The whole camp cooking process isn't like whipping something up in your kitchen. You are literally "playing with fire". And that can get a little intimidating especially when you aren't sure what kind of fire to use.
This fundamental camp cookery question is so important I even made a video to break it down simply. But it is also worth a deep dive, because there is nothing worse bringing the wrong gear.
In this guide, I’ll break down the four common camp heat sources: the single burner backpacking stove, the double burner camping stove, the covered grill, and the old standby the grated fire pit. We’ll take about the pros and cons of each as well as their unique quirks.
Single Burner Stove Backpacking Stove
These babies are light and affordable. Prices start at around $30 for one made by the major manufacturers and $10 for an online special. Backpacking stove is typically a single piece that screws on the top of a fuel canister.
So what is in a canister? It is filled with pre-pressurized isobutane (primarily) and propane fuel. Isobutane burns hot and clean, and in colder conditions (like a chilly fall night). To get them you’ll have to go to a outdoor specialty store. And these canisters tend to be a little more expensive than say your typical propane, which you can get at say your grocery or hardware store.
Why would you want to use a single burner? There are a couple of reasons. First, you are on a small budget and want an inexpensive first stove. Second you are a minimalist and want to keep your gear small, so it is easy to carry and doesn't take a lot of room to store at home. And third you aren't making things that are very complicated or feeding a bunch of folks.
So if quickly boiling a little bit of water or frying something up will get the job done. Great don't complicate things this sort of set-up should work for you. (And if you do have a bigger group you can use a couple of them to make sure you can quickly cook for everyone.)
But there are also some downsides. Single burners tend to be very sensitive to wind. And they don't come with windscreens. So you may end up using your body to shield the flame so it can actually heat what you are cooking. This process can add significant cooking time.
To add to that issue, they are much less stable camping stoves. So watch out because they easily tip over. But on the whole, single burner backpacking stoves are a great first camp kitchen purchase. In combination with an open fire you have a ton of backcountry cooking options when you use this set-up.
Double Burner Camping Stoves
Double burner stoves haven't changed much over the years, but that's because these set-ups really make sense for portable camp cooking. They are a little more expensive starting at around $60 for one made by the major manufacturers and $30 for an online special. The one we have is a little higher end because in my opinion you should buy one of these and if you take care of it, the stove will last for decades.
These guys typically use propane, which is attached to the side using a metal tube. The nice thing about this fuel type is you can find it just about anywhere. They also come with built in windscreens that help protect your flame, which makes the heat source burn hotter thus it cooks more efficiently using less fuel. That means when you boil water on a two burner it will take a lot less time than on a single burner-backpacking stove.
Why would you want a double burner? You'd want one because you want space to cook in an environment that is more like your stove at home. And to be honest, other than having to light the burners there isn't a lot of difference between a two burner camping, stove and a home stove top. The higher end versions will also be a little larger and give you enough space for full sized pots and pans compared with the budget versions, which might require you to invest in more compact "camping" size cookware.
That brings us to the complications a double burner stove is heavy and a bit bulky. That means they are really stable, but it also means you don't want to carry them very far. And if you live in a tiny urban apartment it is hard to find room to store such a large item that you might only use a couple of times a year. But if you are looking to make a mobile feast in the woods for 8 this is likely a good option for you.
When I think of outdoor cooking, my mind goes straight to the covered grill. They come in two types. First, there is the Weber style fueled by charcoal and then you've got your standard propane grill. You won't find these guys at a campsite, but you can bring your own. And many experienced campers do. It just requires an investment. They start at about $30 for a basic charcoal grill and can go up from there. No matter what kind you chose what you’re buying is the ability to grill food evenly.
Can't I just grill with the fire pit at the site? The simple answer is yes you can grill using the fire pit provided at most developed campsites. However, without a top you'll lose a lot of heat and have little or no control over the distribution of the heat across whatever you are cooking especially if you use wood logs as your heat source. To give you an example it means that steak you want to cook may have one end burnt to a crisp and the other which is raw on the middle. Instead, you can use a covered grill and get a steak that is the same temp all the way through.
Just like the camping stove, a dedicated portable camping grill brings up issues around storage and weight. If you are into car camping and want to take your game to the next level, I suggest taking the plunge and getting a grill.
Open Fire Pit with a Grate
Now I just told you about the downsides of the open fire pit when we discussed why you might want a covered grill. But inconsistent heat isn't an issue when you are cooking something you are watching very closely or using cookware that evenly redistributes the heat to help inspire consistent cooking like cast iron, hobo packs, and pie irons.
A great example of watching is marshmallow roasting. It is really easy to spot a flaming marshmallow, and that might even be part of the fun. Other items that fall into this category are the steak. If you are watching it and constantly moving it around you might be able to get even cooking over an open fire pit fueled with wood. But remember with either of these items you want protective cookware like fire safe tongs or a roasting stick to get your food near the flame but save your fingers.
On distributive cookware just like a grill or a stove, you’re going to need to invest in the cookware. That can range anywhere from the $5 for a roll of foil to $50+ for a camping specific Dutch oven. You’ll also need to deal with the hassles of sooty cleanup if you choose a reusable option. It can be a bit of extra work, but also a lot of fun to cook over an open fire.
There is no right or wrong answer to what kind of fire source is best for camp cooking. If you are ready for a quick review or just skimmed the article it is worth checking out our video to get the highlights on bringing the heat for your camp cookery.