Canister stoves are the easiest types of backpacking stove to light. Just like a BBQ. Grab your lighter, turn on the gas and, woof, you’re cooking with gas.
It’s still possible to burn your eyebrows off but much harder than with a liquid fuel stove.
Because you can boil water for your lasagna and still keep your eyebrows, I like to recommend canister stoves to beginners for that reason. At the end of a long day, you just want to savor your lasagna, not stop drop and roll.
Since you don’t have your giant BBQ lighter handy, what do you use to light a canister stove? What’s the easiest way to do without having to carry your backyard BBQ gear with you.
There’s 4 main ways to light a canister stove: a piezo igniter, matches, a lighter and fire steel.
You can use any or all of them.
First a quick note about backups. Have at least 2 with you on every trip. That might be 2 lighters, a lighter and a fire steel or a piezo igniter and matches. They fail. They get wet. If you’re depending on that stove to eat and drink, then you need it to work. Besides, rehydrated food with cold water sucks. Crunch. Crunch.
Here’s a quick look at the 4 methods.
A piezo igniter are small tools that use a piezoelectric crystal to make a spark.
They can be attached to the stove or a separate igniter. You’ll never misplace the ones that are attached to the stove. If they do stop working, you’ll be stuck with it attached to your stove though.
The separate igniters are a button on the end of a stick. Turn the gas on and put the sparky end near it and press the button. It might take a couple click to light it but it will spark the gas and light it. Time to cook. They’re good to use in the wind.
Piezo igniters won’t run out light matches or a lighter will but they can stop working at some point. Some people report their piezo igniters not being very reliable.
MSR has a separate piezo igniter available.
Matches are easy to light and easy to use. Just don’t get them wet. You can get waterproof matches but they’re a bit harder to light.
To light your stove, light your match and hold it it close to the gas. Careful with your fingers. You get to hold the end of the match but it’s still not that far away from where the gas will light. Your reactions will be fast if your fingers are too close when the stove ignites!
Make sure you have enough matches for the trip and watch the wind. A quick breeze and another one is gone.
Lighters are my favourite way to light canister stoves. Small Bic lighters are portable, reliable and easy to use. Your fingers have to be pretty close to the flame when you’re lighting the canister but when it lights, you can usually get your hand out of there pretty fast!
There are lighters like the SOL Fuel Free Lighter that use two crossing arcs of electricity to light something. They can just be recharged by USB.
Unlike matches, lighters can usually be dried out quickly and work again. Even if the fuel isn’t working or it’s empty, it will probably still spark and light the gas. If you can get a flame, it will work better but all you need is a spark.
The flame you get with a lighter is easier to light wood for a campfire or other things if you need to. A piezo igniter is only going to give you a spark.
You always need a backup way to light your stove. Fire steel is a perfect backup.
You can use it in any conditions, any altitude. Fire steel sets are a magnesium rod and a chunk of steel. When you rub them together, sparks fly off in the direction you’re pushing. Eventually the metal will run out but you can usually get thousands of uses with it.
Lighting a stove with fire steel is a little bit harder; you need 2 hands to hold the rod and the steel. If you have 3 arms or another person around, they can turn your stove on while you shoot the sparks at the stove burner. Or just turn on the stove and then start making sparks.
You may not want to use the fire steel all the time but since they work in any condition, they’ll give you peace of mind as a backup you’ll hopefully never have to use.
So which is the best method?
It’s tough to say which is the best method flat out. There are pros and cons to each.
Lighters are popular. They are nice and easy. Fire steel is a solid backup plan.
Everyone has their favourites. Maybe you prefer to rub some wood together long enough to create fire and then cook on that. Totally up to you.
I think I’ll just use my mini lighter and canister stove so I can eat my lasagna.
Updated August 27, 2022. Originally published October 15, 2015.
Note the MSR Piezo Igniter works well up to about 10,000 ft. At higher altitude, use another method.
Good to know. Thanks Roger.