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Ah, the great outdoors! While fresh air, exercise, and communing with nature all have their benefits, if you’re like me, the best part of camping is the food. Sure, food is a survival necessity, but there’s nothing quite like chowing down on a bowl of chili near the fire or waking up to mountain views and the smell of freshly made pancakes. However, unless you’re adept at live-fire cooking, you can’t enjoy camp food without a camp stove.
Camping stoves fall into two categories: backcountry stoves and car camping stoves (also called “base camp” stoves). Backcountry stoves, which need to be extremely light and compact because they’re meant for carrying with you while hiking, are usually small apparatuses that sit on top of a fuel container and can hold one small pot. While you can cook meals on backcountry stoves with some finesse, they’re primarily meant for boiling water to add to ready-to-eat foods. Car camping stoves, referred to as such since you take them in your car to your campsite, are heavier than backcountry stoves and have one to three burners. For this testing, we focused on car camping stoves because they’re more versatile for campers interested in cooking. We tested eight models, priced from about $45 to about $240, and used them to boil water, make Easy Ground Beef Chili, prepare Perfect Scrambled Eggs, cook 1 pound of bacon, and make pancakes. Since it was also essential to see how the stoves performed in the wild, we also asked testers to take the stoves with them to camp sites around New England.
Most camp stoves operate using a small fuel canister that you purchase separately. Many of the models we tested use propane, just like a gas grill, but in smaller containers. One stove required isopropane-butane (a mixture of different fuels usually sold in canisters at outdoor stores such as REI), and another could be operated with either propane or butane. We also included one camp stove fueled by wood; we were intrigued by its innovative design that uses heat from the fire to power a battery that can charge your phone or power a USB light.
Butane and fuel mixtures such as isopropane-butane are often preferred for backcountry stoves because the cans are lighter to carry, but for car camping, where the weight of your gear doesn’t matter as much, propane is the most versatile option. Unlike butane, propane works at high altitudes and in temperatures below freezing. While we didn’t base our ratings on the type of fuel a stove required, it’s worth noting that 1-pound propane tanks for camping are much easier to find than butane canisters.
Since camp stoves are essential for survival tasks such as boiling water for drinking, a camp stove should be easy to set up and ignite. However, we immediately encountered major difficulties while trying to start three of the stoves. We had to turn one stove upside down to attach its fuel canisters, and its flimsy knobs were easily knocked out of place, sending fuel spraying all over the fabric sides of the stove. It took three testers poring over the manual to figure out how to place the fuel canisters properly. Even then, this stove felt precarious to cook on; pans wobbled on its high, narrow cooking surface, and its thin wire control knobs shaped like paper clips bent when we turned them, making it impossible to judge when the gas was fully turned off. Professional cooks felt uncomfortable lighting and cooking on the stove, and we ultimately concluded it wasn’t safe to continue testing this model.
One model had a finicky design that made it difficult to attach the fuel tank to the stove. If the fuel tank wasn't placed perfectly, it triggered a glitchy safety system. Each time the safety system tripped, we had to remove the fuel canister from the stove, reset the safety system, and try again. It took 12 tries to get just one of its burners lit; we had the same issue with its other burner.
While gathering branches and twigs for the wood-fired camp stove sounded fun in theory, it was more of a chore in practice. If you’re in an area with limited wood, or you run out at night, you’re out of luck. And while you can, in theory, purchase wood logs to use in this stove, you have to break them down with a hatchet into tiny 2-inch-long pieces that fit into the stove’s very small opening. One tester reported chopping wood for hours to power the grill through a dinner of burgers, sausage, and focaccia. We preferred stoves that we could set up and light quickly. We also liked stoves with automatic igniter buttons; they felt safer to use than stoves that we had to light with a match or utility grill lighter, and it was nice not to have to rummage around for a lighter.
Before doing any cooking tests, we wanted to test each stove’s heat output by seeing how long it took each model to boil a quart of water. The burner power of the stoves we tested ranged from 8,000 BTUs (British Thermal Units) per burner to 20,000 BTUs per burner. Once lit and set to their highest heat setting, the stoves took from 4 to 11 minutes to boil the water, and these times correlated directly with each stove’s reported BTUs. The 20,000-BTU model was able to boil water in just 4 minutes at high heat. The 8,000-BTU model took the longest to boil water, followed by the wood-burning stove. (The wood-burning stove’s heat output cannot be measured in BTUs because the level of the fire built inside it can vary. However, even when positioned over a roaring fire, the pot of water took more than 10 minutes to boil, and that was after waiting 20 minutes for the stove to preheat.)
While we preferred ripping-hot stoves that could boil water in minutes, the burners had to be responsive enough to accommodate a variety of high- and low-heat cooking tasks. We wanted a stove that could be turned down to low to gently simmer chili without scorching it and cook pancakes without burning them. This proved difficult on many of the stoves. Unlike home stoves that have knobs with numbers or clearly labeled low, medium, and high heat settings, many of the camp stoves had completely unlabeled or ambiguous knobs. Some turned as many as three complete rotations from off to high heat, so it was hard to figure out a low or medium heat setting. Three of the stoves were so finicky that when we tried turning down their heat levels, we often turned off the gas supply instead. A few stoves scorched the chili even when we adjusted the heat to its lowest setting.
Regulating heat levels on the wood-fired stove was also tricky. Heat generated by the wood fire activates a battery with helpful LED lights that tell you when the heat level is at its max, but the process of figuring out the right amount of wood to add at the right time was a delicate art. When the fire was at its peak, we were able to brown meat, but it was harder to regulate the stove’s flame during lower-heat tasks such as simmering chili and cooking pancakes. We preferred the simplicity of gas-powered models and liked products with clearly labeled knobs and responsive heat settings.
With limited resources out in the wilderness, a camp stove should be easy to use in all weather and with whatever cookware you have on hand. For this reason, we liked stoves with windscreens—flaps that can be positioned around the stove to prevent wind gusts from blowing out the flame. However, windscreens had a trade-off: They often limited the usable cooking surface of the stove.
We also preferred stoves with roomier cooking surfaces. While all the stoves had two burners (except the wood-fired stove, which had one, large, grill-like surface), we found that the cooking surfaces on some of the stoves were too small to accommodate two pans at a time. When we tried to cook bacon in a 12-inch skillet and eggs in a 10-inch skillet, the two pans often didn’t fit directly over the burners or hung awkwardly off the cooking surface, with the heat concentrated on one side of the pan. We liked large, roomy cooktops that offered a fair amount of space between the two burners and plenty of room for whatever pans we were cooking with. Finally, we liked stoves that we could wipe down and carry easily and fold up quickly and compactly.
Our favorite car camping stove is the Camp Chef Mountain Series Everest High Pressure Two-Burner Stove. With 20,000 BTUs of power per burner and powered by easy-to-find propane, this stove boiled a quart of water in just about 4 minutes. Though it could get ripping hot for searing meat, the controls were easy to read and extremely responsive; we were able to quickly reduce the heat level to a gentle low for simmering chili or delicately scrambling eggs. It has all the extra features we like in a camp stove—an automatic igniter, a roomy cooking surface, and a windscreen—so you can enjoy the best part of camping, problem-free.