Whether you're coming back to camp after a long day of adventuring or just lounging and relaxing in nature for the weekend with friends, mealtime is always an important and necessary part of the process. Having the right tools for the job can mean the difference between a tedious chore and a rewardingly good time. But with so much camp kitchen equipment available online and at your local gear shop, how do you know what to get? Well, you've come to the right place. Discerning foodies and ramen junkies alike can benefit from our extensive testing process and articles. Below we discuss how to buy a camping stove: what is essential, what's not, the size and features to look for, and why you'd even want one anyway.
Camping Stove or Backpacking Stove?
If you are cooking near your car, a camping stove is the way to go. If you're preparing meals a quarter mile or more from your vehicle, you'll probably want a backpacking stove. Beyond that, the exact type you need depends on your space and weight restrictions, as well as your cooking aspirations. Car camping stoves tend to be heavy and awkward to carry very far from your vehicle (at least compared to a backpacking stove). They are relatively large (depending on the model — some are compact, and some are huge!) and are similar to home stove burners, allowing you to cook meals that are more complicated than just dehydrated soup. They are also able to accommodate standard kitchen cookware and are made from durable materials (most frequently steel).
Backpacking stoves, on the other hand, are designed to be efficient — either for their size and weight or in regards to fuel use. Some backpacking models are designed solely to boil water, while others can accommodate a small pot or pan so you can simmer and cook a small meal. Most are not that stable and prone to tipping over.
The compromises backpacking stoves make to remain lightweight can result in them being delicate (they are frequently made of titanium or aluminum). But keep in mind that a backpacking stove that has been engineered with fuel efficiency in mind can be a useful tool for car camping as well. These stoves can be the most efficient means to boil water, especially if you don't want to tie up a whole burner on a car camping stove to do the job. We like to bring an additional backpacking stove to make coffee in the morning and tea in the afternoon.
What Size Camping Stove Should You Buy?
The first question to consider when trying to narrow down what type of stove to buy is the number of people you want to be able to accommodate as both chefs and eaters. Generally speaking, there are two designs to choose from: compact tabletop models with anything from one to three burners, and large freestanding models that have their own legs and two to three burners. Tabletop models will need to be set up on a table or tailgate (unless you don't mind kneeling down to the ground) and they generally have less available cooking area — so you need to use smaller pots and pans. Freestanding models are considerably larger with much wider burners, so if you want to be able to use a giant stockpot or wok for every meal, consider one of these. Most of them can also be used without the legs but, either way, they are heavier and more awkward to move around. Many people use freestanding stoves as a permanent home outdoor kitchen for endeavors such as deep frying, beer making, or canning. When it comes to car camping though, most will prefer a tabletop model. They're easier to transport and almost always have superior wind resistance.
Groups of 4 or Less
If you have a group of four or less and are just camping for a few days, a compact two-burner like the Camp Chef Everest hits the sweet spot. It doesn't weigh a ton, fits in the car easily, and provides an impressive amount of BTU cooking power for a small group. To reduce the weight and dimensions of your burners further, a foldable two-burner like the Jetboil Genesis Basecamp might also be a great option. You can even purchase a bulk tank hose adaptor to give you the option of using a large propane tank instead of the small 16-ounce green canisters, thus saving money and resources in the long run. Single-burner stoves, such as the Gas One GS-3000, are also sufficient for many groups of 1-3 if you're keeping your meals simple.
Make sure to pay attention to dimension details for a compact stove. You want enough usable cooking space to fit your preferred pot/pan set up. Some two-burners we tested could only accommodate one 12" skillet with little room left on the second burner for more than a tiny pot. Others could only fit a 12" skillet by removing the side wind flaps. A few could fit two 12" skillets. Reported dimensions can begin to help you decide if a stove has enough cooking space, but also consider burner size and placement in your assessment of the usable cooking surface.
Groups of 5-7
With mid-sized groups of 5-7, it can be harder to choose the perfect product. Start by considering your cooking demands and your average trip length. One great option is to go with a compact two-burner and then add in a third affordable one-burner like the Gas One GS-3000. Another is to have a couple of small folding two-burners like the Jetboil Genesis Basecamp on hand. This will increase flexibility and allow two or more people to cook at once. A two- or three-burner freestanding model can also provide you with plenty of power and space, but might not seem worth the hassle to assemble and transport if you don't need it. It all depends on your meal desires and how many members of your crew are planning to pitch in.
Groups of 8+
If you have a group of eight or more, you will need more cooking space and, most likely, more than two burners. Either go for a large three-burner free-standing model with legs, like the huge Camp Chef Pro 90, or multiple compact two-burner models. Or consider pairing a large freestanding two-burner like the Camp Chef Explorer or the luxurious Camp Chef Pro 60X with a tabletop model of your choice. We recommend the freestanding option as it expands your kitchen and doesn't take up precious tabletop space. The Pro 60X also comes equipped with fold-out side prep tables which provide counter space — especially valuable if your campsite doesn't have a picnic table.
Keep in mind that larger products require more energy to pack, assemble, and maintain. They are great if you have a large group and need to conserve your tablespace. If prep space isn't an issue, however, two of your favorite compact camping stoves could be an equally powerful but more mobile option.
BTUs & Power
BTUs, or British Thermal Units, are the amount of energy that is required to heat or cool one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. It is a measure of power. The more BTUs a camping stove has, the more heat it theoretically should be able to pump out. Except, as with most things in life, it isn't quite that cut and dry. The overall design of the stove body, placement, and size of its burners, and its ability to effectively resist the wind are additional significant factors in determining the true strength of a stove.
Case in point: in our boil test, the Camp Chef Everest, with two 20,000 BTU burners, beat out the Camp Chef Pro 60X with 30,000 BTU burners AND the Stansport Outdoor Stove with astounding 35,000 BTU burners. The Everest is a compact model where the lid provides an 11" windscreen in back. The Pro 60X has an open, airy design with a much lower profile windscreen and the Outdoor Stove doesn't have a windscreen at all. For maximum efficiency, you want a model that strikes a balance between BTUs and a smart, compact design.
Time to Boil
To narrow down the field of competitors further, we suggest looking at each models performance in our boiling tests. Pretty much all stoves boil water adequately if there is no wind, the temperature is moderate, and you are not in a hurry. But once you add in the wind, cold temperatures, and a big group, water boiling time can become quite an ordeal and the difference between a 45-minute breakfast and a two-hour event. As we mentioned above, the number of BTUs gives you a general idea of how fast water might boil, but it's not a complete picture. Be sure to take note of whether the stove you're considering comes with a windscreen and also study the design of the burners themselves. Burners that are wider in diameter, well protected by the stove body, and physically closer to where your cookware sits tend to provide a much more efficient boiling experience.
Simmering & Wind Resistance
Great simmering capability and good wind resistance sometimes get overlooked with camp stoves. Many products we tested boiled water fast enough, but then struggled with more nuanced cooking and windy conditions. When thinking about whether a given model simmers well, we want a burner that can provide even heat at a low setting and doesn't easily turn off when you finesse the burner down low. Just because you are outside doesn't mean that you have to give up cooking performance.
Bottom line: yes, a quality camping stove can perform as well as your home stove! Do you cook a lot of dishes that require simmering at home? Then make sure to get a camping stove that can simmer. The Camp Chef Everest, as well as the Primus Kinjia, had excellent simmering capabilities. The Pro 60X and Camp Chef Explorer were excellent as well, though more susceptible to the wind.
Wind resistance is a bit more straightforward: models with bigger windscreens tend to keep the wind out more effectively. However, placement of the burner and how well its protected within the stove body also play a huge role. These are design elements that can be difficult to discern from an online photo, which is why we test, assess, and report on these design details in our reviews.
For most people, wind resistance is not the top priority as you can create a wind block by carefully setting up in the most protected area of your campsite. However, wind also has a way of whipping around in an unpredictable fashion and from all angles — sometimes wreaking havoc on even the most protected set up. If you live or camp in a windy area, it is worth it to invest in a product with an extra powerful burner, a complete windscreen, and a smart, compact design.
Most camping stoves on the market run off of propane, the stuff inside those little green bottles you see at every campsite. Less common is butane (what the one-burners in our review use) and liquid fuel, used in models like the Coleman Dual Fuel. We focused our review on propane-burning models because this kind of fuel tends to be cheaper, more accessible, and easier to use. Propane lights instantly, burns clean, and requires none of the pumping that is necessary to get a liquid fuel tank up to pressure — not to mention the mess that can ensue during refills. However, liquid fuel does perform better than propane in colder climates and also maintains its performance until it is gone. Propane canisters become inefficient when they get close to empty. Butane struggles in cold temps and is also less readily available.
If you end up going with a propane model, we recommend getting an adapter and hose that allow you to use a refillable barbecue-style propane tank. Five-gallon, or 20-pound, tanks are the most common size. A hose enables you to place the propane tank under the table, freeing up valuable space. Refillable tanks also reduce the waste that results from empty 16-ounce canisters — which are notoriously difficult to recycle. Big tanks can be refilled at most gas stations or grocery stores. If you still need some convincing, large refillable tanks can speed up boil times by 10-20 percent in comparison to 16-ounce propane canisters, and they are much more cost-effective. Canisters are $3-6 each or $24-48 a gallon, whereas refill prices for propane are around $3-6 a gallon!
If you decide to go with the refillable tank and hose, the next question is which hose adapter to buy. During our testing period, we were continually hooking and unhooking propane tanks. In the end, we decided that all of the adapters performed about the same. What differentiated our favorites from the rest was how easily they could be set up. This was primarily influenced by the design of the part of the adapter that is to be gripped, or turned. We suggest an adapter that has a generous plastic grip on the five-gallon tank end, like the Stansport Appliance-to-Bulk-Tank-Hose.
Another option that has gained some popularity is wood-burning models. While these stoves hold some definite intrigue, we have not, as yet, decided to test any. They are dependent on having dry sticks and twigs available, potentially encouraging campers to scavenge forest floors, and can only be used when there isn't a fire ban. It would be terrible to get somewhere far away from home only to find you're not allowed to use it or there isn't any dry wood available. For the time being, we're sticking with mainstream camp stoves, but if we change our mind, you'll be the first to know.
Camp stoves will either require you to light the burners manually with a flame source, or they will come equipped with a Piezo ignition system. Piezo ignitors use piezoelectricity, a pressurized electric charge, to ignite your fuel with the press of a button or flip of a lever. They are generally very easy to use and don't require you to get your hand close to a flaming burner. However, they usually also add a bit to the price point and are notorious for ceasing to work over time. Piezo ignition or not, you should always have backup matches or a lighter at your disposal.
Accessories & Hybrids
There are, of course, a plethora of accessories available for your camp kitchen setup. Supplemental griddles, grill plates, pizza ovens, and more can be a lot of fun if you want to mix it up or get fancy. There are also hybrid models that offer combos such as a regular burner on one side and a grill or griddle on the other. While this can be fun in theory, it also tends to be quite limiting. Unless you know that you will be grilling or using a griddle for every outing, it's better to bring a good quality cast iron grill/griddle plate as it allows you to use your two-burner for boiling and simmering when needed and then convert to a full-width grilling surface when it suits you. Simply place the grill/griddle plate over both burners to create a large surface, great for grilling steaks or cooking pancakes for a group.
However, if you're keen on a hybrid and like the Camp Chef line we recommend taking a look at the Rainier Campers Combo or the more expensive Denali Pro 3X Three Burner Stove with Griddle. If you are grilling for larger groups regularly, then consider adding a dedicated portable grill which performs better than a grill stove. An example is the Napoleon TravelQ 285, which performed exceptionally in our tests both camping and at home.
Hate the waste from all those 16-ounce green propane canisters? We sure do! The Sierra Club estimates that 60-million of these canisters are made each year and most of them end up in the landfill. They shouldn't be there because they are considered hazardous waste in many places (mainly because they are a fire hazard) and yet it is very difficult to recycle them for this same reason. Most people honestly don't know what to do with them, so they end up piled high in garages or, worse, abandoned in nature.
We realize that often these canisters are the best option though, so we just ask that you take the time to find a proper facility in your area to dispose of empties when you have them.
Better yet, as mentioned above: car camping stoves can be fitted with an adaptor that allows you to use a large 20-pound (5-gallon) refillable tank (like the one attached to the grill on your patio). If you have the room in your car for a larger tank, this option saves a ton of money and waste.
However, if those small green canisters really are the best or only option for you, consider looking into something like the Flame King refillable cylinder kit. This set up allows you to refill a small 16-ounce canister from your larger tank, on your own at home. An informative video on how this works is on the Flame King website.
One other option is looking into a stove with a refillable liquid tank, like the Coleman Dual Fuel 2-Burner. This allows you to refill the fuel chamber from a larger can. The drawback is that this still produces waste (the container you're refilling from), and it can be messy and annoying to deal with.
Tips for Using Your Camping Stove
After living outdoors for months on end, we've picked up a few tricks. Here's some advice for your next outdoor meal:
- When finishing up after using a 5-gallon propane tank, always first turn off the tank and wait for the flame to extinguish completely. If you turn off the stove first and then the propane tank second, some gas will be left in the system and shoot out when you disconnect the hose.
- Always keep a dedicated cleaning rag in your cooking supplies (that old washcloth with the bleach stain works perfectly). It has many uses including cleaning the drip tray and keeping hoses, propane adapters, and windscreens from rattling when you are driving.
- Got two stoves? Consider a propane splitter to get it all done with just one tank. We like to have one stove dedicated to boiling water and one dedicated to cooking.
- Not getting good propane flow to your stove? Just like your phone, often a reset is in order. Disconnect everything and then reconnect.
- If the place everything seems to bottleneck is with boiling water for morning coffee, consider getting something like the JetBoil MiniMo. This will allow you to boil rounds of water quickly and also provides another vessel for simple things like boiling eggs or heating some soup.