Hunting camps are in full swing all across North America, and the grand tradition of tailgating parties is holding strong at football stadium parking lots.
Unless you're feeding a crowd, small and easily transported grills and stoves often are a simpler option than bulky smoker grills.
We asked four outdoors retailers and manufacturers to set us up with their newest portable stoves/grills for our panel to evaluate. The companies chose which models to send for evaluation.
Our panel of hunting and camp-cooking enthusiasts evaluated each stove's portability, ease of setup and cleanup, burner controls and ignition functionality, evenness of cooking, and perceived durability of components. We also examined little details such as sufficiency of grease traps and accessories such as additional cooking surfaces or carrying cases.
Basic camp or tailgating grub usually doesn't require extremely high heat, so we limited field evaluations to stoves with burners ranging from 5,500 to 12,000 BTUs (British Thermal Units).
Outdoor chefs who need more power and cooking space should consider something like Camp Chef's Pro 60, which has twin, cast-aluminum, 30,000-BTU burners and 448 square inches of cooking area. It also folds up for reasonable portability. Cooking accessories sit on top, and cooks can customize the stove for grill, griddle, Dutch oven and more. That stove carries a $286 suggested retail price.
Here is a look at the four portable stoves, including specifications and reviewer observations, that we looked at. All were fueled with one-pound, disposable propane cylinders (not included with the stoves) or could be adapted to work with a bulk propane tank. Prices are manufacturer recommended; items often can be found online for less.
Bass Pro Shops High Output Propane Grill and Stove
The Bass Pro stove and the Camp Chef Rainier stove listed below have nearly identical features, looks and function. The right side of the cooking surface is a single 10,000-BTU burner, while an 8,000 BTU burner provides heat for the 13-by-10-inch coated aluminum nonstick grill (slightly larger than the grill on the Camp Chef model). Stainless steel drip pan, match-free ignition with Piezo igniter, independent burner controls. High pressure regulator enables operation at any altitude. Stainless steel top and easy pop-up side wind screens. Bass Pro Shops has a 60-day "no hassle" return policy.
Weight: 13 pounds
Height: 5 inches (closed)
Width: 23 inches
Depth: 12 inches
Panel observations: The coated-enamel lid and side wind screens cleaned very easily — a nice feature. A breeze to set up. Both burners adjusted easily and delivered ample cooking power. The cooking grate allowed for simultaneously grilling multiple items (chicken, brats, burgers), but it did warp slightly after several uses. It was still serviceable and mounted into the slots and presented a flat cooking surface. Reviewers liked the cooking grates on both this model and the Camp Chef model, calling them "better than most grate styles offered on earlier edition portable stoves." Didn't seem to use too much fuel. Overall, nice and compact and good for light camping or tailgating. Lightweight components and easy transport.
Camp Chef Rainier Combo
This small stove set comes with interchangeable coated, nonstick aluminum grill and griddle. An 8,000-BTU burner is under the grill, while a 10,000 BTU standalone burner is to the right. This was the only stove with a carry bag designed to hold the stove and two small propane cylinders. Removable, stainless steel drip tray, matchless push-button ignition, independent burner controls, three-sided foldable wind screen. Standard warranty covers all components of stoves, fire pits, ovens and smokers to be free from defect in materials and workmanship for one year from the day of purchase (excluding finish).
Weight: 16 pounds
Height: 5.75 inches (closed)
Width: 23.25 inches
Depth: 13 inches
Panel observations: The additional of a large griddle option is a bonus, especially for people who like ample, traditional breakfasts such as pancakes, fried eggs, bacon and more. Both grill and griddle cooked evenly. The grill grate features a diamond-shaped crosshatch pattern that seemed to make it slightly more rigid than the Bass Pro Shops grate a more standard parallel design. It, like the Bass Pro Shops stove, also slightly warped after several uses but remained serviceable. Heavy-duty pan steel burner cover should handle heavy pots and pans. Sets up quickly. Lightweight components and easy to transport, and the carrying case will help keep things clean between uses. Overall good option for both light camping and tailgating.
Coleman Gladiator 2-Burner Hyper-Flame Stove
The most powerful of the tested models, this stove serves up 12,000 BTUs per burner. The Coleman stove had a unique design with the cooktop and burners recessed and the burners shielded 360 degrees. This is touted to improve heat distribution and wind resistance and cut boiling time in half when compared to standard burners in light wind conditions. The fuel pressure control system produces a steady fuel stream in cold weather, high altitudes or when fuel is low. Built-in transport handle. Independent burner controls. Protective, corner bumpers. Two small griddles designed to sit atop the burners are included. Coleman has a three-year limited warranty.
Weight: 11.75 pounds without griddles; 14.5 pounds with griddles
Height: 5.25 inches closed
Width: 24.5 inches
Depth: 14 inches
Panel observations: This stove exudes cooking power. When the burners are fired up at full bore, they emit that low roar characteristic of turbo-charged burners used to fry whole turkeys or boil crabs. The burner shielding creates a wide-circumference cooking surface that easily handled heavy cast iron skillets. The removable griddles cleaned up easily and conducted heat extremely well. The burner shielding removed easily to allow cleanup throughout the interior stove surface around the burners. No grease trap; this stove is designed for more traditional pot/pan/griddle cooking versus grilling. The stove was easy to transport, and the big carrying handle is an asset, letting you optimize use of both hands. With the corner bumpers, heavy-duty hinges and latches, it has a durable look and feel. Probably a better bet for reliable camp cooking than tailgating, especially if extensive grilling on a grate is your game. Still, seems like an excellent product.
Cuisinart Petit Gourmet Portable Gas Grill
The only tested model that had a single 5,500-BTU burner but was still capable of generating heat greater than 500 degrees Fahrenheit. The porcelain enamel grill grate provides a 145-square-inch cooking surface. Surface can handle six to 10 chicken pieces, eight hamburgers or eight small steaks. Easy "Twist Start" ignition system, stable folding legs for tabletop use, large carry handle, spill-resistant drip tray. Three-year limited warranty against defects in parts and workmanship.
Weight: 14.25 pounds
Height: 13 inches (with legs extended)
Width: 19.25 inches
Depth: 16.5 inches
Panel observations: This grill was the one that most resembled a traditional gas grill, to include elongated oval burner and lid that folds down during cooking to preserve heat and allow a smoker effect. Although the least powered, it quickly cooked brats, boiled water and heated pans full of various meats and vegetables. Sgt. 1st Class Justin Talbert used it to cook for several soldiers out on a live-fire range across multiple days. The sturdy legs elevated the cooking surface off the table. This let cooks attend the grill with less bending at the waist. The grate cleaned surprisingly easily, even with a day's worth of caked-on residue. Largest grease trap of tested models. The grill did seem to have one small "cool" spot where foods didn't cook or brown as quickly. The grill lid locks shut, and the big carrying handle makes it easy to lug around. But the plastic tab that slides the locking mechanism does pull out easily and is susceptible to getting lost. Overall great for small camping/tailgating needs.
Notes on all stoves/grills
More insights gleaned during testing:
■ Cleaning is easier before foods and grease dry on metal surfaces and grates.
■ Gravity will win when it comes to grease drainage. Try to set up stoves on as level a surface as possible. Notice we didn't say "as flat a surface" as possible. Stoves positioned at an angle can see small grease traps quickly overflow. For such stoves, such as the Bass Pro and Camp Chef models, remove some of the fat and skin from chicken before grilling — otherwise you'll see flame-ups and overflowing grease traps.
■ "Nonstick" references are relative. A light oil coating helped with all grill and grate cooking surfaces.
■ All of the matchless ignition systems performed flawlessly, as would be expected on new products. All lit within two pushes or twists of the button. Cleaning the stove well between uses and storing in a dry place can promote sustained reliable ignition.
■ Burner controls were effective in adjusting size of the flame and cooking temperature. All stoves rapidly had pots and pans cooking.