When it comes to camping stoves, fuel is one of the key differences between the various portable camping stove types. Propane and Butane are both popular fuels for camping stoves, but does it really matter? Aside from the fuels’ physical properties themselves, there are several significant differences you need to know before choosing a stove using one of these fuels for your next camping trip.
In this article, I’ll give you the best use for each fuel. I’ll also cover all the important points you need to decide for yourself including fuel packaging, availability, weight, cost, temperature limits, altitude, and stove compatibility. Check out our info-graphic below if you just want the highlights. Lastly, I’ll review the types of camping stoves available for each
THREE canister fuel types for camp stoves
Before we start, let’s clarify that there are actually THREE commonly used canister fuels for portable camping stoves. Propane, butane, and isobutane fuel blends. Backpackers commonly use blended fuel canisters and refer to them as butane, so this causes some confusion. Isobutane is an isomer of butane. This means butane (or n-butane) and isobutane have the same chemical formula, but the molecules are shaped differently. This gives the fuels different properties which affect campers. All three fuels are available in small canisters which work well for camping, but there are tradeoffs between the options. Note that these fuel canisters all have different connections and are not interchangeable without adapters.
Best use for each fuel
Each fuel has its place and is best for a different camping style. Propane is the most versatile and is probably the best option for car and tent campers who are not concerned with weight. There are a wide variety of propane stoves and grills to choose from. Butane is best for cooking in an enclosed space like a van, RV, indoors, or in a tent. Isobutane fuel blends balance low weight and performance, so they are usually ideal for backpacking. While each fuel works well in these applications, it’s important to understand more details to choose the right fuel and stove for your outdoor activities.
To help clarify the fuel types available, let’s look at some photos of the different fuel containers available in the US (which you will probably recognize), and where to find them. Fuel availability is an important factor if you camp in remote areas.
Propane Bottles or Tanks
Propane is always packaged in steel cylinders that come in various sizes. The “green bottles” popularized by Coleman are 1lb (16 oz) single-use containers. These are available at outdoor stores, Walmart, and many hardware stores. You can also easily find propane in refillable 20 lb cylinders which are widely available (Walmart, hardware stores, some gas stations, and even grocery stores have them). This size propane tank is popular for home grills and smokers. Refillable 1, 5, and 11 lb tanks are also available online, and they can be filled at any propane filling location. Propane is probably the most widely available fuel source in the US, especially if you use refillable tanks. For more information on propane tanks, check out our detailed article here: What Size Propane Tank Do You Need for Camping?
Butane is usually packaged in 8oz narrow single-use cans (smaller cans are available for specialty cooking torches and lighters). These cans are compatible with single burner stoves frequently used by caterers and campers – especially when cooking in an RV or van. These butane stoves are especially popular in Asian countries for home cooking, so Asian supermarkets are a great place to find butane canisters inexpensively. They are also available at Walmart, big box hardware stores, and Amazon.
These fuel mixes are packaged in short squat cylinders for stability and are available in 4, 8, and 16 oz sizes. Their design supports small camping stoves directly on the gas canisters, so they have a “fatter” size than other fuel canisters. The fuel in these canisters is a blend of gas fuels (typically propane, isobutane, and butane). These canisters are manufactured in a small handful of factories and branded for companies selling camping stoves (Kovea, MSR, Jetboil). According to MSR’s website, their fuel blend is 20% propane and 80% isobutane. Butane (also called n-butane) is minimal and is usually less than 6%. These fuels are usually only available in stores that sell camping supplies or online, so plan ahead if you want to use them.
Warning: Coleman and other brands package a fuel blend of butane and propane in the same canister which other brands sell isobutane blends. The butane blend is less expensive, but understand the difference in performance at lower temperatures before using this fuel.
Fuel Properties and Performance
Now that you know what each of these fuel canisters looks like and where to find them, let’s take a look at how they perform in areas that campers really care about.
Fuel Canister Weight
Ironically, liquid propane has the lowest density BUT propane canisters are the heaviest choice. This is due to the much higher vapor pressure of propane compared to the other fuels. Under similar conditions (volume, temperature etc), the pressure in a propane tank is almost 4 times higher than a butane canister. So propane must be stored in stronger (and heavier) canisters to contain the pressure. Every propane cylinder I’ve seen is steel, compared to the lighter aluminum containers for butane and isobutane. Butane has the lowest vapor pressure, and isobutane is slightly higher than butane.
Weight is critically important when backpacking, so the light isobutane canisters are the obvious choice (and the only liquified gas fuels I’ve seen anyone use). To further help reduce weight, isobutane canisters are available in small size increments so you can choose the amount you carry for each trip. For a good weight comparison, look at the infographic details.
If you are car camping, the weight is a minor inconvenience at most, so propane is usually the best choice for performance and cost. Butane has significant performance limits so it’s rarely used alone for backpacking.
Propane vs Butane Fuel Cost
From what I can find online, fuel cost depends on the processing costs of the fuel itself, the canister cost, and the availability/popularity of the fuel in a country or area. In the United States, propane is the cheapest, especially when you use refillable containers. Bulk propane is currently about $4 per gallon. Camping fuel is measured in weight, so the cost roughly works out to $1 per lb (16 oz). In contrast, a 16 oz or 1 lb canister cost about $5 at Walmart (if purchased in a 2 pack) so you are paying a good deal for the bottle.
I’ve found several references that say butane is the cheapest fuel to process, but I’ve found it to be more expensive than propane. I found 8oz cans at Walmart for about $3.50 each. They can be less expensive in Asian supermarkets if you have one nearby. Lastly, the isobutane canisters are the most expensive. With the different sizes available, the smaller sizes are the most expensive cost per oz of fuel. An 7.75 oz canister at Walmart was $6.57 yesterday – more than double the price of propane green bottles and more than 12 times the cost of bulk propane.
Low Temperature Limits
To understand the temperature limits of these fuels, it’s important to know how the fuel canisters work. All three fuels are gas at room temperature, so the canister is pressurized to keep the fuel liquid in the can. When you open the valve, the pressure pushes gas out of the canister and some of the liquid fuel evaporates which maintains the pressure.
But this process ONLY works when the temperature is above the boiling point of the liquid. For propane, the boiling point is about -44 deg F (-42 deg C) so it should work for all recreational camping. Butane’s boiling point is very close to the freezing point of water – which is bad! You really can’t cook with butane gas when it’s below freezing.
Isobutane is better, at about 11 deg F (-11.7 deg C). From a practical standpoint, the fuel will flow less before these limits and cause difficulty in cooking. To make matters worse, the evaporation of liquid fuel cools the canister, so its performance will get worse the longer your camp stove is running.
Once again, propane’s lower boiling point makes it the clear choice for camping in cold weather when you don’t care about weight. Isobutane blends are the best choice for weight-conscious camping trips like backpacking. These blends include propane to provide more pressure at low temperatures and slightly extend the range of use.
Tips for Cold Temperature Use
If you need to use isobutane canisters below freezing, there are a few tricks you can try. Warm up the canister before using it by putting it in your coat or sleeping bag overnight. Have two canisters available so you can switch them if one falters before you finish cooking. If you expect to be in cold temperatures regularly, look for a stove that allows you to turn the canister upside down and burn liquid fuel instead of relying on gas pressure. Pure butane fuel isn’t recommended for use in low temperatures.
If you plan on backpacking in extreme cold and harsh conditions (think mountain ascents), look into liquid fuel stoves which use White Gas or other liquid fuels. These are expensive and only available through specialty outdoor stores and online.
High Altitude Performance
It’s something of a myth that canister fuels perform poorly at high altitudes. From stories I’ve found online, this dates back to the beginning of canister fuel use when high-altitude expeditions using the early (pure butane canisters) had difficulty with them. As you ascend to higher altitudes, it typically becomes colder so the fuel can’t perform as well. In fact, physics shows that canister fuels’ lower temperature limit drops as you go up in altitude (lower atmospheric pressure lowers the boiling point which helps you).
Here is a great overview if you want more details on the effect of elevation on performance. Be aware that all fuels are less efficient at high altitudes due to the lower oxygen content of the “thin” air.
After reading all the comparisons, you might wonder why anyone would use a pure butane stove. The biggest factor I can find is the safety ratings of stoves. Butane camp stoves are the only portable stoves I’ve found rated for indoor use. This is mainly due to the safety features of the stoves. Portable stoves rated for indoor use in the United States must meet the requirements of the ANSI Z21.1 safety standard. These include low emissions of hazardous byproducts like carbon monoxide plus a host of safety features like anti-tip shutoffs, mounting features to stabilize the stove, an inaccessible regulator (so users can’t choose unsafe settings), and even knob function requirements. If you want a stove certified for safe use indoors, portable butane stoves are the only choice.
So what about the fuel itself? Does butane burn cleaner? Probably not. While I’ve seen contradictory comments online, credible sites show that propane, butane, or isobutane only produce water and CO2 as byproducts IF the fuel to oxygen mix is ideal. This is the key point, and the one reason you need ventilation for burning any fuel in an enclosed space. The mix ratio also depends on the stove design. Without sufficient oxygen, stoves will produce more carbon monoxide which is dangerous. For more information on indoor stove safety, see our article on emergency stoves.
Gas Camping Stove Options
If you spend much time looking at camping gear, you may be overwhelmed by the number and variety of camping stoves. After this brief overview, you will recognize each type of portable gas stove for camping and have an idea of what type of fuel it uses. I’ll save liquid fuel, solid fuel, and wood-burning stoves for another article.
Propane Camp Stoves
If you see someone car camping in the US, they will probably have a propane stove. The classic variety is a two-burner stove with a lid and fold-up sides which help shield the open fire from wind. Stove and grill combinations are also popular, and some people use single burner stoves as well. They connect directly to 1 lb propane tanks, or larger tanks with standard adapters. From my personal experience, this style is the best camping stove for car and family camping. These stoves are rated for outdoor use only.
You can also find small backpacking-style stoves which mount directly onto the 1 lb small tanks. These little portable stoves are a great option for winter conditions if the fuel weight is manageable. Propane canisters are more top-heavy than isobutane containers, so ues a stabilizer for extra support.
Most butane stoves look similar. They are typically single burner stoves and have a compartment on one side where the butane canister fits inside the stove. They are usually rated for indoor use, and it’s safe to store the fuel canister in the stove when not in use – very convenient! Some versions of these stoves feature a duel-fuel option so you can connect a propane bottle with an adapter hose. Unfortunately, this changes the stove to outdoor use only. Beware – the adapter hoses on duel-fuel stoves are proprietary, and I’ve also seen complaints that the pressure regulator fails if the propane stays connected when not in use.
Stoves using isobutane fuel blends are typically created for backpacking, so they are small and light. You find two styles in this category – canister stoves and off-canister stoves. The smallest and lightest canister stoves mount a single burner directly on top of the fuel canister. Most have a very focused hot flame to boil water quickly for instant backpacking meals, and they will only support very small pots. A few have a wider burner and support arms for larger pots or small pans. Stability is an issue here, so stabilizers are a good idea.
The off-canister stoves have fold-out legs for support and a hose connection to the canister. While this style is heavier, it gives you more versatility. They are more stable and usually support larger pots and pans. Some have multi-fuel options to use other gas or liquid fuels. This type often allows you to turn the canister upside down for use in colder temperatures (they burn the fuel as a liquid in this setup).
The Best Stove for YOu
As you can see, every type of gas camping stove has its own advantages and disadvantages so make sure you do your research before selecting a model that’s right for you. Don’t be surprised if you end up with more than one for different needs! In my opinion, propane stoves are the most versatile for car and family camping plus cold weather conditions. Isobutane stoves are ideal for backpacking with their lightweight and compact size. Butane stoves offer convenience and safety indoors.
Want to learn about camping stoves with different fuels? Check out these other articles:
The Best Solo Stove for Camping – Review of a popular wood burning stoves
Best Indoor Emergency Stove: How To Use Camping Stoves Safely
What Size Propane Tank Do You Need for Camping?