Once upon a time, every backpacker cooked right on an open fire. Everybody just used campfires to cook and stoves were just a modern convenience. Throughout the years things have changed, stoves are lighter and fuels more efficient.
For some reason, backpacking stoves have always confused first-time backpackers. There are so many different styles to choose from, but before you can choose a specific model, you need to choose a fuel. You have white-gas, butane, isobutane, propane, kerosene, alcohol, solid fuels, etc. For such a basic concept it’s crazy how many choices are on the market.
Don’t feel overwhelmed, it’s really not all that difficult. Once you figure out how you plan on camping you can start narrowing down your fuel choice.
Camping Style Determines Your Stove Fuel Choice
Just relax, it isn’t all that hard to choose a camp stove. Before you can choose a stove you need to figure out how you typically camp.
Do you typically go backpacking, or is car camping more your style? How many people do you travel with? Are you a gourmet chef or do you keep backpacking meals simple? Where do you plan on camping(Altitude and Temperature)?
If you’re planning on backpacking/trekking go with a small single-burner. Large groups and car campers should buy a propane double burner. After determining the size you need you can narrow down your fuel choice.
Gas vs Liquid Fuel Camping Stoves
Almost every camp stove uses either a gas or liquid fuel design. Gas stoves are usually more convenient and liquid tends to be more versatile, but that might be an oversimplification. Of course there are other fuel options available(solid-fuel, wood and alcohol), but they’re not very common.
Gas Stove Fuels
Gas-based fuels are usually sold in pressurized gas canisters. The stove attaches directly to the top of your fuel canister and the fuel shoots up fueling your fire. Most of these stoves use a mixture of propane and either isobutane or butane.
When using your stove in cold temperatures look for an isobutane-propane fuel mix. On warm weather trips you can get away with butane/propane. In extremely cold weather warm up your fuel canisters by stowing them in your jacket or sleeping bag.
Electric Ignitions Mean No Priming
With electric ignition systems, you don’t need to prime your gas stove. This makes using your stove much easier and safer(no fireballs). Plus you won’t have to deal with pouring liquid fuels and pressurizing your container.
Gas Canisters are Single Use
You can only use a gas canister one time, which is obviously a drawback. This is actually more of a pain than you would think. If you’re anything like me you end up with a bunch of half-empty and near-empty cans.
There’s no easy way to tell how much gas is left in the can. So I end up buying a new canister every trip. This might be overkill, but who wants to run out of fuel miles away from civilization.
Depending on where you live getting rid of gas canisters can be a serious pain in the butt. Some jurisdictions consider gas to be hazardous waste so check with your local garbage company. Even empties can be considered hazardous so reconsider tossing it in the trash.
Gas Fuel Advantages and Disadvantages
|Easy to Light||Hard to ignite in cold temperatures and high altitude (lose pressure)|
|Easy to Control Flame||Can’t Find Fuel|
|Affordably Priced||Need Extra Canisters due to tank rarity.|
|Lightweight Designs||Can’t fly with gas|
|Fuel doesn’t degrade||Performance drops when gas starts to run dry.|
|Easier to use because they come pre-pressurized||More expensive than liquid gas|
Liquid Stove Fuels
Instead of coming pre-filled and pressurized you need to fill them up and pressurize them with the included pump. This is a fairly straightforward process, but it’s one more thing you need to do on the trail.
What really sucks about liquid-fuel stoves is that you need prime up the stove. You have to burn a little liquid fuel on the burner to prime up the stove. The heat then turns the liquid fuel into gas and fuels the stove.
Most liquid-fuel based stoves can use multiple fuel types. You can choose between white gas(my favorite), kerosene, diesel, and gasoline. Obviously, diesel fuel and gasoline can be found anywhere, whereas kerosene and white gas are only found in outdoor/hardware stores.
- White Gas: White gas fuel is the best, but you can only find it in the United States and Canada(hard to find in rural areas). It’s the easiest liquid fuel to control and one of the cleanest options on the market. It burns hot, clean and can be used as its own priming agent. Just head down to your local outdoor store and you’re good to go.
- Kerosene: It’s easy to find kerosene in hardware stores, Grocery Stores, Walmart, etc. Over the past 5-10 years, it’s becoming easier to find overseas. Kerosene burns nicely and it’s packaged well. The only problem is it can be finicky to prime and light. After you preheat the kerosene and get it burning efficiently it has the same heat output as white gas.
- Diesel: Personally, I hate burning diesel fuel. It’s thick and hard to light. Kinda like trying to burn used motor oil. Only advantage of diesel is it can be found anywhere.
- Gasoline: We all know how easy it is to light up gasoline. It’s way easier to light than diesel, but contains additional additives that clog up your stove. All those fuel additives get left behind and can quickly ruin your stove. If you want to use gasoline you need to regularly clean your stove to prevent clogging.
Liquid Fuel Canisters Can Be Refilled
By far the best thing about liquid fuel stoves is that the canisters can be refilled. You just fill up the fuel canister/bottle with your choice of liquid fuel, screw on the lid, close the valve and repressurize the canister(it’s that easy).
Liquid Fuel Advantages and Disadvantages
|Works better in cold weather and high altitude. If the pressure drops just repressurize the canister.||You need to prime the stove before use. Priming is a serious pain and can create fireballs.|
|Can easily purchase fuel anywhere you go(even in remote countries). Choose between white gas, kerosene, diesel and gasoline.||Heavier than gas stoves|
|Can burn multiple fuel types depending on the situation.||Needs regular mainenance to keep working|
|You don’t have to carry extra fuel. You can track the canister down to the ounce making canisters efficient on long trips.||Cost more than gas fueled stoves|
|No need to buy extra fuel cans||Hard to pack thanks to their fuel lines.|
Other Stove Fuel Options
If you’re a typical backpacker you should almost always go with gas or liquid-based stove, depending on your needs. As a general rule, cold-weather and high altitude campers choose liquid fuel and everybody else goes with gas-based stoves. Specialty campers, on the other hand, might prefer alternate fuel sources.
- Wood/Twigs: In the ultralight community wood based stoves are becoming increasingly popular. You save a lot of weight by not having to carry in fuel canisters. Just gather up a bunch of twigs and start your fire. To speed up the fire building process you can always bring a few firestarters. Check out my post on choosing wood-burning stoves.
- Alcohol: Denatured alcohol stoves are making a comeback because burn clean, quietly and are virtually explosion-proof. Only downside is they generate less heat. Alcohol-based stoves are very easy to light and extremely light. They aren’t easy to use/light, but they are relatively inexpensive and you can find fuel anywhere. Check them out(On Amazon), they’re basically a can that you light on fire.
- Solid Fuel: Solid fuel stoves are becoming increasingly popular in the past couple of years. Most of these stoves just use a basic tablet-based firestarter.