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Camp Stove Cooking: All about camp stoves

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A breakfast spread full with pancakes, omelets and orange juice comes together on a Southern California beach with the help of a two-burner Coleman propane stove. PHOTO BY JULIA BARTON


I own two camp stoves—both of which spent a few years in my dad’s garage before coming into my care—that I use for cooking outdoors. The first is a two-burner Coleman stove, a classic for cooking up big meals while camping, and the second is a Jetboil that is compact, lightweight and self-contained.

The world of camp stoves and outdoor gear in general is a nebulous one, each model toting various advantages and shortcomings that make it hard to determine what is right for your needs. So, let’s break down the three main types of camp stoves.

Standard Propane Stoves

The two-burner Coleman stove I use falls into this category and many other propane stoves have replicated this model. These stoves are hefty, but versatile and reliable. The two-burner style of most propane stoves is great for feeding big groups or making complex meals, and the fuel is easy to acquire as it is often sold in 1-pound canisters at grocery stores. I’d recommend this type of stove for car camping trips where you don’t want your outdoor camping experience to feel too far away from being in the kitchen. 

Canister Stoves

A canister stove is any stove that uses a small canister of fuel upon which the stove sits. There are many different designs for this type of stove. Jetboil stoves, and others with similar designs, have a jet burner component that screws onto the fuel canister and come with a pot that attaches to the burner. Other canister stoves include the MSR PocketRocket, a tiny-but-mighty burner that screws onto the canister that any pot or pan can sit atop of. These stoves boil water insanely fast and typically pack down to a small size, making them ideal for backpacking. There are two main downsides to this type of stove, however: They require specific isobutane fuel canisters that can’t easily be refilled and can be difficult to find, and they don’t perform as well as other stoves at high elevations or cold temperatures.

Liquid Fuel Stoves

Like canister stoves, liquid fuel stoves are geared primarily toward backpacking. They are lightweight, compact and support a single burner. Rather than sitting atop an isobutane canister, these stoves connect to a refillable bottle of white gas. The MSR WhisperLite is the most well-known stove in this category. These stoves are often a bit more clunky than canister stoves but are the best performers in cold conditions and at high elevations. White gas is often easier to find than canister fuel, and since the bottles can be refilled, also produces less waste. 

In short, the stove you should use depends on what you’re using it for. If you’re mostly cooking and camping at sites you can drive to, a propane stove is a no-brainer, as it’s easy to use and reliable. If you’re backpacking or otherwise trying to travel light, either a canister or a liquid fuel stove is the way to go. Determine the conditions you are most likely to encounter if you’re considering a backpacking-oriented stove and use what makes the most sense for your adventures. 

Keep in mind that you don’t need a two-burner propane stove to make delicious meals—I’ve had homemade cinnamon rolls, pizza and enough soup for five people on a WhisperLite in the past. You also don’t need to purchase a new stove. Yes, technology is improving, but both of my second-hand stoves are at least 10 years old and still perform wonderfully.

We’re wrapping up the summer camping season here in southwest Montana soon, so there’s no better time to get outside and enjoy a few camp stove meals before winter settles in.

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