Fuel for the Fire: Tips to Keep Your Water Boiling and Food Hot

Parked in a construction quarry beside a quiet, muddy road between the villages of Loebetsi and Kibangou in the Democratic Republic of Congo, my son, Keelan, struggled to cook a meal as we dealt with a debilitating mechanical issue and the sunset. We had recently run out of propane, and now the price was being paid; Keelan was forced to scavenge for dry firewood in a region known for Gaboon vipers, cobras, and the bright-green black mambas. We had miscalculated and found the limitations of the supply of our chosen cooking fuel, impressive though it had been.

Over the years, we have tried every portable cooking fuel available to man while traveling globally. Each fuel source has its pros and cons, its strengths and weaknesses. But one fuel source, carried in correct quantities, trumps them all. This article will focus on the cooking fuel needs of a couple or family traveling a long distance over a long period of time and consider the sources of fuel available.

campfire fuel

Charcoal and Wood

While there is nothing better than a campfire and a meal cooked over hot coals, using this method daily is generally not a practical option, especially when the weather turns, the wind blows, and the heavens open. Transporting wood is sometimes problematic due to the shape and density of logs. Burning wood itself can be inconvenient as wet wood creates plumes of smoke, and some dry wood burns too fast; sparks from a campfire can also cause disastrous wildfires. Charcoal, while easier to transport than wood and less volatile, is still dense and generally quite dirty. Why would we transport either fossil fuel, you ask? It is not guaranteed that either will be available at your destination, and there are frequently strict laws concerning harvesting fallen and dead wood, as the detritus is an integral part of a wooded ecosystem. Charcoal and wood are, in our experience, the second most prevalent fuel sources available internationally, and you will find large bags of coal even in the driest desert community, part of a spiral of deforestation. We try to cook with wood or charcoal twice a week, usually the night before a rest day or in a camp with suitable facilities. For years, a small collapsible braai has accompanied us, most often used to burn charcoal and with space to grill enough protein for a family of four. We usually carry a large bag of charcoal and make space on the roof rack for good-quality wood when heading to the beach for a few days, but never rely on either charcoal or wood as our primary cooking fuel—it’s a luxury.

Tip: For an affordable homemade lighter, create a “bowl” the size of your cupped hand with a few sheets of paper towels or toilet paper. Place the bowl at the center of your fuel—whether wood or coal—filling it with a few tablespoons of cooking oil. Light the edges before packing the fuel around the growing flame. We learned this method in Venezuela. It is foolproof and convenient; the only drawback is the slight odor.

fuel kettle gasfuel stove

Diesel and Gasoline

We have limited experience with diesel stoves and a decade of experience with gasoline stoves; both fuel sources are the most readily available internationally. Our experience with a diesel stove is that it is perfectly competent if running well. Otherwise, error codes and shutdown processes (I am specifically referring to a Webasto diesel stove) can drive you to the edge of distraction. Diesel stoves also tend to be slow to heat and eye-wateringly expensive, ranging from $600 to $3,500, the cost of which will not soon be defrayed by the availability of relatively low-cost diesel fuel. The only good reason to use a diesel stove would be the universal availability of diesel, as is the case with the next liquid-fuel-burning contender, the controversial and most popular gas burner, the Coleman Dual Fuel Stove. Designed many centuries ago (or so it seems) to run on gasoline or white gas, the stove is loved by some and despised by others. I have written extensively about the Coleman Dual Fuel on Expedition Portal and will not again vent my frustration other than to tell you that it is dated technology and should not be used indoors; much better options are available. Here is the summary of my long-term review: the Coleman stove is perfect for those who drive an ancient 4WD once a month to a place with few people and a great view—where you can potter about camp, gin in hand after a short hike, bird spotting. A significant drawback of a gasoline stove, more so than a diesel-fueled stove, is that petrol is volatile and dangerous to carry; it burns hot and relatively clean but ignites too quickly. Despite global availability, diesel and gasoline would be close to the bottom of our list of preferred fuels for cooking stoves.

Tip: If you must use a Coleman Dual Fuel, use only the cleanest fuel available, and remember to add a small amount of injector cleaner (the type you use in your vehicle) to keep the system from blocking up.

Induction Stoves

After clicking on the inverter, I power on the camper’s induction stove and select the desired heat. Within seconds, the kettle receives a blast of heat, and in a few minutes, I pour hot water over my coffee strainer. When cooking a meal, I can adjust the heat of the hot plate on demand and can easily achieve a red-hot skillet for a rare steak. That convenience, however, comes at a price. I have to either pay for a campsite and hook up to mains or have a battery bank of four 100-amp-hour lithium batteries to satisfy the Putin-esque (power-hungry) induction stove. Camped on the beach for two weeks, far from civilization, we learned that our power resources had to be managed carefully. If there had been insufficient sunshine, the solar panels wouldn’t be able to deliver enough “juice” to power the induction cooker, the Starlink, our computers, the fridge, and the camper’s lights. More often than not, we would have to rely on our fallback propane cooker or make a cooking fire under the stars. As portable battery and solar technologies continue to evolve, it is foreseeable that eventually, self-generated power will be more than up to the task but will nevertheless require a substantial investment to ensure a dependable onboard system. It is for this reason that, currently, the induction cooker will not populate the top of our fuel-powered cooker list.

Tip: The induction stove is maintenance-free, but your onboard power system is not. Keep an eye on your voltage and battery status, and cook meals that can be supported by the power available; a stir-fry is better suited to the induction cooker than a multi-hour stew pot.

fuel induction cooktop


Camped in Italy, we found that our 16-pound propane gas tank purchased in the UK had finally run out four months after purchase. A quick drive into town found us negotiating the purchase of a new gas tank from a surprisingly glamorous Italian lady dressed in blue overalls with a fresh haircut. It was determined through sign language and broken conversation that the Italian propane valve system was quite different from the British one, and instead of filling our bottle, a new tank would have to be purchased. To our surprise and delight, a full Italian propane tank was roughly $40 as the Italian government subsidizes the propane industry. Italy is one of many countries that rely on propane for domestic cooking and heating (reminding us of the aforementioned Mr. Putin), and in these countries, the profit margins are low. It occurred to us then that it would be cheaper and more convenient to buy a new tank and change propane line adapters when needed than to use another fuel source. We allotted a space in the camper for the large propane tank and measured the usage until a swap was required. Six months later, after a tour of Europe and Turkey using the cooker twice a day on average to feed a family of four, we found ourselves in a campsite in Morocco asking the camp administrator where to find a new, full propane tank. He made a phone call, and half an hour later, a man driving a small Japanese pickup truck arrived and sold us the new can for roughly 35.

Propane is as universally popular as it is a cheap, reliable, and effective fuel source. Unlike gasoline or diesel, the gas burns cleaner and does not emit harmful quantities of nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, hydrocarbons, benzene, or formaldehyde, and can generally be safely used within a small but well-ventilated space such as a camper or tent. Once the propane tank is full, we hook it up to the camper stove and forget about it; there is no need for maintenance, refills, or top-ups. Propane is preferable to butane, as their respective boiling points and availability are the main distinctions between them. Propane exhibits superior tolerance to lower temperatures, making it suitable for vehicles with outdoor storage or no built-in space heater. Conversely, butane performs more efficiently when stored indoors since it is less effective in colder climates and is most commonly used as a refrigerant and propellant. If you find that you are only able to refill your tank with butane (which will not be often as it is rarely available), you will need to change your regulator, as the two gasses operate at different pressures.

The use of propane seemed the conclusive answer to our cooking fuel problems. However, six months after purchasing the new propane tank in Morocco, we finally ran out of propane in Gabon and could find no replacement or refill facilities. It wasn’t until a month later that we found a new propane tank in Angola for roughly, you guessed it, $40 ($40 divided by six months = $6.66). You read that correctly; it costs us a mere $6.66 per month to cook up to two meals a day for a family of four. We have not had any significant problems purchasing propane tanks or refills outside of Western Africa. For an excellent, comprehensive guide to the fuel, please refer to the inimitable Gary Wescott’s “Propane, It’s a Gas” article in the Gear 2021 issue.

Tip: Carry an assortment of hose adapters to ensure that you are able to swap to the various attachments and threads you will encounter internationally. A propane fuel filter may be required to run some propane stoves on a large tank instead of a Coleman or MSR-type, 16-ounce can. Additionally, write the refill date on your large-capacity propane tank for accurate usage calculation.

Lindal Valve Mixed Fuel—Carry A Backup

Many overland travelers enjoy hiking as it is an activity that complements our lifestyle and requires a minimum of excess gear. Much of your hiking gear can be integrated into your day-to-day, on-the-road routine. A small camping stove paired with a few cans of Lindal valve mixed fuel will serve you well on the trail, when your primary cooking system fails, or you run out of fuel. In North America, the most common Lindal valve fuel can is the ubiquitous, single-use, 16-ounce, green Coleman propane cylinder [multi-use, refillable options from other brands are available], which generally lasts long enough to cook a handful of meals and boil a few kettles. The term Lindal valve mixed fuel is informally employed to describe cartridges featuring the 7/16-inch unified-extra-fine (UNEF) threaded valve, utilized in disposable cartridges containing propane, as well as butane/isobutane/propane mixtures. These cartridges are used in certain backpacking stoves, and the accurate designation for this valve is the Lindal B188 valve. With the correct adapters installed in line, the compact Lindal B188 valve fuel cans should be compatible with a larger two- or three-burner propane cooking stove in addition to the compact hiking stoves. The drawback to the portable Lindal B118 cans is that they are often unavailable in the more remote corners of the earth, and you may find that without them, your backup cooking system is a burden rather than an asset. You will find, however, that it is in these parts of the world where coal and wood are the most common combustible fuel sources, and you may resort to carrying a large bag of coal until you replenish your liquid gas.


Of all the fuel types we have used over the years, propane has proven to be the cheapest and third most abundant in developed or developing countries. Yes, a large tank takes up a large amount of space, but it is space well-used and preferable to carrying extra supplies of gasoline or diesel, depending on the type of fuel your vehicle consumes. For instance, we drove a diesel-powered vehicle when using the Coleman stove, which was inconvenient. In the future, we may change to an induction stove when we are able to install a suitable power system, but for now, at least, propane remains the king of fuels.

fuel coleman

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Read more: The Best Camp Stoves for Overlanding

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Overland Journal’s Gear 2024 Issue.

Graeme Bell is an author and explorer who has dedicated his life to traveling the planet by land, seeking adventure and unique experiences. Together with his wife and two children, Graeme has spent the last decade living permanently on the road in a self-built Land Rover based camper. They have explored 27 African countries (including West Africa), circumnavigated South America, and driven from Argentina to Alaska, which was followed by an exploration of Europe and Western Asia before returning to explore the Americas. Graeme is the Senior Editor 4WD for Expedition Portal, a member of the Explorers Club, the author of six books, and an Overland Journal contributor since 2015. You can follow Graeme's adventures across the globe on Instagram at graeme.r.bell