There are a number of factors to consider when thinking about how to choose a camping stove. The Top 8 are listed below and further summarized throughout this article.
How to Choose a Camping Stove: 8 Key Factors
- Type of Camping (Car Camping vs. Backpacking vs. Other)
- Number of people (1-3, 4-7, more than 7)
- Length of trip (1-2 nights, 2-5 nights, more than 5)
- Number of Burners (1, 2 or 3 burners)
- Fuel Type (Gas, Liquid, or Alternative)
- Size and Weight
- Boiling vs. Simmering ability
Now, let’s break these down into a little more detail in order to help you make the best decision that meets your needs.
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Type of Camping
The type of camping you will be doing is the first big factor that determines the type of stove to focus on. I can narrow these down into two broad categories as either car camping or backpacking type stoves. Car camping is a broad term to include any type of camping where going small and light is usually not the critical factor.
You might be on a rafting trip and have a little more room in the boat or heading out to setup up base camp somewhere. If weight and size is not a critical factor, but more burners and a larger stove is important, you may want to focus on car camping stoves. Take a look at some of the highest rated stoves at the Best 2 Burner Camping Stove page.
Backpacking is the other broad category we will be looking at that will help in narrowing down your choices out there. This type of camping is usually dependent on a small and lightweight type of stove. Included in this category would be biking, kayaking or any number of other activities where size and weight of stove is a primary factor. Within the backpacking category there are a number of additional choices you will have to make that are not always critical with the larger car camping stoves. Take a look at the links to Best Backpacking Stoves to see some of the top choices is this category.
Number of People
The number of people that will be using the stove is important to think about when choosing a stove. If you are car camping for 1-3 people then a typical two burner stove or even a 1 burner stove might be sufficient. But, if you jump up into the 4-7 person range you will likely need the 2-burner table top stove or maybe even the 2-burner stand alone stove for additional room. If you have more than 7 people then you might want to have the 2- burner or 3 burner stand alone stove.
Similarly in backpacking there are a number of different types of stoves to choose from based on the number of people in your group. There will be a big difference between boiling water just for yourself or for multiple people.
There are many ultralight backpacking stoves that would work fine for one person, but not for a few people. As you get into situations where you are cooking for 3 or more people you will want to look at some of the larger stoves that have more power. It might also be a good idea to bring along a second stove to make things a little easier.
Length of trip
This is most critical with backpacking stoves because it is critical that you have enough fuel for your trip. If you are using gas canister fuel or liquid fuel then you will have to prepare for the number of days that you will be camping. If you want to avoid this type of fuel you can check out alternative fuel sources including wood burning camp stoves. Will you be out for just a night, a few days or a week or more? You will have to plan your fuel amount accordingly.
You will want to take a look at the manufacturers website for the model of stove you have to determine how long a certain amount of fuel will last. If you have enough room throwing in a super lightweight stove is a good backup plan. For longer trips liquid fuel bottles tend to be the fuel of choice because one bottle will last longer. For longer trips while using canister fuel, you will likely need multiple bottles, which adds to clutter and weight in your pack.
For car camping type trips propane is the most common fuel of choice. On these trips many people bring the larger 1-5 gallon type white steel propane tanks. These are nice when you have room because you can fill up one large bottle that will last multiple trips. You can also choose to use the smaller green 16 oz. coleman fuel bottles. These are convenient, but they don’t hold as much fuel and at the end of the trip many of these end up in the garbage. I like to use the large white steel bottle style and bring a green canister or two as a backup.
Number of Burners
The number of burners is an important choice mainly for the car type campers. Most backpackers will be going with some type of a one burner stove. There are commonly one, two and three burner stoves on the market. The one burner stoves are typically designed for 1-3 people and are found commonly for backpacking.
There are one burner stoves that aren’t typically used for backpacking because of weight but do work well for car camping. A two burner stove will do a better job if you are getting into the 3-7 person category. These stoves typically use propane or liquid fuel for there main source of fuel.
For trips where you will need even more power or cooking area there are 3 burner stoves on the market. Many of these camping stoves are also stand alone stoves that have legs and don’t require an additional table for setup. These stoves will give you more cooking room since they will not be sitting on your cooking table.
There is some overlap with these stoves and situations where you may be on a trip with just two people and want the two burner stove. Typically if you are car camping and would like to have the ability to cook multiple dishes at once then 2 or 3 burner stoves would be better.
If you are backpacking, biking or some similar activity the single burner backpacking stoves are typically used. Take a look at our best camping stove page to get a better feel for some of the best choices for 2 burner camping stove or backpacking stove choices.
Now that you have a feel for some of the initial major choices to make we should think about the type of fuels that are available. There are a few common types of fuels used for most camping stoves. The two common choices are usually between gas canisters or liquid fuel. There are also alternative fuels used that include wood burning and alcohol stoves. Within the gas canister fuel type, propane, isobutane and butane fuels are the most commonly used.
Within the liquid fuel category, white gas fuel is probably the most common but the fuel type you choose depends on where you will be camping and the type of environmental factors. There are some liquid stoves that burn just about any type of fuel on the planet. Take a look at the MSR XGK at Cascades Designs website for an good example of one that is very adaptable to different fuels and environments. There are some parts of the world that use different types of fuels so you will want to check on the specific area to make sure you are prepared.
Gas canisters stoves are very popular these days because of the ease of use. You just screw it onto the stoves and light the match and you have a flame. They are also lighter than the liquid fuel stoves and are the choice for backpackers and car campers alike.
Propane is commonly the most popular gas used for the large 2 burner stoves because of the ease of use. Isobutane is used commonly for backpacking and does very well but be aware that in very cold environments the butane or isobutane stoves might not work as effectively.
The MSR Reactor Stove System is one of the canister stoves that does better at elevation and in cold environments. It has a feature that draws out the gas fuel and effectively is able to burn all of the fuel within the tank. I recommend going with liquid fuel in these situations to avoid elevation issue.
There are a number of wood burning stoves and alcohol stoves on the market that would probably fall into the backpacking arena or emergency preparedness arena. Wood burning camp stoves are nice when you are trying to save weight in your pack and have plenty of small wood fuel on the ground that you can take advantage of. Take a look at our reviews of the popular wood burning camping stoves to get an idea of some of the stoves out there. If you are heading out above the tree line or are in areas with little dry wood then you may want to think about the other fuel sources.
Alcohol stoves are not quite as common as the other stoves, but do provide some nice benefits. The first thing is that they usually have a very low cost. They also are very compact and light-weight. They don’t kick out quite as much heat but are really nice if you are looking for a quiet and peaceful experience.
Size and Weight
Size is important for both car camping type stoves as well as backpacking stoves. If you are car camping you may have a lot more room to work with so size of the overall stove isn’t as critical. In these situations you may be determining whether a stand alone stove makes the most sense. These types of stoves are nice because they don’t require a separate table to cook on. They are essentially self contained and usually also have more room to cook on. If you have a big group you may want to look into the large stand alone models.
The typical 2 burner camping stoves will likely do the job for most situations and are good for trips where you need to cook multiple items at once. You also loose a little surface area with these stoves, although most of these stoves typically are still able to hold 2 14” pots or pans.
If surface area isn’t a huge concern then the one burner backpacking type stoves might be the best choice. As you get into the backpacking stoves you can further divide these by the size of the stove and cooking area. Some of these camping stoves are small enough to put in your pocket. Take a look at the Snow Peak LiteMax review for one of these extremely small stoves.
There are some limitations with these smaller stoves as demonstrated by decreased stability, aren’t as proficient at holding large pots and don’t typically have the wind protection. If you have plenty of room in your pack there are large backpacking stoves that provide more features including the ability to boil water rapidly.
The weight of the stove usually goes along with the size. If you have plenty of room in your pack weight might not be as big of an issue. With the larger car camping stoves you may be choosing between a stand alone stove which does weigh considerably more than the 2 burner camping stoves (aka table top stoves). Weight is usually discussed a little more in the backpacking arena.
Are you a ultralight backpacker or are you a sherpa type person who doesn’t mind carrying a little extra weight to have the convenience of a large stove. Some ultralight hikers even drop down into stoves which have no fuel bottles to carry such as the wood burning camp stoves. I was always more of the Sherpa type, but find that as I get older I am moving into the lighter weight stoves.
Boil Times, Simmer Ability and BTU’s
Let’s start with BTU’s to clarify what people are talking about when discussing stoves. BTU stand for British Thermal Unit. Click here if you would like additional BTU information. Essentially it is the amount of heat the stove can generate and the higher the number the more power. It gives us a good number to use when comparing stoves, but there are other factors that effect the amount of heat you can generate including environment, wind, elevation and fuel sources to name a few.
Basically a stove with higher BTU’s will boil water faster. In some situations you may want a stove that has good simmering capability. This can be very important when choosing a backpacking type stove. So you need to determine if you are going to be a camp chef type who needs a stove with simmering ability or just a cook who needs to boil water.
Many of the 2 burner stoves we reviewed for our Best Camping Stove review were above 10,000 BTU’s or greater per burner. Some of the more powerful 2 burner stoves had over 20,000 BTU’s per burner. The higher the BTU’s the faster you are going to be able to boil water. The more powerful stoves are also better in windy situations or around other nasty weather. If you are cooking for big groups and using big pots you may want to get a stove on the higher end of the BTU range.
For backpacking stoves you here a lot about whether it can boil water fast and whether the stove has the simmering capability. This is important for backpacking because fuel longevity can be a concern on longer trips. For example it might be important for you that your stove boils a liter of water in under 3 minutes because the more time the stove is on the more fuel you use.
You will pay a little more for the increased boiling ability. On the other hand you may want the ability to simmer food so you will want to choose a stove with that feature. There are some stoves that have the ability to simmer, but most of them are really good at one or the other.
Of course the cost of the unit is a very important detail for most people when choosing a stove. There are so many choices out there to choose from that it is usually pretty easy to find a stove that fits your needs and price range. Take a look at our best camping stoves to get a feel. I reviewed and rated the Top 5 stoves and within each category there was a wide variation in cost.
There are definitely some bonus features you get from some of the more expensive stoves, but they may not be must haves depending on your intended use. Some of these features include higher BTU’s, multiple fuel type abilities, wind protection, durability, and name recognition.
Some of the other items to be thinking about when choosing a stove are the ease of setup, ease of use, and ease of care. Do you just turn the knob and light up the flame or do you have to prime the stove before each use? Can you throw it in the box when you get home or is cleaning out the jets important?
Durability and efficiency are two other features that I talk about a lot because they are important for many people. An efficient stove will save you money in the long run and will help you avoid the pain of running out of fuel on your trip.
Other extras include auto ignition (piezo style) as well as carrying bags and parts kits. Other things to think about include where in the world you will be using this stove including the type of environments you will be in. Will you be at the top of a mountain in freezing temperatures or down by the river in freezing water. Will you be in the US or Africa or some other country? You can’t get all of the typical fuels we use in all parts of the world.
Some of the isobutane stoves may be harder to find in remote locations so a liquid fuel stoves that burns multiple fuel types might work best in these situations.
Hopefully this article gives you a good feel for some of the key features you will need to think about before purchasing a stove. If you have any questions or need clarification regarding by key points of how to choose a camping stove, please contact me here.