Camp cooking has come a long way since the days of early American exploration. In the times of Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone, and before them, Lewis and Clark, most camping was done out of necessity. People camped because there were no hotels. Sleeping in the outdoors was what people did before the indoors spread across the country. Technology has increased since then, and camping is no longer necessary. Americans can go their entire lives and sleep inside every single night, if they want. But for some, camping is fun, and the outdoors has a pull that they can’t resist. Technology has also made camping easier.
Early campers or settlers cooked food over wood fires. This is effective, if wood can be found. When small groups of campers are spread widely over a large area, finding firewood can be easy. Cutting down trees to burn is not a responsible thing to do in the backcountry, and down, dead wood burns better anyway. But even if burning fallen, dead trees, hauling it back to camp, and cutting it in to pieces that are small enough to make a cooking fire is hard work.
Modern campers, even if they build a fire, often cook over a stove. Camp stoves come in all shapes, sizes and fuel types, with each variation offering its own pros and cons. The oldest type of camping stoves burned kerosene. Kerosene burns hot even in cold air or at high altitude, is widely available in many countries and is fairly cheap. However, it tends to burn smoky, and can blacken the bottom of pots and pans and fill the cooking area with smoke. Also, kerosene does not evaporate quickly, and leaves a greasy residue that is difficult to clean up. Finally, kerosene stoves require priming, which can be difficult and time-consuming.
Gasoline is also widely available and cheap. But, unlike slow-burning kerosene, gas and its vapors are explosively dangerous. Also, it can contain particles that will clog a stove not specifically designed for it.
White gas, a refined type of gasoline burns hot at high altitude or low air temperature, and has a clean flame. It’s easy to clean up, but is dangerously explosive if not handled carefully. Stoves require pumping, but no priming, unless the air is extremely cold. Because the fuel is liquid, the stove or fuel bottle can be emptied completely for air travel. The fuel, while more expensive than gasoline or kerosene, is still fairly cheap.
The easiest and lightest option for a camping stove is a pressurized gas canister. These stoves use a pre-pressurized bottle of propane, butane, isobutane or a mixture of these. The stove operation is about as difficult as a cigarette lighter – turn on the gas, and flick the igniter and the stove is running. No, priming, pumping or other preparation is necessary. This might seem like the ideal stove, but there are drawbacks. Propane, the cheapest of pressurized gas stoves, is still more expensive than white gas. Also, propane canisters are heavy. While generally good in cold weather, extreme cold will render propane slightly less effective than liquid fuel.
Butane and isobutane are light and ideal for backpacking. However, their fuel canisters are expensive, and are a poor choice for cold temperatures or high altitudes. They can also be difficult to find internationally, especially since the fitting on the canister has to fit the stove exactly. Transporting these canisters in airline luggage is not permitted, since they contain a pressurized fuel.
So, for international trips, extreme cold or high altitude, or campers who simply want the cheapest possible fuel, white gas is best. For car campers who are willing to spend a little more on fuel, but who want the easiest, quickest stove, propane is a good choice. And for backpackers who will be traveling primarily in the United States or developed nations in Europe, isobutane and butane are light, fast options.
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