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I grew up camping with my family in various forms, starting with a tent and graduating to an RV as my parents got older. As a teen, I was an Eagle Scout and spent considerable time camping in more primitive scenarios, from a weekend away to 100-mile backpacking trips through the Rocky Mountains. No matter the situation, a stove was always mandatory equipment. Sure, cooking over a campfire is fun, but it’s also an unreliable heat source, as rain and wind can quickly spoil your cooking plans. Currently, many states have burn restrictions against cooking over a fire, making a stove or gas grill almost a requirement. Live fire cooking also requires some heavier cooking equipment than you may want to carry. And let’s face it, do you really want to build a fire and wait for it to burn down enough to cook on before you can make coffee in the morning? A stove makes that task much more pleasurable.
At the risk of sounding like some wisened and grizzled older adult, I’ve seen many changes in grill design, mostly making them safer and easier to use. The white gas-fueled stoves that I grew up with rely on heating flammable liquids to create enough pressure to cook and have given way to propane stoves with built-in pressure regulators, butane stoves, and even solar stoves. After reviewing the best camp stoves on the market, we selected our favorite based on factors like heat output and temperature control, with several other excellent models making the list.
Pros: It burns hot but also has very responsive heat control.
Cons: It’s more expensive than some other stoves and uses more fuel.
In the vernacular, the Everest 2x doesn’t mess around. It’s got one of the market's highest heat output per burner ratings at this price point. While most stoves will give you enough heat to boil water and cook pancakes or something similar, the Everest 2x pushes enough BTUs to sear meats and vegetables easily. But what’s strength without restraint? This stove is responsive to temperature control and can handle delicate tasks like scrambling eggs. This unit has a piezo ignition (the little push-button lighters you find on grills and stoves) and folds down nicely for packing or storage. It also has a three-sided folding windscreen to protect the burners from wind. It runs on a one-pound propane canister and has a built-in, upgraded pressure regulator. With the higher burner output, you can expect to burn more fuel, so consider that when weighing your purchase.
Price at time of publish: $190
Pros: It’s easily packed in its carrying case, setup takes a matter of seconds, and it burns hot and clean.
Cons: There’s not much in the way of wind protection, and the butane fuel may be harder to find than propane in some areas.
The single burner stove field seems to be dominated by butane-powered units that have an enclosed compartment for the butane cartridge rather than a clunky (when compared to the size of the stove) propane canister that eats up table acreage. Butane is also safe for indoor use or under a cover in bad weather. Within those butane stoves, the SPRK performs well. It has enamel-coated pan support for easy cleanup, and the burner sits lower than the edge of the pan support for some degree of wind protection. There’s a built-in rotary ignition in the temperature control, and the burner can push 10,000 BTUs. It’s not the fastest stove for boiling water, but it does provide excellent simmer control.
Price at time of publish: $48
Pros: It’s exceptionally lightweight and powerful, and it packs down easily.
Cons: It doesn’t perform as well as it could in windy conditions, and the soft threads are easy to strip when connecting to the fuel bottle if you’re not careful.
Backpacking stoves are made with different considerations than most general-purpose camping stoves. The three main points are that they need to be compact, extremely lightweight, and powerful enough to boil water quickly, even at high altitudes. In that, they’re pretty bare bones, usually having some type of stand to set a pot over the flame, and that’s it. Think about a tiny turkey fryer or crawfish boiler, and you’re getting the picture.
The MSR attaches to a fuel canister and is ready to go, with a push button igniter and pressure control regulator that helps keep sputtering and low flames to a minimum at high elevations and cold temperatures. It boils water quickly, with the time to boil varying with altitude, and has excellent simmer control. With folding support arms, it packs down very nicely, and the recessed burner head aids performance in windy conditions, though it doesn’t quite perform as well as other brands in that area. (You’ll want to bring a windscreen.) Still, for overall performance, we like it.
Price at time of publish: $60
Pros: It’s lightweight, easily stowed, and there are very few parts to go bad.
Cons: There is no igniter, and it burns fuel quickly.
I will admit to being a lifelong fan of Coleman camping stoves. I got rid of my father’s 60-ish-year-old model, still in working condition, last year after he passed, only because I have a 30-ish-year-old model sitting in my shed. The Classic Propane maintains the familiar look but is a step up in performance and safety over these older models, which utilized white fuel and a hand pump to create enough pressure to cook. They now use propane cylinders and eschew the pumping ritual, making the cooking process significantly easier.
Like its predecessor, there are precious few parts to the stove, increasing its longevity and making it easy to maintain. It’s lightweight and has a three-sided popup windscreen to keep your heat from blowing out under your cooking vessel. It boils water quickly but is responsive enough to cook on low heat without burning. If there are downsides, there is no built-in igniter, and it can burn through propane quickly.
Price at time of publish: $48
Pros: It offers excellent heat and heat control, and the folding side tables are a nice addition.
Cons: It’s heavy and expensive.
The Pro 16 is an excellent stove for car or RV camping when you want full control of your heat or need to cook for large groups. With three burners, each pushing 30,000 BTUs, this stove is hotter than some home kitchen stoves. Each burner has an independent control to allow separate pots or pans to work at their individual temperatures. There’s also a large array of single or double-burner accessories, such as griddles or pizza ovens, available for separate purchase.
Accessories aside, what ships with the stove are folding side tables, folding legs, and built-in leg levelers for setting up the stove on uneven surfaces. Also included are a matchless ignition system and a three-sided windscreen to protect it from the elements. Major drawbacks include the fact that this stove is heavy, weighing 60 pounds, and requires a five-gallon propane tank – one-pound cylinders are incompatible with this stove.
Price at time of publish: $370
Pros: It has a sturdy construction that burns clean and hot.
Cons: It’s relatively expensive and is heavy for backpacking use. Some users report rust after a small amount of use.
The Campfire utilizes the same dual-combustion design as larger Solo stoves, leading hot air up the insulated wall for a secondary burn to reduce smoke. Because of this, the Campfire burns hot, boiling water in just a few minutes. The cylindrical design with the fire at the bottom provides built-in wind protection, and the fuel source is small sticks and kindling. The dual-combustion design means less un-burned wood to clean up because of more complete combustion. The stove is essentially two cylinders that sit on top of each other and stack for packing in the carry bag.
A downside to point out: some users have reported rust developing after several uses, but the stove comes with a lifetime warranty should you experience the same. Also, if you don’t examine the stove design, you’ll tend to think that you’re spending quite a bit of money on two tin cans. We can assure you that’s not the case.
Price at time of publish: $110
Pros: It’s quick and easy to set up, and it folds down for easy storage.
Cons: It requires frequent monitoring to adjust for sun movement, and it’s so lightweight that it struggles on windy days.
The two primary types of solar cookers are either a tube that functions like an oven or a reflective base into which you put a pot for cooking. As we’re reviewing stoves, we chose the most stove-like models to evaluate. The Haines is essentially a reflective bowl that heats whatever you put in the center. While one can’t expect the responsiveness of a gas-fueled stove in a solar cooker, you can typically boil water in this cooker in an hour or less using the included Dutch oven kit. The setup is easy, and the reflectors adjust to follow the sun. The unit snaps together, and each reflector is color-coded for quick assembly. The cooker is sturdy enough for frequent use, weighs less than two pounds, and breaks down as quickly as it sets up. There’s also a transparent windscreen to help keep the heat in the cooker.
Price at time of publish: $150
The Camp Chef Everest 2x Camping Stove remains our favorite for its powerful burners, heat control, and easy stowing at a reasonable price.
For this piece, we consulted a restaurant industry expert who is also an avid camper and hunter to gather insights into what they would look for when purchasing a stove for himself. We then took their input and applied it as we researched the top-selling and highest-rated brands on the market today. We considered their size, heat output, fuel type, and drawbacks as part of the selection process.
Your fuel source is an important decision. Propane is more convenient but bulky. Butane is sometimes harder to locate but smaller to pack or stow. “My first question is if this stove and its fuel are going to have to be packed (carried in a bag or backpack) to the site where it’s going to be used,” says Matt Bolus, a chef and avid outdoors person. “This alone plays a big role in the overall decision. Butane is light and easy to carry, whereas propane needs heavier walled containers, thus weighing more. Terrain and time on the adventure will help decide which fuel will be best.” Car and RV camping make this decision easier. Still, depending on trunk or storage space, a five-gallon propane tank may be impractical to haul with you, and you might opt for smaller propane canisters or butane as an alternative.
Two burners are the norm for many stoves, although some pack three and others have only one. If you travel with kids or a larger group, you may want multiple burners; one to get the coffee going in the morning while starting breakfast on another. Sometimes the availability of two burners is more illusory than practical.
“I have found that one burner is usually enough and typically burns hotter. They also don’t seem you use fuel as quickly as the two burner choices. With two burners, you do get a little bit more cooking area, or at least have the chance to, but this doesn’t always equate to better or more cooking. I have found it leads to bringing more cooking utensils that you don’t need,” says Bolus.
“Camping, hiking, hunting, whatever the activity is, is not about the gourmet meal you cooked and ate while doing it. Yes, it is great to have good or great food, and as a chef, I’m always trying to make sure it’s the best possible, but that is a wonderful part of this adventure to me – the challenge of making the most with the least. I say stick to one burner and get a big one if possible,” he says. If you decide to go with a single burner, logistics, organization, and timing come into play, but you’re trading that for fewer pieces of equipment to pack and less fuel burning.
As a rule of thumb, a piezo or rotary ignition for your stove is convenient, but for less expensive models ($150 and under), these are notoriously short-lived. “Click igniters are a convenient option but are also unreliable. They add weight to the pack,” says Bolus, noting that every ounce matters when backpacking. “Matches, a lighter, or even a flint-style spark tool will be better to carry, and you’ll never run out of batteries for it.”
BTUs are a measure of heat required to raise the temperature of one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. To exemplify, a pint of water weighs roughly one pound. You’ll need one BTU for every degree that you want to raise the temperature of that pint. If you start at 65°F, you’ll require roughly 147 BTUs to boil that pint of water. Magnify that to a gallon, and you’ll need approximately 1174 BTUs from your burner to do the same. Most of these stoves carry at least 10,000 BTUs per burner, which borders on enough heat to sear a steak. If you’re boiling large pots of water or searing food, the more BTUs on your stove, the better. Consider a 20,000 BTU output in that case. With high-heat burners, check that the stove also performs well at lower temperatures to ensure you don’t scorch more delicate foods, like pancakes or eggs.
Less-than-perfect weather is inevitable when camping and can halt your cooking plans. Considering this, “I would always look for wind protection for your stove, no matter how big or small. Constantly relighting your flame will be exhausting, making your food take longer, and potentially burning out your igniting tool,” says Bolus.
“The next question is about the temperature during the adventure. Propane will work in very cold environments without fail, whereas butane, they say, won’t work in temperatures below 31 degrees Fahrenheit. I have found this not to be entirely true, though, having used butane in colder conditions than that. If the temperatures are going to be around freezing, I have found you can still use butane quite easily; you just need to make sure the fuel is stored in a warmer environment, like in your pack close to the body or even in the interior pocket of your jacket,” he says.
Rain is always a consideration when camping. When cooking, the rain provides all sorts of problems, and the water also steals heat. An open shelter is preferable for cooking in these situations, but when push comes to shove, butane is safe for use in enclosed areas, provided you take adequate precautions. “If the burner is running too hot or is too close to flammable walls, say of a tent, you do run the risk of that catching fire,” he says.
You can find one-pound propane canisters in most big box, hardware, or outdoor stores. Many home improvement stores offer filled five-gallon propane tanks for sale, as does Ace Hardware. Several convenience store chains also offer tanks for purchase or exchange, and some truck rental companies offer this as a side initiative. Also, many areas have home delivery options where you simply call or place an order online, and they’ll bring you a new tank or exchange an empty one at prices similar to the other options. Butane can be harder to find in some areas, but you can likely track down one of these cylinders at a restaurant supply store or a place that sells woks and wok burners.
No, the two gas types are not interchangeable. Most cylinders of one type will not even fit onto a stove meant for the other.
Propane is approved for indoor use, provided adequate ventilation is available. Without it, there are dangers of gas buildups, which could lead to explosions. Butane is safer, but it’s still a good idea to ensure proper ventilation. Never use wood or charcoal stoves indoors, as carbon monoxide buildup is a very real danger.
Pet Backseat Cover Greg Baker is an award-winning chef, restaurateur, and food writer with four decades of experience in the food industry. His written work appears in Food & Wine, Food Republic, and other publications. For this piece, he interviewed Matt Bolus, chef and partner of The 404 Kitchen in Nashville, Tenn.