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 over half a mile from your vehicle, you'll want a backpacking stove. That's the general rule anyway. Beyond that, the exact type you need depends on your space and weight restrictions, as well as your cooking aspirations. Car camping stoves are heavy and awkward to carry far from your vehicle (at least compared to a backpacking stove). They are relatively large (depending on the model) and are similar to home stove burners, allowing you to cook meals more complicated than just noodles and red sauce. They are also able to accommodate standard kitchen cookware and are quite durable (most frequently made from steel).
Backpacking stoves, on the other hand, are designed to be efficient — either for their size/weight or in regards to fuel use. Some backpacking models are designed solely to boil water, while others can simmer and cook food. Most are not that stable and prone to tipping over.
The compromises backpacking stoves make to remain lightweight can result in them being delicate (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 usually bring an additional backpacking stove to make coffee in the morning and tea in the afternoon.
What Size Camping Stove Should You Buy?
How big of a group do you expect to cook for? Generally speaking, there are two primary sizes to choose from: compact two-burner models that sit on a tabletop and larger, free-standing camping stoves.
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. Purchasing a bulk tank hose adapter also gives you the option of using a large propane tank instead of the green 16-ounce canisters. Single-burner stoves, such as the Gas One GS-3000, are 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 pan/pot set up. Some products we tested could only accommodate one 12" skillet. 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 they don't mean everything. Burner size and placement influence a stove's usable cooking surface.
Groups of 5-7
If you are right in the middle with a group of 5-7, it can be harder to choose which product to purchase. 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, which increases flexibility and allows two people to cook at once. A two- or three-burner freestanding model provides you plenty of power and space, but might not seem worth the hassle to assemble and transport if you don't need it. Another option is something like the Eureka Spire LX, which offers a separate adaptor port to hook up either another Eureka stove or a JetBoil and run it all off the same fuel source. This provides lots of flexible options for camp kitchen expansion.
Groups of 8+
If you have a group of eight or more, you need more cooking space and probably more than two burners. Either go for a large three-burner free-standing model with legs, like the huge Camp Chef Pro 90X, 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 or need more table space. If counter 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 power it should have. Except this isn't everything. The overall design of the stove body, placement 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 both 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, strike a balance between BTUs and a smart compact design.
Time to Boil
To narrow down the field of competitors further, look at the time to boil performance of each model. 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 boils, but not a complete picture. Be sure to take note of whether the stove comes with a windscreen and also the design of the burners themselves. Burners that are 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
Too often overlooked are great simmer capabilities and good wind resistance. Many products we tested boiled water fast enough, but then struggle with fine-tuned 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 turn off in the process of trying to turn down the burner. Just because you are outside doesn't mean that you have to give up cooking performance.
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.
Propane vs. Liquid Fuel
While nearly all of the models that we have tested run off of propane, some operate on other kinds of fuel, such as liquid fuel. We concentrated on propane models because this kind of fuel is 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. On the other hand, liquid fuel performs better than propane in colder climates and also maintains its performance until it is gone. Propane becomes inefficient when its canister gets close to empty.
If you go with a propane model, we recommend getting an adapter hose that allows you to use a refillable barbecue-style propane tank. Five-gallon tanks (20 lb.) are the most common size. A hose enables you to place the propane tank under the table, freeing up valuable table space. Refillable tanks also reduce the waste that results from empty 16-ounce canisters. Big tanks can be refilled at most gas stations or grocery stores. If you still need some convincing, 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 constantly 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.
Grill Stove or Grill Plate?
If you like to grill, consider getting either an add-on grill plate or purchase one of the grill versions of the products we reviewed. Our preference? We like the convenience of 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. You place the cast iron grill/griddle plate over both burners to provide a large surface, which is great for grilling or cooking pancakes for a group. If the added weight of a separate grilling surface doesn't appeal to you, consider a hybrid model that offers both a burner and grill in one unit.
If you like the Camp Chef line, we'd recommend the Rainier Campers Combo or the more expensive Denali Pro 3X Three Burner Stove with Griddle. If you are grilling for larger groups, then consider adding a dedicated portable grill which perform better than grill stoves. An example is the Weber Q 1200, which performed exceptionally in our tests both camping and at home.
Anybody else out there hate the waste from all those 16-ounce green propane canisters? We sure do! Sometimes they are a necessity, and we ask that you please take the time to find a proper facility in your area to dispose of empties when you have them.
Car camping stoves can be fitted with an adaptor that allows you to use a large 20-pound (5 gallons) 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 money and waste.
However, if those small green canisters 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.
If you already have a Flame King refill kit, check the serial number. The manufacturer recalled several models sold between November 2013 to September 2016 due to gas leaks stemming from the refillable bottles, not the attachment to the propane tank. If your model is one that has been recalled, you can opt for either a replacement or a refund.
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 using a 5-gallon propane tank, always first turn off the tank and wait for the flame to completely extinguish. 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.