Which fuel should you use for your camping stove? Butane or propane? It’s quite a simple question, but there are several factors to consider. If you’re looking for an expert opinion on the topic, then keep reading!
What is the difference between Butane and Propane?
Butane and propane are both gases under normal room temperature and pressure conditions. They are termed hydrocarbons (alkanes to be precise), and this means that they only differ in the amount of hydrogen and carbon atoms in each molecule.
It’s all in the Molecules
One molecule of butane (shown opposite) has a higher number of carbon (4 vs 3) and hydrogen atoms (8 vs 6) than a molecule of propane. This means that butane is more dense and slightly more flammable with a higher calorific value.
Butane and propane can both be compressed into gas canisters. Under the high pressure of the compression process, both gases turn into liquids. This is why when you shake a gas canister you can hear the liquid sloshing around inside. In this form, they are know as Liquid Petroleum Gases (LPG).
So far, so similar – so where do these LPGs differ? Well it comes down to the temperature of your surroundings and the atmospheric pressure (altitude) you’ll be trying to operate your gas stove at.
Temperature Performance – Butane vs Propane
Boiling is the process whereby a liquid starts evaporating into a gas, and butane boils at a much higher temperature than propane. The boiling point of butane is -0.5°C which is very close to the freezing point of water, and a typical temperature to encounter in Winter in the UK.
If the temperature of your surroundings drops below the boiling point of butane (-1°C), then your liquid butane will not be able to extract enough heat from its surroundings to boil and will not flow out of your camping stove at a high enough rate for lighting. Therefore if you think the temperature is going to be well below -1°C then there is only one choice of LPG fuel – propane!
The boiling point of propane is down at -42°C and so you’re always going to be ok unless you’re camping out near the South Pole in Winter!
So why not always use Propane? What are the advantages of Butane?
Well this is a good question. Butane requires less pressure to be stored as a liquid which means there’s much less chance of explosions if the canister gets ruptured in some way.
Butane canisters also don’t need to be as thick as propane ones and are less heavy as a result. Also, butane is often cheaper and more widely available than propane. Convenience counts when camping!
Butane also burns 12% more efficiently than propane, meaning that you need to burn less of it to heat a particular volume of water up. Saves cash!
Which LPG is best for High Altitude Camping? Butane or Propane?
Because propane has a lower boiling point it is preferential for cooking at higher altitudes where the air pressure is lower. It is also slightly less volatile than butane which makes it ideal as an all-round camping stove fuel where safety may be important (e.g. if there are kids around).
Is Butane or Propane better for Cold Camping?
As mentioned above, in cold conditions which are close to or below freezing we would recommend using propane. It’s not going to let you down under any circumstances, and so you may feel that it’s worth paying a little extra for it.
Hedging bets between the two fuel types is best accomplished by buying a stove that runs on both. This way, you can purchase whichever one is cheaper at any given time and your camping gear will always be ready to go.
Despite these differences between propane and butane as fuels, both will do a solid job of getting your food cooked while out on most camping trips!
Canister Colours – Butane vs Propane
To help identify the two fuels, butane is typically stored in blue canisters, while propane is typically stored in red/orange canisters. This makes them easy to distinguish, even if you’re colour blind!
You have to watch out though because sometimes they are stored in other colours than this – always worth reading the label to double check!
Is it safe to mix both fuels in one canister?
Propane is often mixed with a slightly different hydrocarbon to butane – this is known as isobutane.
Isobutane is an isomer of butane. An isomer is a different arrangement of the atoms in the molecule, but with the same count of carbon and hydrogen.
Isobutane is expensive but has a lower boiling point than butane of -12°C and can therefore be used in colder conditions. It can be used on its own or as part of a mixture with propane.
If you are camping at super high altitude in the alps or equivalent mountains then you might need a specific gas stove that can use isobutane. However, the advantages are that the gas canister is lighter than for propane (easier to carry in a backpack) and that you get more heat per unit volume of gas used – higher efficiency!
Propane and standard butane can also be mixed together in a canister, and miraculously the boiling point becomes a sort of average of the two. Can definitely be useful, but is likely to be more expensive than one or the other separately.
Can I use a camp stove indoors
You can theoretically use a gas stove indoors as long as the room is very well ventilated with fresh air flow. You need to be aware that carbon monoxide is given off whenever there is incomplete combustion of the gas – people have been killed by this colourless, odourless poison.
It is usually best to avoid using a gas stove indoors unless it is an absolute emergency.
What are some other options for cooking outdoors when there’s no electricity available?
There are many other fuels which can be used for cooking outdoors, such as alcohol or solid fuels such as wood.
Wood is a great option for people who like to cook over a larger open fire, but you have to be sure of having access to dry wood and be mindful of the fire, which can quickly get out of hand.
Alcohol is an easy to find fuel source that doesn’t require a lot to create warmth or cook food.
As you can see from the above, there are many different options for fuel to use with a camping stove. It is important to make sure that you have the right fuel for the conditions and know how your cooking device will work with it. Once you’ve made these decisions, get out into nature!