Camping gas explained
Gas cartridges for camping stoves mostly use butane gas, which is cheap, and in mild to warm temperatures offers good performance. The trouble with butane is that it really performs poorly in the cold, and your gas stove may completely fizzle out just when you’re most reliant on it. Manufacturers of such gas cartridges are aware of this, and so have other cartridges available, filled with a mix of propane and butane. Propane performs far better in cold temperatures, so if you will be needing to use your gas camping stove anywhere cold, you will need a propane/butane mix.
Coleman Performance Gas
Coleman has the following to say about their Performance Gas cartridges: “The Performance cartridges are certified to contain a 70/30 Butane/Propane mix. We have tested the gas to an evaporation temperature of -5°c and a usage temperature of as low as -20°c.”
Recently, I went camping out on Dartmoor, and overnight the temperature dropped low enough for my tent to be mostly covered in a 1mm layer of ice by the morning. After having pitched my tent, according to my Garmin, the temperature was 4°C, so given the lofty claims made by Coleman, I was comfortably within the operating range of the gas cartridge. Only, it failed me miserably!
My Vango Compact camping stove is rated by Vango as 3000W, and able to boil a litre of water in four minutes. It’s a great little stove that’s never failed me before. In fact, I’ve camped out in colder temperatures before, and the stove worked fine, also using Performance Gas at the time. Think about that for a minute: the same stove, using a physically different Performance Gas cartridge, worked perfectly fine in colder weather, but failed me more recently.
Here’s the thing: everyone makes makes mistakes. I belatedly became aware of problems with the T-shirt printer I switched to, and immediately refunded 17 orders, without knowing whether or not I’d ever get a refund from the supplier. That was my failing to do even better due diligence when selecting that supplier, and I accepted full responsibility. I emailed all 17 customers, and humbly apologised, explaining the reason why I refunded them. I’d rather be out of pocket than leave my customers with a poor quality product. Apparently, Coleman doesn’t share that ethos w.r.t. their customers.
We are defined not by our mistakes, but by our responses to the mistakes.
Allow me to tell you about Coleman’s response: they refuse to accept any responsibility, and (excuse the pun) proceeded to gas-light me. Here’s what they said:
“Of course, there are a number of factors that affect performance as well as the temperature:
- The power of the appliance = the more Watts, the faster the cartridge cools down. So the performance of the flame will decrease more quickly.
- The quantity remaining in the cartridge = if it is half empty then the performance will deteriorate and propane will be burnt off first.
We are only able to comment on the testing we have done in controlled conditions and hope you have confidence to continue to use Coleman gas in the future.”
Effectively, they were blaming the stove (which works perfectly well, and there’s nothing wrong with it), as well as me (implying I used a half-empty cartridge). You will notice that Coleman does not state anything about butane burning off first anywhere in their product information sheets, nor do they warn people against using cartridges that aren’t completely full. Equally importantly, would you choose to buy a gas cartridge if you know in advance that realistically you can only use half the contents? That’s effectively what Coleman told me in their email reply, but very tellingly, they offer no such warning anywhere else.
During my camping trip, the gas I was using for my stove only worked long enough to warm a single tin mug to lukewarm. I couldn’t have a hot drink, and I couldn’t have a warm meal. It was a full cartridge that I’ve not used before, and I already explained that my stove worked perfectly fine in colder temperatures. Remember, Coleman claims to have “tested the gas to an evaporation temperature of -5°c and a usage temperature of as low as -20°c.”
Last time I checked, 4 degree Celsius was 9 degrees warmer than the tested -5 they claim. It’s also a full 24 degrees warmer than the minimum temperature they claim the cartridge will work at. In simple terms, I was massively within the temperature range they claim that Coleman Performance Gas will reliably work at, yet it failed. And for that, they wanted to blame me.
The failure of Coleman’s Performance Gas simply meant my camping trip was less enjoyable than I hoped for. I was very lucky in that it wasn’t cold enough to have been a survival incident. When I got back home, I tested that same Coleman Performance Gas cartridge, using the same stove, indoors, at far warmer temperatures. Unsurprisingly, it worked just fine. The failure (in cold weather) was Coleman’s product alone. Coleman Performance Gas simply didn’t work at lower temperatures, despite being well within the stated usage range.
The Coleman Range
I did some more digging, and discovered something surprising. Coleman sells a range of these cartridges: Value Gas, Performance Gas, and Extreme Gas. Remember, at summer temperatures, butane is a better fuel than propane, but its performance nosedives as it gets colder. To counter that, manufacturers add propane into the mix. You would therefore expect Coleman’s Value Gas to have less propane than their Performance Gas, and that their Extreme Gas will have the most propane, right? Except, their Value Gas is sold as 70% butane and 30% propane. Their Performance Gas and Extreme Gas are both sold as 60% butane, 40% propane.
Given that the butane/propane mix is exactly the same across the Performance Gas and Extreme Gas range, why would Coleman make wildly different claims about the temperatures that their different gas cartridges would operate under?
The lessons learned
I have learned my lesson: NEVER use Coleman Performance gas! I very strongly urge you to avoid their products, because it seems to me they may well have a quality-control issue. At best, not disclosing quite openly the limitations of their product also raises questions about their integrity. Trust is a binary thing: you either trust someone, or you don’t. Coleman’s product failed me, and I gave them the opportunity to deal with that in a constructive manner. They didn’t, and instead opted to suggest it was my failure. I wasn’t after compensation. I wasn’t after free products. I most certainly wasn’t after them trying to blame me for their product’s failure!
Not just me
In case you were thinking it’s a case of only me who had this issue, that’s simply not the case. If you read this discussion, you’ll see there are many others, experienced campers too, who also found Coleman’s gas to be unreliable.
From here on, I will only buy MSR IsoPro gas cartridges.