How To: Choose the Right Backpacking Stove

// by: MWO

The most important things with choosing the proper backpacking stove is to understand what you plan on using it for the most, and the type of trip you will be bringing it on.

In General:

  • For shorter trips, when packing light and using dehydrated foods, a compressed gas, canister style stove is often the best.
    • Screw on style mini stoves such as the MSR Pocket Rocket or Micro Rocket can lighten the load and get the job done when efficiency isn’t key.
    • System style stoves such as any Jet Boil, the MSR Reactor, and the MSR Windboiler are the most efficient canister stoves. They are self contained, and great for melting snow and boiling water very fast, but lack temperature control. Your dehydrated meal will be ready before anyone else’s, but you might not be cooking pancakes any time soon.
  • Longer trips, trips at high elevation, trips in cold weather, or trips where the type of fuel available is uncertain are the domain of liquid fuel stoves.
    • Liquid fuel stoves such as the MSR Whisperlite International, the MSR XGK EX, and the MSR Dragonfly will all burn a variety of fuels, are extremely easy to maintain and offer better temperature control than their canister counterparts.
    • Liquid fuel stoves, although not as compact, offer life-spans that range into tens of years, and are a lot more versatile for group cooking options.

Here is a handy little chart to summarize what was discussed above:

Stove Summary

ActivityRecommended Stove Type
Summer BackpackingCanister or Integrated Stove System
Winter and/or High Elevation Liquid Fuel Stove
Water Boiling OnlyIntegrated Stove System
Ultralight BackpackingCanister or Integrated Stove System
Large GroupsLiquid Fuel Stove
"Gourmet" camp cookingLiquid Fuel Stove (preferably with temperature control)
International TravelMulti-fuel Stove

Most important to remember is that no one stove is perfect for every situation. Being in tune with the type of trip you take the most will help you make a better choice when searching for that ideal cooking tool.

A Closer Look:

Canister Fuel Stoves

Canisters stoves run on pre-pressurized gases:  Often a mixture of isobutane and propane.  This concoction burns clean, with little to no soot residue, and burns hot.  All canisters of this style will self-seal when then stove is detached, thereby decreasing the possibility of fuel spills.

Upright: The stove screws into the top of the fuel canister. This is the smallest, lightest option. Downsides? Tall profile is prone to tip-overs without a canister stand to increase ground surface area; small stoves don’t hold large pots well.

Low-profile: The burner sits on its own base and a fuel hose connects it to the canister. Canisters can be inverted to improve cold-weather performance; large pot supports improve pot stability. Cons? It’s a bit heavier and bulkier.

The biggest downside to these stoves is that upright canisters depressurize in the cold (0°C or lower) leading to weak or no flame. Normal pressure resumes when the canister temperature is increased.  With this in mind, canister stoves are not the best for cold weather use.  This doesn’t necessarily only pertain to full winter camping, even a chilly frosty spring morning will result in a decreased efficiency of this kind of stove.

Tip: In cold weather, keep the canister warm by putting it in your sleeping bag at night or hiking with it in your jacket pocket. Place a bit of foam underneath it when cooking.

ProsCons
Easy to UseFuel is more expensive (per ounce)
Compact and LightweightPoor winter/high altitude performance
Lower risk of fuel spillingHeat output decreases as fuel level decreases
No priming requiredDifficult to gauge remaining fuel left (there are tricks for this)
Fast maximum heat outputHarder to find canisters internationally
Burns cleanly without sootMore susceptible to tipping over.

Things to consider:

  • The Jetboil CrunchIt Tool helps recycle your empty canisters safely by depressurizing the container.
  • For stoves that attach directly to the canister, a windscreen must not be used because it traps excessive heat. This creates the potential of fuel exploding.
  • Low-profile canister stoves (those that separate the canister from the stove) may allow the use of a windscreen to improve efficiency.
  • Stabilizers, often sold separately, can be attached to the bottom of fuel canisters to reduce the chance of tipping over.

Integrated Canister Stoves:

The popularity of the integrated canister stoves is very rapidly on the rise.  By boasting higher efficiency, and integrative the stove potset and fuel into one compact package it’s hard to not be a believer in this system.  Popular models of integrated canister stoves include:  Jetboils (all models), MSR Reactor, and MSR Windboiler.

These systems are, compact, lightweight, and super efficient (much more so when compared to traditional canister stoves).  Each component of these systems are specifically designed to nestle efficiently with their counter part components (pot, stove, fuel) and often lock in place.  This tight connection boots the efficiency of the stoves big time by preventing external air (wind etc) to flow over the flame and cool it down.  In addition, the pots will often have some sort of heat exchange system integrated into the stove-pot interface (Flux Ring for Jetboils, or Radiant Burner for MSR) which elevates the efficiency of the stoves even further.

Most models of these systems available also offer some degree of modular versatility.  If you are only going on a solo trip then you only need to pack a small single person pot.  However, you can also purchase a range of pot sizes for the particular system  if you need to cook for more than just yourself.  Just because you need to cook for many doesn’t mean you need to sacrifice efficiency!

Integrated Stove System Pros and Cons

ProsCons
Very fast boil times, and maximum fuel efficiencyLess versatile for pots, must use a compatible option
Much improved canister efficiency at altitude and in cold weatherMore expensive
Built-in wind buffer
Compact, and lightweight

 

Liquid Fuel Stoves:

 

What fuels do liquid-fuel stoves use? All run on so-called white gas, or naphtha, as it’s known in the fuel industry. It is a highly refined fuel processed to leave few or no impurities in the final product.  Don’t be afraid of the larger size of these stoves, there are many benefits to them and they might be the best choice for you depending on your needs.

As was mentioned above, canister fuel stoves are effected by ambient air temperature and their efficiency is greatly reduced in the winter.  You will not run into this problem with liquid fuel stoves.  They have a much more consistent heat output in all sorts of environments and weather conditions, most notably in the winter below freezing.

*It should be noted that white gas doesn’t actually burn hotter than canister fuels, just more consistently.

The benefits don’t stop here though!  The cost of this fuel is significantly less per ounce than the compressed gas canister counterparts.  By using one of these stoves you can cut your fuel costs (per ounce) by half!  Certain liquid fuel stoves can even burn diesel or kerosene, which rings in at a whopping 5% of what a canister fuel will cost you.  You also have more versatility in the amount of fuel you can bring on a trip.  If you only need a splash, only bring a splash!  No need to carry a full canister of fuel if you don’t need it.

Finally these stoves are far superior for international travel than your standard canister fuel.  It can often be hard to find compressed gas canisters abroad, but for the most part liquid fuel (of some description) is available everywhere.  Purchasing a multifuel stove for international travel is the best option.  With larger diameter fuel lines and jets, multi-fuel stoves are less likely to be clogged by dirtier fuels like kerosene, auto gas, and diesel.

Liquid Fuel Pros and Cons

ProsCons
Excellent cold weather performanceUsually more expensive than canister stoves
Inexpensive fuelRequires priming
Stable base less likely to tip overPossibly fuel spills
Easy to gauge fuel levelsSlightly heavier
No wasteRequires slightly more maintenance.

Liquid Fuel Comparison

 ProsCons
White GasCleanest and most efficientRequires priming
Fuel will evaporate quickly if spilledSpilled fuel is very flammable
Readily available in North America
Best for cold weather use.
KeroseneSpilled fuel won't ignite easilyRequires priming
Readily found worldwideStrong odor
High heat outputSpilled fuel won't evaporate easily
Leaves soot.