Camper van stove – what fuel is best?

When it comes to a van stove, fuel is one of the most important considerations. Learn about different fuel types to find out which one is right for you.
propane van stove burner with pot

Unless you’re a raw vegan, you likely need a stove and/or oven in your camper van. A van stove is also good for more than cooking. For instance, on a cold night over Christmas, Jeremy and I turned on our propane stove to take the chill off the van. Aside from whether you want an oven, there are three major things to consider when selecting a stove. But if you want an oven, propane is only way to go, as far as I know.

First, the number of burners. Many van lifers are pros at one-pot or one-pan meals because they only have one burner. Two or more burners give you more options, but the extra burners take up more space. However, this isn’t a decision to lose sleep over. Second, do you want a portable or permanently installed stove? A portable stove allows you cook outside in the summer if you have an indoor kitchen. They’re also easy to replace if they crap out on you. In addition, you can stow them when not in use to give you more counter space. Third, what do you want to fuel your stove? This is the big one. That’s why we’ll go through the different fuel options below.

Contents

Induction

induction stoves are popular van stoves
Look at that sleek stove!

According to the EPA, electricity is an alternative fuel for vehicles. We’ll consider it an alternative fuel for van stoves as well. Induction stoves, also called cooktops, are fueled by electricity. They are a sleek, modern choice for your camper van kitchen. They’re also one of only two stove options if you want a permanently installed stove.

Induction cooktops heat up fast, like instantly. In addition, the cooking surface always remains cool to the touch. This means the stove itself won’t heat up your van, only the food you’re cooking. One disadvantage is you need magnetic-based cookware for the induction heating to work. In other words, they must be steel or cast iron. However, the biggest downside is power.

You need good battery capacity and a good way to keep them charged to run an induction stove on a regular basis. Also, induction cooktops require the use of an inverter. Going from DC to AC also wastes precious power. I’ve heard of folks tripping their inverters because of the large power draw. On the other hand, if the idea of having an explosive gas tank in your van makes you shudder, an induction cooktop is worth it. 

Propane

van in campground parking lot with stove in front
Portable propane awesomeness with two burners and an oven.

Propane is a popular fuel choice for a van stove. This is the only other stove on the list you can permanently install. Like the rest of the fuel options on our list, propane doesn’t use electricity. Duh. Other than fueling your stove, propane can also fuel a water heater and/or winter heater. And propane works fine in cold temperatures. You can use small, single-use propane bottles or large refillable tanks. Also, you can refill or swap out a large propane tank almost anywhere – gas station, Walmart, Home Depot, etc. While propane is explosive, a propane tank doesn’t just go boom! So, don’t worry too much about carrying around a propane tank. 

What you need to worry about is the propane leaking. A poor hose connection or lifting tank relief valve could leak propane. Additionally, if you forget to isolate the tank and bump a stove knob, you could end up with propane in your van. As a result, it’s best to have an explosive gas monitor installed. An even better idea is an explosive gas and carbon monoxide (CO) monitor. Cooking with propane produces CO. To prevent CO from building up, ventilate the van well while cooking.

Now let’s talk about the stove itself. If an oven strikes your fancy, it’s not hard to find a propane stove with an oven. If you want a portable stove, look for one with a windscreen. It makes cooking outside faster and easier. Also, look at the BTU output of the stove. The higher the BTUs the quicker it’ll heat your meal. We chose the Camp Chef Oven because we wanted a portable two-burner stove with an oven. Our only complaint is the burners don’t go down as low as I’d like for simmering. Not a deal breaker though!

Butane

christina making coffee in a parking lot
That butane stove served us well on road trips.

Butane is a lightweight gas alternative to propane. But when it comes to cooking, the stoves limit you to 8-ounce nonrefillable canisters. And unlike propane, butane doesn’t work well in colder temperatures. Additionally, the canisters aren’t the easiest to find. However, Jeremy and I used a butane stove when living out of my car on road trips and loved it. The one-burner stove was light, compact and easy to store, making it a good van stove as well.

Isobutane

backpacking stoves work well as a van stove backup
My little backpacking stove is great on the trail and is a good backup for the van too!

Isobutane is a mix of propane and butane. It is the fuel of choice for many backpackers. The nonrefillable canisters come in three different sizes, 4, 8 and 16 ounces. Isobutane works better at colder temperatures than butane alone. Since we go backpacking anyway, we have an isobutane stove and canisters packed away in Mark. If we ever run out of propane, it’s a fine backup stove.

Alcohol

homemade alcohol backpacking stove
Although my homemade backpacking alcohol stove was lightweight, it took a long time to boil cold water.

Denatured alcohol isn’t the popular kid in class for four reasons. One, the BTU output is less than that of propane or butane. Two, the alcohol doesn’t smell great as it burns. Three, there’s no fuel gauge on alcohol stoves. Four, it’s easy to spill the alcohol when refilling the stove.

On the other hand, there’s no pressurized fuel container to worry about. Also, denatured alcohol is available hardware stores, Walmart, and marine stores. What’s not super available are the stoves themselves. Dometic makes a nice, portable two-burner alcohol stove and… That’s the only big one I know about it. But small single burner alcohol stoves are popular among backpackers. And you can use them as a van stove too! Or if you’re feeling froggy, you can even make one out of aluminum cans!

What’s fueling your van stove?

If you want a permanently installed stove, induction or propane is the way to go. Looking for a lightweight, portable stove? Butane is a great choice. If you prefer a stove with easy to find fuel source, alcohol might be your thing. Whatever it is you want, there’s a stove out there for you! What’s going to fuel your stove and why? Let us know in the comments!

Wondering which van stove is best? An in-depth stove comparison is coming at some point. There’s just so much to write about and so little time! Don’t want to miss out? Sign up for our newsletter down in the footer!

Need help with your van layout? Check out our Camper Van Layout and Design guide!

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Christina

Christina

I served 11 years in the Navy, and in 2014 I thru hiked the Appalachian Trail. These experiences helped prepare me for vanlife. My husband and I now live in our self-converted van, Mark.

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About Us

We left “normal” life behind and now live in our self-converted van, Mark. Our time in the military and backpacking adventures made vanlife an easy choice. The leap into vanlife and a self-conversion can be exciting yet daunting. We want to share our experiences and provide resources to give you vanlife your way, and the highway.

jeremy and christina at sunset

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