Who's Testing This Stuff?
We began our testing process by tracking down the right group of people. We sought out a dedicated bunch of foodies whose passions and livelihoods range from cheffing and permaculture to engineering and carpentry. All of them are accomplished campers, climbers, or homesteaders who love to eat and take pride in the food they prepare and share with others. This elite team cooked, boiled, fried, simmered, roasted, dirtied, and abused all the stoves in this review over several rigorous months and many long cook-offs.
Our testers had varied prior experience with car camping stoves, from relative newbies to die-hards with a locked-in system that is not likely to change. This gave us an eclectic and broad testing team that helped highlight what might confuse a person new to camp cooking, and also what less-than-obvious things to look for in a stove. All our testing was conducted at high altitude, spanning from the Rocky Mountains of Colorado to beautiful and breezy Lake Tahoe.
Here's a quick rundown of how we assessed and tested each rating metric:
Time to Boil
We put these stoves to the test by performing multiple water-boiling tests in varied weather to assess the boiling power for each stove. To test the boiling capacity for each stove, we filled the same tea kettle with one quart of temperature-checked water and timed how long it took for the kettle to whistle. We repeated this test on cool, breezy days, and with a box fan to simulate consistent but high winds (see below for more details on this test). What makes our stove review so invaluable is that each of our boiling tests reflect real-world use and applications. Many manufacturers boast high BTUs and wicked fast boiling times, but they aren't transparent about how many of these tests take place in controlled environments and are often performed at sea level. This is why our reviewers test stoves at disparate altitudes and in variable weather conditions. This means we can provide you with practical data to get a better sense of how each stove functions in real-life scenarios.
We gave each stove a "box fan test," which involved clocking the boil time again but with the addition of a large fan set up 24 inches to the side and turned on low. This provided constant and direct wind while the water was heating up and showed a clear divide between the stoves in regards to wind resistance.
On top of this, we made sure to cook on as many breezy days as possible, because — while the box fan test was enlightening — it created a very different scenario from natural wind. Real breezes come from all directions and with all manner of intensity, overwhelming all but the best-designed stoves. The big units with the highest BTUs tended to struggle in real wind, even when on full blast, because their designs allow more airflow within the body of the stove next to the burners. Compact designs with built-in windscreens fared the best in this metric.
We assessed simmering by making a point to cook delicate, nuanced food items such as eggs, bacon, pancakes, rice, and sautéed vegetables. If a stove cooked too fast or hot, we ended up with burnt-on egg messes, over-crisped bacon, pancakes with raw centers, al dente rice, and charred-instead-of-caramelized onions. The models that scored the highest in this metric were able to provide a refined cooking experience, more like a gas range at home.
Ease of Set Up
This metric is pretty straightforward, as we had to set each stove up many times for testing. However, we made sure to pay extra attention to the process, noting what was easy or difficult, intuitive or confusing, and pleasant or annoying. Some models involved additional steps or tools, while others were simple and straightforward. None were too complicated, but we did find minor differences in the set-up process that played a role in our overall cooking experience and enjoyment.
Ease of Care
As we cooked with the stoves, they got dirty, greasy, and grimy. When cleaning time came around, we noted how easy each model was to disassemble and scrub clean. Most of the contenders are super straightforward, but a few have extra steps, weird design quirks, or recesses you can't access. Details about all of this appear in each individual product review.
Scores for this metric were determined by measuring and weighing each model, as well as by carrying them around and packing them into our cars. Obviously, the bigger stoves score lower for portability than the small compact models. This category might be crucial for you if you have a tiny car and only cook for yourself. Or this might not matter at all because you cook for big groups and have a big truck. This metric is weighted less than categories such as time to boil and wind resistance for this reason.
This is not one of our official metrics, but it's something we've begun to track with each new model as we add it to our review. As with our boil tests, we were just above 5,000 feet for this test, but we added the control of being in an enclosed space, away from wind and weather. We used a brand new fuel canister for each stove, weighed it, and then boiled three consecutive kettles of water using each burner simultaneously. Each kettle received 48 ounces of cold tap water with the same starting temperature, and the burners were turned up full blast. Upon completion, we re-weighed each fuel canister. The resulting metrics show us which models use fuel the most efficiently.