White Gas vs. Propane: Which Is Better?


With all the camping fuels out there, it sometimes is overwhelming deciding which one to use. All fuels have their specific advantages, and so it’s difficult to decide on which stove to get. Furthermore, knowing what the difference is between all the camp fuels is difficult since there are so many names for the same fuel!

Propane is an LPG (Liquefied Petroleum Gas), while White Gas is kept in liquid form. Propane is superior in cold tolerance, fuel efficiency per lb, ease of use, safety in storage, and is also easier to buy. White gas is better for planning exact amounts of fuel to bring, which is mostly important for backpackers or long term campers.

Differences Between White Gas and Propane

Before we jump into an analysis of what is better, let’s take a quick look at what’s different.

  • Propane is a Liquified Petroleum Gas (or LPG) that is under pressure within a sealed container. When we open an LPG tank, in normal conditions the fuel vaporizes into a gas with that characteristic hiss
  • White Gas is stored in liquid form and is not stored under pressure nor is it stored in a sealed container
  • White Gas must be used in a liquid fuel stove
  • Propane must be used in a gas stove
  • Since Propane is under pressure, it must be stored in steel containers that can withstand the pressure
  • White Gas is not stored under pressure, so it is stored in thin metal containers such as you would find paint thinner in at the hardware store
  • White Gas goes by Camp Fuel, Naphtha or Petroleum Naphtha
  • Propane often goes by Camping Gas

I did a comprehensive article on all the different camping fuels out there including butane, isobutane, propane, alcohol, white gas, gasoline, and kerosene, and I put it all in this article here. If you want to find out more about different types of camping fuels and why you would want to choose each one, take a look to find camping stove information to your heart’s content!

Which Fuel is Better? White Gas or Propane?

Ultimately, the differences and advantages of white gas to propane are small if you zoom out a little. They both will get the job done, and they are both awesome fuels. There are some important differences if you want to make the absolute best choice. If I was to make a recommendation without diving into the details, I would recommend propane to most people. Let’s dive in and figure out why.

Which Fuel Burns Hotter (Fuel Efficiency)?

This is a bit of a “hot” topic. There are lots of discrepancies out there on which gas burns hotter. I’ll do by best to put this to rest.

Energy Content

The physics are a bit interesting for this question. It turns out that propane is less dense than White Gas (it’s an LPG, or a Liquefied Petroleum Gas, so that makes sense), but per lb, propane has more energy than white gas.

While, if you’re comparing the energy content by volume, then white gas actually has more energy per gallon than propane. (all data comes from the engineering toolbox).

What’s ironic about this, is that LPG’s are often expressed by weight (since they are pressurized), while liquid fuels like white gas are expressed by volume. Does this mean there is no true comparison that works?

Ultimately, because white gas and propane are close in their energy content, however “hot” a fuel burns depend on the stove being used.

If two stoves burn the same amount of volume of fuel (white gas or propane), per minute, than white gas will burn hotter at any given moment.

If the propane stove burns at a high enough volume of fuel than the white gas per minute, then propane will burn hotter.

TL;DR

So which burns hotter?

The answer ultimately is: it depends on your stove.

To compare Apples to Oranges: Coleman’s 2-burner liquid fuel camp stove touts a 7,500 max burner BTU capacity, while Coleman’s 2-burner propane stove touts a 10,000 burner capacity. In this case, propane wins, at least based on Coleman marketing.

While in other stoves the BTU rating will swing towards white gas.

Using the Boil Test to Compare Stove Heat

A common heat benchmark that is slightly more approachable is the boil test. A boil test means to crank the stove on high allowing as much fuel to burn as possible, and seeing how fast it can boil water.

As I was doing research, I found that the stove design has way more to do with how quickly water will boil than I previously had thought. In some benchmarks that people have done, some found that the differences would be different by over a minute with the exact same type of fuel!

Another thing to consider with liquid stoves that throws off the boil test is that stoves need to be primed, which means heating the stove so the fuel will vaporize instantly creating a nice blue flame. Priming takes time, and it’s debatable whether it should be included in a boil test… but, for you, remember that it might take a couple of minutes to prime before you get to use it.

In this YouTube video, propane is faced off with a backpacking stove mix and a liquid fuel. Liquid fuels perform very similarly as do the gas stoves. Illustrating the point that the stove and the flow of fuel makes a huge difference, the propane stove boiled water in half the time of the other two stoves.

In another test with backpacking stoves, the propane boiled 2 cups of water within 3 minutes and 30 seconds.

In another test with an MSR White gas stove, 2 cups of water boiled within 4 minutes and 20 seconds.

The pots are different for all of these tests, and who knows what elevations all these tests are at– this muddies the research a bit. However, even if the pots were the exact the same across all the tests, the data shows clearly that stove design is crucial. And, ultimately, whether you use white gas or propane will matter little in heat output, so this should not be a reason why you would go with one fuel over the other. One minute less or more to boil water will not make a real difference.

Which Fuel is More Cold Tolerant?

Propane is superior in cold weather performance. Propane boils at -47 Fahrenheit (MSDS on Propane), while White Gas has a flashpoint at about -7 degrees Fahrenheit (MSDS on White Gas)

The truth is that most of the time, the coldest we will ever be camping is around 0 degrees Fahrenheit. This is extreme cold, and only in select parts of the world will we ever experience that kind of weather. While propane is technically easier to ignite in subzero temperatures, this is not generally necessary for most campers.

If you need the fuel that performs the best in cold temperatures, go with propane. Ensure you do not use butane or even isobutane, as their boiling points are higher than 0 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you are backpacking in temperatures around 0 degrees Fahrenheit, you might want to go with white gas. See the weight section for more details.

Which Fuel Burns More Cleanly?

White gas and propane burn relatively cleanly. Propane, in optimum conditions, burns to carbon dioxide and water, while in non-optimum conditions (too much or too little oxygen) burns to carbon monoxide and carbon, which shows up as soot. (Wikipedia)

I couldn’t find exactly what White Gas burns to, but anecdotally everyone says it burns very cleanly due to it not having the additives our gasoline has that we use in our vehicles.

For both fuels, you shouldn’t see meaningful soot build-up, if you do, there might be a problem with your stove. In the case of a white gas stove, such as the MSR Whisperlite, this could mean dirty fuel filters or other parts that have accumulated gunk that are messing with the oxygen balance.

Which Fuel is Easier to Use?

Far and away, propane is the easier fuel to use. Here are the steps to use a typical propane stove.

  1. Ensure your propane stove is on as level surface as you can manage. If you are backpacking, you may want to use rocks to steady the propane cylinder as it is now the stand. There are also propane stands meant to hold a propane tank.
  2. Ensure the burner(s) is/are set to off.
  3. Take off the cap from the propane cylinder, and screw it directly to the fuel regulator. In the case of a backpacking stove, just screw the stove directly on to the propane cylinder.
  4. Open the stove valve with a lighter right next to the burner so the gas will ignite.
  5. You are ready to cook!

Here are the steps to use a white gas stove:

  1. Attach all components, the fuel line, and fuel tank to the stove and priming cup.
  2. Pour the fuel into your fuel tank (never do this while the stove is in use or the stove is hot)
  3. Pressurize the fuel tank using the attached manual fuel pump
  4. Prime the Stove
    1. First, open the fuel valve allowing a little bit of fuel to enter the priming cup. (some choose to prime their stove with alcohol or another propellant as they are easier to ignite)
    2. Once the fuel is in the priming cup, ensure that the fuel tank is completely closed.
    3. Ignite the fuel with a lighter or another ignition source.
    4. The priming cup is meant to heat up the burner and the fuel tube feeding the burner. Once the flames have heated up the stove and fuel tube feeding the burner, and the priming cup is almost burned out, slowly open the fuel tank to allow fuel to flow into the stove
  5. You are now ready to cook!
An example of a liquid fuel stove with the fuel tank and fuel pump along with a stove and priming cup

Priming isn’t hard once you get the hang of it, but it still takes some time. Propane is as easy as screwing the propane tank into your stove and opening the valve, so it’s hard to beat in this respect.

Which Fuel is Easier to Store?

Any type of fuel presents a risk when stored.

Propane Storage

Propane is a liquefied petroleum gas and is stored under tremendous pressure. Propane by nature must be in a sealed container, which is a safety benefit because you are protected from random ignition.

However, propane’s pressurized state also has a couple of risks. First, if the propane tank starts malfunctioning and starts leaking, then you will now have a flammable gas escaping.

Secondly, the propane tank is only made to withstand certain pressures, and the hotter the outside temperature is, the greater the pressure on the inside of the tank because of the extra energy within the propane. Propane tanks can spontaneously combust if the temperature is too high. Propane should be stored in temperatures lower than 130 degrees Fahrenheit.

The bigger propane tanks, such as the 20-lb tanks commonly used for barbecue grills, must be stored outside in the shade for these two reasons. Avoid direct sunlight as much as possible.

Furthermore, propane has an indefinite shelf life–the life of the propane is completely dependent on the life of the propane container.

There isn’t any documentation that I could find about storing the 1-lb propane tanks. Several stores sell these 1-lb tanks indoors, but the MSDS hazardous material sheets make no distinction.

White Gas Storage

White gas must be stored in as cool of temperatures as you can manage. White gas must be stored in airtight cans as it will lose its effectiveness over time if exposed to air. It must also be stored in containers that will not erode from the fuel.

Fuel spills are much more of a risk with white gas because it is stored in liquid form. If a lid is not affixed securely, then a bumped fuel can could result in a very dangerous flammable liquid spill.

White gas can be stored for a long time–longer than gasoline, but it still can go bad. As I’ve researched this subject, I’ve seen many people claim to use white gas that had been stored for over a decade. As the gas gets older it absorbs things it shouldn’t and can start to burn less clean with more soot.

Although you should never store fuel near any kind of ignition source or anything else that uses flames such as a water heater or your house heater, with white gas the warning is especially loud. Never ever store your white gas near an ignition source.

TL;DR: Which Fuel is Easier to Store?

Although propane tanks (at least the big ones) must be stored outside, it is still easier than worrying about storing a liquid fuel.

Which Fuel is Easier to Buy?

Propane can be purchased in those 1-lb green bottles, or in bigger canisters. The most common large canisters store 20-lbs of propane–but if you shop on Amazon, you can find reusable canisters that are made for refilling in 5-lb, 10-lb, 1 gallon, 20-lb, and more increments.

Propane is incredibly easy to find. The 1-lb disposable canisters are almost everywhere, even in many gas stations. Many gas stations also have large propane tanks for exchange that you can just pick up and drop off without having to refill the tank yourself.

Furthermore, many locations including several storage unit companies and UHauls sell propane in bulk that you can use to refill your canister yourself.

White gas is sold by a few recognizable companies. Crown sells “Camp Fuel”, Coleman sells Coleman’s “Camp Fuel”, and MSR sells Superfuel.

These are not remarkably hard to find, but they can be impossible to locate in rural areas that aren’t accustomed to campers. You can find white gas in an outdoor recreation store such as REI or at Walmarts that have an outdoors section. If you’re camping, chances are you aren’t near a big city so you may have to look a little harder to find white gas.

Which Fuel is Better for Backpacking?

So, you may be wondering why people go for white gas and liquid fuel stoves at all. Propane is almost equivalent and is more convenient in many respects. Why go for white gas?

One place that propane is not superior in a major and important way is weight. The gas itself isn’t as dense as white gas, but the propane container is very heavy.

If you think about it, it makes sense. Propane boils at ~-47 Fahrenheit. This means at 60 degrees Fahrenheit, all the energy in that can is going crazy to escape. The containers can withstand temperatures of a bit more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit–propane tanks must be very strong to withstand the internal pressure of propane.

White gas does not have this problem because it isn’t pressurized when stored. Therefore you can use a much lighter weight container.

Because white gas is typically desirable for those concerned about weight, they are often in competition with backpacking stoves. Lightweight backpacking stoves are never designed to work with pure propane because propane requires such heavy containers.

Furthermore, because it’s relatively difficult to gauge how much fuel is left in a propane container, backpackers like to use liquid fuel because you can know exactly how much fuel you have left. This makes it easier to budget your fuel usage so you aren’t carrying more fuel than you need (or worse, less).

Because of this, white gas is a fantastic option for backpackers to be considered against a butane/isobutane mix.

White gas also can burn in cold weather, while backpacking stoves with butane/isobutane mixes have terrible performance in very cold weather. If you are trying to hike ultralight in very cold conditions, then a liquid fuel may be your best and only option.

Summary

If you are just getting into car camping and are looking to buy a stove, I highly recommend propane–it’s simple and can be very inexpensive if purchased in bulk. If you are wanting to get into ultralight backpacking, or into long thru-hikes where you want to carefully budget your fuel, then consider white gas as a solid option.

Peter

Peter is a software developer who loves to take every opportunity to go outside that he can get. Peter grew up going on long backpacking excursions with his family every Summer and now enjoys staying at the beautiful Texas State Parks and swimming in the amazing Texas Rivers.

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