Propane versus butane stoves

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Propane camp stoves are a popular choice for vehicle dwellers. But butane stoves have their fans, too. Which is a better choice?

That’s actually two questions. 1. Which fuel is better. 2. Which type of stove best fits the way you live and cook?

Which fuel?

Propane is cheaper than butane. You can get it in small 16 once bottles or large refillable tanks.

Butane is harder to find. For example, even though a Walmart might have butane stoves for sale, they might not have the cans of butane in stock that fit in those stoves.

Propane will still burn when the ambient temperature is way below freezing. Butane doesn’t like the cold, for two reasons. First, it just won’t light when it’s around freezing. Secondly, compressed gasses condense in lower temperatures, reducing pressure in their containers. The pressure in butane cans starts out lower than propane (which is why the cans can be made from thinner metal). Since the pressure is lower, it doesn’t take much cooling before the pressure becomes too low to push butane out of the can. At around 45°F/7°C I’ve had butane barely sustain a small flame.

So why use butane?

Because of the stoves. Butane stoves like the Coleman Portable are  more user-friendly. They’re a nice rectangle with no weird tube & regulator gizmo sticking out. So it’s easier to make space for them during use and storage. It’s easier to attach and remove the fuel can. They have piezoelectric starters—no matches or lighters needed. And they tend to have better temperature control dials. You can turn even a cheap butane stove down to a nice low simmer. Meanwhile, my propane stove seems to have four temperatures: Off, Don’t Breathe Or You’ll Blow Me Out, Too Hot, and Incinerated. Basic propane camp stoves like the Coleman PowerPack single burner could have the features of a butane stove, they just don’t.

However

Gee, wouldn’t it be great if you could get a propane stove as user-friendly as butane stoves? You can. Gas One makes dual fuel camp stoves. They’re butane stoves that let you attach propane via a supplied hose. Sweet.

However, again

There’s a good reason to keep your propane stove (besides not wanting to spend money for a different one). Since propane is cheaper (especially with refillable tanks), and since it burns in very low temperatures, propane stoves can serve as heaters.

Another type of butane stove

Backpacker stoves, like the Jet Boil Flash, are a burner that attaches atop a squat isobutane can. And they have small pots designed to attach to the burner. These stoves have only two purposes: Be as compact and light as possible, and rapidly heat water for coffee/tea and for rehydrating freeze dried meals. But perhaps that’s all you need, too.

  Another type of propane stove

There are also burners such as the Coleman Bottletop that screw directly to the top of propane bottles, like backpacker stoves.

Of course, propane and butane aren’t your only choices. Watch for future reports on alcohol, kerosene, white gas and others.

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