Different camp fuels we will consider, Alcohol Fuel, Gas Canisters, Chemical Solid Fuels, Wood. Wood is the least healthy camp fuel. Alcohol is the cleanest burning camp fuel and gets our vote.
Inconvenient as it may be, there is no one single camp fuel that is the “healthiest” option for cooking food—things like what you are cooking, how you are cooking, and even what you mean by “healthy” all factor in this discussion.
No camping fuel is inherently dangerous to your health in the sense that your health may be at risk, but the way you use it can make it unsafe. If you stick your hand in the flame or lock yourself in a near-airtight room and light yourself a roaring fire, you’re going to have issues. But for the more typical—and sensible—ways a camp fuel might be used, they’re mostly equal in terms of danger to your health. Mostly, we’ll talk about wood shortly.
In general, alcohol is considered the most environmentally friendly, which may fit your idea of healthy. On the other hand, gas fuel will give you more bang for your buck in terms of carry-weight, and for long treks through rough terrain, it’s understandable to consider weight-reduction a significant factor in a fuel’s “healthiness” rating.
We’re going to take a closer look at all of the common fuel types used when cooking out in the great outdoors. Hopefully, by the end of this post, you will at least be able to make an informed decision on which camp fuel you want to use, whatever your criteria for healthy is.
Different Camp Fuels
The natural place to start is with an overview of what camp fuels we’re dealing with. We’re limiting this post to common fuels using in camping settings, so you won’t see any “old engine oil” or “gasoline” here. You can use things like that to cook with… but you shouldn’t.
Used exclusively in alcohol stoves (don’t squirt your alcohol fuel over a campfire!), alcohol is a versatile fuel since multiple different kinds of alcohol can be used. The stoves that use it are often extremely compact, lightweight, so simple that they can be made at home, and the fuel itself is easier to get hold of than the more popular gas. The main downside to alcohol is that it contains less energy than some of the alternatives, which means you have to carry more of it to get the same amount of use. It also means that cooking times take longer since an alcohol stove cannot achieve the same heat level as, say, a butane hob.
That being said, it is an incredibly efficient fuel (depending on which stove alcohol you buy); it may not carry as much energy as propane, but it uses all of that energy, burning so cleanly that the flame is often invisible. Of course, invisible flames represent a risk of accidental burning, which you should factor in if you are looking for the safest fuel. Still, alcohol is by far the safest fuel in terms of exhaust gasses. We wouldn’t recommend lighting your alcohol stove in an enclosed space, but if the fumes coming off of your stove are a concern, alcohol is probably your best bet.
Gas stoves are the most commonly used thanks to their efficiency, heat, and portable nature. Gas comes usually comes in canisters of varying sizes, is light, and can get a lot of use out of a seemingly small canister.
The main advantage of a gas stove is that they burn quite hot, meaning you don’t have to wait as long for your water to boil, and you don’t have to carry enormous amounts of fuel to ensure you’ll be able to cook your food. You can also control the level of heat you are getting through the use of a control valve, which will usually be part of the stove you are using.
On the other hand, the canisters are not something you can easily refill, and you can only buy them from specialist outdoor stores or stores in areas where there is a lot of camping, so the store owners have decided to stock up on this popular product.
Compared to other fuels, gas canisters are light, making them ideal for backpacking, and the stoves that use them can range in size from a substantial grill that could feed a small group to pocket-sized stoves that screw directly on to the gas canister.
Gas canisters are the best option when considering cost-effectiveness, but they do put out more fumes than alcohol stoves. Not so much that you should be worried about using a gas canister stove on your camping trip, but if we’re talking about safety, it’s worth mentioning. Another thing worth mentioning is that there is a risk of explosion with these canisters.
Granted, it is a very small risk, and in the few instances it has happened, it has usually been the result of not being used correctly, but the risk is there. You could accidentally ignite alcohol, but it wouldn’t explode.
Chemical Solid Fuels
Solid fuels are solid materials that burn, like wood. Unlike wood, chemical solid fuels are treated or manufactured to give them better properties for burning in a stove or campfire. They will typically be easier to light and burn for longer than a natural fuel of the same size.
In terms of safety, when transporting, chemical solid fuels are safer than gas or alcohol due to not being as easy to ignite, and there being no risk of explosion.
Chemical solid fuels like this usually come in small pieces, like pellets, and burn hot and quick. They do leave a bit of a mess behind, so that is something you will have to deal with after you have finished cooking.
Nature’s own fuel source. Wood is obviously not the easiest thing to carry due to the amount you would need to equal one of the above options in energy output. Despite wood being the primary source of fuel for fires for tens of thousands of years, it is actually not that efficient, and burns much less hotly than chemical, gas, or alcohol fuels.
Another aspect that often gets overlooked about wood is that it needs to be “seasoned” in order to burn properly. This dramatically reduces the chance that you will be able to find suitable firewood just lying around. Unseasoned wood—that is, wood that has not had a season or two to dry out—will not only be harder to light but will burn much less hotly and produce a lot of smoke. Unless there is a store selling firewood where you are camping, the only way to guarantee you will be able to get seasoned firewood is by taking it with you, and wood is by far the least portable of the camp fuel options listed in this post.
Alcohol Gets Our Vote
All things considered, we think alcohol is the healthiest camp fuel you can use for cooking. It may be a little bulkier than gas canisters, but there is no risk of explosions, and it is friendlier on the environment thanks to its incredibly efficient burning process. Furthermore, alcohol is a sterilizing agent, which may come in handy when out in the wilderness.
And if you find yourself in a one-road town in the middle of nowhere, you’re far more likely to be able to purchase more alcohol for your stove than a replacement gas canister. Just be sure to observe proper safety measures when using alcohol stoves. Remember, the flame is much less visible than with other methods, so don’t assume it has gone out just because you can’t see it.
Ultimately, there isn’t much to separate alcohol and gas canisters when we are talking purely about which one is healthiest; either is fine. But from a convenience standpoint, it is hard to argue against the gas canisters. You get more fire from a smaller amount of space, and much more control over that fire when it is lit. Not to mention, it can burn much hotter than any of the other alternatives.
In short, even though we think alcohol is probably slightly healthier when it comes to cooking your food, gas canisters are probably the better all-round package. And us picking alcohol is in no way a statement that gas canisters are unhealthy. As long as you cook your food properly and safely, you should be just fine with either.