There are so many factors that go into choosing the right camping stove. How many people are you cooking for? Do you like to make intricate meals? How far will you have to shuttle your gear from car to campground? To help you decide, below we break down the main considerations that go into picking the best camping stove, including the differences between freestanding and tabletop models, choosing the right number of BTUs, outlining the various fuel types, and more. And for a look at our top picks, see our article on the best camping stoves.
The first order of business is nailing down the right stove style for you, and there are two main types: freestanding models with legs and more portable tabletop designs. Freestanding stoves are larger, heavier, feature two or three burners, and generally have more BTUs (more on those below) than tabletop units, and make sense for large groups or those who need a lot of power and cooking space. Another benefit to freestanding models is that they can be set up just about anywhere—no need to hunt for a flat surface at camp or take up valuable food-prep space with your stove.
Tabletop designs, on the other hand, function just as their name implies: prop them up on a picnic table or bench and you’re ready to start cooking. Given the lack of legs, tabletop stoves are much smaller, more compact, and more portable than freestanding models. With these units, you’ll need to make sure you have a sturdy surface for cooking—if not, consider bringing along a separate camping table. The differences in performance can be quite minimal between high-end tabletop designs and larger freestanding stoves, but you can generally expect fewer burners, lower output (fewer BTUs), and less cooking space if you go the tabletop route.
2. Choose the Number of Burners
Next up is choosing how many burners you need. Two burners is the standard among both freestanding and tabletop camping stoves, and for good reason. After all, how often do you need to use more than two burners at once when cooking at home? Popular models like the Coleman Triton and Camp Chef Everest excel at everything from weekend trips for couples to week-long campouts with a family of six. In most instances, a two-burner stove can be your Swiss Army Knife solution.
That being said, a case can be made for selecting a one-burner stove. Single-burner designs like the Coleman Butane Instastart and MSR WindBurner Stove Combo System work well for one-pot or dehydrated meals on quick trips with one to three people. In addition, they take up less space and bulk, and are significantly lighter than the two-burner competition. Of course, cooking space is very limited and you won’t be whipping up five-course meals, but one-burner stoves are generally very portable and some options like the MSR WindBurner kit can cross over decently well for backpacking.
If you're planning to take the camp chef role seriously and anticipate consistently cooking for large groups of approximately seven people or more, it’s worth looking into three-burner stoves like Camp Chef’s Tahoe and Expedition 3X models. Their large footprints and powerful burners put them almost in a class of their own. Alternatively, you can choose a stove system that can be linked together to increase cooking space. For instance, models like the Jetboil Genesis Basecamp System and Eureka Gonzo Grill Cook System can be daisy-chained to other Jetboil or Eureka stoves and connected to a single propane bottle. For those that are concerned about packed size and portability—and are willing to pay for the privilege—these add-on set-ups can make a lot of sense. In the end, the number of burners you need comes down to a combination of personal preference, how intricate your meals are, and how many campers you need to feed.
A final and often-overlooked consideration when discussing burners is space. A generous cooking footprint will allow you to place two large-diameter items side-by-side—such as a 12-inch cast iron skillet and cookpot for spaghetti. Compact models can still squeeze in two 10-inch pans, but you can run out of real estate cooking a large meal. Before buying, we recommend looking closely at each stove’s specifications to ensure you have enough room for your cookware.
In a camping stove search, BTUs will be front and center as one of the more heavily advertised specifications. But what to does it actually mean? Short for British Thermal Unit, BTUs measure the amount of energy needed to heat 1 pound of water by 1 degree Fahrenheit. As such, this number is essential for understanding how much power a given stove can produce. In other words, all else being equal, a burner with more BTUs will be able to pump out more heat than a burner with fewer. There are other factors that can impact stoves’ performance potential—including overall design, burner size, wind resistance, etc.—but we can think of BTUs as an accurate indicator of power and a good point of comparison between different models.
How many BTUs you need depends on what you’ll be cooking and for how many (Camp Chef published a helpful graphic on the topic here). In short, a boost in power will allow you to cook more food faster, which is great for large groups or those making involved meals with multiple courses or parts. For these uses, we recommend a BTU output of at least 20,000 per burner. Smaller groups of less than four or those who don’t need the added power can get away with 10,000 BTUs per burner or less, although the time required to boil water or cook will likely increase. All that said, extra output (more BTUs) also means you’ll burn through fuel faster, which will require planning ahead and bringing along an extra canister or two in case you run out.
The vast majority of camping stoves run on propane: the fuel performs well in a range of temperatures, lights instantly, and the little green bottles are readily available at just about any outdoors or big-box retail store, as well as many gas stations near campgrounds. For most weekend outings, one 16-ounce bottle should suffice, but we highly recommend bringing along a backup or two in case you run out of fuel. For even more convenience without having to restock as often, the classic 5-gallon tank (also referred to as a 20-pound tank) is a tried-and-true choice. They’re fairly easy to secure in the back of a pickup bed, more cost-effective than small bottles in the long run, refillable in just about every town, and will last you many meals. To accommodate these, you’ll likely need to purchase an adapter and hose (like this one) that connect to your stove, but they’re relatively cheap and a good investment if you do a lot of camping.
All that said, propane does start to suffer in temperatures below freezing. If you plan to camp in winter or the high mountains, a liquid-fuel stove is the better option. Liquid fuel can come in the form of unleaded gasoline that you can find at any gas station, clean white gas from camping stores, kerosene, jet fuel, or even diesel. White gas is one of the best choices for camping in extreme conditions, but there aren’t a whole lot of options in a full-size camping stove style (one exception is a multifuel stove like the Coleman Dual Fuel, which runs on either white gas or unleaded gasoline). Further, liquid-fuel stoves tend to cost more than propane systems and don’t offer any performance benefits in mild conditions. But if you exclusively camp in the winter, a liquid-fuel stove will be much more reliable than one that runs on propane.
A final type of fuel is one you might already have at camp: wood. Wood-burning stoves have gained popularity in recent years due to their convenience—simply collect twigs and sticks at camp and you’re ready to start cooking. However, these systems have more limited flame and heat control compared to other models, are restricted during fire bans, and rely on a resource that might not be readily available depending on the terrain and weather. All in all, we recommend propane for the vast majority of campers—it’s the most foolproof and reliable option by far—but liquid-fuel and wood alternatives can be viable depending on factors like the temperature and campsite location.
5. Important Features: Wind Resistance and Simmer Control
Regardless of where you’re camping, wind can be a major meal-killer. If your stove isn’t protected on even a moderately gusty day, it’ll be difficult to get consistent power to cook your food evenly and efficiently (and strong gusts can put the flame out completely). To help, look for stoves that come equipped with wind shields along three sides to protect the burner. That said, if your ideal stove doesn’t come with built-in protection, it’s easy to improvise a makeshift barrier, or you can purchase one separately. To be sure, wind screens aren’t a cure-all—strong gusts can often whip around unpredictably in every direction—but combined with a decent camp set-up in a protected area, you should be able to get a relatively stable flame.
Another important feature to consider is simmering ability. Boiling water quickly at high heat is important, but most meals aren’t cooked that way. For foods that require a little more finesse (think sauces and soups), you’ll want to make sure your stove has effective simmer control, or the ability to provide even heat and precise flame control at a low setting. Good simmer performance isn’t something found on a spec sheet, but high-end models will typically perform better in these conditions. For example, the Camp Chef Everest ($148) has excellent simmer control, while budget stoves like the Coleman Classic ($44) struggle. Having a good windscreen will also help keep the flame lit if you’re running the heat on low. The main takeaway: if you’re willing to spend up, your camp stove can perform almost as well as your cooktop at home.
6. Is Push-Button Ignition Worth It?
As you narrow your search, you can start getting into some of the nitty-gritty features like optional push-button ignition (you’ll also see them referred to as piezo igniters). The majority of entry-level models have manual ignition, which requires you to turn on the gas and get close enough to the burner with a match or lighter for the flame to catch. Piezo igniters, on the other hand, use pressure-based ignition, allowing you to light your stove with the push of a button (or twist of a knob) and keep your hands out of harm’s way. It all sounds great on paper, but piezo igniters do come at an extra cost of about $20 and can fail over time (we always bring along a backup set of matches or lighter). If you’re weighing both options, think through whether or not you’re willing to spend up for the added convenience.
7. Do Weight and Size Matter to You?
When car camping or even base camping, weight and bulk matter a lot less than when we’re hauling gear miles into the backcountry. Therefore, it often isn’t a critical consideration for most campers, but it’s nevertheless another factor to think about when buying your first stove. In the end, you should look for a unit that will be manageable to cart to and from camp and that also suits your cooking preferences. For example, the Camp Chef Everest weighs a reasonable 12 pounds and folds down easily but still performs on par with many larger and heavier freestanding units. The freestanding Camp Chef Tahoe, on the other hand, features impressive cooking power with three 30,000-BTU burners and is great for large groups, but the unit weighs a whopping 43 pounds and is a pain to lug around. Depending on your needs and where you’ll be camping, this may or may not be worth the effort.
8. Hybrids and Accessory Tops
By and large, most campers will go with a traditional camping stove cook surface: two burners with a grate overtop. However, for those who want to cook meals like bacon and eggs, pizza, or barbecued meat, there are a healthy number of specialty cooktops on the market. Hybrids like the Camp Chef Rainier are relatively versatile—in this case, you get two burners and an aluminum grill and griddle all in one (but keep in mind that the grill takes up about 2/3 of the cooking space). Alternatively, models like the Camp Chef Explorer allow you to swap out or add on accessories like a barbeque box, pizza oven, or griddle. In the end, just like when cooking at home, burners are the norm for most campers and can handle the vast majority of meals. Our preference is to use a separate griddle plate so that we still have access to two burners when needed, but the ability to switch cooking surfaces undoubtedly is a nice perk.
9. Camping vs. Backpacking Stoves
If you already own a backpacking stove or are thinking about picking one up to use for both camping and backcountry trips, there are some important points to consider. Compared to camping-specific models, backpacking stoves are less stable, much smaller with only a single burner, don’t simmer as well, and are designed primarily for boiling water (often in a small pot or pan, but nothing more). Camping stoves, as we touched on above, are heavier, larger, more hardwearing, and often awkward to carry, but are similar to your cooktop at home and allow you to make more intricate meals. To be sure, backpacking stoves are serviceable for quick car camping trips with one to two people, but they don’t offer the same versatility and severely limit the types of foods you can cook.
See Our Top Camping Stove Picks