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How To Choose a Backpacking Stove

Tester Jessica Haist is out for the day testing the MSR Windburner and Reactor back to back in high winds and cold temps. Both stoves are very wind resistant  but very quiet  requiring you to check periodically if they are still on by putting your hands near the vents to feel heat.
Wednesday April 29, 2020
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Choosing the correct stove for your backpacking trips can make them easier, simpler, and more enjoyable. These stoves make our coffee, melt our snow, boil our water, and keep us warm when all else is cold and blustery. Here we describe different stove options and dispense some advice on other factors to consider before you take your stove out on a backpacking trip, such as how to calculate how much fuel you will need.

What kind of stove is best?
A canister stove is our favorite choice for short or fast and light backpacking trips. They are lightweight, small, and easy to use. We think they're the best choice for most backpackers. Read on to learn why.

Types of Backpacking Stoves



Small Canister Stoves


Small canister stoves are compact, lightweight units. This style of stove is so lightweight it is a simple decision to throw one in your pack for short overnight trips or as a backup stove.

Different flame sizes and shapes on small canister stoves. Which one do you think throws the most heat?
Different flame sizes and shapes on small canister stoves. Which one do you think throws the most heat?

Best for: Lightweight backpacking and short trips
Best Features: Small, lightweight, powerful

Worst Features: Don't work well in wind

These stoves are less fuel-efficient than an integrated canister stove because they have no way to diffuse heat to the bottom of the pot. Some models have better wind resistance than others, and this also affects efficiency. For this reason, it's important to choose a naturally sheltered location or a well-ventilated tent vestibule when cooking with a small canister stove. The exception to this is the MSR Windpro 2. This design has the fuel canister remote from the burner, like a liquid fuel stove, which allows for the use of a windscreen.

This type of stove is fairly versatile because you can use different cookware, and there is good temperature control and simmering. Most modern canister stoves are compatible with any modern self-sealing threaded fuel can, regardless of brand. These stoves usually don't have field repairable parts.

Small canister stoves are a great addition to any backpacker or adventurer's toolbox. We take our small canister stoves along for short to medium-length backpacking trips when we want to be able to cook meals with friends or on short solo missions with a small canister and pot. We also take one along when we're testing other stoves that we are unsure of as a back up — just to ensure that we'll be able to eat dinner.

Do Not Use a Windscreen with Canister Stoves
As a rule, windscreens are not made for stoves that fit on top of fuel canisters because they can cause the canister to overheat and explode.

Integrated Canister Stoves


The latest type of stove to make a splash in the backpacking stove scene — integrated canister stoves — are so hot right now! These stoves combine a burner with a heat exchanger pot for efficient boiling. Jetboil was the original company producing these stoves, and now others have joined the market. These stoves are fantastic water boiling machines but are not very versatile for heating things other than water. If all you plan to eat on your trips are instant food or freeze-dried meal-in-a-bag dinners — and you want food fast — this type of stove is all you need.

One of the defining features of an integrated canister stove is that the burner and pot connect. We like the secure connections found on Jetboil stoves  like the MiniMo pictured here.
One of the defining features of an integrated canister stove is that the burner and pot connect. We like the secure connections found on Jetboil stoves, like the MiniMo pictured here.

Best for: Alpine climbing and mountaineering, short trips for small groups
Best Features: FAST. Fuel efficient and effective at boiling water

Worst Features: Not so versatile for other types of cooking

Integrated canister stoves are extremely fuel-efficient. This is due to the built-in heat exchanger in the pot where the heat from the burner is in very direct, diffused contact with the pot. The pots are also insulated with some kind of cozie, which contributes to efficiency. They are generally less affected by wind than small canister stoves but can be blown out by fierce gusts. MSR's two integrated canister offerings, the WindBurner and Reactor, are virtually windproof once lit.

Newer models, like the Jetboil MiniMo, have made an attempt at better temperature control, and you can cook simple meals like pasta with this system. Notably, the Camp Chef Stryker simmers almost as well as a small canister stove. With most of these stoves the burner and pot mate securely, which make using them in a precarious spot — like a portaledge or a snowy bivy on a steep climb — much more reasonable.

These stoves are a great choice for fast and light alpine missions or having a quick hot drink or cup of soup while out on a cold day ice climbing. There are typically no field repairable parts on these stoves.

Integrated canister stoves steaming away: The MSR Reactor and WindBurner  and the Jetboil MiniMo and Flash.
Integrated canister stoves steaming away: The MSR Reactor and WindBurner, and the Jetboil MiniMo and Flash.

Liquid Fuel Stoves


These stoves are the workhorses of the backpacking stove world and are regularly used by outdoor education institutions and mountain guides on expeditions to glaciated peaks. These stoves take knowledge and practice to correctly operate because they have many parts and need to be primed properly before use. You can take them completely apart, clean and troubleshoot them easily, and then put them back together, all while out in the field. Maintenance is periodically necessary for the best performance.

Liquid fuel stoves: The Primus Omnilite Ti  MSR Whisperlite  MSR Dragonfly.
Liquid fuel stoves: The Primus Omnilite Ti, MSR Whisperlite, MSR Dragonfly.

Best for: Basecamp cooking and groups
Best Features: Can simmer and cook multiple types of food and are field maintainable

Worst Features: Heavy, bulky, require regular maintenance

When it comes to cooking, these are very versatile. Many of these stoves are multi-fuel and will burn anything from white gas and diesel fuel to kerosene and canister fuel. This is great for international trips when you're not sure what type of fuel will be available.

Liquid fuel stoves are very stable for any kind of cookware. Some of these stoves have a simmering capacity built into their design; others can be forced to simmer with some skillful fiddling. These qualities make cooking more complex meals easier.

Liquid fuel stoves are not light, nor do they pack down small. For the weight of one Dragonfly, you could carry 5 PocketRockets. The stoves themselves have a number of parts, and typically some spare parts and tools need to be carried for maintenance on longer trips.

We stuck to simple  one pot  dehydrated meals with the XGK-EX  a liquid fuel stove. It is pretty average in the cooking department.
We stuck to simple, one pot, dehydrated meals with the XGK-EX, a liquid fuel stove. It is pretty average in the cooking department.

These stoves are ideal for longer expedition-style trips, usually with two or more people, where the option for large fuel bottles gives them an advantage. We take our liquid fuel stoves along when we are guiding groups on the John Muir Trail for three weeks or expeditions to Alaska, where lots of snow melting is involved. They are known for being stable, versatile, and having some form of temperature control.

Alcohol Stoves


These ultralight stoves originally gained popularity as a low-cost DIY backpacker project, but now there are many different manufactured options on the market. They burn denatured alcohol and are best used only for boiling water to make dehydrated or freeze-dried meals. They take a long time to bring water to a boil.

Trail Designs Sidewinder burner- it gets crushed easier than many other alcohol stoves we've tested.
Trail Designs Sidewinder burner- it gets crushed easier than many other alcohol stoves we've tested.

Best for: Ultralight backpacking
Best Features: Lightweight, uses a fuel that is very easy to find

Worst Features: No temperature control, finicky in different conditions

Thru-hikers tend to favor these stoves because denatured alcohol is inexpensive, and the fuel is available everywhere, even if there isn't a specialized outdoor store. They can also be extremely light. Stoves of this type don't generally do well with cookware for larger groups. There is no flame control on these stoves, and they take skill to operate well, especially at altitude and in wind or cold temperatures.

Wood/Solid Fuel Burning Stoves


Thru-hikers and avid backpackers are always looking for new ways to lighten their loads. Wood and solid fuel burning stoves are one attempt to lighten up cook systems. This type of stove often offers the choice of carrying and using chemical fuel such as Esbit and Trangia, or to forage for burnables along the trail.

The Bushcraft Essentials Bushbox Outdoor Pocket Stove burning wood  almost ready to put the trivets and pot on.
The Bushcraft Essentials Bushbox Outdoor Pocket Stove burning wood, almost ready to put the trivets and pot on.

Best for: Survivalist camping
Best Features: Lightweight and compact

Worst Features: Gimmicky and hard to control

The appeal of these stoves is that they are very lightweight and often pack down quite small. Unfortunately, we think there are more drawbacks than benefits, and these are the least functional and reliable of all the stove types. First, burning the Esbit or Trangia chemical fuel smells horrible and is not efficient. Second, they have zero temperature control for cooking, and they take a very long time to bring water to a boil. Third, if you choose to solely burn wood in your stove, you are at the mercy of the environment around you. If the environment is wet, it will be difficult to find dry fuel. On much of the public land in the American West, there are often temporary fire bans where the use of this type of stove would be illegal. In addition, many places never allow fires above 10,000 feet. Lastly, expect to have a completely sooty pot after use.

An Esbit tablet just getting started in the Bushbox stove. This burning chemical smells horrible and burned out before water came to a boil.
An Esbit tablet just getting started in the Bushbox stove. This burning chemical smells horrible and burned out before water came to a boil.

Fuel Efficiency vs. Weight


Saving fuel is ultimately good for the earth, but does not automatically equal weight savings. If you choose a stove that is heavier by 3 ounces but is slightly more fuel-efficient (saving you approximately 0.2 ounces a day on a 7-day trip), that equals 1.4 ounces of weight savings in fuel. This is less than the additional 3 ounces of the stove. Therefore, you are not ultimately saving any weight by choosing the more fuel-efficient stove.

If the stove is more fuel-efficient and you have it out for a long time, this could help you save weight by enabling you to bring less fuel or smaller canisters and fuel bottles and not having to carry unnecessary fuel. For example, the difference in total weight between a 4-ounce canister and an 8-ounce canister is roughly 6 ounces. If your stove is 4 ounces heavier and is efficient enough to prevent you from having to carry a larger canister, you've saved yourself 2 ounces.

The bottom line is that you should first consider the stove that will do the best job for the conditions you will encounter, then look at the weight. If you are anticipating high winds and cold temperatures, consider reaching for the heavier MSR Windpro 2 before the Snow Peak GigaPower 2.0 — yes, the Gigapower is lighter, but it will blow out and ultimately be less fuel-efficient in high winds, resulting in a less pleasant and possibly dangerous experience.

Will reheating pizza that had been buried in the glacier for a month. This sort of complicated cooking is best done with a liquid fuel stove.
Will reheating pizza that had been buried in the glacier for a month. This sort of complicated cooking is best done with a liquid fuel stove.

Fuel Calculation for Trips


The age-old question that every backpacker will inevitably ask at some point in their packing process is: "How much fuel should I bring?". There are many variables to consider, including the length of trip, number of people, altitude, temperature, the type of meals, if you will be melting snow, and the fuel efficiency of your stove.

Stoves tend to perform more poorly the higher in elevation you go and the colder the temperatures get, so you will need to factor in more fuel for these scenarios. As backpackers, we often want more hot drinks and meals under those conditions too! Obviously, if you intend to just boil water, it will take less fuel than if you are cooking and simmering elaborate meals. You will need more fuel to melt snow, or if you are dealing with very cold water rather than warmer water. The altitude, weather, and type of food being prepared all affect how much fuel gets used.

All this being said, we can give you some benchmarks to start your calculations for how much fuel to bring on your trip — but you will have to ultimately make the call if you want to cut it close to the bare minimum of fuel to save a bit of weight while maybe worrying that you'll run out; or if you want to bulk up your calculation so you won't have to worry, but subsequently carry more weight. The only way that you can be certain these calculations will work for you is to get out there and cook with your stove under different conditions, and then keep track of the fuel you actually used. Were you over conservative and brought too much? Or did you have cold ramen noodles for dinner last night because you didn't bring enough? Experiential learning at its best!

Estimates for calculating how much fuel you need for a backpacking trip. These numbers are just estimates and are meant to provide a starting point for you to decide how much fuel to bring. We hope that you will consider all the contributing factors that may use up more fuel  such as elevation  temperature  and how conservative you will be while using the stove. Do you turn the stove on and then fill your pot with water  or do you have everything ready to go? All of these small details will affect how much fuel you consume.
Estimates for calculating how much fuel you need for a backpacking trip. These numbers are just estimates and are meant to provide a starting point for you to decide how much fuel to bring. We hope that you will consider all the contributing factors that may use up more fuel, such as elevation, temperature, and how conservative you will be while using the stove. Do you turn the stove on and then fill your pot with water, or do you have everything ready to go? All of these small details will affect how much fuel you consume.

We find the same rules of thumb work for both canister gas and white gas. For a solo trip, with minimal cooking but assuming we want hot breakfasts and dinners, we use about 1.5 ounces per day. When cooking for two, we use about 2.5 ounces per day. If you will be cooking more elaborate meals, or cooking in extreme cold and/or melting snow, plan to bring about 2 ounces per person per day. For the less fuel-efficient small canister stoves, bring slightly more.

We took our XGK-EX backpacking on the Sierra High Route  it was slower to boil water than most liquid fuel stoves. It is not a very practical backpacking stove.
We took our XGK-EX backpacking on the Sierra High Route, it was slower to boil water than most liquid fuel stoves. It is not a very practical backpacking stove.

To Canister or Not to Canister, Three Considerations



Waste


For a long time, people didn't know what to do with their empty canisters after using them and ended up throwing them out in the dumpster under the cover of darkness. This is very wasteful, and some backpackers shy away from this type of stove for that reason. But wait, you can recycle your empty canisters! You just need to poke a hole in the canister and crush the can, and they are recycle-ready at most recycling centers. Obviously, be certain the canister is empty first. Some outdoor stores are happy to collect them and recycle them for you as well. If you're nervous about just pounding a canister with a rock, Jetboil makes a tool called the Crunchit that will help crush them for you.

The downfall of canisters is that once they are empty, you can't do anything with them and have to carry them out with you, whereas liquid fuel bottles are reusable and refillable once emptied. So if you are very environmentally conscious, perhaps liquid fuel stoves will be the choice for you. We still like canister stoves for certain applications. When we empty one in the backcountry, we'll often crush the can with a medium-sized rock so it takes up less pack space. Again, make sure it's truly empty before trying this and always recycle your used canisters.

Cold


All stoves have trouble in the cold because this causes a drop in the pressure in the fuel container. With a liquid fuel stove, bottle pressure can be increased by simply pumping the stove up some more. This isn't an option with canister stoves, and more care is required. First, avoid setting the canister directly on the snow. Then, as the canister cools off, it can be warmed up by putting your hands on it (and periodically rewarming them by the stove flames) or by setting it in a small container of lukewarm water while the stove is running. You can also keep a second canister warm in your jacket and simply exchange canisters for rewarming.

The MSR Windpro and Universal (and any other stove where the canister attaches to the burner with a hose) give backpackers another option for dealing with cold or nearly-empty canisters. The fuel canister can be inverted, which improves gas flow by allowing the liquid fuel to escape the can without having to be vaporized.

How Much Fuel Is Left?


Another common complaint about canister stoves is that it is hard to tell how much fuel is left. There are two easy ways to calculate this. (1) Use a scale. The canister should have its gross weight on it. Weigh the canister. The difference between the gross weight and its current weight is how much fuel you have used. For example, if the gross weight is 13.1 ounces and it weighs in at 10 ounces, that means you have used 3.1 ounces of fuel. So, in an 8 oz canister, you have 5 ounces of fuel left. MSR has simplified this process for us by including a diagram on the side of its canisters to show you how to measure the amount of fuel remaining by putting your canister in water. This method is less precise but gives you a general idea of how full your canister is and it can be done in the backcountry.

MSR gives you a handy diagram to help you tell how full their canisters are.
MSR gives you a handy diagram to help you tell how full their canisters are.

This canister is almost exactly half full based on this handy float test.
This canister is almost exactly half full based on this handy float test.

Dream Stove Set-up for Different Applications


If we had unlimited financial resources, our dream stove set-up would be this: the MSR Universal for basecamp cooking, the Soto WindMaster for warm weather and lightweight backpacking, and the Jetboil MiniMo for alpine climbing and big walls. Perfection.

Accessories


Here are some things that will come in handy for specific applications when using your backpacking stoves:

Piezo Igniters


Our favorite stove models come with their own piezoelectric igniters, but handheld models can be useful for any backpacking stove.

Steel Striker


These fire starting tools are much more reliable than a lighter or matches in foul weather, and they last longer.

Fuel Bottles


These are sold separately from your liquid fuel stoves, but are a necessary item to make it work! Fuel bottles come in many sizes, including 11, 20, and 30 ounces. Note fuel bottles may not be compatible with stoves from other manufacturers.

Coffee Accessories


Integrated canister stoves from MSR and Jetboil have available coffee kits that mimic a French Press.

Hanging Kits


Climbers have long used homemade hanging kits to secure stoves on a big wall climb. Commercial models are available for use with Jetboil and MSR integrated canister stoves.

Additional Pots


Integrated canister stoves require special compatible cookware. Again, MSR and Jetboil both sell aftermarket cookware like pots and frying pans that work with their stoves.

Pot Sets


For cooking on your liquid and small canister stoves, see our Camping Cookware Review.

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