When it comes to backpacking stoves, there are several routes one can take and several different main categories of stoves exist and each with an array of pros and cons. Without a doubt however, no matter which way you go about it the backpacking stove is an important part of any overnight multi-night gear ensemble. A backpacking stove provides hot meals and drinks, goes a long way towards keeping you warm on chilly mornings and evenings, and for backpacking and hiking a stove needs to be convenient, lightweight, and reasonably fast to use with readily available fuel.
The Canister Stove
A canister stove uses a pressurized gas canister for its fuel source, and this fuel can be butane, isobutane, or propane and is usually a mixture of these fuels. These canisters are available in different sizes for varying trip lengths, and if you'll be using the canister in colder temperatures, you want to avoid a canister containing regular butane as its vaporization temperature is quite high in the 30 degree range. (Translation: your stove may not work / performance will suffer / it may be difficult to use in colder temperatures) However canisters containing a mixture of isobutane and propane are much more suitable as temperatures drop.
Isobutane will vaporize down to about the 10 degree mark and even lower as you gain altitude, and propane vaporizes down to the arctic-like temperature of minus 44, but there is only so much propane in your usual backpacking canister mix. Canister valves automatically open and close when you connect and disconnect the stove for ease of use and packing, and note that you can mix and match brands here – you don’t necessarily have to match the maker of your stove to your canister brand. As long as the canister has a lindal valve you are good to go. Popular blended canister fuel brands include MSR IsoPro as well as fuel canisters from JetBoil and Propane/Isobutane mixtures from Snow Peak.
Either way canister stoves offer convenience: they are easy to carry, simple to use, and the pre-packaged fuel is likely readily available at your local outfitter. While having the fuel contained and prepackaged provides that convenience, they are non-refillable and after a while you are likely to end up with a bunch of canisters that don't have enough fuel to get you through a trip, but aren't empty either. They are recyclable if empty and punctured and Jetboil makes a specific tool for that purpose. A necessary accessory for any canister stove user should be a digital kitchen scale that measures to the gram - this way you can always calculate the exact amount of fuel inside a canister before a trip. Canister stoves excel at boiling water, but you can dial the flame down and simmer…or even bake…with practice and with the right approach.
Upright Canister Stoves
Among canisters stoves, upright canister stoves screw directly into the top of the canister and can be quite light – with many of these stoves falling in the 2-3 ounce range. I’ve used upright canister stoves with isobutane / propane canisters on trips with lows in the high teens, but usage much below these temperatures will become difficult, especially considering that the longer you use a canister in a sitting, the colder it will become – and colder than the actual outside temperature – due to evaporative cooling. In cold or cooler temperatures it’s good to keep a few tricks in mind. In cold temperatures you can place the canister in a bit of water inside a container like a shallow bowl if needed to keep the canister’s temperature up and maintain performance, and sleeping with the canister inside your sleeping bag is never a bad idea when temps get chilly to give you a head start in the morning.
Soto WindMaster Upright Canister Stove with MSR IsoPro 110 gram Fuel Canister
Other types of upright canister stoves feature an all in one system like many of the system offerings made by Jetboil and options like the MSR WindBurner that are designed to be particularly efficient, at the cost of upfront weight, but do save fuel and may be a good option if your primary need is boiling water. I personally prefer a more typical upright canister stove and like to choose different pots – like those from the Evernew Ultralight Series – depending on the trip. In recent years several upright canister stove options that utilize a pressure regulating valve have made it to the market often claiming to increase overall and cold weather performance. While these stoves won't replace an inverted or liquid stove for cold conditions, I have found them to have better and more predictable performance overall when compared to other options featuring a standard needle valve.
Popular upright canister stoves include my current choice the Soto WindMaster – find our full review here, and a couple classic examples can be found in the MSR Pocket Rocket 2 and the Snow Peak GigaPower. Integrated all in one systems like the Jetboil Zip are also quite popular.
Remote and Inverted Canister Stoves
Remote canister stoves keep the canister remote from the burner and feed fuel via a hose. This allows for two benefits: remote canister stoves let you really shield the burner with a large windscreen to block wind and hold in heat to save fuel while the canister remains outside the windscreen – in an upright canister stove this would make to the canister too dangerously hot. Secondly, if said remote canister stove allows you to use the fuel canister in an inverted position, a solution to the colder weather fuel vaporization issues previously discussed is realized, as using the canister upside down feeds fuel in a liquid form where it's subsequently preheated and vaporized at the hot burner of the stove itself in cold and very cold temperatures. For a remote canister stove that allows for inverted use, I use the MSR WindPro II. Find our review on that stove in Issue 33.
MSR WindPro II and Remote Canister
For all types of canister stoves I like a dedicated starter if I can get it, and always look for built in piezo ignition. A separate piezo starter can be used if your stove of choice doesn’t feature one, or a bic lighter will do the job as well. Piezo igniters can fail, but they can also be replaced. Of course, always have a backup ignition source in your separate fire starting kit, but the convenience of a piezo igniter has far outweighed any small amount of hassle in my experience.
Liquid Gas Stoves
The bread and butter stove of cold weather camping and for mountaineers alike, liquid stoves like the venerable MSR Whisperlite are reliable options that burn white gas, or even an array of liquid fuels including gasoline for some stoves like the International version of the Whisperlite. These stoves work well in very cold weather, but are generally heavier and more cumbersome to use in regards with the need to handle liquid fuel in refillable bottles, priming the stove, complicated hardware with more moving parts and maintenance etc. However, if you’re into group or complex meals like baking on the trail, a liquid stove may be hard to beat. (Options like the MSR Dragonfly are specifically designed with simmering in mind) Liquid stoves are thus perhaps best for the cold weather backpacker, the backpacking chef, or those who desire a stove that will work across all conditions who might not mind the extra weight for 3 season use.
Alcohol stoves are designed to run on denatured alcohol (available at many hardware stores, etc.), or for my use I’ve always run them on the cleaner highest proof grain alcohol (Everclear). The benefits of an alcohol stove are weight and simplicity, there aren’t any complicated mechanisms or moving parts, you usually just fill and light the stove. With simplicity comes reduced weight, and the stove can even be made from tuna cans, soda cans, and the like. Alcohol stoves can be subject to fire restrictions and require some extra care with the open flame and fuel. I’ve used alcohol stoves across many conditions and my favorite offering is the Trail Designs Ti-Tri system that works well to trap the limited heat that an alcohol stove produces while blocking wind, greatly increasing efficiency. Another venerable alcohol stove option can be found in one of the several Trangia burners that are available.
Alcohol Stove from TrailDesigns
Regardless, if you go with an alcohol stove you will definitely want a windscreen of some type. Alcohol stoves usually compete with upright canister stoves; ultimately the choice is up to you regarding which benefits you find most appealing and on longer trips the increased efficiency of a canister stove may begin to cut into an alcohol stove’s weight savings. Fuel for an alcohol stove can perhaps be easier to find, and alcohol stoves have been popular for thru-hiking and ultralight backpacking usage for some time. With an alcohol stove you can dial in the exact amount of fuel you need prior to a trip instead of having to take a full canister each time, and perhaps too much fuel and the extra weight. On the other hand with a digital scale and some partial canisters to choose from, you can get close with a canister as well.
Wood Burning Stoves
Ti-Tri Wood Burning Stove
Many wood stoves exist on the market, with of course the simplest way to cook with wood being a small campfire, which I’m most likely to use when cooking in this manner, although I’ve utilized the combo wood or alcohol burning Trail Designs Caldera Ti-Tri system for this purpose. A wood stove won’t beat a campfire in weight carried, but will beat it in convenience and efficiency. Cooking with wood of course requires you collect wood and start a fire, and would have to be ruled out in areas where fire bans are in effect. Wood also leaves residue on pots and the stove, but a wood fire is hard to beat for ambiance, and fuel is free and you don’t have to carry your fuel in your pack during the day.
Chemical Tablet Stoves
Stoves that burn manufactured hexamine chemical tablets like those from Esbit are quite efficient and very lightweight. Like alcohol stoves, you will want a windscreen to maximize efficiency and block any wind here. These tablets and Esbit fuel can be a bit hard to find if you’re in a pinch, but you can of course stock up from online sources. Esbit stoves leave a residue on your cookware and produce fumes, and as I prefer cleaning or more natural burning fuel alternatives, my experience with Esbit or other hexamine stoves is limited, but I can see the appeal for emergency or backup usage. Some ultralight backpackers however find Esbit fuel appealing for its simplicity and light weight. Esbit stoves, like the Esbit Titanium Stove are small, light, simple, and easily carried.
As with nearly any other backpacking gear category, there may be no best backpacking stove, but hopefully the above information can assist with determining which option(s) would work best for you. While I own them all, these days my general approach is to take an upright canister stove (The Soto WindMaster) for 3 season use and only when needed in very cold weather or anytime melting snow will be needed, I will reach for an inverted canister stove for those trips. Although, that same inverted canister stove – the MSR WindPro II, would work just fine in the summer as well if the extra weight wasn’t a concern. But whether you go with a one stove to do it all approach or like to mix and match to specifically meet the needs of the excursion at hand, any backpacking stove should ideally be durable, reliable, and have the ability to heat water and cook your cuisine of choice in a reasonable amount of time, and through whatever conditions will be encountered during a trip.