Whether getting back to camp after a long day of adventuring or relaxing in nature for the weekend with friends, mealtime is 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 is best for you and your crew? 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, then a camping stove is the way to go, hence why we call it car camping. If you are preparing meals a quarter mile or more from your vehicle, then a backpacking stove is the better option. Beyond that, the exact type of stove 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 ginormous!) and are similar to home stove burners, allowing you to cook multi-pot meals that are more complicated than a freeze-dried backpacker meal. Further, car-camping stoves can accommodate standard kitchen cookware and are made from durable materials (most frequently steel).
On the other end of the spectrum, backpacking stoves are designed to be lightweight, compact, and more fuel-efficient. Some backpacking stoves do little more than boil water, while others can accommodate a pot or pan so you can cook a small meal. Simmering with a backpacking stove requires some finesse, if it is even possible at all, and nearly all backpacking stoves are top-heavy, demanding some forethought to avoid tipping them over and emptying your dinner on the ground.
As with most things, durability and weight are often a tradeoff. To be lightweight, backpacking stoves can be less durable than a bomb-proof steel car-camping stove. Some backpacking stoves are made of more delicate materials, such as aluminum, while some are made of titanium which is much more durable. Despite some models being more delicate than your average car-camping stove, a backpacking stove can be a useful tool for car camping. These stoves can be the most fuel-efficient means to boil water, especially if you need burner space for scrambling eggs and frying potatoes. When we car camp, 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 questions to consider when narrowing down what type of stove to buy, is the number of people you plan to feed and whether you prefer a tabletop or freestanding stove. There are essentially two designs of camping stove to choose from: compact tabletop models with one to three burners and large freestanding stoves with their own legs and two to three burners. Tabletop models work best on a table or tailgate (unless you don't mind kneeling down to the ground) and typically have less available cooking area — so you need to use smaller pots and pans. As the name implies, freestanding models stand on their own legs, but can also be situated on a tailgate or table, these stoves feature more cooking space and wider burners, so if you plan to make meals in a giant stock-pot or wok for every meal, this is the type of stove for you. Be forewarned, freestanding stoves are heavier and more awkward to move around, and they take up much more space in your rig. Many people use freestanding stoves to cook for large groups during field-work or field school, or as a permanent outdoor kitchen for endeavors such as deep-frying, beer making, or canning. When it comes to car camping, most folks 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 further reduce the weight and dimensions of your burners, 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, 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 the cooking dimensions when buying 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 unless you are cooking for a big crew or staying in the same locale for multiple days. It all depends on your cooking preferences and how many folks in your posse plan to help with cooking.
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. Alternatively, you could 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 — this is 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 required to heat or cool one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. It is a measure of power. In theory, the more BTUs a camping stove has, the more heat it should generate. In practice, it isn't quite that cut and dry. Beyond BTUs, the overall design of the stove body, the placement and size of its burners, and its ability to resist the wind are significant factors in determining the true strength of a stove's output.
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. The Everest is a compact model where the lid provides an 11" windscreen in back. The Pro 60X has an open, airy design and a much lower profile windscreen. For maximum efficiency, you want a model that strikes a balance between BTUs and a smart, compact design.
Time to Boil
To further narrow down the field of competitors, we suggest looking at each model's 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. Once you add in the wind, cold temperatures, and a big group, water boiling time can become quite an ordeal and might be the difference between a 45-minute breakfast and a two-hour-long breakfast 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 note whether the model you're considering comes with a windscreen, but also pay attention to 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 are sometimes overlooked with camp stoves. Many products we tested boiled water fast enough, but struggled with more sophisticated dishes 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? Is risotto your go-to car-camping meal? Then make sure to prioritize the simmering ability of a camping stove. 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, burner placement and how well the stove body protects the burners also plays 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 use 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 decide on a propane model, we recommend getting an adapter and a 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 the stove's ease of set-up, which was primarily influenced by the design of the propane tank connector. We suggest a connector that has a generous plastic grip on the five-gallon tank end, sometimes referred to as the Type 1/ACME fitting, such as the Stansport Appliance-to-Bulk-Tank-Hose.
Wood-burning stoves have recently gained in popularity. While these stoves are definitely intriguing, we have not yet decided to test any. They are dependent on the availability of dry sticks and twigs, which would potentially encourage campers to scavenge forest floors, and these stoves 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 your stove or there is a dearth of dry wood. For the time being, our reviewers have chosen to stick with mainstream camp stoves, but rest assured: 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, these ignitors usually add a bit to the price point and are notorious for failing to work over time. Piezo ignition or not, you should always have a backup lighter and/or matches when you go camping.
Accessories & Hybrids
There are 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 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, in practice it can be rather limiting. Unless you plan to grill or use a griddle for every outing, it's better to bring a quality cast iron grill/griddle plate to convert your two-burner stove to a full-width grilling surface when it suits you. Rather than being locked-into a hybrid single-burner/griddle-combo, you can simply place the grill/griddle plate over both burners to create a large surface. This option is great for grilling steaks or cooking a monumental stack of pancakes for all your friends.
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, so we just ask that you take the time to find a proper recycling 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.
If those green canisters really are the best or only option for you, consider looking into something like the Flame King 1lb Refillable Cylinder + Kit. This setup allows you to refill a small 16-ounce canister with a larger propane tank. 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 will 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). A rag 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? Sometimes stoves need a reset, just like your phone. Try disconnecting everything, inspect for any clogs, and then reconnect.
- If boiling water for coffee or tea results in a meal-prep bottleneck, consider getting a dedicated water-boiler 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.