If you’re going camping, you may have noticed that your stove says it uses only a certain type of fuel.
Many lightweight camping stoves use butane, while propane gas stoves are more likely to be of the heavier, two-burner green Coleman variety — the ones that look like suitcases.
Butane stoves are designed to use only butane gas. Trying to use a propane canister could result in a weak flame or a dangerous situation.
While some people will tell you that it’s fine to use any type of flammable gas in camping stoves, doing so could result in an explosion — or a dinky flame that will take forever to cook your food.
Butane and Propane Aren’t Interchangeable
Though butane and propane both burn and can be used in different camping canister stoves, they aren’t the same thing.
Propane has a much higher vapor pressure than butane. That means it presses against the inside of its container harder than butane does, which is why it comes in tough, heavy steel containers, while butane can be packed in lighter canisters.
That’s also why butane stoves are generally designed to be lighter — they’re better for backpacking trips or any time you’re carrying all your supplies with you.
That said, Amazon and other websites are filled with single-burner camping stoves that can screw onto any type of canister fuel.
I’ve used one of these stoves with an isobutane canister and it worked well — but I can’t in good conscience recommend doing this, as the quality control you’ll get from a $20 no-name stove simply won’t be the same as what you’ll get from a well-established outdoors brand (not to mention the lack of a warranty).
I’ll also get into the differences between butane, propane, isobutane, and other types of fuel further down in this piece.
Keep in mind that while some butane and propane canisters use the same threading, others are useable only with certain brands of stoves.
Check your stove’s instructions to avoid wasting money on a fuel source that won’t fit your burner!
While you might be able to get a butane stove working by hooking up a propane canister to it, it isn’t a good idea to do so.
The stove isn’t designed to use that type of fuel, so it could add too much air into the mixture, or the fuel could come out too quickly, leading to an explosion or an unexpectedly large jet of flame.
Again, due to the butane stove’s design, the fact that the air mixture is off could result in a weak, yellow flame.
Portable stoves should burn clear or slightly blue — the flame should be almost invisible in the daytime, aside from a shimmer due to the intense heat.
While this can be kind of scary, it means your stove is working well and correctly heating your food and water!
Different Fuels for Different Situations
- White gas
- Kerosene (A.K.A jet fuel)
Certain fuels work better in certain environments. For instance, butane is lighter to pack than propane, but it can sometimes fail to work well in the cold or at high altitudes.
It freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, meaning it’s much more suitable for warm weather camping and hiking. If your trip won’t get too far below room temperature, it’s a great choice.
Propane works much better in cold temperatures and is more widely available. However, it’s heavier, making it a pain to pack for longer trips.
These aren’t the only fuels you can use. The canister stove market has many makes and models, each using different types of fuel, which, in turn, have their own strengths and weaknesses.
Isobutane is a common blended gas that is about as light as butane — it has the same molecular formula — but it burns down to 11 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s usually more expensive than normal butane, as it’s more costly to process.
Some outdoors brands sell their own mixtures, which can work well in a variety of conditions.
For instance, MSR makes IsoPro fuel, which is a mix of 80 percent isobutane and 20 percent propane.
This gives it great cold-weather tolerance while retaining much of the lightness of isobutane.
If you need to go even lower than 11 degrees, you should think about liquid fuels, which perform better in winter conditions.
Gasoline is very resistant to cold weather and is available at any gas station, making it incredibly easy to source. But it can burn dirty — later on, I’ll tell you a story about trying to use gasoline in a multi-fuel stove.
White gas, also known as naphtha or camping fuel, is a cleaner version of gasoline (white gas is short for white gasoline). It’ll burn with the same heat, but won’t muck up your stove.
Kerosene, also known as jet fuel, is — you guessed it — the same thing used in jet engines.
While that’s almost cool enough on its own to justify buying a kerosene stove, note that kerosene also generates the most heat of any camping stove fuel, which means you can quickly boil water and cook with it.
In addition, kerosene can be found at many hardware stores. That said, it can be harder to ignite. Keep in mind that kerosene is known as paraffin in the United Kingdom.
If you’re not sure what fuel or mixture is best for your stove, you can always visit an outdoors store and talk to an employee there. They’ll most likely be happy to guide you to a fuel source that makes sense for your camping habits and abilities.
Some stoves are designed to use many different fuels, giving campers flexibility in choosing what to burn.
This can come in handy when you’re hiking over a multi-day trip in various types of weather or elevations, or when you aren’t sure where the next camping store will be.
Instead of searching frantically for an outdoors store that sells isobutane canisters, you can fill up at any gas station.
It’s also great in the event of supply shortages. Sometimes, at the beginning of camping season, supply stores can run out of camping fuel, causing a would-be backpacker (like me) to have to drive an hour just to get fuel.
A stove that runs on propane or gasoline can bypass these shortages.
However, I can tell you from personal experience that — aside from its availability — gasoline isn’t always the best choice for burning.
The multi-fuel stove that I used when I was a Scout allowed me to burn gasoline, but it also burned very dirty, producing a thick, acrid smoke and making me very unpopular.
When I took it on a snowshoeing trip up a mountain, it took forever to melt snow to make my lunch. I was still waiting, sitting in a cloud of smoke, while my friends using isobutane and white gas stoves were chowing down.
Now I’m back to an isobutane stove, which, despite the occasional availability challenge, works great.
Safety First — Don’t Use a Camping Stove in a Tent
Tent material is generally very flammable, so you shouldn’t place an exposed flame anywhere near it.
Also, by putting a camping stove in your tent, you run the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning, as the flame burns up the oxygen in an enclosed space.
People die this way every year! Always use camping stoves in areas with plenty of ventilation.
While some propane heaters are designed for use in tents, propane and butane stoves are definitely not.
Another Safety Tip for Camping Stoves
Back when I was starting out camping, I wasn’t good at it. I brought a big, 14-inch steel skillet for my tiny single-burner camping stove, which was designed to hold a small, camping-sized pot or pan.
Before I started cooking, I didn’t screw the butane canister tightly enough into the stove. When I lit it, the resulting gas leak at the seams, combined with the flame being flattened by the enormous pan, lit the leaking gas on fire.
That caused flames to shoot out of the canister as well as the stove burner. I quickly threw it away and alerted my camping buddies, and we all hid behind our van.
The butane canister took longer than I expected to explode — almost a minute of shooting out flame — but it did, and it sounded like a gunshot. It tore the steel camping stove to shreds and launched sharp hunks of metal far away.
Luckily, no one was hurt (including the van), so it remains a semi-funny cautionary tale.
Remember, camping stoves are essentially flaming pressurized gas. Use them correctly and you’ll be fine, but respect the danger they pose!
Can You Use Propane in a Butane Lighter?
No. It’s the same idea here — refillable lighters are designed to work with only a specific type of fuel.
The resulting explosion might be smaller than the one that would occur if you used the wrong type of fuel in a stove, but it’s still capable of hurting you.
Can You Use Propane in a Butane Heater?
This isn’t a good idea either. Some portable camping heaters are designed to use either propane or butane, but if your heater instructions recommend using a certain type of fuel, you should stick to that.
What About Using Butane in a Propane Stove?
All the aforementioned problems go both ways. Propane stoves are designed to use only propane, just as butane stoves are designed to use only butane.
This means you also shouldn’t use butane in a propane stove. Any way you slice it, it’s best to stick with what the manufacturer recommends.
So, should you burn a non-recommended fuel in your camping stove? No. Might it work? Sure, but the risks definitely outweigh the benefits.
It’s worth the trip to the camping supply store to get the right type of fuel, rather than risking an injury or a miserable trip with lukewarm food.
I hope you’ve learned some other safety tips and camping pointers from my past misfortune. Read the instructions, double-check your seals, and if you see a flame that shouldn’t be there — run.
Hopefully, this article on "can you use propane in a butane stove" gave you a chance to think about what type of camping stove and fuel is best for you and your outdoor needs.
Whether you’re a seasoned backpacker looking for an upgrade, or a total newbie searching for your first-ever portable stove, the main thing is to stay safe and enjoy cooking in the great outdoors.
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Jack Hauen is a freelance writer and backpacking aficionado. When he's not writing, he can often be found in the Algonquin backcountry, wheezing through a portage that looked smaller on the map.