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How do I know what type I should use when I'm planning a camping trip?

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    It would be better if you made this question more specific - choose a weather condition, that way there can actually be one right answer. – Ryley Jan 24 '12 at 20:51
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    butane and propane/butane mixtures might also be good to discuss. – Sirex Mar 14 '12 at 13:45
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    It would be helpful if this question included translation for non-American readers. Here in the UK we have 'Coleman fuel' (which is what Americans call 'white gas'), 'propane' and 'butane' are the same as in the USA, US 'kerosene' is UK 'paraffin', US 'gasoline' is UK 'petrol'. In the UK we also have 'white spirit' which should not be confused with 'white gas', it's not the same thing. – A E Oct 28 '14 at 14:29
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    Typical Canada uses the US words for some but not all, we definitely have "Coleman fuel" which I burn in my Whisperlite. – Kate Gregory Oct 30 '14 at 16:42
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    I feel this should be a Community Wiki. – user5330 Apr 18 '17 at 1:32
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I personally highly recommend using an alcohol stove (pepsi-can stove, or some other variant), especially when hiking solo. In my opinion, the weight benefits far exceed the disadvantages.

The benefits of Alcohol*:

  • An alcohol stove is usually much lighter than a comparable white gas/propage/kerosene/gasoline.
  • An alcohol stove also has no moving parts that can malfunction. Quite reliable.
  • Can be easily made even in the field, using two soda cans and a sharp knife.
  • Alcohol is relatively easy to come by and better available than most butane canisters

Disadvantages:

  • Usually takes longer to boil water than more traditional stoves.
  • In higher altitudes/colder weather it takes longer to prime the stove and get it going.
  • In such conditions it will also take longer to boil the water/meal.

(*We are talking about stove fuel here, not about drinking the stuff...)

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    one more disadvantage, its hard / impossible to see the flame. Be careful ! – Sirex Mar 14 '12 at 13:46
  • that really depends on the temperature. Alcohol in winter is really not efficient. (then again, it depends on what the winter is like where you camp) – njzk2 Nov 7 '14 at 19:23
  • using 1 soda can (personal favorite: groove stove (top notch mod)). – njzk2 Oct 21 '15 at 14:51
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    The OP didn't ask about alcohol fuel! – Martin F Apr 7 '17 at 23:29
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    You cannot make a rational recommendation without considering ordinances and equipment at hand. First off, alcohol is verboten in most youth groups (eg, boy scouts, girl scouts) due to the fact that alcohol burns too cleanly - you can't see the flames. Also, you are not allowed to make your own stoves. Also, you never prime alcohol stoves, and you never use alcohol in LG stoves, it is usually higher in acidity. All else being equal, your recommendation is trumped by using fuel pellets - they're hotter, cheaper, and safer, and have the same drawbacks as alcohol. – Andrew Jennings Apr 17 '17 at 18:53
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I'd try and be more specific towards the kind of the fuel we are talking about:

  1. White Gas / Naphtha

    • Burns clean without any smell and/or effect on food taste.
    • Accidental Spilling of the fuel is not much to be worried about. Evaporates very quickly, without leaving an odor. That said, make a note that the spilled fuel is very flammable
    • White gas is safer to store and transport than probably most of the other products.
    • Additional information: White gas is a more volatile distillate of petroleum, to which no poisonous automotive-oriented chemicals have been added. It is much safer to store and use, with far superior shelf-life than gasoline/petrol (https://www.britannica.com/science/naphtha).

  1. Propane/Butane/Isobutane Gas

    • A Propane gas stove would most likely be a Canister type? So, pressurized fuel? : Might be more dangerous if canister is leaking?
    • Most of the products that are available are the ones that work on Propane and Primarily Isobutane. They burn hot and clean.
    • Pressurized fuel = No Pumping, preheating required.
    • No spill play at all as the canister holds the pressurized gas, so self-seals when the stove is detached: Safe!
    • As you don't pour the fuel into the canister yourself, its difficult to gauge remaining fuel level.
    • Performance degrades when the fuel is consumed beyond a certain level because the pressure is not enough to inject the fuel into the jets. Take an example of a aerosol deodorant. So, when nearly emptied, the remaining fuel is apparently useless.
    • Fuel is more expensive.
    • If its Butane, it doesn't work in freezing conditions.
    • If its Propane, it will work under conditions roughly upto -32 C. I know someone who has used it at that temperature.

  1. Kerosene Stove

    • function really well in extremely cold temperatures.
    • Burns hot, better than Alcohol stoves.
    • Relatively inexpensive fuel.
    • Needs proper storing, since it evaporates slowly if spilled.
    • Prone to spills during the pouring process. But, spilled fuel won't ignite easily.
    • Not Odorless.
    • Many of the Kerosene based stoves need pumping and pre-heating.

Some points about common terms used in different parts of the world. Thanks to A E for suggesting this concept and the data provided. I have done a mere copy+paste from comments.

It would be helpful if this question/answer also contains the translation for non-American readers.

  • In the UK, 'Coleman fuel' is same as what is known as 'White Gas' in America.
  • 'Propane' and 'Butane' are two universal terms for two different chemical compounds.
    (Some people find it hard to understand what this means, So, it means, Propane is not equal to Butane, those are two different chemical comppounds. The compound which people around you call as 'Propane', probably almost everywhere in the world its called 'Propane', same goes for a different compound called Butane.)
  • US 'Kerosene' is UK 'paraffin', the same in India is 'Kerosene' and more popularly known as 'Rockel'.
  • US 'Gasoline' is UK 'Petrol'.
  • In the UK, they also have 'White spirit' which should not be confused with 'White gas', it's not the same thing.
  • 'White Gas/Coleman Fuel' is called 'Naphtha' in Eastern Canada, and English-speaking chemistry labs.
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    propane containers are also seriously heavy – Kate Gregory Oct 30 '14 at 16:41
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    Also it would be nice to link to direct sources using the proper scientific names - the whole which-fuel-is-named-how game gets even more complicated once you bring other languages like German into the game, this can be rather hard to translate for non-english-speakers... – fgysin reinstate Monica Apr 12 '17 at 10:55
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    I dispute the safety statement on white gas. It is volatile, ignite easily and explosive concentrations easily occur at room temperature. – user5330 Apr 18 '17 at 1:29
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    I'd suggest that we make this into a community wiki answer and try to include a decent info on all fuels with the most important names in various (English) languages... – fgysin reinstate Monica Apr 18 '17 at 9:24
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    Btw. I just noticed that methylated spirits (GB)/burning alcohol (US)/Methyl Hydrate (CAN) is missing as a fuel. It is for example used in the famous Trangia stoves trangia.se/en/selecting-the-right-trangia-stove or in super lightweight soda can stoves... – fgysin reinstate Monica Apr 18 '17 at 9:26
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My experience with compact stoves for butane/propane mixture: Amazingly efficient when it is warm outside. Super for camping in the summer and early autumn. But in the late autumn, when the temperature starts to creep below 5 deg C: Not so efficient anymore.

Alcohol stoves have fallen out of favour in Norway.

  • I am not sure this answer adds anything not all ready present in the other answers. – James Jenkins Apr 12 '17 at 14:08
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Chemically, they're very different, having to do with carbon chain lengths, the discussion about which will not help you decide.

@WedaPashi gave an awesome answer, so, I'll add to it by saying this:

First, you must know your stove; I assume you're asking about backpacking stoves who use jets, not generators.

If so, the denser fuels (us-kero/uk-paraffin, diesel) require smaller jet holes and shorter jets, which carburate with a lower air mix, whereas the medium fuels (coleman/white gas, gasoline/petrol, aviation fuel) use a slightly larger jet hole, and a slightly longer jet which allows more air mixture. Finally, the lightest fuels (propane, butane, and mixes of each) require larger holes and longest jets, as these fuels are under higher pressures and mix more with air. The reasoning has to do with needing more oxygen to combine with denser chains in the fuels, and you need more oxygen for the lighter fuels. That doesn't help you choose a stove, it just explains the differences, which answers the first part of your question.

Next, you need to know local ordinances or laws.

For example, some places forbid use of liquid gas (white gas, gasoline, diesel, kero, alcohol, etc) and prefer you to use LG - propane or butane - or fuel tabs (or wood). Places with high water tables or many waterways tend not to allow these liquid fuels, to mitigate the danger of a spill. Others forbid use of canisters, due to litter concerns. And you may be subject to rules within your group - the boy scouts, for example - who explicitly forbid use of alcohol, due to the fact that it burns too cleanly, and flames are difficult to see.

So from a practical point of view, the heavier fuels (white gas, gasoline, diesel, kero) is best (or required) used in cold weather.

Next, cost could also be a factor in your choice of stove. Prices for each tend to favor the canisters, as you can get cheap butane stoves for about $8 from Etekcity, which are surprisingly durable, light, and - oddly - almost too small. They fit inside the concave impression at the bottom of the fuel canister. The heavy gas stoves by Optimus and MSR are quite durable also, and tend to have the ability to burn a variety of different fuels, but they cost $100 and up - the new optimus optiful cost $180 and literally burns anything except alcohol.

Next, consider the safety and cleanliness of the fuels you'll be burning. If your stove burns white gas (coleman) it will also burn gasoline (petrol) and aviation fuel. If your stove burns kerosene (paraffin) it will generally burn diesel.

But that doesn't mean you should burn all these fuels: gasoline/petrol, diesel, and aviation fuel - they're notoriously poisonous and dirty. Gas/petrol is also explosive, and if you spill it, you're gonna smell it for days - it won't evaporate away due to the mixtures added to it.

Kerosene is also a dirty fuel, but once it gets started, it burns relatively cleanly. So, you should prime these stoves with alcohol to mitigate the soot build up. However, kero is an extremely stable fuel and isn't as flammable as the others.

Still deciding on a stove or fuel? The stove mechanics also makes a difference. For the multi-fuel stoves, you almost always have to change the jets. Kero/diesel, gas/coleman, propane/butane are the three jets you'll need. But here I question the need for such a stove: carry what you need for the fuel you'll need. If you think you need to burn everything, then by all means, bring all the jets and tools to exchange the jets, but that makes the trip a little more complicated. (Unless you go with the expensive Optimus Optifuel, which requires NO jet changes). But you still have to worry about clogged jets, and field maintenance on these delicate things can be a menace. One lost part, and you're screwed. My advice is to bring the stove with least amount of fuels you'll need and can bring. Don't bring the one which can burn aviation fuel if you won't be anywhere near an airport.

Remember, in an emergency, you can always burn a wood fire, no matter the stove which ran out of fuel.

For what it's worth, this is a great read:

FAQ - Technical details on Stoves

EDIT: More reading material:

What's the difference between gasoline, kerosene, diesel, etc?

How Refiners Decide to Make Gasoline vs Distillates

Pure naphta (Coleman fuel) vs Unleaded petrol

Naphtha to Gasoline

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    +1, superb answer! Especially, "doesn't help you choose a stove, it just explains the differences, which answers the first part of your question." – WedaPashi Apr 18 '17 at 8:15

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