How to Choose a Camping Stove
It used to be that nothing could compare to a hot meal cooked over an open fire while camping beneath the stars. However, since the advent of fire restrictions and greater environmental awareness, choosing a lightweight, portable stove
for your camping/travelling adventure as an alternative has become less of a matter of choice to become more a matter of necessity.
While this may have an adverse effect on the camping ambiance it is probably a plus for your diet as camping stoves offer a much cleaner, more efficient and more versatile method of providing hot food and drinkable water.
To find the right backpacking stove it is important to consider the kinds of trips you want to take and the sort of meals you want to enjoy (culinary ability aside).
Also consider how many people you will be cooking for, what kinds of temperatures you will be cooking in (which may affect the kinds of fuels you burn) and in which areas or countries you will be (this may determine what fuels are readily available).
Stove Shapes, Sizes and Designs
Backpacking stoves come in all kinds of shapes, sizes and designs - from lightweight micro-stoves
that fit in your pocket to two plate versions that would fill your pack. Unless you are car camping or travelling with a large group of people, it makes sense to stick with the lightest, most compact model you can find which accommodates any other limiting factors (like fuel availability, altitude etc.).
It is important to look at stove design from the functional aspects of reliability, usability and weight and space restrictions.
- How easy is the stove to set up? Does it require assembly every time it's used? If so, is the assembly easy or complex?
- Is the stove sturdy? Is it stable on uneven ground? How hard is it to balance a pot on top?
- If a gas canister is used, is it easy to attach and remove? Can it be detached before it's completely empty?
- How easy is the stove to light? Does it require priming? Can it be primed with fuel from the stove itself?
- How easy is the stove to control? Can the heat output be adjusted easily? How easy is the stove to maintain in the field?
When packing stoves away you should also consider:
- If the stove can be disconnected from its fuel supply
- If the stove can be unhooked from external fuel bottles for easier storage in your backpack and less chance of breakage
- How the stove folds up/collapses - The legs, base supports and pot-holder arms of many backpacking stoves can be collapsed or folded for easier packing
- Whether it can fit inside your cookware - Some stoves are designed to fit inside popular cook sets.
How the Stoves Work
Most backpacking stoves have two main parts, a fuel container and a burner unit. The two can either be combined in a single piece or connected by a short fuel line. When a stove is in operation, fuel is forced from the fuel container into the burner unit by pressure. This pressure is either already present in a pressurised fuel container or it must be created (by you) using a small pump device. This pressure forces fuel through the fuel line and out through a small nozzle or ""jet"" in the burner unit where it mixes with oxygen and is ignited.
To burn efficiently, fuel must be ignited in its gaseous form. Liquid fuel stoves are designed to vaporise the fuel just prior to ignition by passing the fuel close to the hot burner unit before it reaches the jet. Heat from the burner (combined with the pressure in the fuel container) turns the liquid fuel into a gas as it flows through the fuel line. Priming is the process used to pre-heat the burner and initiate the vaporisation of the fuel (discussed later).
In the case of LPG stoves, heat isn't required to initiate this process as the fuel is already a gas by the time it leaves the canister.
Using The Stove
Where you use the stove is often as important a consideration as the above questions, the environment the stove is being used as this has a substantial impact on stove reliability and performance. At higher altitudes, the surrounding air is less dense than at lower elevations, thereby limiting the oxygen available to the stove for combustion. This results in lower boiling temperatures and longer boiling times
Another factor affecting stove performance is wind. Wind can decrease a stove's performance to an enormous extent depending on the specific conditions. The use of wind screens
and heat exchangers and heat reflectors can contribute to decreasing the effects of wind on stove performance.
NB: In general, LPG stoves are more affected by temperature than other types of stoves because the user has no control over the internal pressure of the gas canister (no pump).
Choosing the right fuel option for your stove is one of the primary considerations. Take a few minutes to decide which one will work best for you and this will also help narrow down the number of choices. The various fuels and their benefits/weaknesses are discussed below.
Liquid Petroleum Gas
This is the generic name for the perhaps more commonly known fuels butane, isobutane and propane. The types of stoves that use these are probably the easiest ones to use and require the least maintenance. The fuel is contained in pressurised canisters
, which are available in most industrialised parts of the world, though they are almost impossible to find in some regions.
- Convenient, clean burning and easy to light
- Burn hot immediately and do not require priming
- Can be adjusted easily for simmering
- Can't be spilt
- More expensive than other fuel types
- You must carry and dispose of the fuel canisters (most are non-recyclable)
- Performance may decrease in temperatures below freezing
- Fuel is not always readily available
In general, LP stoves are more affected by temperature than other types of stoves because the user has no control over the internal pressure of the gas chamber (no pump). Liquid butane vaporises in its canister, creating the pressure that pushes it through the fuel line. As the temperature drops outside, the pressure inside the canister decreases. At sea level, normal butane stops vaporising at 0o C. Butane/Propane and isobutane work too much lower temperatures depending on the blend (ratio of butane to propane). As a result, they produce a more powerful flame at lower temperatures than other canister fuels. However, as this fuel vaporises, it cools its canister, and this evaporative cooling can reduce stove performance. To counteract this, you can:
- Place the canister upright in 3cm of cool water;
- Warm the canister with your hands; or
- Aternate stove use between two canisters.
Recommendation – These stoves are ideal for general camping where you require quick and easy cooking and value ease of use over carrying extra fuel canisters and versatility.
White Gas and Multi-Fuel Stoves (Unleaded petrol, Aviation fuel, solvent)
Probably one of the most popular types of stoves
around, white gas and multi-fuel stoves can be used in both backcountry and international environments. White gas is also sold as Naphtha, camp fuel, or lighter fuel and can be found in outdoor stores, some service stations and hardware stores in North America, Australia and New Zealand. The scarcity of white gas in other parts of the world makes the multi-fuel option of these types of stoves more important.
These types of stoves are easy to operate and maintain, and are generally considered quite reliable. However, because of the volatility of the fuel, their use may not be suitable in all environments. Relative to LPG stoves, these stoves can also require more maintenance.
Many (but not all) white gas stoves can be adapted for multi-fuel use (though they tend to be a little more expensive) which means with simple modifications, they can operate using other fuels like kerosene, automotive and aviation fuel. These types of stoves are highly suited to users who may find themselves in environments where white gas is not available. Generally the use of fuels like automotive and aviation fuel, kerosene and the like are not recommended because of the additives placed in some of these products, which can result in very dirty "burns". This can not only release toxic fumes, but also leave a substantial amount of residue in fuel lines and tents.
- Inexpensive, easy to find throughout most industrialised countries
- Clean, easy to light
- Spilled fuel evaporates quickly
- Volatile (spilled fuel can ignite quickly)
- Priming is required (fuel from the stove can be used)
- Can be hard to find in some countries
Unleaded petrol, Aviation Fuel, Solvent
- Very inexpensive, easy to find throughout the world
- Burns dirty/sooty
- Extremely volatile
Recommendation – These stoves are great overall performers, perfect for travel around the world (including remote regions if you have a multi fuel option) and suitable in just about any weather conditions. They are generally reliable, inexpensive and efficient.
The use of kerosene is often dictated by the country you are travelling in and many of the other fuel alternatives are not available. Kerosene stoves also require the use of white gas, alcohol or priming paste as a separate priming agent in order to facilitate vaporisation.
- Easy to find (throughout the world)
- High heat output
- Spilled fuel does not ignite easily
- Can be used in many of the multi-fuel stoves
- Somewhat messy (burns dirty, smelly)
- Priming is required (best if different priming fuel is used), as kerosene tends to gum up stove parts
- Spilled fuel evaporates slowly.
Recommendation – Kerosene burning stoves offer a cheap and versatile fuel option for backpackers that plan on travelling off the beaten track in less developed countries.
Methylated spirits or Denatured Alcohol
While unavailable in some parts of the world, this is the only fuel that does not require pressure for stove operation. Unfortunately, methyl alcohol does not burn at very high temperature and will produce about half the amount of heat as the same weight in gasoline or kerosene.
- A renewable fuel resource, low volatility
- Burns almost silently
- Alcohol-burning stoves tend to have fewer moving parts than other types, lowering the chance of breakdown.
- Lower heat output, so cooking takes longer and requires more fuel
- Fuel can be hard to find in many countries
Recommendation – These stoves offer an environmentally sensitive option for backpackers and campers who enjoy the quiet of these slow burning stoves and are not pushed for time on their travels. It is possible to carry an extremely reliable, light and compact emergency stove which using this as a fuel source as a back up stove.
Priming is the process of igniting a small amount of stove fuel (or other flammable substance) at the base of the burner unit to warm up the fuel's path before the stove is lit. This process heats up the burner, the fuel line and the generator so that when the stove is first turned on, liquid fuel will come out of the jet already vaporised for easy lighting.
Priming is not necessary for stoves that use compressed gas fuels, since the fuel is already a gas when it reaches the burner. Some regular stove fuels (like white gas) can be used both for priming and regular stove operation. Others (like unleaded gas or kerosene) do not work well for priming. If you have trouble using your regular fuel for priming, carry a small container of priming paste or alcohol to use instead.
One of the best ways to compare performance is to review instore comparison charts or research any available stove literature. Some of the more telling statistics include
- Average boiling time - This measures how hot the stove burns.
- Water boiled per unit of fuel - This measures how efficient the stove is.
- Burn time at maximum flame - This measures how long the stove will burn on a given supply of fuel before it has to be refilled
- Weight, shape and size
Performance and User Tips
- Search for stability. If your cook pot is larger than 2 litres or you often cook on uneven surfaces, buy a stove with wide pot supports and legs that provide a stable base.
- Use a lid when cooking.
- Choose convenience. If you camp only in temperatures above freezing, choose a canister stove for maximum flame adjust ability, convenience, and ease of use.
- Assess fuel availability. When you travel by plane to your backpacking destinations, you have to buy fuel there or ship canister fuels separately. Some types are hard to find at local gear stores, but white gas is widely available in Australia.
- Keep it light. Long-distance backpackers should consider a liquid-fuel stove because of the fuel's weight savings and storage flexibility.
- Invest in versatility. Overseas travellers should invest in a multi-fuel stove that burns kerosene and unleaded petrol (use a coffee filter or old t-shirt to filter all of your liquid fuel before use).
- Think cold. If you cook in freezing temperatures, get a liquid-fuel stove, preferably one with controls that are easily manipulated while wearing gloves or mittens.
- Learn how to clean and maintain your stove properly. Practice by taking your stove apart at home.
- Block the wind. If your stove doesn't come with a windscreen, buy one.
- If you cook on snow, get a base that fits your stove, or use an old metal plate. You can also use the sun or body heat to partially melt snow (rather than your stove) and a heat exchanger will improve fuel economy.
- Use alcohol for priming (this will help keep your stove soot-free).
- Before using any portable stove, it is necessary to read all user manuals
- Try lighting the stove before a trip so you have an idea of how it works before you really need it
- Although you may read of winter campers using their stoves inside tents, it is not recommended because of the possibilities carbon monoxide poisoning and the dangers of flare-ups
- Do not let a stove's fuel source overheat
- Carry fuel in only the manufacturer's recommended containers
- Check the stove for leaks before usage
- Never open the fuel bottle or stove tank when the stove is in operation
- Regularly maintain your stove