Stoves 101

If you’re backpacking, you’re obviously gonna need to grub along the trail to keep your energy up.

You can snack on granola all you want, but at some point, you’ll find yourself craving sustenance. Enter, stove.

This seems like a simple solution, but there are so many stove options that depend on many factors: how light do you need your stove? Are you just boiling water, or cooking a real meal? How many people are you cooking for? Where will you be traveling, and what fuel type will be available?

There are three main categories of stoves, with several other features within each group to consider before your purchase.

  • Canister stoves: These easy-to-use stoves typically screw onto the threaded tops of fuel canisters that contain Isobutane and Propane gas
  • Liquid fuel stoves: These versatile stoves connect to refillable fuel bottles and burn nearly any liquid fuel available, which is especially convenient if you plan to travel abroad.
  • Alternative-fuel stoves: This growing category includes stoves that burn wood and denatured alcohol
  • Stove weight: Depending on your trip, you’ll want to consider every ounce that goes into your pack. If you’re simply going car camping for the weekend, reducing weight is not as important.

Burn time: How long a stove burns off a set amount of fuel.

Average boil time: This varies between models. Some general boiling and simmering tips:

Canister stoves boil water quickly. Few models are made to simmer.
Liquid-fuel stoves boil water very quickly, even in cold weather. Typically, these stoves have more simmering capabilities.
Alternate-fuel stoves are intended primarily for boiling, but they are slower by several minutes.
Canister Stoves

These user-friendly, low-maintenance stoves typically screw onto the threaded tops of fuel canisters that contain IsoButane and Propane gas. Most are compact and only weigh a few ounces.

Pros:

  • They’re lightweight and compact
  • No priming is necessary to light these stoves. Simply turn the valve, and light with a match, lighter, or piezo-igniter*
  • Easily adjustable flame
  • Self-sealing cannister prevents spills or leaks
  • Most canister stoves include a pressure regulator, which gives consistent heat output, despite cold temperatures and high elevations

Cons:

  • Stove’s arms are small and cannot securely hold large pots
  • No gas gauge to alert user when fuel is running low
  • Windscreens may trap excessive heat and lead to fuel exploding i.e. don’t use them with canister stoves!
  • If the stove lacks a pressure regulator, they will depressurize and produce a weak flame in cold weather and high altitude
  • IsoButane and Propane fuel are more expensive than liquid fuel
    *A piezo-igniter is push-button spark producer found in MSR’s Microrocket. It’s helpful if you misplace your matches.
  • Liquid-fuel Stoves

The most popular fuel type for these stoves is white gas, which is known to have nearly zero impurities, but they also can burn unleaded auto-gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel, or diesel. The fuel for this stove performs well in freezing weather and costs less than canister fuel.

Pros

  • Liquid-fuel stoves remain stable on uneven terrain
  • Refillable fuel bottles
  • Simply peer into the bottle to check your fuel supply
  • Fuel versatility benefits international travelers
  • Best stove on market for cooking at high altitudes and cold temperatures

Cons:

  • Priming and maintenance* are required
  • Fuel spills are possible
  • They tend to weigh more than canister stoves
  • While fuel is less expensive, the stoves are much more costly than cannister stoves
  • Fuels other than white gas have more impurities that may clog stove parts over time
    *Priming first involves pumping your fuel bottle to raise the pressure. Once the pressure is adequate, fill a cup below the burner with a small amount of fuel, light it to heat the fuel line, which then converts the liquid fuel to vapor when it hits the hot stove.
  • Periodic maintenance, such as cleaning the fuel hose or replacing O-rings (in the stove and on fuel bottles).

Alternative-Fuel Stoves

Wood-burning Stoves

The fuel for these stoves is easy to come by and enables you to carry less in your pack.

Pros:

  • Compact and lightweight
  • Several models can generate enough electricity while burning twigs to charge small electronic gadgets via a USB connection
  • Grills may be attached to some models

Cons:

  • Not reliable during or after a storm
  • Use may be prohibited during a burn ban or in some high elevations (for example, Yosemite prohibits twig-burning stoves above 9,600 feet)
  • If too many people rely on wood-burning stoves, there will be too few sticks on the ground to prevent erosion and healthy decomposition.
  • Denatured Alcohol Stoves
  • Weighing only an ounce or two, the denatured alcohol stove appeals to the most weight-conscious hikers.

Pros:

  • There is only one piece, so these stoves require little maintenance
  • Denatured alcohol is inexpensive and relatively easy to find in America
    The fuel burns silently, so you can enjoy the sound of silence instead of a blazing stove.

Cons:

  • Alcohol does not burn as hot as canister fuel or white gas, so it uses more time and fuel to boil water.
  • A windscreen is necessary
  • These stoves are rarely used outside of the U.S. as denatured alcohol is scarce elsewhere

Quiz Yourself

What’s the altitude?
Over 10,000 feet
Stove Suggestion: Whisperlite International

Under 10,000 feet
Stove Suggestion: Windburner

What will the temperature be like?
Above 11°F
Stove Suggestion: Microrocket

Below 11° F
Stove Suggestion: XGK EX

What do you generally cook at home?

  • Frozen Meals
    Stove Suggestion: Pocket Rocket
  • Quesadillas
    Stove Suggestions: Superfly
  • Filet Mignon topped with shrimp and gorgonzola sauce
    Stove Suggestion: Dragonfly

4. Where in the world are you traveling?

South America
Stove Suggestion: Dragonfly

South Asia
Stove Suggestion: Whisperlite International

Africa
Stove Suggestion: XGK EX

North America
Stove Suggestion: Denatured Alcohol

e. Australia

Stove Suggestion: Pocket Rocket

f. Europe

Stove Suggestion: Superfly