How To Select and Use a Camping Stove

Selection of a camping stove can be very confusing. Propane, liquid fuel, solid fuel...all very useful given the right circumstances. What is a BTU? Why is it important to understand BTU? Is altitude during use important when selecting a stove? All of these are legitimate and necessary questions to ask.

It is also very important to ask yourself the question - what are the most important characteristics of the stove? (or: what type of camping trip am I making?) . "Car" camping is very different than backpacking and allows different stoves to be utilized.

  1. What type of camping am I doing?
    • "Car" camping - by car camping, we typically mean driving up to the campsite and unloading gear no more than about 100 yards from your car. You may actually be able to get away with a charcoal table. This is very cheap (usually $10-20) and allows you to use traditional charcoal. It takes some special planning so that your cooking can be adapted to charcoal. If you are only planning to camp once or twice and the trips are short, this may be your best option.

      The next stove that is useful for car camping is a propane stove. Coleman makes a good two burner stove that is very economical ($50-60). Propane is very safe and easy to use. Individual small tanks can be used or a large tank can be used (with an adapter) and these can be purchased almost anywhere.

      If you want more "power", a turkey fryer is a viable option. This is very useful for boiling large amounts of water as quickly as possible (see BTU's below).

    • Backpacking - backpacking needs vary and depend on your degree of experience. A beginning backpacker (less than 5 mile trip total) might be able to handle a single burner propane stove, but propane is very heavy. As an experienced backpacker will tell you, it's all about the weight. A burner fueled by liquid fuel or other proprietary fuel is a better option for a longer hike.

      A single burner stove is useful for 3-4 people, but you need to adjust your menu to reflect the fact that you have only one surface to cook on at a time. These fuels can be much harder to find. Some of these stoves do allow use of unleaded gasoline which extends their usefulness.

  2. What are BTU's? BTU's stand for British Thermal Units. The more BTU's the stove has, the more heat it produces. A Coleman Propane stove typically has about 10,000 BTU's per burner (a two burner stove will be labeled as 20,000 BTU's total). A turkey fryer propane stove can be 50,000 - 75,000 BTU's. Liquid fuel stoves can have BTU's between 7,500 - 16,400 BTU's. Of course, there are variations especially as you search among some of the smaller, specialty shops.
  3. How do I light my stove? This is a tricky question to answer and one that is best answered by the instructions included with the stove you purchase.
    • ALWAYS TRY ONCE AT HOME. Do not try to light your stove for the first time when on a camping trip. This is a miserable way to ruin a trip and can be disastrous when backpacking. Stoves can be broken before you ever use them. Models change, so even the most experienced camper will want to make sure they can work their stove before venturing out the first time. It's not a bad idea each time you go camping to ensure that your stove is still in working order.
    • Find a stable platform to light the stove. When "car" camping, a picnic table works very well. For backpackers, the ground is a universal table. Do not light the stove anywhere near your tent or dining fly.
    • Have plenty of waterproof matches. There is nothing worse than trying to have a hot drink on a wet day, only to find out that you can't start the stove because your matches are destroyed.
    • Follow the manufacturer's instructions. Most stoves are set-up and connected. Light a match and then turn the stove on. For safety reasons and variances in stoves, read your instructions.
  4. How do I get the most out of my stove?
    • Make or find a wind screen. We talked about BTU's up above. There is nothing worse than loosing heat due to wind. A thin piece of aluminum works well. This is essential for backpackers. Most of the big "car" camping type stoves have enough of a built-in wind screen that additional aluminum one is not necessary.

      Although some manufacturers recommend against a windscreen, there is a balance between safety and the ability to cook your food. The reason they recommend against a windscreen is that it can lead to increased heating of the fuel canister (not a problem if you are using the MSR system). This can be a real conc

      Also, feel the canister periodically. If it is hot to the touch, stop the stove immediately. If you are concerned at all, remove the windscreen. YOU NEED TO USE YOUR BEST JUDGEMENT WHETHER OR NOT TO USE A WINDSCREEN. Many backpackers do so, understanding the risk.

    • Take care of your stove. Clean, fresh fuel is best. Always clean your stove after a trip. If you have to pack your gear wet (it happens when camping), make sure to unpack your stove and clean it at home before you store it away. If you don't take these simple precautions, you will be disappointed the next time you go camping.
    • Make sure you understand how altitude affects your stove. You will need more fuel to cook food thoroughly at higher altitudes. It will take much longer to cook food at high altitudes - thus you need more fuel. This is due to the differences in the boiling point of water at different altitudes.

Stoves are not simple little mechanisms. They can be very complex to the beginning camper and it is necessary to invest some time doing your research. If you spend the time researching stoves, it will pay off in the end when you finally take that next camping trip.


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