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What is a wood-burning stove, and should I buy one?

wood-burning stove
What could be better than a meal cooked over flames after a long day of adventuring? (Image credit: Getty)

Rustling up a tasty meal on a campfire is the ultimate way to crown a long, fun day of outdoor shenanigans. Modern camping stoves are great, but most outdoor enthusiasts will agree, food cooked over flames – whether beneath a blue sky or under a pulsating panoply of stars – always tastes better.

Starting a fire and using burning wood to prepare a flame-licked feast is an atavistic action that speaks to us from our dim and distant past – it’s something that human communities have done for millennia, one of the few common denominators that unites us as a species, no matter where on the globe we hail from.

But it’s not always practical or possible to get a big blaze going, and in some locations you’re not permitted to just create a fireplace wherever you want to. And even if you do build a bonfire, you often need a grill system or tripod to cook on, and you have to wait until the inferno has burned down a bit before you can start cooking on the embers.

This is when the best wood-burning stoves are worth their weight in gold. Choose the right one, and you can be ready to start brewing a hot drink or cooking up a storm within minutes. And, unlike modern camping stoves that rely on gas or liquid fuel, you can literally collect everything you need from around your campsite, for free, and without having to carry it in.

What is a wood-burning stove?

Very simply, ‘wood-burning stove’ is the definition used to describe any apparatus that utilizes bio fuels (naturally occurring combustible materials, ranging from wood to dried animal dung) to heat and cook food.

Whether you’re car camping with family and friends, or out on a multiday solo backpacking mission to find some solace in the wilds, there’s a wood-burning camping stove to fit your needs.

Wood-burners for backpackers

Wood-burning stoves intended for backpacking are small, very lightweight and designed for use with a single pot to feed 1-2 people. These stoves use dry grass, twigs, sticks, small pieces of wood, pine cones or even bits of dried animal dung for fuel.

Constructed from just a few pieces of stainless steel or titanium, these wood-burning stoves are typically built to a very simple design, they’re relatively cheap, and because there are few (if any) moving parts, they are so durable they should last a lifetime – albeit with a bit of discoloration from the flames, every bit of which hints at a story about an outdoor adventure.

It can be tricky to control the temperature on such stoves (you can achieve this by increasing or reducing the amount of fuel you feed it with) but these designs bring water to a boil fast enough to make a brew and rehydrate a freeze-dried meal, and that will keep most hungry hikers satisfied.

And then, once cooled and stowed away in a small stuff sack, there’s little that can go wrong with wood-burning backpacking stoves.

Wood-burners for car campers

The other style of wood-burning stove is designed for feeding larger groups, in locations where the stove can be transported to the campsite, park or beach by vehicle (check out our guide to the pros and cons of camper vans vs tents), so size and weight is much less of a worry.

Offered as a cleaner, safer and quicker alternative to cooking over a campfire, these models have features better suited for grilling meat and/or vegetables over flames, and cooking for friends.

Typically constructed of sturdy and durable stainless steel, most large wood-burning stoves are heavy beasts. With larger capacity for fuel and grill surfaces, it’s easier to cook and entertain around such stoves. The trade-off for increased weight is a stove that burns big bits of wood very efficiently, and after dinner they continue to operate as a firepit, so you can sit around chatting or staring mesmerized at the dancing, flickering flames.

Another benefit is flexibility on the location of your campfire. Although a bit heavy to haul, larger stoves work on the beach, next to a river, in a national park or even a backyard. Since the stoves are self-contained, there’s little impact on the natural environment – but obviously it is vital you check local restrictions and any emergency measures that might be in place because of extreme conditions and increased risk of wildfires.