Whether you’re a survivalist, camper, or an off-grid enthusiast, we can all agree that camping outside presents some unique challenges. Choosing the right cooking stove is based on a lot of factors that can change on a dime, depending on how mother nature is feeling that day.
The market is inundated with products from all over the world that run off of various fuel types, all with different cooking capabilities. To decide which stove is best, you have to understand the type of situation you will be cooking in.
Things to Consider Before Buying a Portable Stove
Cooking in an off-grid environment is a much different experience than simply turning on your stove at home and heating some food. For example, precipitation can mean the difference between having an outdoor kitchen and a miserable time.
While that is one factor to be aware of, it’s wise to turn your thoughts towards actually using the stove outdoors and envision what you would need. It might even involve doing some cooking in your backyard to see how your stove handles a variety of conditions.
This is the primary reason that cookstoves can fail in an off-grid setting. Using a woodstove can be difficult in the rain if the wood is wet. Alternatively, some types of fuels will not combust below certain temperatures, causing the stove to be useless when you may need it most.
Spend some time learning about the area that you’ll be cooking in. What are the seasonal temperatures there? Will it be rainy or snowy when you go? If you have trouble sourcing the information, try joining off-grid groups on social media platforms and start interacting with folks who are doing it every day.
Elevation can mess with you in a couple of ways. Firstly, water takes longer to boil at high elevations, which means you might be using more fuel to achieve the same amount of cooking.
Secondly, fuels such as butane and isobutane mixes do not work well at higher altitudes. Due to the reduced oxygen, it is difficult for the fuel to vaporize. For it to start, you need a valve that releases more butane (which doesn’t work for fuel efficiency).
Available Resources for Fuel
Cooking fuel can only get you so far. For a small canister of butane, you can get about 2-4 days, depending on what you’re using it for.
If you use propane, then a 16-oz canister lasts up to 2 days based on the efficiency of your stove. The problem in this situation is when the fuel runs out, you can’t exactly go to the store and purchase more.
Portable wood stoves are an option to look at as the fuel can be scavenged from the woods around you. Of course, in inclement weather, you may have a problem finding dry wood, but it’s better than having no fuel.
How you get to your location will determine the maximum weight you can take with you. Lighter stoves that use liquid fuel are great options for traveling since they can pack up easier.
If you’re using a wood stove, however, the weight can be up to 30 lbs with stainless steel options. Titanium is a lightweight material that can cost up to three times the amount you would get with a stainless steel option. These are great stoves if you are using something to haul a sled such as a snowmobile or quad.
Cost vs. Functionality
Some portable stoves on the market are expensive solely because they are created by a reputable brand, but in truth, they don’t perform much better than some of the less expensive products.
Having a stove that provides multiple functions will be the determining factor for most outdoor enthusiasts. A good example of this can be found in portable stoves that burn more than one type of fuel, as is the case with petroleum-based fuels such as gasoline or white gas.
Portable wood stoves provide heat and the ability to cook, making them an excellent choice for colder climates and areas with damp, wet weather. Of course, the higher the grade of the material, the more it’ll cost out of your pocket. The key lies in finding the balance between the two factors to get the best bang for your buck.
Amount of People To Feed
There is nothing worse than having a one-burner fuel stove and a group of 5-6 people to feed. It might work if you’re cooking a single dish, but any more than that and you’ll encounter a bottleneck.
It is not uncommon to find a stove with multiple burners with manufacturers using innovative ways to make the entire package as small as possible. Alternatively, if people bring multiple stoves, then you will need to bring additional fuel. You’ll have to decide what works best for your group.
The Different Types of Portable Off-Grid Stoves
When it’s time to get yourself a portable off-grid stove, you’ll need to know the advantages and disadvantages of each.
Out of all the tips you could learn, the best one is to bring multiple types of stoves (at least two). The adage “have a backup for everything” is valid in this situation. Where one stove won’t work, the other more than likely will.
Keep in mind that there are three basic categories of stoves: canisters (propane/butane), liquid gas, and wood. There are even stoves that can use multiple types of fuel.
Propane Camp Stoves
Propane camp stoves are the classic piece of gear to bring with you on a camping trip. When people talk about two-burner stoves, this is what they are referencing. Propane is easy enough to come by and inexpensive, making it a great option for fuel.
If you’re going to do off-grid cooking, then a propane stove will work in pretty much any condition, even down to negative temperatures. You can get a one-pound tank for easy traveling, but if you can haul in a 20-pound tank then you have many days of cooking fuel available.
- Lightweight for what you get
- Inexpensive and readily available in store
- Works in most environments
- Wet heat as opposed to dry wood heat
- Should be used outside
- Can’t find an accessible fuel source in the wilderness
Canister stoves are used for backpacking and hiking stoves. They are generally powered by butane or isobutane (4-season blends) canisters. Use this stove if you want an efficient way to cook light meals or boil some water.
The stove design itself is small and packable since they generally come as one-piece devices. The canisters come in 8-16 ounce sizes that can be stored inside a backpack easily. All you have to do is screw the stove onto the top of the canister and you’re ready to ignite.
The problem with these stoves is that they stop working in freezing temperatures as the butane can’t ignite as easily. They can also struggle at higher altitudes if the fuel can’t vaporize properly with enough oxygen.
You can get another type of canister stove that uses liquid butane cans or “cartridges”. These are larger stoves where the canisters fit into a slot that connects to a single burner. Use these stoves if you want a lightweight fuel source with a small to medium-sized stove that works in temperate climates where the weather doesn’t get too cold.
- Inexpensive and efficient fuel
- Lightweight stoves
- Easy to use for quick cooking
- Stoves can be expensive
- Butane doesn’t work in cold weather or high altitudes
- Non-renewable source off-grid
Liquid Petroleum/Gas Fuel Stoves
Liquid fuel stoves are excellent choices for cold weather off-grid camping because of their ability to work, even in frigid temperatures. These stoves are unique in that many of them can use multiple types of fuel, opening up your choices as to what you can use.
Expect to get a lot of power out of these stoves since this kind of fuel can pack a lot of punch. If you’re looking to cook a meal for a large group of people off-grid, then looking for these kinds of stoves is in your best interest.
These are great examples of hybrid stoves that can support several different fuels. Each of the fuel types has its advantages, which can help in a variety of different climate and environmental situations. Here are the most common liquid fuel types.
Gasoline from the pump can be used to fuel your stove in the wilderness. However, use it only as a last resort. Gasoline has additives that help it run better in a car, but these same chemicals will harm your stove and potentially wreck any seals or lines. This type of fuel doesn’t burn very cleanly, so you might notice some dark buildup on whatever pot or pan that’s on it.
Most gasoline has up to 25% ethanol added which, while fine for the stove, may start to corrode the fuel canister that you have since it reacts with aluminum. Often people will pass on this option unless they don’t have any other of the applicable fuels available.
White gas is also called Naptha and is the best fuel for long trips in the winter months or just a few days during the summer. White gas is effectively 100% light hydrotreated distillate, and it runs incredibly well on all pressurized liquid units.
Not only does it burn cleaner, saving your stove, but it also can work well at low temperatures. This is the most common type of fuel used in liquid gas stoves.
Coleman sells white gas called “Coleman fuel” and MSR offers their brand named SuperFuel which is more refined so that it burns cleaner. It is also free of any additives, which means your stove will have a longer life as the seals and gaskets will not be as affected.
Kerosene and Paraffin are essentially the same thing, just named differently depending on the country. It’s a liquid fuel derived from petroleum. It has been used for many things, including lighting, heating, and cooking. The draw with these stoves is that they are economical and easy to come across.
Use these kinds of stoves if you are in a cabin or shelter since they can be used to cook inside with relative safety. Of course, spilling kerosene is not good as it takes a long time to evaporate and can easily ignite with a small spark.
You’ll find that you need to prime your stoves first, filling the line or bowl with fuel before it will light. While they can be a bit finicky, once they’ve started, they will be loud and powerful.
- Multi-fuel system gives you lots of options
- Stoves are lightweight and powerful
- Inexpensive depending on the brand
- Stoves require priming
- Fuel is easily spilled
- Can be highly flammable or even explosive around an open flame
Solid Fuel Stoves
Solid fuel stoves have been used by the military and off-grid enthusiasts since the 1930s as an alternative to high-powered liquid fuels. They are simple metal stoves that provide a wind cover and a spot to throw in a solid fuel tablet.
It’s great for a quick setup and tear-down situation, but not great for cooking for large groups. As a backup option, you could easily store this away in your pack for an emergency.
Solid fuel comes in three general varieties, Esbit, hexamine tablets, and trioxane (used in the military). The chemical inside is hexamethylenetetramine, and it burns pretty clean. It burns so clean that you can barely see the flame as it displays a faint blue outline.
These stoves, while portable and able to work in almost any weather condition, have little heat output and can’t do much more than boil water and cook light fare. Solid fuel tablets are much harder to find in smaller towns, and you’ll find them quite expensive for what you get.
- Lightweight fuel and stove option
- Can be lit in most conditions
- Incredibly simple to use
- Solid fuel is expensive
- Minimal heat control
- Can leave a brown residue on cookware
Portable wood stoves are a popular choice amongst outdoor enthusiasts from across the spectrum, including campers and off-grid folks. Wood stoves come in a variety of sizes, materials, and designs that can suit almost any situation. Most people think of a wood stove as something large that needs to be brought in by multiple people or an ATV.
You’ll be happy to know there are a variety of portable wood stoves on the market that can be carried in by hiking, the Solo Stove Mesa being a great example of portability and efficiency. Using them is simple. Just find some dry wood and tinder and these stoves will light up with no issue.
Cooking on a wood stove can be more efficient as the dry, intense heat can speed up the cooking process. Additionally, the stove provides warmth if you’re cooking at lower temperatures. The downside is that if you have a large flame then you can burn your food, in such a case, it might be best to manage the fuel input so that there are more coals than flame.
- Provides hot, dry heat
- Fuel is free and plentiful
- Durable and long-lasting
- Can get very dirty from extended use
- The fuel needs to be dry and seasoned
- Can be too hot in the warmer months
Hardcore campers will tell you that they swear by their alcohol stoves. Not only do they burn hot, but the fuel is readily available and can fit any budget. You can use them in the winter with the effect you would have in the winter.
If you’re wondering why it’s not the perfect stove, well, there is no temperature control. This alone makes it effective for crude cooking such as boiling water or stews, rather than creating a gourmet dinner for four.
Fuel for these stoves is easy to come by in the United States since all you need is denatured alcohol. It burns the hottest, displaying an almost invisible flame. You can use 70% isopropyl alcohol but it won’t burn as hot and produces a large orange flame that is unwieldy.
Sterno is a company that makes portable stoves and gel canisters that are simply lit and left to burn. Much like alcohol stoves, Sterno canned heat burns clean and will provide heat for up to 2 hours. Included is a lid that you can put back on to extinguish the flame, allowing for reusability.
This is a great idea as a last-ditch effort if everything else fails. Warming up food and boiling water for the pasta is perfect for Sterno canned heat.
Tips On Choosing The Right Stove
So many choices can hinder the decision-making process or cause you to make the wrong choice for your situation. Here are some pointers to help you choose the right stove for portable off-grid cooking.
Camping vs. Backpacking Options
Camping options such as propane stoves and liquid gas stoves will always be bigger, clunkier, and require more fuel to run. The upside is that you can cook a lot more with them, and a lot of different foods as well. Backpacking options are great if you want to boil some water or cook soup for dinner after traveling long distances.
Quality of Life Features
A lot of innovation goes into any camping stove and because of that, a lot of interesting features have hit the market. Quality of life features are additional functions that your stove provides that improve the overall experience of the device.
Some of these functions can include things like:
- Mechanisms to adjust the intensity of the flame
- Wind guards to protect the flame
- Safety features such as an automatic shutoff in case of low oxygen or being knocked over
These features aren’t necessary, but higher-quality products will have some or all of these items ticked off the list, making them a good indicator of time and craftsmanship.
Picking at least two of these options is a good start to your stove collection. That way if one type of stove can’t be used, you can switch to the other one. Stoves with multiple fuel types are your best bet for cold-weather camping and extended trips.
If you’re backpacking then maybe a hiking stove will be the best option since it’s portable and the fuel is light. Consider an alcohol stove if you’re on a budget and just need to boil some water.
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