Camping Gas Explained

Which gas is best for camping and backpacking? Which gas canisters will work with my stove? And how long will a canister last? All your burning questions about camping gas answered…

29th April 2024 | Words by Matt Jones @ WildBounds HQ

For bikepacking and backpacking adventures in the UK, a camping stove that runs on pressurised canister gas has become the most popular choice for building a versatile yet lightweight cooking system. This includes small and compact screw-in canister top stoves like the MSR Pocket Rocket or SOTO Windmaster, remote canister ‘spider’ stoves like the Primus Express Spider II, and ‘all-in-one’ personal cooking systems like the MSR Windburner or Primus Lite Plus.

All these stoves run on gas canisters filled with a mix of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). These systems are ideal for backpacking as they are relatively lightweight yet deliver fast boiling and cooking times. They’re also simple to set up and easy to use. Lastly, gas canisters tend to be cleaner than other types of fuel, with less mess and minimal maintenance required.

However, despite their convenience and simplicity, many campers and backpackers – especially novices or first-time users – might wonder about their new stoves and especially about which types of camping gas to buy and use on their adventures. That’s why we’ve put together this essential guide, which answers all your 'burning’ questions (see what we did there?)

camping fuel

Can I use any type of gas canister with my stove?

Pretty much, yes. Most manufacturers of backpacking stoves, such as JetBoil, MSR, Primus, GSI Outdoors and SOTO, will usually recommend using their own brand of camping gas for optimum performance. In reality, however, you can generally use any brand of camping gas with your stove, provided the canister has a screw-in thread with an integral, self-sealing valve (known as a Lindal valve). Whilst not a truly ‘universal thread’, all canisters sold in the UK and Europe have to meet a common standard (EN417), which means that most stoves are compatible with most threaded canisters, regardless of brand.

The only major exception to this is Campingaz stoves and gas canisters, which use a different type of valve and attachment system.

camping fuel

Is all camping gas the same?

Not quite. All camping gas canisters are filled with a mix of liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), usually propane, butane and/or isobutane. If you shake a gas canister, you’ll hear this liquid sloshing about inside. However, the percentage composition of these gases differs from brand to brand.

Why does this matter? Because each of these gases have different boiling points, which mean they perform better at different temperatures. Propane has the lowest boiling point at -42°C (-43.6°F). Isobutane has a boiling point of -11.7°C (10.94°F), and butane has a boiling point of -1°C (30°F), just below the freezing point of water.

When you screw a gas canister onto your camping stove and fire it up, the liquid inside the canister boils (vaporises) and turns into gas. Due to their lower boiling points, propane and isobutane will vaporise more quickly at lower temperatures. However, if you’re camping in sub-zero weather, butane may not vaporise at all, reducing the flow of gas from the canister to the burner head of your stove.

camping fuel

Which camping gas is best?

If you expect to be camping in cold weather, look for a gas canister with a higher percentage of propane and isobutane in the mix, rather than simply butane. This is sometimes referred to as ‘four-season mix’ or 'winter gas' and will generally contain 20-30% propane combined with 70-80% isobutane. MSR Isopro, Primus Power Gas and GSI Outdoors Isobutane are all good choices. Avoid mixes that contain high percentages of butane, which tend to be a bit cheaper but are best suited to warm weather camping.

Incidentally, you might be wondering: “if propane is the best fuel, why not just use 100% propane canisters?” Well, although propane has a much lower boiling point than isobutane or butane, it’s actually slightly less efficient (producing less energy output per gram) than either of those gases. It also needs to be contained in thicker, stronger metal canisters due to its higher vapour pressure, which would make camping gas canisters too heavy to take backpacking. That’s why we use a mix of different types.

Camping fuel

How long will my gas canister last?

Firstly, it depends on what size canister you have. They're commonly available in three sizes, approximately 100g, 230g and 450g. Then, how long the canister lasts depends on numerous factors: how efficient your stove is, ambient temperature, altitude, wind speed, to name a few. But as a rule of thumb, we've found the following examples generally hold true:

  • A 100g canister combined with a simple cooking system like a SOTO Amicus screw-in stove with an aluminium or titanium pot is sufficient for a wild camping weekend.
  • A 230g canister should last for up to a week when used with a Primus Express Spider II remote canister stove or a JetBoil personal cooking system.
  • For any trip longer than that (or if you’re cooking for more than two people), go for a 450g size canister and/or carry a spare.

If you want the most fuel efficient stove to get the most out of each canister, all-in-one stove systems like the Jetboil Flash or Zip, MSR Windburner or Primus Lite Plus tend to be best, due to their enclosed, wind-resistant designs and heat exchanger cooking pots. Next best are remote canister set-ups like the Primus Express Spider II (with a ‘spider’-style burner and a gas hose that connects to the canister). Since they are positioned low to the ground, these stoves are more stable and easier to shield from the wind. In contrast, screw-in canister top stoves can be unwieldy, top-heavy and very susceptible to wind, unless you’re cooking in a sheltered spot.

camping fuel

Why does my stove struggle in cold weather?

As we touched on previously, one of the few drawbacks of gas canisters is that there is a noticeable drop off in performance at cold temperatures. Occasionally, you will see frost forming on the outside of the canister. This tends to occur when camping in cold weather or when running the stove at maximum power, since the high flow of cold gas can cool the metal surface of the canister considerably.

There are a few ways to combat this. Firstly, try to keep your gas canister as warm as possible. Keep it inside the tent rather than in the porch or vestibule, and maybe even stash it in your sleeping bag with you on very cold nights.

Secondly, make sure you’re using four-season mix gas (containing 20-30% propane and 70-80% isobutane) and not butane-based blends. This will work much better in colder temperatures.

The third option might be to opt for a remote canister stove. The major advantage of this type of stove compared to screw-in or all-in-one types is that in cold weather, you can invert the gas canister. Turning the canister upside down sends liquid fuel down the hose and also boils off the propane/isobutane fuel mix in equal proportions, which helps to keep the canister pressure constant throughout its life.

Camping fuel

How do I know when my canister is nearly empty?

When your canister is nearly empty, the pressure inside the canister drops and performance will decline. It will also feel lighter, and you’ll hear less liquefied gas sloshing around inside.

But it can still be tricky to guess exactly how much fuel you have left in a partially used canister. Of course, if you’re at home and have a set of digital kitchen scales, you can weigh the canister to work out how much gas is left.

Remember that the weight marked on the gas canister itself refers to the weight of the fuel only. The metal of the canister itself must also be included. Precise weights vary slightly from brand to brand, but generally, a 100g canister weighs about 200g when full and 100g when empty. A 230g canister weighs about 360 to 380g when full, and 130 to 150g when empty. Lastly, a 450g canister weighs 666g when full, and 216g when empty (less variation here, as fewer brands manufacture the bigger canisters).

So, if your canister is marked ‘230g’ and when you weigh it the scales read 245g, you can work out that it’s half full (or half empty, depending on whether you’re an optimist or a pessimist). Simply subtract the known empty weight of a 230g canister (i.e. 130g) from the measured weight on your scales (245g), which leaves you with 115g. That’s the weight of fuel left inside the canister. When full, it contained 230g of fuel. So, if it’s now only 115g, you’ve used exactly 50%.

Of course, people don’t generally take digital scales with them when wild camping or backpacking. Luckily, some canisters (like MSR Isopro) have a handy ‘float gauge’ printed on the side. To use this, just place the canister in a pot of water. Tip it slightly, to release any air bubbles from the concave bit in the underside of the canister. Then let it float and compare the water line with the printed float gauge on the canister. When it’s full, it will sit low in the water. As the canister empties, it will float higher in the water.

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