A cozy fire pit often accompanies the image of camping. But cooking over a campfire isn’t always practical, especially if all you want is a cup of coffee. Nor are campfires always allowed, thanks to the rise of droughts and the tragic consequences of reckless people. Thus, camp stoves are the way to go. But they need fuel. Is propane or butane better for camping?
Both butane and propane are good fuel options for camping. However, many backpackers prefer butane for its lighter weight and higher fuel density. However, propane is the better choice for colder temperatures and high elevations.
Because there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to this question, let’s take a look at the pros and cons of propane, butane, and other alternatives.
What is Propane?
Propane is essentially liquid petroleum gas. This pressurized gas is nontoxic, colorless, and has almost no odor.
However, many places will add a scent to their gas due to the latter component, so a person can smell it if there is a leak.
Propane is an incredibly popular fuel, which makes it easy to find and buy. Restaurants often cook with it, and homes using “gas” are generally hooked up to propane to run their water heaters and stoves. In addition, the fuel burns “clean,” making it much more favorable to coal, for example.
What is Butane?
Butane is another gas that is easily liquified. Butane comes from crude oil, and, like propane, it is colorless and essentially odorless.
The nice thing about butane is that it doesn’t require as much pressure to keep it in a liquified state. This is why it is a common fuel found in lighters.
Pros and Cons to Camping with Propane and Butane
One immediate advantage to using propane is that it is everywhere! If you run out of fuel while camping, you can probably get it refilled at your nearest gas station.
The second advantage is that propane is almost always cheaper than butane! I don’t know about you, but the price certainly plays a factor for me in many decisions.
The third wonderful thing about propane is its versatility, thanks to its high vapor pressure. This is extremely handy, as explained by my source below.
The advantage of the higher vapor pressure of propane is the lower boiling point, meaning that your propane stove will still work at much lower temperatures (down to -43 to -44 degrees Fahrenheit (-42 C) for propane compared to 32 degrees Fahrenheit (0 C) for butane) an advantage for those traveling to high altitudes or very cold weather excursions.Craig Beautement, Chemical Engineer
However, with its advantages also come some disadvantages.
For starters, propane needs a much higher storage pressure than butane to keep the propane in a liquid state. This means that its storage canister needs to have much thicker walls to contain it, thus making it much heavier to carry and transport.
This added weight could (and usually is) a deal-breaker for those on backpacking trips where they’ll be carrying fuel for extended distances.
An additional advantage of butane is that it’s a higher density liquid, meaning that more fuel can be stored in the same size canister. In other words, same size – but more fuel!
This is another reason why butane is used so commonly amongst backpackers, where both weight and size play a critical factor.
What is Isobutane, and is it Good for Camping?
While butane and propane are two of the better-known fuels, there are others to consider as well! Isobutane is another colorless gas but does have a bit of an odor. Like butane, isobutane is light to carry.
Its benefit is that it can work as low as 14 degrees Fahrenheit (-10 C)! While this isn’t as great as propane, isobutane is a nice option for backpackers who don’t want the weight of propane canisters but will be camping in colder climates.
Isobutane, however, can be pricier than butane and sometimes harder to find.
What is LPG?
LPG is where things get tricky because the term can mean different things depending on where you are in the world and who is selling the product.
Basically, LPG means “liquid petroleum gas.” But as we have seen above, propane, butane, and isobutane are all gases being kept in a liquid state.
In the United States, LPG is often 100% propane. However, in many parts of the world, LPG is almost always a mixture of propane and butane. This can mean that some LPG can contain as little as 20% propane and as high as 80% butane.
If you are camping at low altitudes and in mild climates, the exact LPG mix isn’t a big deal. But if you are camping at extremely low temperatures or high altitudes, the LPG mix percentages can matter.
Just something to keep in mind, especially if you like to camp in different countries.
Liquid Fuel, Alcohol, and Fuel Gel
Liquid Fuel, often called “white gas,” is a great option for people who enjoy going backpacking in remote places in various countries.
The advantages are that it is inexpensive, easy to find, and you can keep refilling the container, rather than needing a pre-packaged pressurized container. In addition, because the container is reusable, it creates less packaging waste.
Liquid fuel is heavier to carry than some options like butane. Liquid fuel also requires the user to prime it i.e. create pressure using a tiny pump before use. While this isn’t a great ordeal, it is one extra task that needs to be performed each time before you use the fuel.
Another consequence is the stoves have less flame control. Some liquid fuel stoves essentially have two settings: off and flames of Hades! This all-or-nothing aspect can be incredibly frustrating when trying to make something more complicated than boiled water.
On the other hand, because you prime the fuel, it does not suffer from a drop in internal pressure. Canister fuel, such as butane, is already pressurized. So, as the butane canister empties, the pressure changes, causing the output to lower.
Liquid fuel doesn’t have this issue! It can also handle higher altitudes and colder climates than most pre-packaged canister fuels.
Alcohol, also known as methylated spirits, is another cheap fuel. Also, the alcohol stoves are generally lighter than your liquid fuel or canister stoves.
However, you need to carry more alcohol to have the same burn power as butane or propane. Also, those tiny, light stoves don’t like wind or even a hint of a breeze. So you will have to pack a windshield or make one.
Fuel gel is another alternative that is supposed to be safer, especially when camping with young children, and better for the environment. The two biggest disadvantages are that it is hard to source and doesn’t tend to burn as hot.
So if you want hot water and you are patient, sure, it works fine. But if you want boiling water on a cold morning, fuel gel might not be a great choice.
All three options––liquid fuel, alcohol, and fuel gel––are primarily fuels to consider when camping remotely and backpacking.
However, if you haul your gear by car to a campsite with gas stations or shops nearby, propane or a propane mix might be an easier option. You’ll probably find it more pleasant to cook with, too.
There is no perfect camping fuel out there. Fuel all has advantages and disadvantages, including how much it costs, how easy it is to obtain, its weight, and ease of use.
When deciding on what fuel (and consequently, what type of camping stove) to use, the key considerations are the type of camping you will be doing, the climate, and the countries you intend to travel in.