Today we’re going to jump into some details about backpacking stoves and what you’ll want to consider when getting a new one. Let’s get cookin’.
You’ve just spent all day hiking. You’re exhausted. All you want to is that giant burger to stuff in your face. But you don’t have a giant burger in your pack, backpacking food is all you’ve got. Chances are you need to heat water or food before you can eat it. And you probably want to heat things up anyways. A hot meal after a long day hiking, especially in cold, miserable weather, could be the best part about backpacking. The wait while you’re cooking can be excruciating but that warm satisfied feeling laying around camp after a good meal can’t be beat.
With so many stoves on the market right now, how do you choose one? We’ll walk you some of the basics of stoves and which one to go with for your situation.
First a few questions.
Questions to Ask Yourself
The first thing we need to do is look at how you’re going to use your stove. There are some questions you should answer before even looking at any stoves. The answers to these will direct you to the type of stove you’ll be happy with. Stoves are just like tents, there are many options but many not be only 1 best choice. Most of the time you can narrow it down to a small number of choices that will suit you best and then you can decide from there. So grab a piece of paper (or computer or tablet or phone) and write out your answers to these questions. These are also nice to remind yourself what exactly you are buying your stove for when you go looking at new shiny gear.
What are you going to cook?
How many people are you cooking for?
Where are you going to use it?
Where will you get fuel from?
How much weight do you want to carry?
How much space do you have?
Now that we’ve got those questions out of the way, we can move on to the features of the stoves and how they relate to your questions. Keep your answers from the questions above handy as you go through the features and examples at the end.
Major Features of Stoves
Now we’re into the major features of all the stoves. These specifications or features are different on every stove so watch for these when you are buying.
Type of fuel and canister
There are a few different types of fuel on the market for stoves these days. Most stoves only have the required parts for one type of fuel. It may be important to be able to use different kinds of fuel because you travel or like different types for different applications.
These are the small metal canisters you can get from outdoor gear stores. They are very convenient to use and light weight. These stoves are fast and easy to light. You cannot refill the containers though and it can be tough to see know how much you have left. Many backpackers have a pile of half-used canisters because they don’t know how much are in them. Some canister manufacturers are starting to put measurements on the canisters so you can float them in water and see where the fuel level is.
Liquid White Gas
White gas has been used in camping stoves for a long time. The benefit to white gas stoves is that you can see how much you have left and refill the fuel bottles. These are heavier to carry though. Bigger, more powerful stoves are often white gas. White Gas stoves are great for big groups or melting snow.
If you’re looking to go ultra lightweight, a small alcohol stove may be your best option. You can make one out of a pop can. These can be finicky to light but are nice and light.
Some stoves are able to use fuels like diesel or other liquids that burn so it’s easier to find something you can cook with. Others, like the BioLite stove, are turning to wood you’d find on the trail to keep your fire going.
Weight of stove
Always in the mind of every backpacker, the weight of the stove can be important. Do you want to carry a big stove around with you or a tiny little pocket-sized cooker. There are perks to each size. It just depends on what you want to do with it. If you’re going to be cooking gourmet meals for large groups then you’ll be getting a bigger stove with more space on top. If you need to be fast and light and are just boiling water with the occasional soup, then something tiny and fast might be the way to go.
Every stove has a different speed at which it can boil water. It all depends on the size of the flame under the pot, the intensity of that flame and amount of wind protection you can give it. If all the heat is going out the side with the wind, you’ll be waiting a long time for your food! Boiling speeds range from 3 minutes up to 5 or 6 minutes. The boil times will range with a given stove depending on the temperature, wind speed and fuel canister pressure. IsoButane canister pressure drops as you use the so your boil time will increase as you use the canister. White Gas fuel bottles can be pressurized whenever you use them so the boil times will stay more constant.
Operation at Altitude and in Weather
These factors will affect how much pressure is in your canister and how much heat is getting to your pot. Some stoves like the MSR Reactor have a bunch of special parts and a special pot to conserve all that heat and direct as much of it as possible straight into the pot. Wind and bad conditions will slow that process down.
Size of Pot
If you’re pot is going to be for 1 or 2 people then you can get a smaller stove but if you are going to be cooking giant meals for a group of 10 you’ll want something bigger. A small stove with a lot of people will work in a pinch but it’s much more convenient to get something bigger. Some stoves require special pots so keep that in mind. The MSR Reactor pot doesn’t fit on any other stove and you can’t use any other pot on the Reactor so keep that in mind if you get a specialized setup like this. Aside from a few specialized options, most pots and stoves work very well together.
Type of controls
Some stoves have multiple adjustments on them to make it easier to simmer. If that’s important to you add it to your list.
Location of Canister
The location of iso-butane canisters can be different on the stoves. Some are attached directly to the stove with the stove sitting on top of the canisters. Some canisters are attached remotely and connect through a gas tube.
Some stoves have special features on them and other attachments that only fit with that stove. That can be good or bad depending on how you look at it. Some have special pots, battery chargers, or wind screens. The MSR Reactor, for example, has special pots that fit onto it’s burner. It’s very fast at boiling but you can’t use other pots with it.It would be a good idea to order these in priority for yourself when you are picking one. Is the type of fuel more important to you than the size of the stove? Is the weight of the stove more important than the size of the pots it can hold. Think about your questions above and then prioritize the features to fit what you want to do.
Liquid White Gas
Updated August 29, 2022. Originally published November 23, 2013.