Backpacking Stoves and How to Choose the Right One

What is the most popular backpacking stove in use today? Well, a quick trip into your local outdoor store will convince you that the liquid (white gas) and the canister (isobutane or propane) stoves dominate the shelf space. Two other stoves less common, but often used by the ultra-lite backpacker is the alcohol and hexamine. These two stoves though very light and cheap, are much less efficient with a much slower boil time, and for that reason I would not recommend these for the typical backpacker. When I am ready to eat, I want fuel efficiency and a fast boil time stove!

Where do you begin when going a backpacking stove? You should start with the kind of trip (s) you will be taking, a few days or a week or more. If you are going for an extended trip, make sure the fuel type is readily available. White gas and fuel canisters can usually be found in most trail towns and campground stores in the US Outside the US you might consider the more abundant liquid fuels. If cooking for just yourself, then a small stove is all you need. If cooking for two or more, you will need more fuel, a faster boil time, and possibly a larger cooking pot. How do you choose the fuel best suited for your typical trip? Liquid fuels work best in very cold weather, or below freezing. The MSR DragonFly or WhisperLite are very common liquid fuel stove users. I personally think they are too noisy, have more maintenance issues, and I do not care for the messy liquid fuel. I must tell you though, that smelly fuel has come in handy on a wet cold rainy night when a fire was needed and the fuel was the catalyst for a great fire!

On recent trips to the backcountry, I have observed the canister type stoves as the stove of choice by the majority of backpackers. Why? It is simple, light, and has few, if any, maintenance issues. You simply turn the valve and light the stove (some even have an igniter) and you are ready to cook. Most of these stoves sit on top of the canister by screwing into the canister. While others are connected by a hose so the stove sits on the ground off to the side of the canister. There are two advantages to the hose type: stability of stove and the use of a windscreen. You never want to use a windscreen that covers the canister for risk of heat buildup around the canister. If choosing a canister, the blended fuel (isobutane or butane / propane) work well down to zero degrees, but pure butane will not work below freezing. My personal experience is that below 20 degrees the pressure of the canister can really start to drop. If the majority of my cooking was done below freezing, then I would opt for one of the cooking systems mentioned below. A trick I use if it is going to be cold at night is to put the fuel canister at the foot of my sleeping bag to keep it warm for better efficiency and performance in the morning. These stoves would include the MSR WindPro Stove, the MSR Pocket Rocket, or the Snow Peak Giga Power Stove.

The latest technology in award winning stoves is the "cooking system." These systems are typically a complete cooking setup that includes the pot, with lid, sometimes a fry pan, and stove in one system. These systems are designed so that maximum heat is transferred to the pot through an integrated heat exchanger which is usually connected to the bottom of the pot. These not only provide maximum heat transfer and fuel efficiency, but many incorporate an excellent windscreen. The fuel canister and stove usually usually stow inside the pot for a compact and secure transport. The MSR Reactor Stove System, the Jetboil Personal Cooking System, and the Primus EtaPower Easy Fuel Stove are all top performers if you are considering one of the new cooking systems.

What about weight and boil time? Excluding fuel, the liquid fuel stoves weigh about 14 to 17 ounces; the canister stoves around 3 to 7 ounces and the cooking systems around 15 to 29 ounces (remember these systems include a pot and lid). The boil times (time it takes to boil one liter of water) range from 2-1 / 2 minutes for one of the cooking systems, and between 3 to 4 minutes for the others, and of course, outside temperature and wind play a role in boil time.

One final recommendation, it is very important to make sure you understand how to correctly operate your stove so please familiarize yourself with it by reading the operation and maintenance instructions. Now you're ready to take the stove out into the backyard and fire it up for a test run. Bon appétit!