Types of camping stoves

Whether you want a camping stove for disaster preparation, the campground or backpacking, choosing the best fuel for your needs is the first step. Common fuel types include propane, white gas or other petroleum-based liquid fuels, alcohol, wood, isobutane or blended gases. Each fuel has significant advantages and disadvantages for different situations.

Propane: Best overall, propane is easy to use and easy to find. For situations where weight doesn't matter that much -- such as car or campsite camping -- propane is a great choice. Propane is clean-burning and efficient. It comes in small disposable canisters or in larger refillable canisters. Propane stoves usually have two or more burners and are suitable for a griddle or for group camping.

White gas: This type of liquid fuel comes in quart or gallon containers from which you pour as much fuel as you need into your stove's refillable canister. The upside is that you only carry as much fuel as you need, so you can keep pack weight low. For long campsite stays with a big group, it's easier to carry cans of white gas than several 20-pound propane tanks. White gas works well in cold weather and high elevations, and it's also inexpensive to buy. The downside is that white gas is tricky to use and more prone to flare-ups. Stoves using white gas need priming before you light, and you have to mess with refilling your canisters. Some stoves that burn white gas can also burn unleaded gasoline or kerosene. If you are camping near water, reviews suggest avoiding petroleum-based fuels like white gas, kerosene or unleaded gasoline. Experts say that spilling just one capful of unleaded gas can pollute 1,000 gallons of water.

Canister gas: This fuel contains butane, isobutane or a blend, and comes in disposable (and recyclable) aluminum canisters, so it is very convenient to use. Canister gas doesn't work that well in cold weather or at higher elevations, so these stoves are best for weekend backpacking, bike trips and warm-weather camping. Canisters are more expensive than buying white gas in bulk, but most backpackers say canister gas is a lot more convenient and easy to use.

Alcohol: Easy to find and inexpensive, alcohol is a good choice for disaster-preparation kits, since it stores well and has other uses. The catch is that it only burns half as hot as other fuels, which means it takes a longer time to boil water.

Expert reviews suggest considering these factors in choosing a camping stove:

  • Consider fuel and weight. For backpacking trips, especially long ones, this may be the decisive factor, but for car camping or disaster preparation, it may not matter at all. Remember to calculate the weight of the fuel you'll need to carry -- not just the starting weight -- before you get resupplied.
  • How crucial is safety? Alcohol stoves are generally considered the safest choice. They produce the fewest fumes, and alcohol is less flammable than other fuels because it evaporates quickly; but alcohol stoves don't produce much heat so they are much slower than other types. For emergency or campground use, propane stoves using disposable canisters are also relatively safe. Of course, ventilation is essential for any camping stove, and experts recommend not using any stove inside a tent.
  • Canister and propane stoves are the most convenient. The best camping stoves that use pressurized gases set up quickly, light easily and make it simple to adjust the heat. For two-burner campground stoves, propane is the most convenient fuel, while butane, isobutane and propane/butane canister fuel is better for backpacking.
  • Canister stoves that use threaded attachments are safest and most versatile. Standard threads, called Lindal threads, enable most canister stoves to use different brands of canister gas. The canisters are self-sealing, so after each use you can remove the burner. However, a few stoves puncture the seal to attach the canister; with these,  the burner must remain attached to the canister until the fuel is used up. This makes it harder to pack the stove, and because the attached burner includes the fuel knob, it increases the risk of the fuel accidentally getting turned on inside a pack.
  • A piezo ignition adds convenience. This electronic, push-button ignition makes it easier to light a gas stove, especially when it's windy. Be sure to carry dry matches or a lighter as well, since the piezo igniters are notoriously unreliable.
  • Be sure you can adjust the flame while wearing gloves. Even in spring and fall you may want to wear gloves during part of each day. In winter, this becomes really important.
  • Do you plan to travel outside the United States? In some parts of the world, it's easy to buy canister gas, while in other places kerosene is a better choice. In still other areas, dung is the only fuel readily available.
  • Practice before relying on a stove. Even with a simple propane or canister gas stove, it's important to practice setup, lighting, cooking and shutdown at home before going camping or relying on a stove for disaster preparation.
  • Carry a repair kit. Check to make sure the stove works properly and that all parts are in good condition before setting off on a trip. If you're storing a stove to use only in emergencies, be sure to check it regularly.

Be aware that you probably will not be able to bring your stove with you if you are traveling by plane. Department of Homeland Security regulations prohibit taking any type of camping stove on an airplane once it's been used, since traces of flammable fuel may remain. You may not be able to take a new, unused stove or bottle for liquid fuel, either, due to misunderstandings about stoves by security personnel. To avoid having a stove confiscated at the airport, experts say you should consider buying your camping stove and fuel after you reach your destination, then giving it away at the end of your trip or shipping it home.

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