- Steven Boldt
Gear Talk: Backpacking Stoves
Here at RightOnTrek, we understand that keeping nourished on the trail is of utmost importance and there’s nothing like a hot meal to boost energy and moral levels. Though to get that hot food you need, well, heat. With so many options on the market, how do you wade through them to find the right stove for you?
If you’re a gear nerd like us, it’s fun to compare, contrast, and own many different stove types - building out your camping kit to include the perfect hardware for any and all conditions. If you’re not there yet, don’t worry! We’ll break down the stoves, considerations, and usage tips below.
Stoves are most often categorized by fuel type: pressurized gas canisters, liquid fuel, and alternative fuel stoves that use biomass, alcohol, or fuel pellets. Some basic things to consider include: simmering ability, boil time, elevation, packability, and cost. When comparing stoves, it’s important to remember that one size does not fit all - they are designed for different situations and like good tools, they all have their time and place.
Canister stoves are simple in design: self-sealing, pressurized fuel canisters screw into a burner - open the valve, light the stove, and you’re cooking! Because of their ease of use and low maintenance requirements they are an incredibly popular option.
It’s important to note that canister stoves can also have integrated or non-integrated cooking set-ups. Integrated stoves have burners and pots that are specially designed to nest together, while non-integrated stoves have a burner that can accommodate any cookware.
Integrated Canister Stoves
Integrated stoves, because of their nesting system, have a natural wind screen and have a high heat-transfer capability - essentially, more heat hits the pot. This helps reduce the time it takes to boil water, conserves fuel, and makes these stoves a great option in high-wind environments. Because of the integrated system however, these stoves are generally heavier and more bulky than other options out there, and simmering is not much of an option - essentially the stoves are on full-blast or off altogether - coffee, soup, and rehydrating food are where the system excels.
The cost of an integrated set-up is more expensive than their non-integrated counterpart but that price difference tends to even out when you consider the fuel savings and that a separate pot isn’t necessary. Our favorite integrated systems to set clients up with is the Jetboil Flash - Jetboil is an industry leader of integrated stoves, and with a 100-second boil time for half a liter of water, it’s easy to see why.
Non-Integrated Canister Stoves
A non-integrated set-up is versatile in the fact that you can mix and match pots to fit your exact needs. It’s possible to find cookware, like the TOAKS Titanium 1100ml Pot, that holds your stove and fuel canister perfectly inside - this kind of set-up is ultralight and compact. Non-integrated stoves also have the ability to change how much heat they give off and make simmering and cooking on trail easy. For almost all environments, we love the MSR Pocket Rocket, a tried-and-true classic camping stove that weighs only two nickels (fuel not included). For those heading into a more windy environment, we suggest the Soto Amicus, another ultralight option that features a unique raised ledge around a concave burner for increased wind protection.
Canisters are filled with Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG for short), a proprietary blend of propane, isobutane, and butane. If you want the nitty gritty on the different gas types, chemical formulas and all, check out MSR’s blog post ‘The Ins and Outs of Canister Fuel’. From an eco-consciousness perspective, this fuel blend burns hot and clean, producing the least soot and byproducts of any camping stove fuel.
Depending on your stove type, an 8oz canister will provide you with an hour to an hour and a half of full-blast cook time, and much longer if used for simmering. That is usually plenty for a long weekend trip when cooking for two. However, please note, that total cook time and effectiveness will change depending on the temperature and elevation.
Cold and High Elevation
Using canister fuel in extreme cold (<20℉) or high elevation environments can be tricky - in those conditions, canisters lose pressure, rendering them less useful or worse, completely useless. To avoid these issues, put a canister inside your outer jacket layer to warm it before use and, if cooking on snow, place something sturdy and level under your stove set-up to insulate it.
What happens when you’ve got a partially used canister or two in your camping box? How do you determine how much fuel is left?
For an approximation of the volume remaining, you can place your canister, valve side up, in a large pot of water - though before letting go, tilt your canister to one side to ensure there are no air bubbles in the concave area underneath it. Let go and let it find its equilibrium. The water line on the outside of the canister will tell you the amount of liquid fuel remaining inside. Because different manufacturers fill their canisters to different levels this is not going to be 100% accurate but is quick and easy.
To find an exact amount of fuel remaining, you’ll need a digital scale. Canister manufacturers give you both the total weight of the full canister and the weight of the fuel inside. By determining the weight of the partial canister and using some math, we’ll be able to find the remaining amount. Let’s say you just took a brand new 8oz. fuel canister weighs 13.1oz total on a weekend backpacking trip. After you get back you weigh it and the canister comes in at 10.1oz total. The difference between the brand new canister weight (13.1oz) and the now partial canister weight (10.1oz) gives you the amount of fuel used (3oz). Subtract the fuel used amount (3oz) from the brand new fuel amount (8oz) and you get the exact amount of fuel remaining (5oz).
Fuel canisters are sold in just about every outdoor retailer in the US, throughout much of Europe, and in some stores in other major outdoor tourist destinations abroad, ie. the Himalayas and Patagonia. Outside of those areas they tend to be difficult to find, which can be a caveat when flying to your next adventure destination because fuel canisters are not allowed on airplanes for safety reasons.
Once a fuel canister no longer emits enough gas to light your stove it’s effectively empty and ready for disposal. Fortunately, recycling canisters is easier than ever, though to put them in your normal mixed metal recycling you’ll need to puncture them. Take an old-school can opener with a pointed end - aka a churchkey - and poke a hole in the side (ice axes, screwdrivers, and JetBoil’s CrunchIt puncture tool also work well here, just don’t use a saw or anything that could create a spark). Now you can toss the punctured canister in with your regular recycling. If you don’t feel comfortable with that process, check with your local outdoor store to see if they have a recycling program, otherwise your local metal recycling center should take them when they’re still intact.
Liquid Fuel Stoves
Liquid fuel stoves run on fuel that is stored in a specialized, refillable bottle and connects to a detached burner with a hose. While many liquid stoves run exclusively on liquified white gas, some accept multiple different types of fuel - kerosene, gasoline, diesel, and, if you’re Elon Musk, even jet fuel - this ability makes liquid fuel stoves the best option when traveling to international destinations where canisters are unlikely to be found and the liquid fuel options vary.
These versatile stoves do require more maintenance and know-how. You’ll have to pump the fuel bottle to increase the pressure and prime the fuel line by igniting a small amount of fuel and holding it below the line to preheat it, allowing the liquid fuel to vaporize for consistent burning. In most modern liquid fuel stoves, priming is done with an integrated cup and wick system and is much more straightforward than in the past - MSR’s WhisperLite is a great example of this and happens to be a favorite of ours.
Boil Time and Simmering
When it comes to boil time and simmering, liquid fuel stoves do both quite well. Boil times, especially when using a wind screen, are fast - around 2 minutes for half a liter of water. While the stoves simmer well, and some, like the Primus OmniFuel, have a flame control dial on the burner, it’s not always quite that simple and can take a bit of practice - modern fuel bottles have a pump control valve that can be adjusted to lower the heat. Because the amount of fuel directed to the burner is also affected by the pressure inside the bottle, you may have to pump it less times to achieve the desired simmer temperature.
Weight and Packability
Liquid fuel stoves will almost always be heavier and more bulky than other stoves on the market due to their multiple components. That being said, when it comes to longer adventures, they excel over their canister counterparts as carrying an extra fuel bottle or two takes up less space and weighs less than multiple fuel canisters.
Cold and High Elevations
In high elevations and below-freezing temperatures, liquid fuel doesn’t lose pressure like canisters and produces more BTU’s (heat) than any other type of fuel out there, meaning their boil times and effectiveness stay relatively consistent. They are the favored stove by those heading into the alpine and other extreme conditions.
Liquid fuel stoves, while initially more expensive than canister stoves, are much more cost-effective when it comes to purchasing fuel itself. The refillable fuel containers also reduce waste. Good to keep in mind if you plan on using your stove frequently.
If you do end up with a multi fuel stove, please take care when filling your aluminum fuel bottle with fuel that contains any amount of alcohol (ie. automotive gas that contains ethanol). While the stove will still work properly, the alcohol can cause pitted corrosion in the aluminum bottle and should not be stored in it for long time periods.
Alternative stoves is a catch all phrase for any stove that does not use a canister or liquid fuel system attached to a burner. Common alternative stoves use denatured alcohol, solid fuel pellets, or biomass to create heat underneath cookware. These stove types are quickly growing in popularity, especially with the backpacking community, as they are generally inexpensive, very light, and quite durable.
Bio stoves have a base in which twigs, leaves, and other biomass are burned to create a small fire under cookware. These stoves are super light and packable, which is especially true as you don’t have to carry any fuel with you. Tough that positive is also a caveat - where there’s little fuel or wet fuel it can be challenging to use this stove. Because these stoves use open flame, they have a low BTU output and heat transfer rate so they take longer to boil water and there is essentially no control on simmering. Check out the Vargo Hexagon Wood Stove which weighs only 4 ounces and folds down to practically nothing!
Alcohol Stoves (Wet and Dry)
Alcohol and solid-fuel pellet stoves use a small metal base to hold the fuel source and cookware is rested on supports over the flame once the fuel is ignited. Alcohol and pellet stoves produce low BTU’s and are easily affected by wind, so boil times are long and they aren’t effective in intense weather. Some stoves do open and close slightly to alter the amount of heat they provide to cookware so with a watchful eye simmering is possible. These stoves are incredibly lightweight, essentially maintenance free, and fuel is very inexpensive and compact. They make an excellent option for ultralight backpackers in generally favorable conditions.
Our favorites in this category are the Toaks Titanium Alcohol Stove and Pot System which weighs 6 ounces total, pot included, and the Esbit Pocket Stove that uses fuel pellets, costs less than $20, and weighs only 3 ounces!
Something else to keep in mind.
Burn bans and area restrictions can limit or prohibit the use of alternative fuel stoves. Always check with local park authorities for up to date alerts and notices to make sure you’re in the clear!
No matter what stove, or stoves, you go with, we have some universal tips.
Don’t use a stove inside your tent or an enclosed space - carbon monoxide poisoning and unintended fires aren’t cool.
Check over your stove before you leave and during your trip for signs of damage, especially canisters and fuel bottles.
Choose a level spot to cook on; nobody wants to eat pasta with dirt in it (not that we’re speaking from experience or anything…).
Finally, we highly suggest heading to your local gear shop to get an in-person feel for the different options and to be able to talk with their staff, who will have tailored recommendations for your region and usage.
Shop local to keep your area’s outdoor community thriving!
Have a stove you swear by, think we missed something, or have a gear talk you’d like to see? Email firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment.