Gas and liquid fuels
Most campers, caravanners and motorhome owners will need to use a transportable fuel at sometime during their camping lives. The most popular ones are gas and liquid fuels, like meths or petrol.
If you go into any outdoor supplies store you are likely to find a bewildering array of fuel types and storage options. Here we aim to cover some of the differences and begin to help you choose between them.
What do we mean by ‘gas’?
Most stoves, heaters and non-electric lanterns for camping are fuelled by Liquid Petroleum Gas (LPG), or ‘gas’ as we tend to call it. LPG is a liquid held under pressure in a container. It vaporises as it leaves the container, so it can burn as a gas.
Caravans, motorhomes and top-of-the-range trailer tents and folding campers generally have a gas installation fitted by the manufacturer, with special storage compartments for gas cylinders and their regulators. Other campers will probably rely on smaller cylinders, cartridges or other fuels that are liquid at room temperature.
Many of us are familiar with gas installations at home and the need to make sure they are checked regularly for safety by a qualified technician, registered with the Gas Safe Register (formerly CORGI).
At the moment there are no similar regulations for motorhome and caravan gas installations, but anyone who works on your unit should be properly trained in the challenges of gas installations. However, many tent campers and others will use gas appliances that do not undergo regular safety checks, like barbecues, stoves, lamps and heaters, so you need to be sensible about using them. Make sure all connections are secure and never use an appliance that appears to be leaking.
LPG is heavier than air so a gas leak can lead to a puddle of gas in the floor and this, in turn, to a real risk of explosion. Never block the floor ventilators in your caravan or motorhome. This is especially important if you’re camping during a snowfall, when you need to check drifting snow has not built up by the vents. Both butane and propane are odourless but the producers add a strong unpleasant smell to them so leaks will be noticed.
The most dangerous time with gas appliances is probably when you are changing the cartridge or cylinder. Make sure you are familiar with the way the cartridge or cylinder fits on the appliance or regulator. Never change the fuel container inside your tent or inside a building. Do it outside and away from naked flames. If you think the appliance, cylinder or cartridge may be leaking, particularly if liquid gas starts to spray out, then get everyone away from the appliance until the container is empty and the gas has dispersed naturally. Dispose of empty gas containers with care. Never throw them on a fire because any gas residue inside could lead to an explosion.
You can find out more about gas appliances and safety from the Club’s Gas for Campers and Caravanners within our Data Sheets section.
With gas or another liquid fuel, containers should always be of an approved type. They should be transported and stored upright and secured in position whenever you travel.
Butane or propane?
Two related gases make up most of the LPG market. Butane is perhaps the most common but it has a disadvantage – it will not turn to vapour as the temperature approaches zero degrees Celcius (freezing). No problem for summer camping, but a disadvantage for more adventurous expedition campers or those camping in the UK in winter. It also often catches people out in spring and autumn when they want to use a heater because the temperature drops at night – exactly the time when butane may not produce enough gas.
Propane needs to be stored at a much higher pressure than butane, so its containers have to be stronger and usually heavier. Propane will vaporise down to minus forty degrees Celcius, making it ideal for all-year-round use.
Campers familiar with the Calor colour scheme will say butane comes in blue cylinders and propane in red, but this does not read across to other manufactures. Even Calor itself now produces cylinders that do not follow this rule – its Patio Gas (propane), for example, is distributed in green cylinders.
Generally speaking most LPG appliances will work on either propane or butane. In small disposable cartridges you’ll find a mixture of the two gases, bringing the advantages of both to the camper.
Caravans and motorhomes will usually have large, relatively heavy cylinders installed in a gas locker, which is normally accessible from outside the unit. The most popular brand of large camping gas cylinder is probably Calor. Calor traditionally provides butane in blue steel cylinders and propane in red.
Many campsites and camping retailers stock these cylinders. When one runs out, you simply return it to a stockist who will replace it with a full one – for a fee.
Recent developments have seen both Calor and BP produce lighter cylinders, which are easier to lift and carry than the traditional steel ones. At the time of writing, not all gas distributors stock the lightweight cylinders, but this is likely to change as campers request these containers.
Tent campers can also use these larger cylinders for their appliances.
Some campsites (including Camping and Caravanning Club Sites) restrict the use of very large gas cylinders kept outside your unit (weighing more than 15kg) for safety reasons.
There are a few cylinders that are designed to be refilled at fuel stations where LPG is available for cars. Treat these with extra care and make sure they are only ever filled to 80 per cent capacity – for safety reasons. The Camping & Caravanning Club only recommends using refillable cylinders if they have an automatic cut-off device (to make sure they are only part filled). It is also preferable to have the cylinder permanently fitted into your unit, since many LPG filling stations will not allow you to fill separate cylinders on the forecourt.
LPG can be supplied in disposable cartridges. These are thrown away when empty and come in two main types – pierceable and with an integral valve - although there are numerous sizes and shapes of cartridge on the market.
Pierceable cartridges are fitted to the appliance once and cannot be removed without losing the gas inside. A hollow spike pierces the cartridge to let out the gas. Pierceable cartridges of different makes are interchangeable, but you need to check they are made to European standard EN417 type 200.
Slightly more expensive, but generally better and safer, are cartridges with an integral valve. They can be removed from the appliance when travelling because the valve reseals the cartridge, keeping the gas inside. The most common of these have screw fittings that comply with EN417 type 2. This standard describes the fitting, so different sizes of cartridges are available for appliances of this type.
A few appliance manufacturers produce their own unique cartridges and fittings. Some have clamps, others are ‘screw in’. They claim all kinds of advantages, but you should remember that once you are tied in to any particular manufacturer’s system you can only get refills from that particular maker and these may not be available everywhere.
Both pierceable and valve cartridges can be purchased filled with butane, propane or a combination of the two.
What is a regulator? … and do I need one?
When the liquefied fuel leaves a cylinder or cartridge it will expand rapidly to form the gas to burn. Most appliances require gas at a specific pressure to work correctly, so you will generally need a regulator to make sure the gas pressure is correct. This regulator can be attached to the cylinder or fitted into the appliance, depending on the system chosen by the manufacturer.
In current caravans, motorhomes and folding campers with a LPG-cylinder locker, the regulator will normally be installed in the locker ready for you to attach a cylinder. It’s sometimes called a ‘bulkhead regulator’, is rated at 30mbar and can be used with butane and propane cylinders.
In older units (with a model year of 2003 or before), you will probably need to buy a regulator to match the cylinder you are using.
If you are using gas for any other application you will need to check whether the appliance you’ve chosen needs a separate regulator. Your camping dealer should be able to advise you.
There are appliances on the market that run on liquid fuels like petrol, paraffin or methylated spirits.
You may see ‘Coleman fuel’ in the shops. Coleman fuel is simply a clean version of the same unleaded petrol you might put in your car. If you buy Coleman fuel in small cans in a camping shop you’ll find it quite expensive. If you fill up at the local petrol pump it’s a cheap way of providing light or heat for your camp.
Paraffin is a generic term for chemical compounds like methane, propane and butane, but in camping terms it normally refers to a liquid fuel, often used by aircraft or in domestic heaters. The Americans call it kerosene.
This fuel must be handled carefully because it can burn the skin, even when it isn’t lit.
Methylated spirits (or ‘meths’) is a fuel created by mixing two alcohols – methanol and ethanol (the latter is the alcohol we know in alcoholic drinks). In America it is known as ‘denatured alcohol’ because the methanol is added to make the ethanol unpalatable and the resulting spirit poisonous.
It burns easily, so the simplest way of cooking at camp is to take a small metal container, add methylated spirits, suspend a cooking pot over it and light the methylated spirits.
Ultralight camping stoves like the Trangia - see Camping Cooking often use methylated spirits because it is easy to transport.
Because of the simplicity of these stoves, it’s important to remember the exterior is likely to become hot in use. Make sure everything cools down properly before you touch it or pack it away.