Cooking in the outdoors is part of the fun of camping. Whether you’re car camping with a group, or back country camping with a friend, today’s campers have many choices when it comes to camp fuel. The best choice for camp fuel is based on the type of camping you are doing, the type of cooking you like to do, and consideration should be taken into the cookware you use and any other appliances which may require the fuel.
Car camping usually involves a family or group who just want to get away and enjoy nature. Since the vehicle is on site, or at least parked nearby, you have the luxury of packing more conveniences for your stay outdoors. This means you can afford the space to pack a multi burner stove or BBQ. The two main fuels for camp stoves are naphtha gas and liquid propane.
Naphtha gas (also called white gas or Coleman fuel) is a liquid petroleum based fuel, available in a variety of grades, and is transported in a non pressurized container. Stoves that run on naphtha gas usually have a removable tank or reservoir. It is recommended that the fuel be poured through a funnel filter while filing up the reservoir. Once filled, the reservoir’s hand pump is used to pressurize the tank in order to deliver the fuel to the burner. Naphtha gas is relatively easy to find (most outdoors stores, and outpost stores will carry it), and there are other appliances such as mantle lanterns that use naphtha gas. The major complaints we have in using naphtha gas is the probability of spilling while refueling a tank, and the inconvenience of pressurizing the tank before use.
Liquid propane has become a popular choice for camp fuel. There are now many appliances available that run on LP including stoves, grills, lanterns, catalytic heaters, coffee makers, camp ovens, water heaters, electrical generators and more. Propane can be purchased in single use 16oz containers, or refillable 5, 10, 20, 30 (and higher) pound containers. I highly recommend against using the single use containers, as they are not meant to be refilled and are made with valves that are prone to leaking over time (often after first use). Besides the danger of propane leaking in your trunk, they cannot be disposed of in the regular garbage, and require special hazardous materials disposal, along with a disposal fee. The provincial parks system in Ontario has been faced with the problem of disposing of these 16oz containers that campers leave behind. Ontario parks have wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars in disposal fees for these cylinders; dollars which should have gone to park upgrades, habitat restoration, nature education or conservation projects.
To do our part, we purchased a small 5 lb refillable propane tank for car camping with the family. Additionally, we purchased a propane distribution tree, and rubber supply hoses to connect multiple appliances to our single fuel source. The 5 lb tank will last us several days of use, and we feel good knowing we’re not contributing to a problem of hazardous waste in the parks where we enjoy nature.
When camping in the back country, you will not be carrying a large multi burner stove or grill in your pack and it is obviously not feasible to lug a large and heavy fuel tank with you. Therefore, large containers of naphtha, and propane tanks will not cut it for camping away from your car.
There are single burner stoves made for back country camping, portaging, and hiking trips that are compact, light weight, wind resistant, and designed to maximize fuel savings. These special stoves usually run on a high grade of white gas (high performance naphtha gas), kerosene, diesel, or on a mixture of butane/propane in a canister. These fuel grades and mixtures will perform well at high altitudes and in wet or windy weather; however, the performance is also dependent on stove design. The stoves have small external fuel reservoirs that fit easily into a backpack, and either connects to the stove directly, or by a supply line, depending on the model. This helps make back country cooking a little easier by having a small portable stove that fits into a cooking pot for transport, and the option of selecting the size of fuel canister appropriate for the trip.
No discussion of camp fuels would be complete without talking about wood. Cooking over a wood fire is as ancient as it gets. Car camping sites usually have an iron or stone fire pit right on site, and a fire ring made of dry rocks can be easily assembled in the back country. Whether you’re roasting marshmallows with the kids, preparing a fish-fry shore lunch, roasting birds or other game, baking pizza on a stone, or cooking chili in a Dutch Oven, cooking over a wood fire is a great experience.
If you’re new to cooking over a wood fire, I highly recommend trying it but there are a few things to consider. First, it is your responsibility to check with local authorities to see if there is a fire ban in effect. You should also pay attention to the weather conditions, and your surroundings because starting a fire when it’s windy out, or if you’re surrounded by dry grass or orange pine needles on the ground, lighting a fire is not a wise decision. Many forest fires have been started by individuals not heeding local warnings, only to find a gust of wind blew embers 20 yards away and ignited an uncontrollable fire. To be safe, you should also have a bucket of water close by so that if the conditions do change, you are prepared to take the first steps to controlling the fire.
Depending on the food, cooking over hot coals is far better than cooking over a roaring flame. Coals offer more even heat distribution, and won’t cover your cookware in black soot, or set your roasting food on fire. If you can afford the pack space, cooking over a fire using an adjustable grill will make the experience easier and more enjoyable.
There are a wide variety of fuels used in camp cooking. Whether you’re new to camping and are researching the right equipment to buy, or you’re a seasoned camper looking for something new, base your decision on the type of camping that fits your lifestyle plus the appliances and cookware you wish to use with it, and the fuel choice will become evident.