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 Mountain range to beautiful but breezy Lake Tahoe.
Here's a quick rundown of how we assessed and tested each rating metric:
Time to Boil
We performed multiple boiling tests in varied weather and conditions to get a well-rounded sense of the strengths and weaknesses of each stove. Boiling tests used for rating were determined by filling the same tea kettle with measured and temperature-checked water and timing how long it took for the kettle to start whistling. We repeated this test on chillier, breezier days, and also with a box fan, described below. Part of what makes our tests so valuable is that our times reflect real-world use and application. Many manufacturers like to tout high BTUs and super fast boil times, but they aren't transparent about the fact that these tests may take place under controlled environments and likely at sea level. The fact that we test at varying altitudes and in all kinds of weather means that you get more practical data and a better sense of how your stove will function 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, and they can seriously mess up a poorly designed stove. 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 all were able to provide a detailed 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 incredibly simple and straightforward. None were overly complicated, but we did find minor differences that played a part in our overall cooking experience and enjoyment.
Ease of Care
As we cooked with the stoves, they naturally 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 physically 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 exactly 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 on 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 results show us which models trend toward using fuel more efficiently.