When packing for an extended hiking trip, backpackers can choose to pack either a white gas or propane stove. Both will get your food cooked quickly, but the differences between white gas and propane stoves are many. Be sure to read through this guide to help you decide to help you decide if a propane stove is for you.
Propane backpacking stoves usually use butane, isobutane, and propane for fuel. This fuel is usually contained in a special canister that your camp stove will screw right into. The canister fittings are compatible with most available stoves, but there are a few stoves on the market that use proprietary canisters. Once a canister is out of fuel, you can simply throw it into your normal trash collection.
Ease Of Use
Unlike white gas stoves, a propane stove has very few moving parts. There are no valves, pumps, or pipes to care for or clean. To use your stove, you simply need to screw it onto the fuel canister, turn on the gas, and light a match. In a white gas stove, you need to connect your stove to the gas can, prime the stove, light a match, and wait for the gas to “turn on” the heating element. Periodically though cooking, you will need to pump the gas to maintain the needed pressure to run the stove. A propane stove does not have any of these issues.
Additionally, because propane stoves are usually just a two-piece set, care and maintenance is very simple and almost non-existence. Really, you just need to ensure that there is no blockage at the connection point between the fuel and stove. Since most propane stoves are so small, care should also be taken to keep any of the parts from being smashed.
Weight And Size
Propane stoves even when you add fuel canisters weigh quite a bit less than white gas stoves. In fact, some propane stoves are less than three ounces, which means you will have a lighter pack. Most propane stoves also fold up to be very compact and usually fit very nicely into your camping cookware.
Propane fuel burns clean and does not have an odor like white gas. If the propane container somehow leaks, the gas will just evaporate and no harm will be done to your or your gear.
Non-Existent Fuel Spills
Because propane fuel is contained within a pressurized container, there is no possibility of spillage either in your backpack or while you are setting up your cook area. The little canisters can withstand a lot of wear but should never be punctured.
Quick Strike Starters
A number of propane stoves have a switch that when pressed will emit a spark and light the stove. This essentially eliminates the need for a match (although it is still recommended in the case of a failure of this switch). The starter only lends to the ease of use the propane stove.
Disadvantages Of A Propane Stove
Performance In Cold Weather
Since propane is a gas in a pressurize container, it has a scientific tendency to contract during cold weather. There are a number of ways to mitigate these effects, but if you are winter camping, you should generally stay away from propane stoves.
Knowledge Of Remaining Fuel
With white gas being a liquid, you will always know how much fuel is left. However, with propane canisters, it is much more difficult to know how much gas is left. You can generally tell that a canister is empty or almost empty by its weight, and you can also shake the canister and listen for the propane inside. However, you can always tell when the container is empty when your stove no longer runs. Because of this, you should always carry at least one extra propane container with you.
Recyclability Of Fuel Containers
Until recently, propane containers could not be recycled at all because of the danger of explosion. Many places will accept your old containers, but they must be completely empty. Not every recycling center will accept these canisters, so be sure to ask before you try to recycle them.
More Expensive Fuel
While most propane containers only cost about six dollars, their cost per unit of energy can be up to ten times more than white gas. Both white gas and propane stoves can bring water to a boil in about the same period of time, but the propane stove just uses up more fuel to do so. If you are looking for the most efficient stove, one with propane is probably not the best for you.
Best Applications Of A Propane Stove
A propane stove is best used for shorter backpacking trips over a weekend, and they perform extremely well in warmer weather conditions between spring and fall. With their ease of use, propane stoves usually make cooking during these camping trips a breeze.
Personal Experiences With A Propane Stove
I currently own and use a MSR Featherlite IsoPro Stove. I have used it for five seasons and absolutely love it. It starts easily and always burns with a steady flame. Some of my hiking partners use white gas stoves, and my setup time with a propane stove is much, much quicker. By the time their stove maintains a consistent flame, I usually already have a pot of boiling water ready to be used for my next freeze-dried meal.
I have used the propane stove on numerous extended mountain trips in Colorado and took the stove on a ten-day backpacking trip on the Appalachian Trail. As long as I do not turn the stove onto high at every meal, the fuel conservation is generally very good. While hiking on the Appalachian Trail, I only used three full canisters and felt the fuel economy was very good.
As long as I am not winter camping, I would never consider anything other than my propane stove. It is just so much more simple and maintenance-free than its white gas counterpart.
Also be sure to read other helpful articles to help you get ready for your next backpacking adventure:
- Backpacking Stoves
- Liquid Fuel Stoves
- Backpacking Cookware
- Backpacking Backpacks
- Tents for Backpackers
- Camp Gear List (Part 1 - Shelter, Packing, and Food Prep)
- Camp Gear List (Part 2 - Clothing, Guides, First Aide, and Toiletries)
- Cameras for Hiking