priming, which is a bit more labor intensive, but not prohibitively so.
What’ll It Cost?
This is perhaps the biggest question to some people, but it’s also one of the hardest to answer. There are amazingly effective, but inexpensive camp stoves, and there are wallet-busting models that have way more bells and whistles—sometimes literally—than you’ll ever need. Basic models that comfortably fit your budget can be expanded as time and money and desire allow. Only you can answer the question of what you’re willing to spend. Once you decide on that, you’ll be able to find a camp stove that fits.
Do Some Homework
After you’ve determined roughly which sort of stove you want—what sort of fuel sounds best, how many burners you’ll likely need—you should research more detailed information that applies to specific brands and models.
There are near limitless variations that impact how long a particular stove will take to bring a liter of water to a boil and how efficiently it can do so. Still not sure which stove might work best for you? There’s nothing like real-world experience to help when making a decision. Read online reviews, preferably from campers whose style matches or is compatible with yours. Glowing words from a car-camping family of five might not apply to your Appalachian Trail-bound needs. Also, seek out critical opinions from trusted sources. A one-star rating from “ihatemosquitoes82” that includes a scathing mention of how frustrating tent zippers can be or how annoying birds are at sunrise might not be a reliable voice that will speak to your future experience.
Word of mouth works great, too (again, considering the reliable source angle). Ask around, especially if you have a friend who has a camp stove that’s served him or her well over the years. Better yet, see if you can borrow that camp stove from that friend—or even better still, take a trip with that same friend and see the stove in action while enjoying time together in the wilderness. Drink the coffee. Taste the pasta. Try priming a liquid fuel camp stove for yourself. Carry a canister or two in your backpack for a couple of days.
The thing about outdoors enthusiasts is they love to get other people excited about spending time outside, too. So schedule a backpacking excursion with some camp stove aficionados who can fill you in on the pros and cons of the system they chose to keep them fed in the backcountry.
As for the next question you’re going to ask—Which friends should I bring?—we can’t help you with that.
Eureka USA/CANADA BLOG - 2016