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.
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
In general, small canister stoves are a great bet for most backpacking where space and weight are concerns. Fortunately, they also simmer well and are easy to use. Integrated canister stoves, which combine a burner with a heat exchanger pot, are often 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 and versatile cooking platform as well as for the use of a windscreen. Liquid fuel stoves perform under the harshest conditions but are probably too large and too heavy for most backpacking trips.
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.
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 and little to no wind resistance. 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 use of a windscreen.
This type of stove is fairly 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. 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 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 that night.
There is a reason why manufacturers 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.
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 big name producing these stoves, and now other companies 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 is Ramen noodles or freeze-dried meal-in-a-bag dinners - and you want food fast - this type of stove is all you need.
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. What makes them fuel efficient is 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 of a snowy bivy on the side of a steep face, 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.
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. You can take them completely apart, clean and troubleshoot them easily, and then put them back together, all while out in the field. This level of maintenance is periodically necessary for the best performance.
Best for: Basecamp cooking and groups.
Best Features: Can simmer and cook multiple types of food. Field maintainable.
Worst Features: Heavy and bulky. Require regular maintenance.
The stoves in this category are the most versatile of the bunch when it comes to cooking. Many of these stoves are multi-fuel and will burn anything from white gas to diesel fuel to kerosene 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. 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.
They're ideal for longer expedition style trips, usually with 2 or more people, where the option for large fuel bottles gives these stoves an advantage. 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. They are known for being stable, versatile, and having some form of temperature control.
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.
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.
These ultralight stoves originally gained popularity as a low-cost DIY backpacker project, 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.
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 can sometimes take some skill to operate well, 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 a 4 oz canister and an 8 oz 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 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.
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 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 under different conditions, 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!
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.
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 recycling centers. Obviously, be certain the canister is empty first. 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 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. Again, make sure it's truly empty before trying this and always 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 increased 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 your 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.
The MSR Windpro and Universal (and any other stove where the can 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, this greatly improves gas flow because it allows the liquid fuel to escape the can without having to be vaporized.
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 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 can be done in the backcountry.
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.
Here are some things that will come in handy for specific applications when using your backpacking stoves.
Our favorite stove models come with their own piezoelectric igniters, but these are handy gadgets to have for any backpacking stove.
The Swedish Fire Steel and MSR Strike Igniters are much more reliable than a lighter in foul weather and last longer.
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 11oz, 20oz, and 30oz.
Some of the integrated canister stoves come with coffee kits that mimic a French Press. We prefer a lightweight pour-over set up as we detail in our Camping Coffee Review or something more instant if we're in a hurry. But if pour-over or instant 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
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
- Jetboil and MSR both make pots of varying sizes to go with their integrated canister stoves.
- Jetboil 8 inch FluxRing Fry Pan
- Windburner Sauce Pot, Stock Pot, and Skillet
For cooking on your liquid and small canister stoves, see our Camping Cookware Review.