Outdoor enthusiasts, campers and backpackers have one thing in common: They need equipment that is compact, minimal in weight, reliable and efficient in unpredictable outdoor conditions.
The camping stove is a very important addition to your outdoor gear and it is important to understand the details before deciding on a new addition to your “camp kitchen”.
A camping stove or otherwise called a portable stove, is a device used for cooking or heating, in situations where you need a lightweight and easily transportable device.
It is most commonly used in camping, backpacking or other situations like picnicking, outdoor catering events or in emergency temporary relief situations like field hospitals.
Portable stoves emerged in the 17th century. The Shichirin is one of the earliest examples and was designed and used in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868). It was a small, mobile stove fueled by charcoal. The older Shichirin were made from ceramic and can still be seen in old houses.
The Shichirin is also called “kanteki” in Japan’s Kansai region and “hibachi” in North America, which means fire bowl in Japanese.
In the mid-19th century The French-born chef, Alexis Sover developed the more modern portable stove, which he marketed as the “magic stove” in 1849. Its design was basically the same as the kerosene lamp, which operates with a wick, transferring fuel from a small reservoir to a burner.
After this Sover joined the British Army during the Crimean War (1853-1856) as a volunteer and used his expertise to advise them on cooking. He designed the Sover stove to ensure that soldiers would get decent meals and not suffer from food poisoning or malnutrition. His stoves and adaptions of it was still used by the British Army late into the 20th century.
The first alcohol stove, known as the “Russian furnace”, was invented at almost the same time in the 1850’s by Francis Fox Tuckett, who was a famous Alpine mountaineer.
The use of the camping stove became common in Britain and Europe late in the 19th century and also later in North America when people realized that people should be more careful about the impact they have on the environment when travelling.
Before the invention of portable stoves, the travelers would build an open fire using fallen branches which used to leave a fire scar on the ground. This could last on the ground for a few years and started to spoil the natural beauty of the area. To reduce this effect, backpackers started to rather rely on camping stoves for cooking.
In 1943, halfway through World War II, the U.S Army issued an urgent request for the development of portable stove for cooking in the battlefield. The Coleman Company responded by designing a single burner stove that could burn any kind of fuel. This was considered as a significantly important piece of non-combat equipment during World War II.
This Coleman army stove evolved in the 1950’s to the more familiar fold-up stove of today. Today there are many more varieties of the basic design by different companies.
In essence a camp stove can be compared to a portable stovetop, since it consists of burners very similar to a gas stovetop at home. The camp grill is like a portable barbeque, where the heat is spread over the whole cooking surface.
The camp stove would be best if you want to boil water, or if you prefer cooking with pans or pots. It makes use of focused heat and uses a heating element on which the pot or pan rests on. It then transfers the heat from the fire to the food through the pot or pan.
Camping stoves are usually less messy than grills and thus easier to clean. It is best for cooking foods like porridge, eggs, frying bacon and hash browns, boiling potatoes or other vegetables and can also be used to make hot drinks by boiling water or heating milk. Camping stoves are also very handy to reheat leftovers.
The grill is best to use for food that can spread out over even heat. The flame of the fire is allowed to touch the food, so it can sear the food or cause grate marks to burn into the meat you are cooking.
Camping grills will cook your food much faster, but you also have to be more careful with it since it can more easily burn the food. The food has more of a charred taste which many people like. It works well for cooking chicken, burgers, steaks, grilled vegetables, or lamb and pork chops.
There are two main groups of camping stoves: Liquid fuel stoves (which can be divided into unpressurized liquid fuel stoves and pressurized liquid fuel stoves) and Solid fuel stoves. Let’s look at the main differences between these two groups and their subdivisions and also list some examples.
Liquid fuel stoves can be divided into two main categories: Unpressurized liquid fuel stoves which uses mostly alcohol, white gas or kerosene for fuel and pressurized liquid fuel stoves which uses mostly liquidized gas.
Single Burner Alcohol Stoves
This is the simplest type of stove which uses denaturized alcohol as fuel. The burner contains the fuel (unpressurized) and it burns either until the fire is extinguished or the fuel is exhausted. This type of stove is very popular with backpackers who need something that is ultralight and small in order to reduce weight and bulk on extended or strenuous hiking trips.
The disadvantage to alcohol based stoves is that you will need to pack a windscreen or invent one on site since it is very sensitive to wind. Alcohol’s heat output is also less than most other fuel types and thus makes cooking time longer.
Other Liquid Fuel Stoves
White gas, or otherwise known as “naphtha” is an excellent choice of liquid fuel since it can be used in almost any pressurized-type liquid fuel stove.
It burns cleaner than its competitors and it vaporizes at a lower temperature. The residue and odor is also minimal. Not all white gas brands are identical and some are more refined as others and are free of additives.
Disadvantages are that once you open the gas container and it is exposed to air it starts to degrade. This can clog your stove and filters.
Gas Cartridge Stoves
The fuel tank or cartridge of these stoves contains a liquefied gas under pressure, most often butane, propane or a mixture of hydrocarbons. The gas is stored in a liquid state inside the cartridge and vaporizes immediately when it leaves the cartridge and thus arrives at the burner as a gas.
Biggest advantage is that it is so easy to use, with almost no maintenance and the flame can be adjusted for the required heat output.
The two most common designs for camping stoves are firstly where the cartridge serves as the stove’s base and the burner connects to the top of the gas cartridge or secondly where the stove is free-standing and the cartridge is connected to the burner by a small pipe.
Disadvantages is that the cartridges can be expensive and most of them are not refillable or recyclable, which is not environmentally friendly. In cold weather their functionality is also affected and some types of gas are not as effective.
The term Solid fuel is used to define different forms of solid material, whether natural or manufactured, that can be used to create fire through the method of combustion. Examples are wood, coal, charcoal, hexamine or trioxane fuel tablets, etc.
A solid fuel stove usually consist of a metal base plate with a set of legs to lift it from the ground, a container to hold the fuel and a supporting device for the pot or pan.
Manufactured fuel is as the name suggest “man-made” and is mostly in tablet form. Most commonly used fuel for camping stoves would be Hexamine or trioxane tablets. Other options are gelled alcohol, which is the most commonly used form of solid alcohol.
One of the disadvantages of some of the compact models using tablets are that they are usually intended for use by one person and food may be tainted by the fumes when exposed to the burning tablets. It might also leave a residue under the cookware.
Metaldehyde might also be used as solid fuel in these stoves, but it is prohibited in America due to the fact that it is toxic to humans and animals when ingested.
Therefore, one should handle the tablets with great care to avoid accidental ingestion by contamination of your hands and also be careful to leave small pieces behind where small animals may come into contact with it. The advantage of metaldehyde is that it is a lightweight fuel that doesn’t leave a residue and has minimal smell to it.
Natural fuel includes wood or other forest debris and one of the biggest advantages is that one does not need to carry any stove fuel along. You can collect twigs or small pine cones at the campsite and use as fuel in the fuel chamber or the stove.
Besides the fact that you travel more lightly there is also a financial saving because you do not need to purchase fuel. There are also no concerns about fuel leaking, spillage or toxicity.
Disadvantages are that the burn rate can’t be controlled since there are no valves to adjust to increase the flame and it only depends on the amount of fuel used.
Solid fuels never burn completely and they produce a small amount of ash that can leave a significant residue. Solid fuels also release less heat than its counterpart since some of the energy of the fuel is lost in the smoke and soot.
In light of such a variety of camping stoves it can be difficult to decide which one is right for you. To make this decision easier let us look at the main things you have to take into consideration.
This is an important factor based on what your planning to use it for. If you are only camping you can go for a heavier sturdier device, but if you want to use the stove for backpacking you need to go as lightweight as possible.
Depending on your budget you can choose from very affordable to more expensive. More expensive stoves are usually of a better quality and thus more durable. If you are going to use a camping stove frequently or if you need an ultralight stove for backpacking you might consider spending a little more.
Many backpackers make use of meals that require only rehydrating and thus only need boiling water for food preparation. In these cases, the main characteristic that you need from the stove is that it will boil water quickly. If, however you want to cook more complex meals you want a stove that has good temperature control, specifically if you need to simmer meals.
If you plan to make large meals for a group at a campsite it would be better to buy a sturdy, wide based stove that would be suitable for bigger pots. Stability here is important since you don’t want to lose your meal because of a stove that is not securely centered on the ground.
For a hiking group, many backpackers pack their own stoves or share a stove between two people and thus you can use a smaller device.
If you camp a lot during winter you will need a stove that has a strong heat output and is more fuel efficient, since you would be using more fuel than in warmer weather. You also need to use fuel that can be efficient in below-freezing condition, which would be your liquid fuel stoves.
Wind is not your friend when it comes to outdoor cooking. Strong wind can make it difficult to have a steady flame and thus cooking can be less efficient.
Canister stoves are the better performers in windy conditions since alcohol and solid food stoves perform poorly under windy conditions. A wind shield is a good idea to have in hand since this will help to better performance.
Priming basically is preheating and some stoves e.g. most unpressurized liquid fuel stoves requires you to first light a small amount of fuel in the stove to give it some warm up time. It is not a difficult process, but beginner users might find this confusion. Canister stoves has an advantage here since they do not require priming.
Rules with regards to the use of open fire differ in different regions and it is important to be aware of the specific rules in the area that you are travelling to. Generally, canister stoves are considered the safest in terms of fire risk and some solid fuel stoves may also be permitted in higher risk areas.
Usually wood stoves and alcohol stoves are not allowed in these areas. Stoves that require priming should be used very carefully since spilled fuel might start a fire quickly.
Comparing the different advantages and disadvantages of the fuel types might also help your decision in what stove would be best for you.
It is cheap and available even when travelling in remote areas. It burns without noise.
Cooking time is slower and thus it is less efficient. It performs poorly in windy conditions. There are more safety risks since it is a less visible flame and easier to spill the fuel.
Fuel is affordable and bottles are refillable, making it environmentally friendly.
It is better for international travel since fuel is easily available.
It can be bulky and heavy. The stove itself is more expensive and it is more complicated to use since you need to prime it. There is a risk of fuel spilling and some of them are quite noisy.
It has a good heat output and therefore quick boiling times. It is very user friendly. The fuel is odor free and leaves no residue
The canisters are slightly more expensive and less likely to find in remote areas. Only some of the canisters can be recycled so it is not the best solution for the environment.
Inexpensive stove, no fuel spilling, very quiet
Tablets are expensive, cooking is much slower with poor performance in windy conditions.
There is also no temperature control. You will have residue left on your cookware with an unpleasant odor. These tablets are not easily found in remote places.
Do not have to carry fuel with you, thus minimizing bulk and weight. It is a more natural experience.
It takes more time and effort, with slower cooking times. The stove itself is usually heavier.
In wet conditions or when you are above the tree line in mountain areas it could be difficult to find fuel. Is causes significant residue on the bottom of your pot, which makes it messier. effort, and practice required. These stoves are not allowed in fire ban areas.
While these little cookers might seem easy to use, they can still be dangerous to you or the environment if not used responsibly. Have a look at these safety tips before you head out to use your new gear.
It is important to look after your stove to ensure longevity and maximum efficiency.
Test your stove at home before heading out on your adventure. It there are any faults you would rather discover it at home than being left without a meal after a long day’s hike.
Try to not over fill cookware to prevent spill overs when stirring. Take care to follow the manufacture’s instruction guide for your specific device.
Clean your stove after each use. This will prevent build up on the burners. Wipe the surface with water and soap and dry completely. If needed unscrew the burner rings and boils and clean underneath it.
Store in a cool, dry place after cleaning. It is a good idea to place it inside a sealable plastic bag so that small spiders or other insects can’t block the small holes which will affect airflow. It needs to be dry before storing to prevent rust build up.
If you use a liquid fuel stove it is important to transfer most of the left-over fuel in the tank to the fuel can so that there isn’t build-up collecting in the fuel tube that will restrict flow.
A camping stove is an important and necessary piece of equipment when you are heading outdoors, whether camping, backpacking or picnicking. Make sure you buy the right device to suit your adventure’s needs.