This article offers information and advice about lightweight camping stoves, i.e. those stoves that will be carried by walkers/climbers/paddlers rather than those that would be used by static campers and only carried from the vehicle to the tent.
The information is intended for stove use in UK conditions. In colder or hotter environments some aspects of this information may become irrelevant or incorrect.
The stoves are categorised according to their fuel type as this is, arguably, the most important factor to consider:
Types of Fuel
Butane, butane-isobutane, butane-propane, propane, (all stored liquefied). Gas from a canister (aka cartridge) is piped to a controlled jet and ignited above a burner.
Liquefied gas fuel is generally available, relatively cheaply as butane, butane-propane mix, butane-isobutane mix, butane-propane-isobutane mix and occasionally just propane. They are stored in a variety of canister types, three commonly available in the UK, each with a different valve.
Each gas boils at a different temperature so different gas/gas mixtures are used for different temperature conditions and each has a different heat output (see table below). Gas fuels require a significant volume of air for complete combustion (x25-32) so ventilation, as with any stove, is essential.
Gas fuels burn readily once ignited, can be explosive when mixed with air, produce low levels of unburned carbon (soot), are toxic, have a significant and recognisable odour, and are significantly heavier than air.
Gas leakage and canister failure is very rare, so associated risks are very low. In the hands of competent users, gas fuels pose low risk when used in a tent/confined space.
Butane is used as a recreational drug, resulting in drunken-like stupor with associated aggression with much more serious longer term effects.
Alcohol (aka Ethanol, methylated spirit (meths), eco-ethanol, IPA (isopropyl alcohol)
Alcohol is poured manually into an open cup-like burner and then manually ignited.
Alcohol fuels, usually meths, increasingly eco-ethanol, are generally available, sold in plastic bottles, throughout the UK, though not nearly as commonly as gas or petroleum fuels.
Alcohol fuels becomes less viable in cold weather (Tb 78.5°C), produce approximately half the relative heat output of the gas fuels, require a relatively low volume of air for complete combustion (x15) and can produce significant unburned carbon (soot). Tip: Adding 10% water to alcohol fuel reduces soot production.
Alcohol fuels are highly volatile liquids; both liquid and vapours ignite readily, burn with a not-very-visible flame and produce significant unburned carbon (soot); they have a significant odour and are toxic.
Spillage of volatile liquid fuel is a significant hazard, increased if the liquid is hot and, if burning, spillage is a major hazard.
These fuels pose a low-medium risk in a tent/confined space.
Alcohol is used as a recreational drug but all fuel-grade alcohols are toxic in small quantities.
Liquid petroleum (aka petrol, Coleman Fuel, unleaded, white gas, paraffin, diesel)
These fuels are primarily octane (petrol, unleaded, Coleman fuel, white gas) or mixtures of longer hydrocarbon chains (8-16 for paraffin and 8-21 for diesel). They require priming (preheating the fuel so that it turns to gas/vapour before being issued through jets) and pressurising (the user pumps air into the fuel canister to blow the fuel to the burner.
These are, in one form or another, the most readily available fuels (available anywhere there are vehicles) and are also usually the cheapest. There are a few specialist versions (Coleman Fuel) that typically contain fewer additives that have a tendency to block the fuel jets on stoves. They must be stored in appropriate containers to prevent leakage of liquid and vapour.
Liquid petroleum fuels burn at high temperatures and with high heat output and, as long as they can be primed, they will work at very cold temperatures. They require large volumes of air for complete combustion (x60+) and can produce copious volumes of unburned carbon (soot) and toxic levels of carbon monoxide.
Note: “impure” liquid petroleum fuel is common in “less developed” locations and can cause effects including flares, fireballs, sheets/towers of flame, irregular burning, high levels of unburned carbon and toxic levels of carbon monoxide. Outdoor use is recommended unless the fuel is known to be high quality.
Properties vary considerably:
Petrol is a volatile liquid and both liquid and vapours ignite readily; petroleum vapour is highly inflammable and explosive under certain conditions.
Diesel and paraffin are less volatile and liquids will not generally ignite easily unless wicked or heated, vapours are highly inflammable.
All petroleum fuels burn with very visible flames; they have a strong and recognisable odour, are toxic and mild irritants. Spillage of liquid petroleum fuel is a very significant hazard, increased if the liquid is hot and, if burning, spillage is catastrophic. If spilled, cold octane (petrol) will evaporate slowly in most temperate conditions, but paraffin and diesel will not (if spilled in significant volume onto a sleeping bag, the bag is best binned).
These fuels pose medium-high risk when used in a tent/confined space.
Wood (aka wood chips, eco-kitty-litter, wild wood)
Wood is used in several types of stove and is widely available in the wild and can be found sold as kindling, eco-kitty-litter and hardwood chips (from pet stores). Reliance on a source of dry wild wood in the wet UK climate is an unwise choice.
Its heat output is low and it produces large volumes of unburned carbon (smoke/soot). The overall effect is smelly kit and dirty pans. The only viable reason for using wood is that you’ve lost your stove and fuel.
Use in a small tent could be catastrophic!
Gel fuels are available in canisters that will replace an alcohol burner; the advantages are that the fuel cannot be spilled and the lid can be screwed back on so the fuel can be stored/carried safely. These are not commonly available, are quite expensive and some produce high quantities of unburned carbon (soot).
Solid fuels, such as hexamine, are still available in small tablets designed to be burned on a solid fuel burning platform. They were favoured by the military, are often smelly, have high heat output and some burn smokelessly. Hexamine is soluble in water, an irritant and produces toxic nitrogen oxides when burned.
There are two types of lightweight gas stove; canister-top stoves which screw directly into the fuel canister and remote-feed stoves that are fed from the canister via a flexible pipe. The advantages and disadvantages are listed below.
If you want to use butane (the cheapest and most widely available gas fuel) at low temperatures you’ll need a remote-feed stove with a pre-heater (liquid-feed gas stove) so that the canister can be inverted and liquefied gas can be fed to the stove.
Typically, well-made gas stoves require little or no maintenance, and will last many years (easily 20+). A good canister-top stove can be bought for £20-£30 and a good remote-feed stove will cost £50-£80. If you buy a cheapy off eBay you may or may not get a good stove: Invest and be happy; you know it makes sense!
All gas stoves (that we know about) have built-in pan supports and the remote-feed stoves usually have built in legs (they’re sometimes called spider-stoves).
All gas stoves are prone to wind (the wind blows the heat energy away from the pan) so the use of a windshield and a lid is highly recommended, reducing the fuel consumption by up to 60% and the boil-time or cooking time by up to 150%.
For use inside a tent, gas stoves are generally safer, cleaner and more manageable than all others.
Light, small, easy to use and cheap. Clean burning (no sooty pans) and low carbon monoxide risk. Typically durable and long-lasting.
Only burn gas so of limited use in low temperatures; below 5°C they will burn the propane and isobutane proportion of gas but not the butane, below -3°C they’ll burn propane. They have a high centre of gravity (canister + stove + pan(s) + lid).
Remote-Feed Stoves (aka spider stoves)
Advantages: Light, small, easy to use. Typically durable and long-lasting. Often have a pre-heater so they can burn liquefied butane at cold temperatures. Clean burning (no sooty pans) and low carbon monoxide risk. They have a lower centre of gravity (stove + pan(s) + lid).
Disadvantages: Not as light or as small as canister-top stoves and cost approximately 2-3 times as much.
There are three widely available types of lightweight gas canister in the UK; the most common is a screw-fit canister with a threaded self-sealing valve usually denoted C500, C300 etc (with a Lindal B188 valve) and these are available in a variety of sizes, each is normally labelled with the type and weight of gas contained but not always with the proportions.
The type of canister also has a massive effect on price; pound shops sell 120g of butane for refilling lighters in a bayonet aerosol canister at £1 and, in barbecue season, supermarkets sell 4-packs of the taller clip-on/A4 canisters of butane/isobutane (4x220g) for £2.99. An adapter is needed to attach these to your stove and, would you believe it, eBay has them for a few quid!
As you might expect the major branded canisters can cost significantly more than lesser known brands but, in the UK, they all meet stringent regulations and you can massively reduce the cost of fuel by shopping around. Buying in bulk also reduces prices. At the time of writing this article, Coleman gas was available online at under £3.50/C500 canister with free delivery for an order of 12, whereas a single canister of the same volume from a stove manufacturer was being retailed at £9 at a well known high street store.
The most common and the cheapest canisters in the UK contain 100% butane. Camping shops often sell gas with a mix of butane and propane or butane and isobutane for use at lower temperatures. More specialised fuels for use at even lower temperatures contain a mix of around 80% propane and 20% isobutane.
Many different combinations are marketed with differing purposes and advantages, some of them genuine. Outside of the “developed countries” the means by which the canisters are filled can result in large proportions of water being included (sometimes driven by profiteers, sometimes by poor technology) – you can’t burn the water.
If your stove has a pre-heater (a liquid-feed stove) it will work with liquefied gas and so will work in the lower temperatures with 100% butane, but will be a little easier to ignite with a small proportion of propane. If your stove has no pre-heater, you must use a fuel that is a gas at the atmospheric temperature (see table below).
Generally speaking, gas fuel for use at very cold temperatures (below -5°C) contains higher ratios of propane (70% or more) along with isobutane and little or no butane. Gas for use in UK cold temperatures (-5°C to 10°C) contains higher ratios of isobutane (up to 70%) along with some propane, but little butane; gas fuel for warmer temperatures contains an increasingly higher proportion of butane (70% or more) with less isobutane and propane.
All camping gases burn to produce carbon dioxide and water, with a little carbon monoxide and carbon in insufficient oxygen so they pose no environmental hazard.
Alcohol Stoves (aka spirit stoves)
Alcohol stoves are usually brass, open-topped burners into which the liquid alcohol is poured, with an outer enclosed tank with jets around the top. The fuel is ignited most easily with a match dipped into the surface of the fuel; as the burner and reservoir of fuel heat up, the alcohol evaporates at a faster rate and hot vapour flows through the jets and ignites.
Most alcohol stoves consist of a burner unit that sits in a surrounding pan support and windshield. Trangia is probably the most well known alcohol stove; the burner is incorporated as the central piece of a well designed modular stove. There are several much simpler stoves used by various armed forces, the most well-known one is used by the Swedish army.
Prices vary from £25 to £75 for good quality units.
A cheap and effective alcohol burner (penny stove) can be made from the bottom of two drinks cans (Coke, beer etc) and will work as well as the best burners however they are not especially durable nor as easily manageable and best not used in a tent.
All alcohol burners will produce unburned carbon (soot) so dirty pans are normal. If 8-10% water is added to meths or ethanol, the soot production is much reduced, but the heat output is also reduced so boil/cook times and fuel consumption increases.
For use inside a tent, alcohol stoves are second only to gas stoves and, as the air-to-fuel requirement of alcohol fuels is much lower than the gas fuels, they pose low, but not no risk of carbon monoxide/dioxide poisoning.
Alcohol stoves have two significant risks: the flame is not very visible, especially in bright light and the fuel is highly volatile so spillage (whether burning or not) is a significant fire risk. Inexperienced stove users would be wise to cook outside their tents.
The environmental impact of alcohol stoves is low-medium. Trangias and similar modular stoves support the burner so that it poses little or no damage to underlying vegetation/habitat, but those that rest on the ground will destroy the underlying vegetation/habitat to a significant depth if used for any length of time. Simply resting the burner on a flat rock will remove this impact. Alcohol fuels evaporate completely and pose no environmental threat in small quantities.
Trangias, Jetboil and similar systems are very popular as they combine elements of the cooking system in one compact unit, often with greater functionality and sometimes lower weight.
They all have advantages and limitations that are not necessarily obvious; for example, Jetboil systems have a high centre of gravity; Trangias are relatively heavy unless stripped down and/or cooking for a large group.
All fuels pose high risks if carried or used by incompetent, immature or inebriated people.
This document is not a training brief; we highly recommend getting trained or self-training to a level significantly above that which you might normally require so that you are able to deal with pretty much anything that happens whilst using a camping stove, especially as the worst scenarios can occur in remote locations just as easily as they can closer to medical assistance.
There are those who think that using a stove in a tent is not safe; consider that adventurers, explorers, mountaineers, expeditioners, etc. use stoves inside their tents for prolonged periods of time (days, weeks, months, months), and many will use them at high altitudes, in high winds, at extreme low and extreme high temperatures, and we can assume that, as they continue to do so without common incidents, they do so safely because they have sufficient knowledge, competence and/or quality of training.
Camping stoves are adequately safe to use in a tent by a competent, capable and knowledgeable person.
Carbon monoxide is generated by all stove fuels, mostly in small quantities. In some situations, and more so with some fuels, higher levels of this toxic gas are produced. The simple solution is to ventilate the cooking area so that the carbon monoxide dissipates and not to use the stove as a space heater (turn it off when not cooking/boiling).
Different fuels require different relative volumes of air for complete combustion; butane and isobutane require around 33 times the volume of air to burn, and propane requires around 25 times the volume of air compared with ethanol/meths at 15 times the volume of air and octane (Coleman Fuel?) at 62.5 times the volume of air.
Volume of air required for complete combustion
Some Respected Lightweight Stove Manufacturers
There are many others.
The question is: How long does it take to boil 500mls of water?
The answer is: It depends!
There are so many variables: Assuming you have a pan with a lid, then temperature, fuel, altitude, stove design, pan design, windshield and heat exchanger design all play a part.
As a general guide; alcohol stoves are slow, liquid-feed gas stoves are fastest down to about -5°C, pressurised petroleum using pure octane take time to prime but are the rockets in colder conditions.
Generally speaking, as you increase the fuel flow to speed up boiling, the more noise the stove makes and the less fuel-efficient your stove becomes. As with a vehicle, there’s a balance between fuel economy and performance that must be found by the user.
A decent time to boil 500ml of water in average UK conditions is 3-4 minutes; some stoves can boil 1 litre in that time.
What’s the Best Stove?
What Does the Author Use?
My go-to stove, if cooking for 1-3 people, is an MSR Windpro gas-fuelled remote-feed stove with a pre-heater, bought in the late 80s and still going strong with very little need for maintenance and never a single fault; with this model I can use any gas at any temperature that I’m likely to encounter. I usually use butane-propane or butane-isobutane gas mixes, and buy in bulk (12 canisters at a time). I also use a couple of adapters that allow me to use different gas canisters (CV/bayonet).
I also have a small and a large Trangia that I occasionally use, mostly for training others, although I use the large Trangia non-stick pans with the MSR Windpro for larger group cooking.
I have not yet found a need for a pressurised liquid stove in the UK: I may, one day.
I have a Lixada portable wood-gas stove and a Lixada folding miniature fire box wood stove which I use mostly for education and training, showing off, and especially for showing people how not to damage their environment with fire. I rarely cook on these as I have a gas stove.
Simon McElroy is an has been messing with fire for over 45 year and is still not dead.
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