How to Choose the Best Backpacking Stove

Cooking an elaborate meal with the versatile MSR Dragonfly backpacking stove  our Top Pick for basecamp cooking.
Article By:
Jessica Haist
Review Editor
OutdoorGearLab

Last Updated:
Wednesday

Buying the right backpacking stove can make your life in the backcountry easier, simpler, and more enjoyable. These stoves make our coffee, melt snow, boil our water, and keep us warm when all else is cold and blustery. Here we describe different stove options as well as 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, fast, and light backpacking trips. They are lightweight, small, and easy to use. Read on to learn why.

In general, small canister stoves are great best for fast and light backpacking where space and weight are concerns, but they also simmer well and are easy to use. Integrated canister stoves, which combine a burner with a heat exchanger pot, can be more wind resistant and fuel efficient than small canister stoves, making them better for high wind environments but less versatile for cooking, and they are sometimes heavier. Liquid fuel stoves separate the burner unit from the fuel bottle, allowing for a more stable, versatile and durable cooking platform. Liquid fuel stoves perform under the harshest conditions, but are probably too large and too heavy for most backpackers.

Types of Backpacking Stoves



Small Canister Stoves


Small canister stoves are compact, lightweight units targeted at the ounce-counting backpacker. 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 wind resistance or a way to diffuse heat to the bottom of the pot; however, they are slightly more versatile because you can use different cookware on the burners and there is more temperature control and simmering capability. Most modern canister stoves are compatible with any modern self-sealing threaded fuel can, regardless of brand. There are typically no field repairable parts on these stoves.

Examples of small canister stoves are the Primus Classic Trail, the MSR PocketRocket 2, and the Snow Peak GigaPower.

These stoves are handy, compact little units that are super easy to use and very lightweight. Small canister stoves are a great addition to any backpacker or adventurer's toolbox. They are so light it is a no-brainer to throw in your pack for short overnight trips or as backup stoves. We take one along when we're testing other stoves that we are dubious about as a back up — just to ensure that we'll be able to eat dinner that night.

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?

These stoves are less fuel efficient than an integrated canister stove because they have no wind resistance or a way to diffuse heat to the bottom of the pot; however, they are more versatile because you can use different cookware on the burners and there is much more temperature control and simmering capability. 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.

The small canister stoves included in this review are the Snow Peak GigaPower Auto, MSR Pocket Rocket 2, Primus Classic Trail.

Do Not Use a Windscreen with Canister Stoves
There is a reason why MSR and JetBoil do not sell windscreens for stoves in which the burner sits on top of the canister. 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. We urge you, DO NOT USE A WINDSCREEN WITH A CANNISTER STOVE.

Integrated Canister Stoves


The latest type of stove to make a splash in the backpacking scene is the integrated canister stove. This style of stove makes a fantastic water boiling machine, but will not be very versatile for heating things other than water. It combines a burner with a heat exchanger pot for efficient boiling. Jetboil was the original big name producing stoves of this type, and MSR has joined the market.

The MSR Windburner  an integrated canister stove. We love that the Windburner's burner and pot connect. We wish the connection felt more secure. The slots seem shorter than the Jetboil and don't seem to snap into place as well.
The MSR Windburner, an integrated canister stove. We love that the Windburner's burner and pot connect. We wish the connection felt more secure. The slots seem shorter than the Jetboil and don't seem to snap into place as well.

Best for: Alpine climbing and mountaineering, short trips for 1 or 2 people.
Best Features: FAST. Fuel efficient and effective at boiling water.
Worst Features: Not versatile for other types of cooking.

Integrated canister stoves are extremely fuel efficient, but some models have trouble in high winds and cold temperatures. Other models are designed with foul weather use in mind. What makes them fuel efficient is the integrated, often insulated pot systems where the heat from the burner is in very direct, diffused contact with the pot. These stoves are a great choice for fast and light alpine missions. There are typically no field repairable parts on these stoves.

Examples of integrated canister stoves are the Jetboil Flash, Jetboil MiniMo, MSR Reactor and MSR Windburner.

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 big name producing these stoves, but now MSR has joined the market with their Reactor and Windburner products. 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 is Ramen noodles or freeze-dried meal-in-a-bag dinners — and you want food fast — this type of stove is all you need. The Jetboil MiniMo has made an attempt at better temperature control and you can cook simple meals like pasta with this system.

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.

Integrated canister stoves are extremely fuel efficient, but sometimes have trouble in high winds and cold temperatures, so you will want to choose a sheltered location when cooking. What makes them fuel efficient is the integrated, often insulated pot systems where the heat from the burner is in very direct, diffused contact with the pot. 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.

The integrated canister stoves included in this review are the Jetboil Flash, Jetboil MiniMo, MSR Reactor and MSR Windburner.

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 a bit of knowledge to correctly operate because they have many parts and need to be primed properly before use. The stoves in this category are the most versatile of the bunch when it comes to cooking. You can take them completely apart, clean and troubleshoot them easily, and then put them back together, all while out in the field.

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

Many of these stoves are multi-fuel and will burn anything from white gas to diesel fuel to 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 and are quite fuel efficient. Some of them have the capability to simmer, which makes cooking more complex meals easier. The option for large fuel bottles give these stoves an advantage on really long trips. We take our liquid fuel stoves along when we are guiding groups on the John Muir Trail for 3 weeks, or expeditions to Alaska where lots of snow melting is involved.

The liquid fuel stoves included in this review are the MSR Whisperlite, MSR Dragonfly, and the Primus Omnilite Ti.

Liquid fuel stove are workhorses. They're ideal for longer expedition style trips, usually with 2 or more people. They are known for being stable, versatile, fuel efficient, and having some form of temperature control.

Stoves in this category take a bit of knowledge to correctly operate because they need to be primed properly before use. This style of stove can be completely taken apart, repaired, and then put back together, all while out in the field. This level of maintenance is periodically necessary for the best performance.

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.

Best for: Basecamp cooking and groups.
Best Features: Can simmer and cook multiple types of food. Easy to clean and repair.
Worst Features: Heavy and bulky. Require regular maintenance.

Many of the liquid fuel stoves we tested have multi-fuel capability, and will burn white gas, kerosene, diesel fuel, and sometimes isobutane canisters. This is great for international trips when you're not sure what type of fuel will be available. Some of them have the capability to simmer, which makes cooking more complex meals easier.

Examples of liquid fuel stoves are the MSR Whisperlite, as well as the multi-fuel MSR Dragonfly, and Primus Omnilite Ti.

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 the most recent 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. Unfortunately, we think there are more drawbacks than benefits, and these are the least functional and reliable of all the stove types. First, burning chemicals 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. In places such as the Sierra Nevada, there are often fire bans where 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 blackened 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.

Alcohol Stoves


These ultralight stoves originated from people figuring out how to make lightweight cook stoves from cans, but now there are many different manufactured options on the market. Stoves of this type burn denatured alcohol and are best used only for boiling water to make dehydrated or freeze dried meals. They tend to 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 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. There is no flame control on these stoves, and they can sometimes be finicky, especially at altitude, in wind, or cold temperatures.

Fuel Efficiency Versus Weight


Even though saving fuel is ultimately good for the earth, it does not automatically equal weight savings. If you choose a stove that is heavier by 3 oz but is slightly more fuel efficient — saving you approximately 0.2 oz a day on a 7 day trip, that equals 1.4 oz of weight savings in fuel, which is still less than the additional 3 oz. 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 may eventually 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 the smallest 110g canister and a 225g canister is roughly 6 oz. If your stove is 4 oz heavier and is efficient enough to prevent you from having to carry a larger canister, you've saved yourself 2 oz.

The bottom line is that you should bring the stove that will do the best job for the conditions you will encounter and the function it will serve. If you are anticipating high winds and cold temperatures, consider reaching for your the heavier MSR Reactor before the Jetboil MiniMo — yes, the MiniMo is lighter, but it will blow out and ultimately be less fuel efficient in high winds, resulting in a less pleasant experience for you.

Jason gets down to the arduous task of melting snow on Mount Shasta with the MSR Whisperlite. This is a situation where a heavier but more fuel efficient stove is helpful.
Jason gets down to the arduous task of melting snow on Mount Shasta with the MSR Whisperlite. This is a situation where a heavier but more fuel efficient stove is helpful.

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: 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. 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.

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 you may need to save a bit of weight, while sweating a bit and worrying if you'll run out of fuel; or, if you want to bulk up your calculation so you won't have to worry about having that extra hot drink, but will have to carry more weight in fuel. The only way that you can be certain these calculations will work for you is to get out there and cook with your stove, and then keep track of the fuel you actually used. Were you over conservative and brought too much fuel? Or did you have cold Ramen noodles for dinner your 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, we will plan to bring about 2 ounces per person per day. For the less fuel efficient small canister stoves, we 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


This topic has been up for debate since the introduction of isobutane burning stoves. 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 rightly so, many backpackers shy away from these stoves calling them environmentally unfriendly. But wait, you can recycle your empty canisters! You just need to poke a hole in the canister and crush the can down, and they are recycle ready at most depots. Some outdoor stores are happy to collect them and recycle them for you. If you're nervous about just pounding a canister with a rock, Jetboil now makes a tool called the Crunchit that will help crush your canisters 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 it with a medium sized rock so it takes up less pack space. Make sure it's truly empty before trying this and recycle your used canisters.

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 increaded by simply pumping the stove up some more. This isn't an option with canister stoves and a bit more care is required. First, avoid setting the canister directly on the snow. As the canister cools off it can be warmed up by putting you hands on it (and periodically rewarming them by the stove flames) or by sitting the can in a small container of lukewarm water while the stove is running. Some backpackers will keep a can warm in their jacket and simply exchange canisters for rewarming.

Another common complaint about canister stoves is that it is hard to tell how much fuel is left in them. There are two easy ways to calculate this. (1) Get yourself a digital 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 oz and it weighs in at 10 oz, that means you have used 3.1 ounces of fuel. So, in an 8 oz canister, you have 5 oz 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 a bowl of water. This method is less precise but gives you a general idea how full your canister is.

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 stove set-up would be this: the MSR Dragonfly for basecamp cooking, the MSR PocketRocket 2 for warm weather and lightweight backpacking, and the Jetboil MiniMo for alpine climbing and big walls.

Accessories


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

Piezo Igniters


The Jetboil models come with their own Piezo Igniters, but these are handy gadgets to have for any backpacking stove.

Steel Striker


The Swedish Fire Steel and MSR Strike Igniters are much more reliable than a lighter, and last longer.

Fuel Bottles


These are sold separately from your liquid fuel stoves, and an essential item to make it work! Fuel Bottles come in many sizes including 11oz, 20oz, and 30oz.

Coffee Accessories


Many of these stoves come with coffee kits that usually mimic a French Press. However, we prefer a lightweight pour-over set up as we detail in our Camping Coffee Review. But if pour over is not your favorite, here are some of the coffee kits specific to each stove:
  • Jetboil Coffee Press
  • MSR WindBoiler Coffee Press Kit
  • MSR Reactor Coffee Press Kit, 1 or 1.7L

Hanging Kits


For your integrated canister stove for when the weather is foul outside and you want to cook in your tent:
  • Jetboil Hanging Kit
  • MSR Reactor Hanging Kit
  • MSR Windboiler Hanging Kit

Additional Pots

  • Jetboil and MSR both make pots of varying sizes to go with their integrated canister stoves.
  • Jetboil 8 inch FluxRing Fry Pan
  • Jetboil WindBoiler Accessory Pot
  • MSR Reactor Pot, 1-2.5L

Pot Sets


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

At the top of the Sherwin's  Mammoth Lakes  CA
Jessica Haist
About the Author
Jessica is a recovered fashion major and urbanite who now spends all of her time living, working and playing in the mountains. Jessica originally hails from Toronto, Canada and now calls Mammoth Lakes California home. She is an avid skier, rock climber, backpacker, gardener and mountain biker. She has lived and worked all over North America pursuing her outdoor passions and work as an outdoor educator and guide. Jessica has recently completed her Masters Degree in Adventure Education from Prescott College in Arizona.

 
 

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