Anyone planning for that next overland adventure needs to consider a wide array of logistics: how to get there, where to sleep, what to do, and especially what to cook. Afterall, what’s a camping trip without delicious food!? But before you can cook anything, you need something to cook with.
What works better: camp stove liquid fuel or propane? When planning for adventures spanning multiple days, liquid fuel camp stoves work better. They offer more control and stability. Propane stoves are better when space or weight is a concern, but aren’t as good for cooking large meals or at higher elevations.
There may be situations in which both types of fuel are necessary for your camping trip, like if you park your car for a long hike, when the liquid may be ditched for propane. Each offers its own unique qualities and benefits, so it’s important to know what each can do before making a final decision.
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How Liquid Fuel Stoves Work
Liquid fuel stoves are a staple of many camp cooks’ arsenals. The setup isn’t complicated, but there’s a little more involved compared to propane stoves.
Liquid camp stoves are fueled by a pressurized canister of liquid gas. These stoves can run a variety of different fuels, but they most often utilize white gas. A pump handle at the end of the canister allows the user to apply additional pressure to the liquid fuel regardless of altitude, temperature, or wind, making them ideal for rugged conditions.
There are three parts to a liquid stove system:
- Base – The cooking surface for your pots and pans and where the heat is directed.
- Liquid gas canister – The fuel tank. This will have a threaded head that allows the user to swap canisters in and out as needed.
- Connector system – A small hose that connects the stove to the fuel canister. It usually has a valve for regulating the flow and a pump to pressurize the fuel.
Once all the parts are in place and the canister and pressurized hose are securely connected, here’s how to get your stove up and running:
- Pressurize the canister – Pump the handle several times to make sure that the liquid fuel is pressurized and ready to be ignited. Don’t over pressurize! Read the manufacturer’s suggestions to find the optimal number of pumps.
- Open the valve – Once some pressure has been applied to the liquid, open the valve at the top of the connector system to allow the fuel to flow to the stove. Turn the small knob at the top of the connector counterclockwise to increase the flow of the pressurized fuel. You’ll notice a low “whisper” as you do this.
- Look for pooling at the stove base – As you may expect with a “liquid” fuel stove, the bottom of the stove should get wet, and a small puddle of propane should puddle around its base, providing the necessary fuel for ignition.
- Check the surroundings – Look above and around you to make sure there aren’t any fire hazards or flammable materials. While liquid fuel camp stoves are designed to control flames, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. Don’t start a forest fire!
- Light the stove – Once you’re sure everything around you is clear, light a flame—either a match or lighter—and introduce it to the puddled fuel at the base of the stove. You shouldn’t have to bring the fire all the way to the puddle, as a small flame should ignite once it gets within several inches of the stove’s base.
- Wait for the thin blue ring – The flame at the base of the stove will eventually cover the stove’s surface, heating all of the accompanying elements as the liquid fuel converts into a gas. After some time (likely a few seconds, possibly longer), there will be a thin blue ring around the stove’s surface, indicating it’s ready to cook.
- Monitor the flame – While your food is cooking, keep an eye on the fire. If you notice the blue flame petering out, pump the canister a couple times to increase pressure and the flow of fuel to the stove base.
As mentioned, these liquid fuel camp stoves very closely mirror the abilities of a regular kitchen stove and are ideal for campers trying to cook large, diverse meals for multiple people. If closely monitored and the fuel properly pressurized, they can provide a hot cook surface for hours on end.
How Propane Stoves Work
Most propane stoves are small, foldable mounts with a threaded end that can be screwed into a propane canister. The threaded end is important because it allows for the easy swapping of canisters and gives the stove compatibility with several different propane sources.
Here’s how you set up your propane camp stove:
- Find a cooking location – For some propane stoves, the propane canister itself will provide the base, so make sure it’s on a level surface.
- Mount the stove head – Make sure the threads are clear of dirt, dust, and debris. Screw the stove into the propane canister until it is seated nice and snug.
- Unfold the support legs – There will be three small legs folded on the head of your stove. Pop them out to provide support for the cooking surface.
- Open the valve – At the base of the stove head, just above the propane canister, there will be a valve that looks a bit like a car key sticking out of an ignition. Turn this “key” to open the valve. This will allow propane to flow from the canister to the head of the stove.
- Check the area – Look above and around the stove area to make sure there’s nothing flammable or potentially hazardous. Like liquid fuel camp stoves, propane canister stoves are designed to control flames, but you need to be extra cautious before lighting just in case.
- Light the stove. Unlike with the liquid fuel camp stove, you won’t notice any puddling, as the propane is a clear gas. Simply light your flame and bring it toward the stove head. A small blue fire will erupt at the cook surface’s base.
- Monitor the flame. If the blue flame produced upon the first light is not hot enough, you can open the valve further to allow more propane to flow. The bigger the flame, the hotter cooking surface.
This is a very quick and straightforward method of setting up a camp stove. Propane stoves don’t have as many pieces compared to liquid fuel camp stoves. They can produce a hot cook surface in a matter of seconds, making them ideal for overlanders who need to heat up a smaller meal on the go quickly.
When Are Liquid Camp Stoves Better?
As mentioned, it’s essential to know when and what kind of cooking you will be doing when selecting your camp stove. Here are a few scenarios in which a liquid fuel camp stove will be the best choice:
- When cooking large portions – If you need to heat large pans or boil large pots of water, liquid camp stoves are the way to go. It’s not a matter of heat as much as it is a matter of stability. As the stove itself is the base, it’s lower to the ground, meaning it’ll be able to support larger cookware without the threat of sliding off the burner or getting upset by small forces.
- Long trips – When you’re going to set up camp in the same spot for an extended period, you’ll want a liquid stove. This type of camping stove most closely mirrors a traditional kitchen stove and will allow you to cook the wide variety of meals you’ll want throughout the trip.
- High altitudes, cold temperatures, and/or remote locations – Propane canisters can sometimes underperform in low temperatures. The pressurized liquid helps combat these issues, which makes the liquid camp stove a better choice when camping in extreme locations.
The important thing to remember with liquid camp stoves is that any time you feel like the stove is losing temperature or starting to burn out—whether it be due to wind, altitude, etc.—simply pump more pressure into the canister and send more fuel to the heating source. This ensures that the stove performs well in any situation.
Downsides to Liquid Fuel Camp Stoves
Despite being a staple for campers who plan to camp for extended periods and/or cooking for multiple people, there are some limitations to a liquid fuel camp stove:
- Heavier and more difficult to transport – While not terribly heavy, liquid fuel camp stoves are more difficult to transport than propane camp stoves. You need to make sure the pump, valves, and high-pressure hose aren’t damaged during transport. This can be tough on overlanding trips over rugged terrain.
- Require more maintenance – Since the cooking base for a liquid fuel camp stove is larger, there’s more surface area to maintain. You need to clean all components regularly so no charry build-up affects the performance of the stove.
- More expensive – While neither liquid fuel or propane camp stoves are overly expensive, you can count on spending at least $100 for a liquid fuel model. Some smaller propane options can be bought for a fraction of the cost.
If you’re a solo adventurer or prefer a more lightweight cooking option, a liquid camp stove might not be the right choice for you.
When Are Propane Camp Stoves Better?
Although liquid camp stoves work better for more substantial meals and longer camping trips, there are some scenarios in which propane stoves will be the better option:
- Small, solo cooking – If you need to boil a small cup of water for an individual meal or to make a cup of coffee, a propane stove will be preferable. Liquid fuel camp stoves have too large a surface area for a small container to rest on and would be inefficient for trying to heat smaller meals.
- When cooking in a hurry – While a liquid gas camp stove is better for cooking a full-course camp meal, a propane camp stove can be great for cooking something in a hurry. Think of it almost like a microwave for the outdoors that’s perfect for heating leftovers or boiling water in a ceramic cup.
- When backpacking – Propane camp stoves are lighter and more convenient to carry, so while you may have left your liquid gas back with your vehicle, it can be easy to take your propane stove with you for hiking expeditions.
While propane stoves still offer a lot of utility and should definitely be considered as a secondary cooking surface for overland adventures, you may not want to rely on them if you plan on being away for a long time or have multiple people with you on your trip.
Downsides to Propane Camp Stoves
Propane camp stoves offer premium convenience, but they do have some drawbacks that should be considered before purchase:
- Less effective in the elements – While propane canisters do well enough in cold temperatures, extreme cold, high winds, and high altitude can cause the flame to die out. As such, you’ll need to pay very close attention when cooking in these conditions and might have to relight the stove more often. In some cases, it may not light at all.
- Less control over cooking temperature – While the temperature of liquid fuel camp stoves can be adjusted by introducing various pressures of liquid at different flow rates, there isn’t much that can be done with propane canisters. Once the valve is all the way open, there aren’t many ways to increase the cooking temperature.
- Less stable – The smaller canister and foldable stove head might make propane stoves convenient to transport, but they’re also more likely to tip over in the wind or when using larger pans. Therefore, they must be closely monitored throughout the cooking process.
Propane stoves are best used for small, lightweight expeditions when you don’t need to cook large meals. Be sure to think about where you’re going. Propane stoves don’t work well in cold or high-altitude conditions.
Best Practices When Cooking with Camp Stoves
While it’s generally believed that liquid fuel camp stoves are a better option for overlanders, there is definitely room for both when planning your camping trip.
Regardless of the model you are using, some common actions should be practiced:
- Make sure that you have plenty of matches or a lighter before going on your trip
- Always have a backup canister of whichever fuel source you intend to employ.
- Ensure you appropriately sized cookware to suit your cooking surface.
- Search for a level surface to do your cooking. Ideally, you want to cook on a flat piece of stone or any other nonflammable material. Avoid cooking on surfaces heavily covered with leaves or pine needles, when at all possible.
- Be aware of any fire hazards that might introduce themselves during the cooking process, such as low hanging or heavily shedding trees and/or bushes.
Consider your camping needs and choose the cooking option that best suits your overlanding style. Either way, you’ll be able to enjoy some delicious meals around the campfire.