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Backpacking Stoves - Best Choices and Fuel Types


Aaron Zagrodnick

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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.

Choosing the Best Backpacking Stove, Fuel and Stove Types


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. 

Upright Canister Backpacking Stove - Soto WindMaster

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.

Inverted Canister Stove - MSR Wind PRO II

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

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.

Backpacking Alcohol Stove - Trail Designs 10-2 Stove

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

Wood Burning Stove for Backpacking - Trail Designs Caldera Ti-Tri

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. 
 

Final Thoughts

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.

6 Comments


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  • Premium Member
K. Urs Grutter

Posted (edited)

Just think about this: alcohol stoves beat any other system in terms of light weight. You can actually carry three or four lightweight alcohol cooking sets instead of 1 canister set. This gives you flexibility, versatility and redundancy which no other system can provide! Plus no empty canisters to go into landfills... (ever thought about leaving as small a footprint as possible...)

A note concerning the pic of the TrailDesign TiTri system with the 10-12 stove: Trail Design provides a "groundsheet" for the stove. I would strongly recommend using one and, in snow, set the whole stove and "groundsheet" on top of a plywood disc or one of those disposable bamboo picnic plates. The alcohol stove has to be insulated against the snow, so it will not be cooled down and loose its heat to the ground. The Ti groundsheet (or a piece of aluminum foil, if you want to hunt grams) will not insulate the stove, but it is needed on top of the insulating layer as a heat reflector and will greatly enhance the efficiency of the alcohol stove. I boil 500grs of water with as little as 17ml of alcohol (a little over half an ounce) on my DIY systems. Trail Designs TiTri with the 10-12 burner comes very close and can't be beaten if you do not want to tinker yourself.

happy trails

Urs 

Edited by K. Urs Grutter
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Parkinson1963

Posted

A plywood disc?  The lightweight ground insulator is a aluminum foil wrapped piece of close cell foam.

Cut to fit in side your pot.  This can act to stop the noise of the spoon in the pot making those annoying Ting noises.

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  • Premium Member
Aaron Zagrodnick

Posted

Interesting solutions and thoughts on the groundsheet for cold conditions. For winter and snow use these days, I almost always go with an inverted canister stove in the WindPro II but I have (patiently) used the 10-2 stove on a couple winter excursions! Great point and food for thought on the environmental footprint aspect as well, while I'd think alcohol stoves might have the edge here they do have a footprint in their own right; to get alcohol fuel from the ground to grain to your gear stash requires a pretty long chain of events, and both fuel types come in containers that can be recycled. (Albeit with a extra step on the canisters) Pros and cons all around and unfortunately, tough to find a perfect solution on these types of things for sure!

In regards to alcohol and canister stoves and what's lightest, it can get complicated and every trip is a bit different. For example crunching the numbers on several different trip scenarios with my typical use case, a canister stove is initially lighter for 2 person longer trips. Both setups come in so close in the average weight carried to start each hiking day (within 1.4 ounces, or less, average daily weight), that in the end for me it doesn't necessarily come down to which is lighter but which fuel option you prefer, and other factors like speed, convenience, and fuel availability. For solo shorter trips the alcohol stove will indeed be lighter in every regard, but we're just talking a couple ounces. 

Of course, the key with making it lighter or a close run with a canister is being able to dial in the fuel as close to what you'll really be needing as you can, and once you've accumulated a shelf of partially used canisters (this is both the bad, and the good side effect of using a canister stove frequently! :))  and with a digital scale, you can get pretty close.

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K. Urs Grutter

Posted

Thanks Parkinson! I really like those discussions, they push you out of old thinking patterns. Never dared to use mere foam as a ground insulator, but, true, the bottom of my cones will probably stay cool enough. Although my poplar plywood disc weighs only 57grs with aluminum foil, I immediately cut a disc of aluminum coated styro-foam from the home improvement department and came out with a mere 4 grs. Will check it out soon and see whether I am in for a meltdown or not...

Happy trails

Urs

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K. Urs Grutter

Posted

The flimsy stuff worked! 

Other experiences: I keep the power output of my DIY stoves low, on my quest for fuel efficiency. On a recent trip, I forgot the groundsheet foil and was not able to get a rolling boil.

Bench tests showed:

Stove would burn a mere 1.3ml of fuel per minute without a foil groundsheet/heat reflector, as opposed to 1.8 with. Boil time with/o about 9:30 for 500grs of water, 7:30 with. Fuel consumption more or less identical...

Caveat: those few burns do not meet any scientific standards - I simply don't have the time to do dozens of testruns...

Happy trails!

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  • Premium Member
K. Urs Grutter

Posted

Follow up to the flimsy "groundsheet" / heat reflector for alc stoves:

the flimsy stuff failed on my first outing under real trail conditions. Spent two weeks in Death Valley National Park in February, temperatures moderate to cool (up in the mountains, at least) and set my flimsy foam and foil groundsheet ablaze on my first cookout. Boy, what a mess! This foam stuff really burns sootier than candle wax! It still might work directly on snow, but I happily revert to my 4mm poplar ply disc, sealed with clear nitro laquer and covered with aluminum foil, weighing in at a mere 57grs (less than 2 oz). I still have to be careful with this set-up. Operating it with too hot a stove, any wood not covered with aluminum foil will get charred. So the stronger stoves, burning some 1.8ml of alcohol per minute, are confined to winter and weaker stoves, burning some 1.0 to 1.3ml of alcohol per minute for shoulder season and summer situations...

Happy trail cooking!

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