Whether you’re car camping, tailgating, or picnicking, owning a good camping stove can really improve your outdoor cooking experience. However, buying a new camp stove can be an overwhelming endeavor. There are just so many options. Where to even start? In this guide, we cover the key differences and help you narrow down which car camping stove is right for you.
While there are tons of different types of “camp” stoves, this guide will focus on those designed specifically for front country car camping. These stoves are larger and more substantial than lightweight backcountry stoves and should perform closer to the burners in your home kitchen.
When selecting a camping stove, it’s good to think about the types of meals you like to make while camping. Do you typically use a lot of burners or just one? Do you like cooking on a griddle or on a grill? How important is simmer control to you? Do want to be able to make coffee and cook breakfast at the same time?
Below, we walk through some of the most important factors to consider when buying a new car camping stove. At the very bottom, we give our recommendations for best camp stoves in their respective categories.
Things to Consider When Buying a Car Camping Stove
‣ Fuel Type
There are three different types of liquefied petroleum gases (LPG) commonly used in car camping stoves: propane, isobutane, and butane. So what’s the difference?
The most important factor is “vapor pressure”, which is essentially the ability of fuel inside to keep the tank pressurized at various outside temperatures. The lower the boiling point of a gas, the greater the vapor pressure, and the better the performance you’ll get in colder temperatures.
Propane (C3H8) –Sea Level boiling point: -44F / -42C
Propane is by far the best performing and most common type of camp stove fuel. The single-use green cylinders can be found at virtually every gas station, grocery store, and Wal-Mart across the country. For longer trips, propane camp stoves can be attached to larger 20-lbs reusable tanks when fitted with the proper adaptor. These reusable tanks can save you a lot of money on fuel costs over time.
Isobutane (C4H10 ) – Sea level boiling point: 11°F/-12°C
This form of fuel is fairly common as well, particularly with backpackers. While it offers decent vapor pressure when it’s cold out, it’s main advantage is weight. Isobutane can be packaged in much lighter weight canisters than propane. This weight saving is a really important factor to consider when backpacking, but not so much for car camping. Isobutane is also the most highly processed and therefore most expensive type of gas. But, if you do a lot of backpacking it might make sense to buy a car camping stove that uses the same type of fuel.
Butane (C4H10) – Sea level boiling point: 30°F/-1°C
Occasionally referred to as “the bastard gas”, Butane has the highest boiling point and therefore lowest vapor pressure of the three. This means as the temperature begins to approach 30 F, this fuel will struggle to power a stove. Butane is, however, remarkably cheap.
So which one is right for you? Depends on where you plan to go camping. What’s the most important factor? Low-temperature performance? Lightweight? Cheap?
Other Fuel Options Wood – There are a few stoves on the market that run entirely off of biomass (wood, sticks, twigs, etc). This can reduce your fuel costs to zero, so long as you can find wood at your campsite. But because it’s a wood powered flame, these types of stoves are often prohibited during wildfire burn bans. They also will produce soot on the bottom of your cookware. However, we’ve used the Biolite Basecamp with Pizza Dome attachment and found it very well suited for front country car camping.
Charcoal – There are plenty of small Webber and Hibachi grills on the market that use charcoal. While these types of stoves are relatively cheap, charcoal is bulky, expensive, and slow to get going. That being said, the Lodge Sportsman is definitely a fun little stove to cook on.
Solar – If you don’t want to deal with fuel at all, you can go full solar. We had the opportunity to review GoSun’s solar oven and found it to be a huge leap forward in solar cooking. Due to changing conditions (see: the weather), this might not be the best camp stove for primary use, but it’s a great secondary that allows you to bake. We recently camped with friends who treated us to freshly baked cinnamon rolls using this stove!
‣ Number of Burners
How many burners do you need to cook on at once? This will depend on the size of your group and you’re style of cooking.
Single Burner – If you’re cooking for a small number of people and enjoy making one pot meals, you will be surprised how much you can get done with just a single burner. These types of stoves are lightweight and take up the least amount of space.
Two-Burner – The most common type of camp stove by far is the two-burner setup – and for good reason. This type of stove offers a lot of versatility in a relatively compact form. Cook breakfast AND boil water for coffee. Sautee veggies AND steam a pot of rice.
Multi-Burner – Cooking for a large group and need more than two burners? There are some stoves that offer a 3 burner configuration, like the Camp Chef 3x Explorer. There are also stoves that can be daisy-chained together, like the Eureka! Spire series, which allows you to add on as many stoves (burners) as you need.
‣ Burner Power & Size
The power of a camp stove is measured in BTUs (British Thermal Unit). A BTU is the amount of energy required to raise one pound of water by one degree Fahrenheit. For comparison sake, a home gas stove burner runs between 7,000-12,000 BTUs. While camp stoves tend to have much higher BTUs, it doesn’t necessarily translate into more power.
Why? Camp stoves have to perform in cold and windy conditions, which can dramatically affect cook times. The extra BTUs allow you to compensate, but they don’t solve the problem entirely. There are some stoves with higher BTUs that actually cook slower than those with lower BTUs burners, depending on how they’re designed to handle the wind. So while BTU’s are a good indicator of power, the overall stove design is a factor as well.
The actual diameter of the burner is an important thing to consider, too. A small burner will produce a small hot spot under your pan and cause your food to heat unevenly. A larger burner will spread the heat more evenly. Generally speaking, the wider the burner’s diameter, the better.
‣ Wind Protection
As mentioned above, wind can play a major role in the overall performance of your stove. Even a gentle breeze can really throw off your cook times – especially when simmering at low heat.
Single burner stoves often forgo wind protection, but most two burner stoves have a folding three wall barrier. Additionally, some stoves – like the Camp Chef Summit – have recessed burners that are surrounded by protective sheaths to further limit wind.
However, if your stove doesn’t have good wind protection, it’s not difficult to fabricate some barriers or improvise with gear you already have. Or, you can purchase a wind barrier canopy here.
‣ Simmer Control
How low can you go? If you want to make creamy risotto, oatmeal, or polenta, you’ll need to be able to simmer on low heat. Otherwise, your food will be scorched to the bottom. Quality simmer control requires very precise valves, which lower-end models don’t frequently have.
‣ Adjustable Legs
There are very few picnic tables that are perfectly level. Many newer camp stoves come with adjustable legs that will allow you to level out your stove before you begin. Otherwise, you can use some sticks or rocks to try and even things out.
‣ Tabletop or Freestanding
If you’re camping at established campgrounds, chances are you’ll have a picnic table to set up your stove. But if you do a lot of dispersed camping or even tailgating, you might want to consider a freestanding stove with foldable legs.
‣ Burners vs Grill/Griddle
Most camp stoves have standard circular burners, but a few come with grill/griddle option as well. If you do a lot of grill/griddle cooking, then having this option might make sense for you. The Camp Chef Rainier comes with a partial grill/griddle while the Eureka! Gonzo is single grill/griddle/burner combo.
If you only want to use a grill/griddle occasionally, then you can just carry a cast iron one with you and place it over a two burner stove. Lodge makes one that fits on top of most two burner stoves.
Okay okay okay, but what stove should I get???
Taking into consideration some of the factors we talked about above, here are our recommendations for a couple different categories of camping stoves.
Best Camp Stoves by Category
Best Single Burner Propane: Coleman Bottle Top
This simple and compact 10,000 BTU burner solution screws directly on top of a 16-ounce propane cylinder. The plastic stand at the base gives you a stable cooking surface from which to work from.
Best Two Burner Propane & Best Simmer Control: Camp Chef Summit
Best in class two burner tabletop camp stove, the Camp Chef Summit combines innovative technology with a rugged design. This camp is ideal for most car camping situations. It has two 20,000 BTU burners, excellent simmer control, and adjustable legs.
Best Modular Freestanding Propane Stove: Camp Chef Explorer 14”
This two burner (30,000 BTUs each!) freestanding stove by Camp Chef is an incredible piece of equipment that offers a world of modular attachments. Griddles, BBQ grills, and even a pizza oven. The Camp Chef Explorer can be modified to fit your preferred cooking style.
The Biolite BaseCamp Stove allows you to enjoy a wood-fired meal while charging your electrical devices at the same time. Large pieces of wood can be feed into the burn chamber, while the broad grill offers plenty of cooking surface. Additionally, if you buy the Pizza Dome & Pizza Stone accessories you to make amazing wood-fired pizzas right at your campsite.