In this article, we discuss how to buy a camping stove: what is important, what's not, and why you'd even want one anyway. Be sure to check out our full review to see how the best stoves compared in detailed head-to-head tests.
Camping Stoves vs. Backpacking Stoves
First things first: do you need a camping stove? Or do you need a backpacking stove? The general rule of thumb would say "front country" (i.e. in close proximity to your vehicle) = camping stove and "backcountry" = backpacking stove. Nevertheless, even backpacking stoves can have use in the front country.
Which type you need really depends on your space and weight restrictions, as well as your cooking aspirations. Car camping stoves are designed under the assumption that you are picking your stove up out of your car and walking it 20 feet to your campsite. They are relatively large and are more similar to a home stove. They can accommodate standard kitchen cookware and are typically quite durable (most frequently made from steel).
Backpacking stoves, on the other hand, are designed to be efficient. This could mean they are efficient for their size/weight, or just use fuel extremely efficiently. Some backpacking models are designed solely to boil water, while others can cook food but are usually paired with other ultra-lightweight cookware.
The compromises backpacking stoves make in order to be the lightest 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 good tool for car camping as well. These stoves can be the most efficient means to boil water in the front country, especially if you don't want to tie up a whole burner on a car camping stove in order to do the job.
What Size Camping Stove Should You Buy?
The next question to consider is how big of a group you expect to cook for. Generally speaking, there are two main 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, we recommend a compact two-burner like the Stansport 2-Burner or the Camp Chef Everest. Both are light, fit in your car easily, and give you 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 small green 16-ounce canisters. Single-burner stoves, such as the Coleman Butane InstaStart or Gas One GS-3000, are sufficient for many groups of 1-3 if you're keeping your meals simple.
Make sure to pay particular attention to dimension details for a compact stove. Since space is inherently more limited on these models, you want to be sure you have 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 cook space, but they don't mean everything. Burner size and placement can make a stove's usable cooking surface seem bigger or smaller.
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. This increases flexibility and allows two people to cook at once. A two- or three-burner free-standing model will provide you plenty of power and space, but might not seem worth the hassle to assemble and transport if you don't really 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 will obviously need more cooking space, and will almost certainly need more than two burners unless all you plan to eat is soup. This can be achieved by having a large three-burner free-standing model with legs, like the Camp Chef Pro 90, or multiple compact two-burner models. Or consider pairing a large freestanding two-burner like the Stansport Outdoor Stove or the Camp Chef Pro 60 with a tabletop model of your choice. We do recommend the free-standing option as it expands your kitchen and doesn't take up precious tabletop space. The Pro 90 and Pro 60 also come equipped with fold-out side prep tables which provide invaluable counter space, especially if your campsite doesn't have a picnic table.
Keep in mind that larger products require more energy to pack, assemble, and maintain. We have found that they are really 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 always the case. The overall design of the stove body and the placement of its burners are equally significant factors in determining the true strength of a stove.
Case in point: in our boil test, the Stansport 2-Burner and the Camp Chef Everest (25,000 and 20,000 BTU burners respectively) beat out both the Camp Chef Pro 60 with 30,000 BTU burners and the Stansport Outdoor Stove with astounding 35,000 BTU burners. The Stansport 2-Burner and the Everest are both compact models where the lid provides an 11" windscreen in back. The Pro 60 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 really want to strike a balance between BTUs and a smart compact design.
Time to Boil
To narrow down the field of competitors further, we suggest you look at our time to boil performance. All stoves will boil water adequately if there is no wind, the temperature is moderate, and you are not in a hurry. But once you add in wind, cold temperatures, and a big group, water boiling time becomes crucial and means the difference between a 45-minute breakfast and a two-hour event. As we mentioned above, the number of BTUs should give you a general idea of how fast water will boil, but not always. 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 will sit 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 boil water fast, but they don't always keep a small flame. 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. It may sound crazy, but just because you are outside, doesn't mean that you have to give up cooking performance.
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 as well. The Stansport 2-Burner and Camp Chef Everest, as well as the Primus Kinjia and Coleman Butane Instastart all had excellent simmering capabilities. The Pro 60 was excellent as well, though more susceptible to the wind.
Wind resistance is more straightforward: models with bigger windscreens keep out the wind more effectively. For most people, wind resistance is not the top priority as you can often create your own wind block by carefully setting it up in the most protected area of your campsite. However, if you live or camp in a windy area, it would be worth it to invest in a product with an extra powerful burner and a complete windscreen.
Propane vs. Liquid Fuel
While nearly all of the models that we have tested run off of propane, some operate on other fuel, such as liquid fuel. We concentrated on propane models because this kind of fuel is cheaper, more accessible, and easier to use than liquid fuel. 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 allows you to place the propane tank under the table, freeing up valuable table space. Refillable tanks also greatly reduce the waste that result from empty 16-ounce canisters, and the big tank can be refilled easily 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 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 Weber Q Series Hose. By comparison, the Coleman Propane Hose Adapter has a smaller plastic grip that makes it a little slower to attach.
Grill Stove or Grill Plate?
If you like to grill, then 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 you might want to consider adding a dedicated portable grill which we found perform much better than grill stoves. An example is the Weber Q 1200, which performed exceptionally in our tests both camping and at home.
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 let the flame die. 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 will work perfectly). It has many uses including cleaning the drip tray and keeping hoses, propane adapters, and wind screens from rattling when you are driving.
- Got two stoves? Consider a propane splitter so you can get it all done with just one propane 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.