Camp Stove Buyer's Guide

If your outdoor adventure doesn’t involve returning to a hotel or your own home each night, then that means you’re camping out. And unless you’re some masochist on a starvation plan, then it also means meals out.

If your outdoor adventure doesn’t involve returning to a hotel or your own home each night, then that means you’re camping out. And unless you’re some masochist on a starvation plan, then it also means meals out.

For any extended stay in the field, you’re going to want a hot meal of some sort. Even if it’s just a quick overnighter, where you can pack light and survive on just a packed sandwich or two, trail mix and Hershey bars, most are bound to want a hot cup of coffee or tea in the morning. But how are you going to heat things up in the great outdoors? The answer is camp stoves.

There are dozens upon dozens to choose from, models of all different sizes, configurations, and power levels. So where does the intrepid outdoor gourmet start? Begin by looking at how you intend to pack in your gear and for how long you intend to stay "out there."

Oh My Aching Back!
The self-sufficiency of backpacking is a fulfilling and satisfying experience for the ego. To say the same for your belly while you’re hoofing the miles will require some creative thought when it comes to a stove. This is especially true for long trips.

Actual cooking "surfaces" (if you can call them that), the minimum of a fire source and some three-prong arrangement to support a pot or pan, are infinitesimally small these days. That’s good, because the creed of every serious backpacker is "all gear should be of minimum weight." On the true featherweight end are the pocket camp stoves. These fold down to roughly the dimensions of an over-sized Tarot card pack and run off either tinder or chemical fuel tablets. They are good for, say, a trip that’s going to involve no more than an overnight stay or two, though they’re probably more appreciated for use as a daytrip coffee-break enabler, rather than something to prepare a true meal on. If you’re hiking hard, and for more than a weekend, you’re going to need to replenish your calorie loss in a more than beef jerky and cup-o-soup kind of way. (And face it, those energy bars can keep you going for a while, but even the best are hard to call satisfying.) Keeping your body going will require a more complex cooking system.

The next step up from pocket stoves is the family of true backpacker stoves. These units can be found as light as 3.5 ounces, though most tend to fall in the 11-ounce to 1 1/2 -pound range. Keep in mind, that’s the weight range for just the cooking unit, not its fuel source.

Fuel sources for these micro stoves are as varied as their geometric configurations. There are straight propane models, alcohol models, butane, white-gas, kerosene, iso-butane, Isobutane-LPG, jet fuel, diesel fuel, and, thankfully, multi-fuel models that take more than one on the list. Again, so many choices, what to choose? Weight continues to be a top concern here, as it is with the stove itself. When shopping, look for the stat that indicates "full canister weight;" the empty weight won’t do you much good until the return trip. As important as weight, is the efficiency of the fuel source and the stove it’s paired with. You will see specifications for boiling time, usually quoted as how long it takes to rumble a liter of water, as well as the number of BTU output (somewhere near 10,000 is the usual minimum). But before you say "faster is better," pair that statistic with the longevity of the fuel source running at high (is it minutes or hours?) and what you’re going to cook. If you’re packing-in self-contained, boil-in-the bag meals, then faster might be better. But if you’re planning on heating up a pot of stew and then a pot of java for you and your hiking partner, with variations on a theme for several nights in a row, than longevity is probably the stronger issue. Balance all of this against the length of your stay: The longer you’re out, the more food you need and the more fuel needed to cook it.

I’d also take into consideration what it takes to get a stove going. Piezo elements tend to be pretty reliable, but many micro-stoves now have priming pumps - sold as an accessory. The plus side to the pumps is that they tend to save fuel. They can also be advantageous in high altitude or extreme cold settings, where ignition can become a problem. The downside of course is added weight, albeit generally just a few ounces. If you do opt for one, consider one with some sort of pump purge to prevent spillage on disconnect. Lastly, consider the shape of your fuel source. I think the long narrow cylinders pack easier than the squatter designs, and I think they’re a little easier to use when a flat surface can’t be found for the stove unit; the squatter types naturally have a cooking utensil sitting up higher and are more prone to tip than one close to the ground - but to each their own.

Look for units that disassemble/reassemble quickly and easily and perhaps fold down to something resembling flat for easier packing. I’d also look for a stove that came with its own carrying sack or at least had no sharp edges to perforate other gear packed along side it. For even better portage, I’ve also seen a model that houses its own tiny cooking pot, and it isn’t even out of that 1-1/2 pound range. Other features to be considered: a fully adjustable flame, both for intensity and width; built-in wind shields; built-in heat deflectors; lamp accessories; fuel gauges; and stands for the squat-type fuel canisters, among others.

Give the Horse a Break
Horses, mules, llamas and even donkeys can make the trip into camp easier on your legs (not your butt), and they are a huge bonus when it comes to setting up a long-term camp for a week or more. But that doesn’t mean you should pack everything plus the kitchen sink. That goes double for big-game hunters who, unless they’re bringing along an extra pony or two, need to count on having to pack out whatever they harvest.

Let’s assume a campfire is the main heating source for cooking. (Besides, camping without a fire is like driving without a steering wheel). The smartest way to go about this is with some sort of grill. The simplest sorts will be just a flat grate of cast iron or steel that will set either directly on your logs or supported by rocks. A better way is to add legs to the grill. Legs provide a steadier and more even platform for pots of food and liquid, keeps them elevated from direct flame, and allow some "poking" room to better distribute the heat. If you can find one with folding legs, then you have a reliable cooking surface that also packs well.

Another take on the open-grate theme are those that are adjustable for height. These generally come with a steel post to stake next to your fire ring, and a clamp to position the grill at any height above the fire. They also allow users to swing the grill partially or completely away from the flames, which can really aid in handling hot pots when the fire’s burning strong.

Need more? You can cook for 10 with a combination unit. How about a lower-tier grill paired with a rotisserie top? One with an adjustable grill provides better cooking control, and when you add in swinging side pot hooks, being camp cook becomes less of a chore and more of a joy when one can get complete meals going at one time. Some of these units come with their own steel fire rings. They are a super option when it comes to fire safety, or when your camp area doesn’t have a good rock supply, though consider how you’re going to get such an item into camp before deciding you have to have it. Of course if you’re in an SUV...

Have Wheels, Will Pack It

If you can drive to your camping destination, you are limited in your cooking source only by the amount of interior cargo, roof rack, trailer-hitch rack, and/or pull-along trailer space to haul it all in. Now you can really cook!

Keep the fire for aesthetics, for cooking purposes, it’s time for propane. As with everything else, though, even this can go from simple to simply extreme in the blink of an eye. Both ends of the range have dozens of choices.

Nothing speaks classic camp stove like the suitcase-sized versions of the pocket backpacker’s stoves. Flip the lid and sides up for a little wind protection, hook up your fuel source, and you’ve got a two- or three-burner version of your stove at home. The heavy-hitter names you recognize keep building these stoves because they’re simple, ultra-reliable over many seasons of use, and are comparatively compact units for those who don’t want to overdue it. Many also come with a stand to set them on or their own folding legs, and even side shelves for food prep are now available. Think of these as your favorite at-home grill or griddle - there’s a model available that’ll fry anything, no pan needed - only one that’s portable. Bear in mind, BTU output will range widely from model to model, make to make, so choose as you would for any other: how many people do you need to feed for how many meals a day for how many days, and how much propane can you haul into camp.

A new option, and a handy one for cooks who need multiple pots, are cast-iron burner units, just like those off a high-end in-home stove. On legs, these cooking surfaces are heavy enough to withstand a gale force wind without blowing off a picnic table. Available in single-, double- and three-burner configurations, all which link to whatever LP tank you’ve hauled into camp, several can be set up together for a complete cooking line.

Of course, a stove of sorts is just the door to the kitchen when it comes to outdoor cooking. Cook and it and they will come, and it’s easy to do with the wide variety of specialty deep-fryers, smokers, roasters and convection ovens, all of which run off of propane cylinders or cans and all of which are relatively portable, at least by vehicle. Choose one, choose them all. They’ll keep a gourmet in business and the table fare as varied as the company he keeps.