Choosing a Camping Stove
Mealtime is an important part of the camping experience. For some, it’s an event in its own right. Campfire cooking may be a large part of why you go camping in the first place. For others, it’s more of a necessary step along the path of some greater adventure. Either way, having the right tools for the job can make all the difference, especially when it comes to campfire cooking. Getting the right tools can turn a tedious, borderline-annoying process into a fun and rewarding mealtime. That being said, there is no shortage of camp cooking equipment available online and in retail stores. How in the world do you even begin to pick the right gear? Well, don’t worry -- we’re here to help. Whether you’re a discerning gourmand, or a ‘food as fuel’ type, you’re sure to find some helpful information outlined here. Today, we’re talking camping stoves. We’ll go over handy features, size considerations, essential functions, and why you should even have a stove in the first place. Stay tuned!
Camping Stove vs Backpacking Stove
If you’re going to be hanging out and cooking near your vehicle, a camping stove is what you’ll want. In fact, you’ll often see camping stoves being suggested for ‘car camping.’ But, if you’re looking to be more adventurous, and want to prepare meals a quarter mile or more away from your car, we suggest a lighter-weight backpacking stove.
Outside of that, your needs from a stove are pretty subjective and varied. Two of the most important considerations are your space/weight restrictions and your own personal cooking interests. Car camping stoves are heavy and awkward, not designed to be carried very far from a central location. They are also fairly large (depending on the model) -- you can think of car camping stoves as quite similar to home stove burners. They allow you to cook multi-pot meals, and can typically accommodate a set of standard kitchen cookware. Car camping stoves are also often made from durable materials like steel.
Alternatively, backpacking stoves are designed to be lightweight, fuel-efficient, and compact cooking devices. They aren’t as functional as car camping stoves -- some can’t do much more than boil water. Doing any kind of ambitious cookery with a backpacking stove requires some serious finesse -- if it’s even possible. In addition, backpacking stoves are very top-heavy and would likely tip over if loaded up with too much food.
With most pieces of camping gear, durability and weight exist at opposite ends of a spectrum, Camp stoves are no exception. To be portable and lightweight, backpacking stoves are less durable than solid steel car-camping stoves. Backpacking stoves are often made of less robust materials like aluminum. Although they aren’t as durable as a car-camping stove, backpacking stoves can still be super useful (even for car camping). Backpacking stoves tend to be very fuel-efficient for boiling water, which can come in handy when you don’t want to use up stove space. Many people like to bring an additional backpacking stove when car-camping.
Choosing an appropriate size is an ideal place to start when deciding what kind of stove to buy. You should also consider whether you prefer a tabletop or freestanding type of stove. When it comes to camping stoves, you have essentially two baseline options: compact tabletop models which usually feature between one and three burners, or more robust freestanding stoves with their own legs and two or three burners.
The smaller tabletop models are well suited for tailgates or picnic tables if you are going to have either at your disposal. However, they typically have a smaller total cooking area. Because of this, they require smaller pots and aren’t great for serving large groups of people.
Freestanding models can support themselves or can be set on a table or tailgate. They often feature more cooking space and larger burners, so for large groups or large meals, freestanding stoves are ideal. Many campers prefer one-pot meals which require large stockpots or woks, so even for smaller groups, a freestanding stove could be an ideal solution. All of that said, freestanding stoves are heavy and difficult to move around with any sort of efficiency. They will also take up much more space in your rig. Freestanding stoves are popular with large groups in open field areas. Because of their bulk, they are also often used as permanent outdoor cooking setups for deep-frying, homebrewing, or canning. When it comes to cooking on the go, most campers prefer the smaller, portable tabletop options.
Groups of 4 or Less
If you’re taking a short camping trip for just a few days, and are only traveling with a couple of friends (four or less), a compact two-burner model is probably your best bet. It won’t weigh a ton, can fit in your car easily, and also provides a significant amount of BTU cooking power. There are also foldable models like the Jetboil Genesis Basecamp which even further reduces the dimensions of your burners. To enhance the capability of these smaller models, many users opt to purchase a bulk tank hose adaptor that allows for the use of a large propane tank, instead of the smaller 16-ounce canisters. Not only do these bolster your stove’s cooking power, but they save money and resources in the long-term. Single burner stoves are also good options for small groups, if you want to keep your meals simple.
Be careful to pay close attention to the cooking dimensions of your stove before purchasing. You’ll need enough usable cooking space to adequately accommodate your preferred pot/pan setup. For example, in our tests, some burners could only fit one 12” skillet with little room for anything else, despite having two burners. Others would only fit one 12” skillet when the wind flaps were removed. Just a few could really fit two 12” skillets with room to cook on each. A stove’s listed dimensions can help you decide if it has enough cooking space. The dimensions can also help you to consider how much usable cooking space you’ll have with your favorite pots and pans.
Groups of 5-7
It can be difficult to find the ideal stove for mid-sized groups of five to seven people. As with smaller groups, we suggest starting by considering your cooking aspirations and the length of time you’ll be camping. A compact two-burner with a third single-burner unit is a great option. You may also consider keeping a couple of compact two-burner units on hand while you camp. This can give you added flexibility to accommodate more than one cook “in the kitchen.” While two or three-burner models might seem handy given their added power and cooking ability, they may not be worth the hassle of transporting and assembling if you’re going to be on the move frequently during your trip. We suggest asking around your group to see who is interested in cooking, and what kind of food preferences they have.
Groups of 8 or More
If you have a big group of eight or more campers, you’re going to need something with some “oomph.” We suggest a large three-burner standing unit with legs, like the massive Camp Chef Pro 90, or multiple two-burner units. You’re going to need the cooking space and the extra burners to cook for the entire group. Another option would be to pair a larger freestanding two-burner model with a tabletop model. But with large groups, tabletop space might be a hot commodity, so freestanding models should also be considered. Some models even come with fold-out side prep tables that provide useful counter space.
With this in mind, be aware that larger products require more energy to pack, transport, assemble, and maintain. They are great for cooking with larger groups but are going to be more resource-intensive all-around. For a little more flexibility, pairing two compact camping stoves might be worth considering.
BTUs & Power
“BTU” stands for British Thermal Units and measures the amount of energy required to heat (or cool) one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. Most camp stoves are rated in BTUs, and (in theory), the more BTUs a camping stove is rated at, the more heat it should generate when used. Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work out that way. There are loads of factors that contribute to the heat output of a stove. These include the design of the body, the placement of its burners, its wind resistance, and more. All of these need to be considered to determine the true strength of a stove’s total output.
For example, the Camp Chef Everest features two 20,000 BTU burners. But in one test, it beat out the Camp Chef Pro 60X, which has 30,000 BTU burners. On one hand, the Everest is a compact model with a lid that provides an 11” windscreen. Meanwhile, the Pro60X has an open design with a much lower windscreen. Ideally, you want to find a stove that strikes a balance between BTUs and compact design.
Time to Boil
A unit’s time to boil is another great way to determine its capability and output. In a wind-free environment with moderate temperatures, all stoves will boil water just fine. But, while camping, you won’t always find those conditions. When you factor in wind and cold temperatures, water boiling can be a task just on its own. In fact, boiling water could be the difference between a 30-minute and 2-hour breakfast. The number of BTUs can give you some general idea of how fast water might boil, but it doesn’t tell the entire story. Pay attention to the design of the windscreen and the burners themselves to get a better idea of how the unit may perform. Wider diameter burners which are well protected by the stove body and physically closer to the cookware will perform more efficiently.
Simmering & Wind Resistance
With camp stoves, some people overlook simmering capability and even wind resistance. Given the environments in which these stoves are often used, wind resistance is an especially important part of a camp stove’s performance. Many products on the market will boil water at a reasonable speed, but struggle with more demanding dishes and conditions. When considering a stove’s ability to simmer, look for a burner that can provide even heat on a lower setting. You also want a burner that won’t easily turn off when it is turned down low. Being outdoors does not mean that you need to compromise on cooking performance.
A quality camping stove should (and will) perform as well as your home stove. If you cook a lot of dishes that require low, even, steady heat at home, you should be able to execute those in a camping setting. Just be sure to consider a stove’s simmering ability when shopping around. We suggest the Camp Chef Everest and the Primus Kinjia as ideal simmering camp stoves.
Propane is by far the most common fuel for a camp stove and often comes in small green bottles (you’ve probably seen these around campsites). Butane is another, less common option. Propane-burning models are more popular because propane is generally cheaper, more accessible, and easier to use for your everyday camper. Propane also lights instantly, burns quite clean, and doesn’t require any pumping to pressurize. Butane can perform better in cold climates. Butane also maintains its performance until it is completely gone, whereas propane becomes quite inefficient when its close to being empty.
For campers who use propane models, we always suggest buying an adapter and a hose that will allow you to use a refillable, five-gallon propane tank. With a hose, you will be able to place the propane tank under the table, which can free up valuable table space. The smaller 16-ounce canisters are also very hard to recycle, whereas the larger tanks can be easily refilled time and time again. In addition, large tanks can reduce boil times by 10-20 percent in comparison to the smaller 16-ounce canisters. The large tanks are also much more cost-effective when refilling.
If you do decide to go with a refillable tank and hose, the next logical question is which hose adapter to purchase. The reality is that most adapters perform just about the same once they are attached in place. However, the design of the propane tank connector can make setting up just a bit easier (or more difficult). We suggest going for a connector with a generous plastic grip on the tank end, which is also known as the Type 1/ACME fitting.
In recent years, wood-burning stoves have grown significantly in popularity. These stoves are intriguing in concept, but they depend entirely on the availability of dry sticks and twigs. This encourages campers to scavenge forest floors, and if there is a fire ban, they cannot be used at all. For some niche campers, they might be an attractive option, but there are practical hurdles in the way for most peoples’ applications.
Camp stoves have two different basic methods of ignition. You can either light the burners manually with a flame source, or they may come equipped with a Piezo ignition system. The latter uses something called piezoelectricity, which is a pressurized electric charge that will ignite your fuel by simply pressing a button. These systems are extremely easy and safe to operate. While they might seem convenient, Piezo ignitors are notorious for failing to work properly as they grow older. This is why we always suggest carrying a backup lighter, whether you are using a Piezo system or not.
Accessories & Hybrids
When it comes to accessories for camp kitchens, there is absolutely no shortage of options on the market. Aspiring campground chefs can find griddles, grill plates, pizza stones, and more for use with their camp stoves. There are even stoves that offer regular burners on one side, and a grill or griddle on the other. The concept may sound appealing, but if you don’t use a grill or griddle every single time you camp, the result might just be wasted space. Instead of buying one of these hybrid stoves, we suggest bringing a cast-iron griddle plate that can be set on top of a regular burner as needed. For large groups, this can be a particularly advantageous setup.
If you are dead set on using a hybrid there are plenty of great options on the market. Alternatively, if you grill for larger groups often, consider purchasing a dedicated portable grill. These will (unsurprisingly) perform grilling functions better than a stove with a grill attachment.
Those little 16-ounce green propane canisters tend to produce a lot of waste. In fact, the Sierra Club estimates that of the 60 million of these produced each year, the majority end up in landfills. Being that they are considered hazardous waste, they really should not be in landfills. At the same time, it can be difficult to properly recycle these canisters. Many people just don’t know what to do with used propane canisters, and they often end up piled in garages or abandoned in nature.
To avoid this problem altogether, do as we’ve mentioned above, and fit your camping stove with an adaptor for a 5-gallon refillable tank. If you have the room, this saves a lot of money and a lot of waste.
If the smaller canisters are ideal for your use, there are systems on the market which allow you to refill a small 16-ounce canister from a larger propane tank. This is a good ‘middle road’ option between the larger and smaller tanks. These can be cumbersome to deal with sometimes, yes, but will provide the benefits of both the smaller and larger tank styles.
Camping Stove Tips and Tricks
At Sportsman’s Warehouse, we’ve spent a lot (and we mean a lot) of time with camp stoves. Here are some tips we’ve picked up along the way.
- When you’re finished using a 5-gallon propane tank, turn off the tank first and then wait for the flame to die out completely. This ensures that there is no gas left in the system. If you were to turn off the stove first, some gas will shoot out when the hose is disconnected.
- Among your other cooking supplies, be sure to keep one or two dedicated cleaning rags. This is like your camp cooking swiss army knife. It can be used to clean drip trays, hoses, adaptors, and windscreens. It can also be used to pad items during travel and prevent them from rattling around.
- If you have two stoves, consider a propane splitter to cook on both using just one tank. This will cut down on the total weight of what you need to transport.
- Occasionally, your stove may need a sort of ‘reset’ if it doesn’t seem to be getting good propane flow. Disconnect all of the pieces, look for any buildup or clogging, and try it again.
- We suggest investing in a dedicated water boiler. These will free up valuable space on your camp stove, preventing you from having to wait for a pot of water to boil before proceeding with meal prep. They are also handy for quick tasks like warming soup or boiling eggs.