Are you a tent, car, or tiny trailer camper looking for the perfect size propane tank for your adventures? With all of the different sizes, connections, and adapters out there it can be hard to know which one is right for you. But don’t worry! We’ve got you covered. In this article, we will explain all the important points you need to know – from how much fuel you need to why you may need multiple tanks. So whether you are cooking meals or keeping warm on a cold night in the woods, we have everything that you need to find the perfect propane tank size for your camping needs.

Propane and its Uses for Camping

Propane is a great fuel choice for camping due to its portability and versatility. Not only can you use it to cook meals, but it will also power portable heaters, lanterns, and hot water heaters as well. It’s important to understand the different types and sizes of propane tanks available so that you know which one will suit your camping needs best.

Watercolor art of propane tank on picnic table

Types of propane tanks: Refillable vs Single-use Bottles

There are two main types of propane tanks used for camping: refillable (or exchangeable) tanks and single-use bottles. All portable propane tanks are regulated by the DOT (department of transportation) so they are often referred to as DOT cylinders. Permanently installed tanks (the huge tanks for homes and businesses) are regulated by ASME (American Society of Mechanical Engineers). We won’t cover those in this article.

Unlike ASME tanks, portable tanks are sold by weight (pounds) rather than volume (gallons of propane). They come in various sizes – 1, 5, 11, and 20 lb being the most popular for camping, while single-use bottles are only available in 1 lb (16 oz) size. Both have their advantages and disadvantages depending on your needs, so let’s take a closer look at each option.

Disposable propane bottles

Convenience is the main benefit of single-use disposable bottles. Just buy a few for a weekend camping trip and you are done – no more planning required! The disposable bottles are also small and lightweight. On the downside, they may be difficult to find in some areas. They are usually sold at stores with camping supplies and hardware stores. Gas stations near campgrounds may have them as well.

Camping stove connected to propane bottle
This 2-burner camping stove is connected to a 1 lb disposable propane bottle

Refillable propane tanks

Refillable tanks have a larger capacity than single-use bottles, so they provide a great long-lasting fuel supply. They also save you cash in the long run because you only pay for the tank once. On top of that, they reduce waste – disposable bottles are not safe or legal to refill (they lack filling safety features to reduce cost).

20 lb refillable propane tani
This 20 lb propane tank is a popular size and widely available

Know Your Connections

It’s important to note that 1 lb propane cylinders (single-use or refillable) have a different connection than larger tanks. Most propane camping stoves, grills, and small portable heaters connect directly to 1 lb disposable propane bottles. This fitting is a 1 inch-20 thread connection which is sometimes called a Coleman fitting. 1 lb refillable cylinders also use the same connection for compatibility.

Larger portable DOT tanks (above 1 lb) use a Type 1 or GCC1 connection. This connection is common for home grills and larger appliances in an RV. For small camping appliances, you need an adapter hose to connect the tank. Portable propane water heaters and showers vary in their connection type and may be designed for either style. Know the water heater product details before you purchase.

Adapter hose for different propane connections
This adapter hose connects propane tanks with Type 1 connections to camping stoves

Portable Propane Tank Sizes – Benefits of Each

Now that you know the basics of propane tanks, let’s take a look at the benefits of each tank size.

  • 1 lb (single-use) – The smallest tanks available. This size is a popular choice for a weekend camping trip or a single meal. It can be carried with ease due to its small size and weight.
  • 1 lb (refillable) – A great replacement for disposable canisters. Reduce waste and save money on fuel. Safely refill these at home from a 20 lb tank (you will need an adapter for this). 1 lb tanks can’t be refilled at propane stations.
  • 5 lb (refillable) – This is perfect for cooking on a week-long camping trip. It’s light enough to carry when full and easy to refill at any propane station. These are also the best for mounting on the side of a small camping trailer.
  • 11 lb (refillable) – This tank is great for larger groups, extended trips, or if you need more fuel supply than the 5 lb can provide. They are heavier and take up more space than the smaller tanks, but can be filled at any propane station.
  • 20 lb (refillable) – A 20 lb propane tank is a great option for RVers or campers with larger appliances like portable water heaters or showers. The 20-pound propane tank is the most widely available and less expensive than smaller sizes. The tank itself is quite heavy so it’s best used with RVs or travel trailers (they are commonly mounted on the front of the trailer). It can be exchanged or filled at any propane refill station.
1 lb refillable propane bottle
1 lb refillable propane bottle – compatible with camping stoves and portable heaters

Estimating how much propane you need

If you are new to camping, you may be concerned about running out of fuel. Here is a tip to help keep your trip smooth and stress-free!

Review the product information on your gear and look for fuel consumption. For example, this Little Buddy heater runs for over 5 hours on one 1 lb of propane. Sometimes you need to use a bit of judgment – this Coleman camping stove uses 1 lb of propane if both burners are on high for 1 hour. Only someone cooking for a big group will use that much. I can easily get 4 (or more) meals out of it with normal use.

For larger appliances (such as hot water heaters), you may a find BTU rating (British Thermal Unit) of the appliance. This is the amount of energy it uses per hour. Estimate the total time you expect to use it, then multiply by the rating to find the total BTUs you need. You should end up with a large number in the thousands. Divide this by 21,548 to find the number of lbs of propane you need.

Add up the number of propane appliances you are taking and the rough number of hours you plan to use them to get an idea of how many pounds of propane you need. Then bring extra for peace of mind. With some experience, it will be easier to estimate.

What to avoid!

It’s tempting to use a splitter and connect all your gear to one big 20 lb tank. While that works on a RV, it WON’T work well for portable camping gear (trust me on this!) I think it’s because gear designed to run off a 1 lb tank needs the full pressure from the propane tank. When you split lines and run extensions, the pressure drops and starts to cause issues. Larger appliances (like your home grill or an RV refrigerator) use lower pressure from inline regulators, so splitting before the regulator works fine. This changes your size options, and you may need several small cylinders rather than a large size tank. If you still want to try a splitter, be sure to test your setup at home so your camping trips go smoothly.

How much fuel is left in your propane tank?

It’s easy to forget what’s in a partially filled tank until you need it. To measure the fuel capacity, there is a simple trick that works for all steel tanks (up to 40 lb). Simply weigh the tank on a bathroom scale. Subtract the TW number on the tank (this is the Tare or empty tank weight). Disposable 1 lb tanks weigh about 15 oz empty.

You can also connect a fuel gauge to the tanks with a Type 1 connection. This type of gauge measures pressure in the tank (NOT volume) so it’s best used as a warning that the tank is getting low. Note: The propane tank gauges on larger ASME propane tanks measure the actual fuel level, so they are much more accurate.

How to maintain your propane tank

Propane tanks are made of steel and require maintenance to prevent rust. Clean the tank regularly with a mild solution of soap and water (not bleach). Rinse it well and if possible leave the cap off so it can dry thoroughly before storing. Store it out of the elements. I’ve learned the hard way – a refill station won’t fill tanks with rust, and they are challenging to dispose of. Take care of your tanks and keep them in good condition!

Your tank also has an expiration date stamped into the metal. This is 12 years after the manufacturing date. It’s possible to have tanks re-certified, but this may cost more than buying a new propane tank – especially for the inexpensive 20-pound tanks.

Final thoughts

No matter which tank size you choose, always use caution when handling and storing propane tanks. Make sure to store your tanks in a cool, dry area away from direct sunlight, and never leave them near an open flame or heat source.

Thanks for reading and learning about the different propane tanks available for camping. We hope you take this knowledge with you on your next adventure, wherever it leads you.

Want to learn more about camping stoves?

Check out these related articles:
Butane vs Propane Camping Stoves: Everything You Need to Know
The Best Solo Stove for Camping: Lite, Titan, or Campfire?
Best Indoor Emergency Stove: How To Use Camping Stoves Safely

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