Are propane fire pits with more BTU's better?

Are propane fire pits with more BTU's better?

Introduction to portable propane firepits

Sitting next to a campfire in the forest has been core to the human experience for eons. It’s relaxing. The dancing flames and glowing embers send signals to some very old parts of our brains telling us that we’re safe, that there’s no danger from predators or cold. That’s why we are able to recharge around a campfire in a way that we can’t in any other circumstance.

You probably know the feeling.

But wood fires aren’t always a good option. In many places, they’re prohibited by burn bans to protect our forests. In other places, you can’t leave piles of ash and coal. Even where you can have a wood fire, smoke can be a problem, and they are difficult to light and keep going in extreme weather.

Given these limitations, backcountry campers, overlanders, and RVers look to portable propane firepits as a substitute for wood fires.

Most campers want a fire that delivers functional heat, but how can you know which is the best portable propane firepit for your needs? 

And if you want to be warm, will a higher BTU rating automatically give you more heat?

BTU ratings in Propane Fire Pits: Here’s what they tell you

First, you need to know what a BTU is. A simple way to say it is that a BTU is an amount of fuel, like a gallon. For example, a gallon of propane is equal to 91,452 BTUs.

The BTU rating on a firepit tells you how much fuel it will burn in one hour on its highest setting. So a propane firepit that’s rated at 90,000 BTUs will burn through about a gallon of propane in an hour. One that’s rated at 60,000 BTUs will burn about ⅔ of a gallon in an hour.

Common Misconceptions about High BTU Ratings

A lot of campers think more BTUs will automatically make them warmer. But the amount of fuel you burn has almost nothing to do with how much heat your body receives.

Think of it like an engine. Bad engines burn a ton of fuel, while producing very little horsepower. Good engines give you gobs of horsepower, while using just a small amount of gas. Telling you how much gas an engine burns in an hour doesn’t really tell you how much power you’ll get, or how far you can go.

It’s the same with propane campfires. Some crush a ton of gas while leaving you out in the cold. Others sip propane while delivering intense, thigh-melting heat.

The bottom line? A BTU rating just isn’t a helpful indicator of how much warmth you’ll get.

The Reality of Higher BTU Propane Fire Pits

So high-BTU firepits aren’t guaranteed to keep you warm. But they are guaranteed to cause you some inconveniences. The more fuel you use, the less burn time you’ll get on a tank, which means you’ll spend less time by the fire and more time (and money) going for refills.

But it gets worse. When you pull too much propane from a tank too quickly, it will freeze off – meaning there’s not enough pressure in the tank to push the fuel out. That lack of pressure will kill your campfire long before the gas runs out.

On a cool evening, pulling 100,000 or more BTUs will freeze a standard 20-lb tank.

It’s not about the BTUs, it’s how you use them

Clearly, just burning more gas isn’t the solution. But what is?

Well, there are three ways you can use propane to warm you up. You can:

  1. Make hot air (flames) and try to get that air to surround you
  2. Warm up a surface (not too hot!) and then press your body against it
  3. Make an object so hot that it glows and shoots out photons, which your body absorbs as heat (think of the sun)

Hot Air

Making hot air is pretty easy. Flames are – by definition – hot air. They are the hot, luminous zone in a stream of exhaust gas. But hot air can’t make you warm at camp, since it just rises and blows away.

That’s why, when you sit around a propane firepit that only make flames, no matter how many BTUs you burn, you’ll only feel the heat if you place yourself directly in the exhaust stream (directly above and downwind of the firepit).

Hot Surface

There are no firepits designed for you to press your body up against them, and that’s a good thing. Flames are hot, and this method of heat transfer would cook you like a strip of bacon.

Hot Object

The third way to transfer heat to your body is to make an object so hot that it glows like the sun. This is the most effective way to convert BTUs into body heat, and it’s the kind of heat you feel from a wood fire. 

After a wood fire’s flames die down, you’re left with a bed of glowing coals, and you can really feel the heat. These orange coals are shooting out photons in the Infrared spectrum, which your body easily absorbs as heat. The more photons you absorb, the hotter you get, until eventually you need to turn around or back away completely.

Portable propane firepits that replicate the Infrared Radiant heat of wood coals are like good engines. They use a lot less fuel while making you a whole lot warmer.

The Advantage of Moderate BTU Ratings

Since Infrared propane firepits don’t need to burn as much gas, you’ll get to spend more time around the fire, and less time refilling your tank. You’ll also spend less money on fuel. 

Whether or not they have infrared capabilities, all firepits that use moderate amounts of fuel (less than 65,000 BTUs) offer key benefits like greater safety for forests and people, and lower requirements for maintenance and cleaning.

Evaluating Your Needs: BTUs and Beyond

Different portable propane firepits serve different purposes. Before you buy, it’s important that you understand your own needs for a campfire.

Here’s a few questions to consider:

  • Do you only camp on warm nights, or in a variety of weather conditions?
  • Do you need a firepit to provide functional warmth, or do you just need some light and ambiance?
  • Do you prefer a giant flame, or one that is more moderately sized?
  • Do you need your propane tank to last for multiple nights, or do you only camp one night at a time?

The Conclusion on BTUs and propane firepits

It’s clear that more BTUs won’t necessarily get you more of what you want. So instead of buying a portable propane firepit based solely on how much gas it uses, we recommend getting one that serves your specific needs.

Moderate BTUs, Flames only

Firepits like Ignik and Camp Chef are great if you only go out on warm, dry nights and you simply want some ambiance without functional warmth. Since they only produce flames, you’re not paying extra for heat, and most models use a moderate amount (less than 65,000) of BTUs.

High BTUs, Flames only

If you want some wow factor with a large (though sooty) flame, the biggest models from LavaBox might be a good fit. Just be aware that your tank will freeze off from using so much fuel, and that you’ll have to bring and swap multiple barbecue-sized propane tanks for a single night of camping. (Also note that these firepits are not tested or certified for consumer safety, so you’ll be using them at your own risk.)

Moderate BTUs, Infrared Heat and Flames

Campers who go out in a variety of temperatures and conditions will need Infrared heat capabilities to stay warm, and moderate BTU usage so they can stay out for longer trips. Currently, HOWL Campfires makes the only portable propane firepit with Infrared heat. This technology is much more intricate and expensive to manufacture, so you can expect to pay more for the added functionality.

In the end, the only person who can say which portable propane firepit is best is the person who best understands your needs: you. 

But it sure helps to hear what others think. You can help people make more informed decisions by sharing your experiences with different firepits in the comments below. 

Whatever portable propane firepit you choose, the most important thing is to just get out there and recharge in the woods. It’s one thing we’ve found that is always worth the effort.

Keep carrying the fire.

References & Further Reading

What is a BTU? 

Propane tank freezing - Why it happens and how to prevent it

Three Types of Heat Transfer 

Reading next

What's The Science Behind A Good Propane Fire Pit?

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