How to Choose a Camping Stove in 2020

photo of woman igniting a camp stove with girl and tent in background
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Choosing a camping stove depends on how you spend your time outside. Are you spending time at the group campsite cooking a meal for your family and friends? Or, are you a solo camper or backpacker cooking for yourself? Many times campers find themselves somewhere in the middle.

I know buying a new stove can be an overwhelming as there are many models and options. With this in mind, Outdoors Informed wants to assist you in getting the best information.

To help you with your research, below is our definitive 2020 guide on “how to choose a camping stove.” In this article, learn how to choose a the right stove for you. Discover what’s right for your specific use, fuel types, BTU’s, the best size, and how to be safe.

If you are looking for specific information, there is a handy linked table of contents. Or read the entire guide. Reader’s choice.

We updated this article in January 2020 to ensure the information in this guide is current. Read on to learn about how to choose a camping stove in 2020

Group Camping Stoves versus Solo Backpacking Stoves:

The biggest difference in outdoor stoves are their specific purposes. The first thing to consider is your activity. Are you planning to group camp at a designated campsite? Or, is your plan to trek out in the wilderness by yourself? Below is an explanation of each type of activity to help you choose the right stove for you.

What is group camping?

Group camping consists of packing up your vehicle and travelling to a campsite. The hard work is unloading and pitching a tent after that all you get to relax. In general, gear for group camping is sturdy, built for comfort and weigh a lot.

Stoves for group camping are no different. These stoves need to feed two or more people, and sit in place the entire time you are camping. They are multi burner workhorses that burn liquefied petroleum gases. This type of stove excels for boiling water or whipping up a gourmet breakfast.

A purple kettle and pan heating up eggs on a camp stove in a forest

Solo Camping or Backpacking Explained

This is exactly as it sounds, you trek into the wilderness without anyone else. For this activity, users have special backpacks filled with specific gear needed to survive. This type of gear is smaller, lighter, and very specific for each use.

Purpose built backpacking stoves have one or two burners. These stoves are very light, compact, and designed to be fast at boiling water for a single pot. They function in most climates but I don’t like using them for group cooking. Due to the waste of fuel and inefficiency in performing group multi-task cooking.

Stove Types: Tabletop or Freestanding

There are two different types of outdoor stoves for group camping. These are the tabletop and the freestanding. Below is a simple explanation of each type.

Why choose a tabletop camp stove?

Choose a tabletop model if you need a compact and portable group camping cook station. It’s best suited for solo car camping or for smaller groups. Some drawbacks are they are limited in power and the smaller size or number of burners. Another consideration is your camp location, there has to be a flat and steady surface available. If there isn’t, you may need to buy a dedicated stove table to match.

photo of a tabletop camping stove on a log in a forest

What is a freestanding outdoor stove:

These stoves are bigger, heavier, and harder to transport. Being larger may sound like a deterrent but the cooking versatility of this stove more than makes up for it. As the name suggests, these stoves have no need for a table, since they have built-in legs. If you don’t have to carry a stove far, are cooking up big meals and have plenty of space, it’s the stove for you.

multi burner camping stove with propane tank on grass

What Size Camping Stove Is Best?

The first question you have to answer is how many people you want to feed. In general, you will first decide between either a tabletop or freestanding model. When it comes to group or car camping, most campers prefer the table top type. After picking a type of stove you will move on to number of burners.

Number of burners

The common number of burners for these stoves are single, two burners and multi-burners. When choosing the number of burners think of how many burners you need to cook on at the same time .

Single burner – 3 or less people

Single burners are great for lightweight one-pot meals or boiling water fast. Coveted by the backpacker and solo campers due to taking up the least amount of space. It is inexpensive to buy and simple to operate. If people don’t mind simple meals this type is plenty for groups up to 3 people.

A single burner camping stove heating pot with person sitting next to it

Two burner – 7 or less people*

This is the most common number of burners and for good reason. Two burner camp stoves offer great cooking versatility in a compact form. If you want to further save weight and space look for a fold-able two burner stove. These stoves pack into a car while offering decent amount of BTU’s for a small group. You can use one burner for a pot where you are boiling water and the other for a pan for heating up something else.

* With 4 plus people, it’s best to add an extra single burner stove to offer better cooking efficiency.

Multi-burner – 8 or more people

For the chef cooking for a large group, there are stoves with multi-burner designs. These are large, heavy stoves that you will see in a three-burners or more. If three-burners aren’t adequate, certain styles of stoves could be daisy-chained together. In this instance, you need a large campground for safe cooking and sleeping.

Packed Stove Weight:

Packed weight is a crucial consideration for campers. This factor can make or break a camping trip. Imagine carrying it for a distance, it has to be comfortable to hold. If you are hiking in or have limited space, choose a small portable two-burner stove. Many people can navigate decent terrain with this style and weight of stove.

This will change depending on how many bellies you have to feed though. If you have a large group or are out with an RV/car, it’s best to forgo pack weight. In this case go with a multi-burner freestanding stove.

Which Stove Fuel Type Should I Buy?

Like the type and size of stove, the fuel type you choose is dependent on your activity. For car campers, liquefied petroleum gases are the most popular fuel choice.

What is a Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG)?

Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) is a pressurized liquid stored in canisters or cylinders. This is the most common fuel for group camp stoves. The three types of liquefied petroleum gases (LPG) are propane, isobutane, and n-butane. Most LPG’s are easy to find and affordable to buy. LPG’s likewise have the best heat to weight output. Keep ing mind, propane and isobutane burn in frigid temperatures, whereas butane doesn’t.

How does LPG Fuel work?

First the manufacturer compresses LPG into liquid at low pressures. Next they pour the liquid LPG into heavy gauge steel gas canisters, cylinders or tanks. These portable tanks store the liquid until it is ready for use.

*Imagine a storage tank is see-through, the LPG would be liquid in the bottom and vapor near the top.*

Inside lpg tank showing liquid in bottom, gas near top and ambient heat around tank

For outdoor style stoves to use LPG fuels the liquid in the bottom needs to “boil” into a vapor. The boiling process is like water boiling. Imagine the steam in a water boil, it’s the same for the gas vapor in a LPG boil. The two major factors that lead to boiling LPG’s are pressure and temperature.

Temperature: To aid a “boil”, the liquid LPG draws heat from the steel walls of the tank. These walls get heat from the ambient outside air.

Pressure: As you open the gas valve and turn on you camp stove, you lower the pressure inside the tank. Lowering the pressure boils the liquid LPG into a vapor.

The LPG vapor gas returns into a liquid by closing the gas valve. This will increase the tanks internal pressure without reducing the temperature.

Two Most Important Factors for Choosing LPG Type

Boiling Point: Temperature that an LPG’s vapor pressure equals its liquid pressure. At this point, the liquid boils into a gas. Fuels will struggle to vaporize at temperatures below its “boiling point.”

Vapor Pressure: LPG’s ability to remain pressurized at different temperatures. A LPG with low vapor pressure won’t work in cold ambient temperatures; for example butane.

As a result, the lower the boiling point of each LPG, the greater the vapor pressure. In simple terms, the better the performance you will get in colder temperatures.

Chart showing boiling point and vapor pressure of LPG gases

Varieties of LPG gases for camp cooking:

Propane:

Propane is by far the best performing and most common type of camping stove fuel. There are single-use propane canisters at gas stations or grocers across the country. On multi day trips or with large groups there are large reusable tanks as well. Make sure to read the manufacturer’s instructions and use an approved adapter. Large (20 pound) reusable tanks will save you money on fuel costs over time.

For convenience, it is a good idea to buy an adapter hose for your stove. This adapter will enable you to switch from canisters to tanks depending on how long you are camping.

There are two considerations to look for in an adapter hose. One is length; a good hose length is at least five feet. Ease of use is the second consideration because different brands use different hoses. Each brand has different knob sizes for screwing on and off, while others with big plastic grips. The latter are the best because it the process quick and painless.

Isobutane:

This is another common liquid fuel, especially with the backpacker crowd. It does offer an acceptable vapor pressure in cold weather. Backpackers love how lightweight it is; the canisters weigh less than propane. Weight savings are critical for backpackers, but for group campers don’t worry about it. Isobutane is an expensive gas to make and expensive gas to buy. Therefore, backpackers buy small lightweight quantities. This isn’t a recommended fuel for group stoves, unless you like spending money.

N-Butane:

Known as the bastard fuel in popular culture, due to it burning dirty. N-butane does have many pros such as; it’s cheap to buy, ignites in an instant and is very light. In the event you are winter camping don’t use this fuel type. It has the highest boiling point and the lowest vapor pressure. This LPG is more suited for backpackers or using it for small lighters and torches.

Liquid Fuel For Outdoor Stoves

photo of a red and white Liquid Camp Stove Fuel container

Unlike the LPG fuels, this type of fuel burns as a liquid. With a liquid burn, pressure and temperature don’t factor in its performance. A plus is you can find it all over the world, ignites in an instant and burns in extreme cold or at high altitude. There are four types of liquid fuel used in camp cooking, including white gas, alcohol, paraffin and multi-fuel. Explanation of each are below.

Naphtha/White Gas

Naphtha is a flammable liquid petroleum product. It’s made from natural gas or distilled from oil, coal tar or peat. Naphtha puts out a high level of heat and has a lack of additives. For these reasons it’s less likely to clog stove fuel lines. Naphtha is the best liquid fuel for a frigid trek up in high altitudes. There are many varieties of Naphtha; the most common to campers is white gas.

Invented in the 1950’s for fueling cars, white gas will burn cleaner than other naphtha varieties. Plus it’s the easiest for starting your stove. The big advantage compared to other liquid fuels is that it doesn’t give off black smoke or toxic fumes. A disadvantage is that if exposed to air it will degrade fast. As it degrades, it clogs the fuel lines in camp stoves. You can store an unopened container of white gas for five to seven years.

Alcohol – Methylated Spirits (Meths)

Meths is a form of ethanol (ethyl alcohol), it isn’t alcohol for consumption. It’s a combo of methanol (methyl alcohol), pyridine, and a methyl violet dye. The last ingredient is what gives its purple color. This fuel burns at half the heat of other liquid fuels. Since heat is integral for cooking this fuel is inefficient for campers. A common user is high altitude mountaineers. As a camper, meths isn’t a reliable fuel and falls into a DIY fuel category.

Paraffin or Kerosene

Paraffin or known as kerosene is a lamp oil made of a distillation of crude oil. This type burns hotter than any other fuel and is easy to control.

The disadvantage, is that it is smelly and produces ashy soot in the fuel lines leading to clogs. Plus it doesn’t evaporate if spilled, which is terrible for the planet.

how long does one liter of fuel last: liquid fuel infographic

Multi-Fuel

This is a combination of two fuels types and the stoves that use a multi-fuel are complex products. They are small, lightweight cookers designed for back country campers or mountain climbers. For group camping or easy solo camping, using a single fuel type stove is fine.

Eco-Conscious Stove Fuel Alternatives:

Using Wood For Stove Fuel:

For earth conscious campers there is the option of wood-fueled stoves. Homemade wood stoves are as simple as setting up a windscreen and burning the wood inside it. The other option is to buy a special wood stove which burns biomass (sticks, dried grass, etc).

The advantage of wood is it will reduce your fuel costs to zero, as long as you can find wood. As well, it can provide endless hot water boils and do double duty as a heater on cold nights.

Problems arise if wood isn’t available and wildfire bans are happening. If you do choose wood fuel, expect to find soot on the bottom of your cookware and smoke smell on your gear.

Charcoal

Charcoal is a lightweight black carbon residue produced from animal and plant materials. For campers there are several charcoal grills on the market for example a hibachi. While the actual stoves are cheap, you have to pay more for the charcoal fuel. It will burn at higher temperatures, and give off very little smoke compared to wood. But trying to get this fuel to an adequate temperature for cooking purposes can take a long time. The smoke produced by charcoal is dirty, but the distinctive tasting food makes up for this.

Solar

If you want to ditch non reusable fuel and cook using the sun, choose solar camping stoves. Bear in mind though, solar energy varies by location and time of the day. You cannot cook in the dark with solar! But for those of you who camp in desert locations, the sun might be the best fuel available.

Stove Power: BTU's Importance For Outdoor Cooking

The acronym BTU stands for British Thermal Unit and is a measurement of heat. It is the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of 1 pound of liquid water by 1 degree Fahrenheit.

For a Celsius measurement, the term is a Calorie. It is the same measurement but with 1 gram of water to 1 degree of Celsius.

If searching for heating requirements in outdoor stoves, look for a measurement such as 10,000 BTU per Hour.

British Thermal Units cart showing approximate btu per camp stove

Why Are BTU’s Important For Cooking?

Did you know that the act of boiling water is what “cooks” food suitable for basic nourishment? This is true for heating up water inside a pot or boiling off the water molecules found inside your food. Since food plays an important role, we need to pay special attention to how we cook outside.

In a perfect situation, the higher the BTU or Calorie, the faster the water will boil. Knowing this should make it easy to choose a camp stove; you pick the highest BTU rating, right? Nope, it is important to realize that we can’t control the outdoor weather. For example, we can’t control how cold or how windy the campsite is.

This is a basic example of a requirement for BTU’s and camp stoves. Say you were trying to boil one large pot of water for a pasta dinner for your family of four. This would be the smallest output for basic group camp cooking needs. To achieve this you would look for a stove with at least 10,000 BTU per hour. But, if you are trying to boil that pasta and cook something else on a separate burner. You should look for a stove with at least 30,000 or more BTU.

Note: Be aware that some companies list the BTU of the an entire unit. Whereas other companies will list the BTU of each burner. Imagine two near identical stoves next to each other. Ones is a three burner, but in total a 25,000 BTU unit. While the other stove is a two burner but may have two 12,500 BTU burners. The two burner is more powerful than the three burner!

Stove power considerations based on stove type:

Tabletop Single Burner: A single burner has an output of around 7,000 BTU/hr. While the power of this stove isn’t an awe-inspiring, it does a fine job of cooking food. In addition, if time isn’t an issue, it will boil a liter of water in about 5 minutes.

Freestanding Single Burner: Power for this type of stove varies a great deal. Basic models put out about 10,000 BTU/hr, while higher-end models can have about 34,000 BTU/hr. Which model you choose depends on your cooking needs.

two pans cooking food on a two burner camp stove

Tabletop Double Burner: The power range for this type starts from a simple version at 10,000 BTU/hr. Complex expensive models have power outputs of around 20,000 BTU/hr. The higher-end version has powerful burners, boil water fast, and good simmer control.

Freestanding Multi-Burner: Freestanding multi-burner stoves have power outputs around 30,000 BTU/hr. These are heavy and complex stoves meant for the ultimate “camp chef.”

Choose An Ignition Type: Based On Fuel Type

How simple is it to ignite each camp stove by fuel type? Some camp stoves use a Piezo (instant) ignition, while other types need patience and skill. Piezo igniters use a pressurized electric charge to ignite the fuel with the press of a button. They are easy to use and keep your hand out from the burners. The downfall of these igniters are the added cost and the notorious poor life expectancy.

Below is an explanation of the quirks of each fuel type based on their ignition type.

LPG

Simple to use, but heavy, many have some simmering control. Most modern models use Piezo Ignition. Ignition issues occur due to a broken Piezo igniter, but there is an easy work-around. You can use a pre lit match to light this type of fuel. Be careful doing this though.

Liquid (naphtha)

Fussier to operate because they need to have priming to begin ignition. First, you pump the fuel bottle to pressurize the contents and prime the burning area with a few drops of fuel. Next you can attempt ignition of the stove. A bonus is that this fuel allows for some simmer control.

For quirks, stoves using this fuel need periodic cleaning of any hoses and regular cleaning of the seals and O-rings. For campers that enjoy quiet in the wildness, this fuel can run a bit noisy.

Liquid (alcohol)

Some need special priming to start, others you can fill and light with a match. Every time you cook, you have to measure out precise amounts of fuel, which is annoying to some campers.

An advantage to this fuel is that it doesn’t need to be under pressure to burn. Which makes it safe and quiet for cooking. A disadvantage is how clear the flame burns in an alcohol stove. Making confirmation of operation difficult. This fuel is best for solo camping or backpackers.

Liquid (paraffin/kerosene)

With dirty and complicated operation this is another fuel that needs special priming before ignition. While fun for DIY campers who enjoy tinkering with their stove equipment, this fuel isn’t for the faint of heart. It increases repair and maintenance in the field. Expect smelly clothes and blackened pots with this type of fuel.

person holding metal pot on top of a grill over wood fir pit

Wood & Charcoal

Igniting wood or charcoal requires patience and skill. No one button igniter to use, you have to build a fire the old way. Cooking with these fuels need vigilance and time to control heat output. Expect soot covered pots and all your gear to smell like the burnt fuel.

Solar

Solar stoves are reliant of the sun and prone in windy conditions. You don’t use an igniter, on the contrary you place the stove in direct sunlight.

Expect his “fuel” can take a long time to cook. Beware that it takes a level of expertise to use this fuel type. Depending on the location or situation there are time this won’t heat food to safe temperatures. Good for high altitude solo campers or backpackers.

Cooking Performance Considerations

To further narrow down which type of stove is right for you, these are some further considerations.

Boil Time

The main measurement for cooking performance is “boil time.” This is how long it takes for a quart/liter of water to boil on the highest heat and at sea level. A good performance time is about 3 to 5 minutes, which satisfies the most grumpy morning camper.

Refer to the BTU measurement I mentioned before.

Remember this – the higher the BTU rating the higher power available.

The higher the power, the faster boil time. Be aware though, if camping in high altitudes and cold weather expect longer cook times.

Chart of boil times for various camp stove fuel types

Simmer Control (Ease of Use)

How low can the flame go? The answer is using simmer control. This is the user’s ability to regulate the strength of the flame and fuel output. Expensive tabletop and freestanding models provide precise controls and greater finesse. While budget options tend to favor a one-flame-for-every-occasion output.

Wind Protection

Wind protection plays a major role in camp stove performance due to wind being a quick killer of stove burners. In fact a small breeze will reduce the size of the flame if simmering at low heat. Below is what to expect with each type of camp stove:

Single burner stoves: Many models forgo built-in wind protection. Although, solo campers and backpackers buy add-on or DIY build windscreens. A separate windscreen means one more item to pay attention to while cooking though – a bit annoying.

Two + burner stoves: For tabletop or freestanding stoves most have built-in windscreens. Their lids open up and provide a full wind block from the rear. For cross winds these stoves have side panels. Lift up the side panels and snap them into to the lid, to creates three sided protection.

Cold Weather Stove Considerations

Cold weather stove operation can be challenging, especially if you are camping on snow or ice. You could try using an insulated stove platform like an aluminum wrapped foam.

Another consideration in cold weather is the need for warming the fuel before burning it. Keep in mind, that “cold” can also be wet. To combat the cold and wet bring waterproof matches with you, no matter which stove you have. Solar stoves won’t work in cold wet climates. Unless you plan to dose the stove in fuel and burn the entire stove as your fuel.

Best camping stove fuel for cold weather:

  1. Liquid (naphtha & paraffin) – Excellent in subfreezing temperatures.
  2. Wood – Will burn at low near freezing temperatures. If camping in snow, dry wood could be hard to find.
  3. Solar – The sun can cook food in cold temperatures. It is best to use solar at high altitudes. This area equals thinner air which allows for higher levels of solar radiation.
  4. Liquid (alcohol) – Poor below freezing and needs preheating to help get started. Placing a liquid fueled stove on the ground is a bad decision. Because the cold ground temperature can cool the fuel to the point it won’t light.
  5. LPG – May not light in sub-freezing temperatures and wind affects this fuel.

Camping Stove Accessories:

Camp cooking with pots and pans aren’t the only ways to cook while camping. Another is upgrading, and adding a griddle to your camp stove setup.

Griddles & Grilles

What is a griddle? A griddle is a long flat surface, meant to cooks eggs, pancakes, and other “flat” meals. What about a grill? Like a griddle, a grill adds a ridged surface, meant for cooking meat, veggies, and fish.

When looking to buy a griddle or grill accessory, pay attention to its size. As long the dimensions of a griddle or grill match your stove surface, the accessory should work well.

pancake batter with blueberries cooking on camping stove griddle top

Physical battery tests:

What to look for:

Cast Iron: This is the best material for griddles and grills. This material lasts as long as you take care of it. In addition, it cooks food well. However make sure to find quality one, because cheap cast iron deteriorates.

Combinations: The ultimate convenience! Some companies make a griddle/grill combo. One side is flat for eggs and pancakes, while the other has ridges for meat and veggies.

Handles: This is a no-brainer right? Without handles a griddle or grill is a safety hazard if it overheats. Plus handles are helpful for cleaning. Unless the brand of your stove makes a handle-less griddle/grill, buy one with handles.

Length: Some brands make griddles/grilles, which cover the entire stove surface. Using this kind will prevent you using the other burner for a single pot. Others make single burner ones, which are more versatile. What you choose will depend on how you cook.

Adjustable Legs: What do you do if you can’t find a picnic table in a campsite that is flat or level? Don’t fuss with onsite solutions, it’s easier to buy add-on adjustable legs. Adding these legs will allow you to level out your stove no matter where you camp. Otherwise, expect to hunt around for the perfect flat place to level the stove surface.

Camping Stove Safety: 12 Tips

  1. It’s critical to ensure the cooking surface is level and clear of flammable materials. For example, setup your camp stove on flat ground or a table and keep it far from dry leaves or vegetation.
  2.  Don’t cook with an open flame inside an enclosed area such as inside a tent.
  3.  Keep your food and your cooking area a safe distance from where you sleep, especially in bear country. Store food in an animal proof container and hang it high from a branch of a tree. This will help protect the food from wild animals.
  4. Ensure you know how to transport your stove fuel. It is important if travelling by air or sea to check for safety rules. For example, in Canada, ferry boats consider white gas and propane to be dangerous cargo. As a result, foot passengers cannot carry white gas onto Canadian ferries. Likewise, airlines have strict rules about transporting fuel bottles. It is best to check if you can travel with bottles or canisters or if you need to buy them at your destination.

Camping stove canister safety:

  1. Ensure you placed the gas canister in the correct position before you start to cook.
  2. To use instant ignition for a stove, first gently turn the knob to the right and listen for the click. Second, press ignition to light flame.
  3. Place the stove in an area sheltered from the wind. This helps for easier lighting and better cooking efficiency.
  4. Always shut off the stove control and the gas valve every time after you finish cooking.
  5. Wait until the stove cools down before you remove the gas cartridge.
  6. Don’t leave the gas cartridge in a stove that isn’t operational. Also, ensure that you store gas cartridges and camping stoves in dry places.
  7. Clean your stove grill each time you have used it. Dirty stoves do not perform well and may make you ill.

Wood fueled camping stove:

  1. If there is a fire ban in effect, be sure to ask a ranger or local fire department about exemptions. Many times wood stoves aren’t allowed in summer months, it’s best to make alternative plans. Better safe than sorry.

Conclusion:

Finishing up, you can see that having the right information for choosing a camping stove will depend on many personal factors. Consider the stove type, size, fuel, BTU rating, ignition, boil time, wind protection and accessories. By following this process you will have the right camping stove for you in 2020.

Thanks for allowing Outdoors Informed to help you in your research, so you can spend more time cooking great meals at the campsite.

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