Understanding BTUs and Fuel Types

If you haven’t already visited our Camp Stove and Grill Buying Guide you may want to do so now, or after reading through this article. Together, this article and the Buying Guide have been designed to give you enough basic more information to assist you in selecting the camp stove or grill which will best meet your camping needs.

There are many camping stoves and grills available on today’s open market. In researching the many available options, you may have noticed that different stoves and grills have different BTUs. You may have wondered what BTUs are, how they impact your cooking experience and what you should be looking for in terms of BTUs.

You may also have noticed that you can select between stoves and grills which run on propane, butane, alcohol, charcoal, wood, and various other fuel sources. You may have noticed that some stoves and grills are versatile and can utilize multiple types of fuel, but that most are bound to using only one type. This article will explain some very basic information about BTUs, fuel types, and how each of those things will affect your camping experience.

What Are BTUs and How Do They Affect Cooking?

The acronym BTU stands for British Thermal Units. Don’t worry; I won’t delve into a long lesson on the history of BTUs and the science behind how they work. All you really need to know is that BTUs are a form of measurement which tells you how quickly a heat source can boil a specific amount of water.

Whether you are heating water inside a pot or the water molecules inside your food, it is the boiling of water which cooks all food. The higher the BTUs, the faster the water will boil. That being said, many other factors come into play here as well. The more water you place in a pot, the longer it will take to boil. Cold air and strong wind will also impact how quickly water will boil.

So what does all that mean for you? If you are looking to boil a large pot of water for a family-size serving of pasta or boiled corn, you will want to find a stove with at least 10,000 to 20,000 BTU, depending on the size of pot you plan to use. If you are hoping to boil that pasta while simultaneously cooking something else on a separate burner, you will want something with 30,000 or more BTU. It is important to be aware that some companies list the BTU of the entire cooking unit, whereas others list the BTU of individual burners. Therefore, although two stoves may both say that they are 20,000 BTU, one of those stoves may have two 10,000 BTU burners.

Grills can often accomplish more cooking with less BTU, because you can usually trap all of the heat inside by closing the lid. Even when you close the lid on a pot or a pan, you only trap the heat which is inside of the pot or pan, not the heat coming from the burner itself.

Fire And Charcoal

Fire and charcoal are two of the most natural ways to cook. They do create some soot and ash, which can be concerning for some people, but are much more sustainable than many of the other fuel options available. One upside to using wood is that it should be readily available in most camping and hiking areas. If your campsite has a strict “no foraging” policy, you can usually locate wood at the camp office or store.

Unfortunately, both wood and charcoal are susceptible to growing damp in rainy weather. Your cooking experience could easily go from a twenty minute task to an hours-long struggle if you find yourself working with wet wood or charcoal. You can choose to lay your sticks or charcoal on dry rocks beneath the sun to dry them, or strap them to the outside of your backpack as you hike. Of course, this will only work if you are hiking on a sunny day. If you choose this option, be sure to bring some sort of fire starter with you on your journey in case you find yourself camping and/or hiking in extremely damp conditions.

Wood Burning Stove

Propane Camp Stove

Butane and Propane

Do not get confused; butane and propane are two different types of fuel. Although many camp stoves and grills which are built for butane are also able to use propane, and vice versa, be sure to check the specifications of the particular stove/grill you intend to use or read its instructions before going ahead and switching between the two.

People often choose butane and propane because they are easy to use and burn clean (they do not leave sooty residue behind which can be damaging to the environment). A downside to these types of fuel is that their storage containers do not have easy-to-read fuel levels, often leaving people guessing as to how much fuel they have left in their canisters or tanks. They can also be expensive and do have expiry dates.

Isobutane (one form of butane) and propane are usually available in multiple-sized canisters. You can often select between a small 16.4 ounce canister, a 5 pound tank, or a 20 pound tank. Most camp stoves and grills are built to accommodate a 16.4 ounce canister. Canisters are not re-usable. This raises environmental concerns for many people. If you are worried about the environmental impact of these canisters, try to find a recycling center which accepts propane canisters or look into a five or twenty-pound tank. If you would like to cook for long periods of time or would like re-use your fuel storage, you can look into purchasing an adapter which will allow you to run a five or twenty pound tank to your stove or grill.

Alcohol

Alcohol works as fuel for many stoves. Although propane and butane are much more popular in North America, alcohol is a very popular fuel throughout Europe. If you are planning to travel through Europe you may want to consider selecting a camp stove or grill which is able to use alcohol as a fuel, since it will be the most readily available.

Be sure to select a form of alcohol which is high in ethanol, not methanol. Ethanol burns rather clean and is safe to work with, whereas methanol is actually toxic and can be harmful to you and the environment.

Liquid Fuel

Liquid fuels are your best option if you will be cooking in high elevation areas or in cold weather. It burns hot, independent of these difficult conditions, whereas most other types of fuel will fail to achieve the heat necessary to boil even small pots of water. Types of liquid fuel include white gas, gasoline, kerosene and diesel.

The biggest downside to liquid fuel is its weight. If you are planning a backpacking trip, be sure to offset this weight by removing less important items from your pack.

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