How to Choose a Backpacking Stove

How to Choose a Backpacking Stove Backpacking stoves have long since replaced cooking over an open flame in most wilderness areas, and for good reason. These stoves are light and reliable, and the scorched earth and fire rings left by backcountry campfires do not fit the Leave No Trace et

Backpacking stoves have long since replaced cooking over an open flame in most wilderness areas, and for good reason. These stoves are light and reliable, and the scorched earth and fire rings left by backcountry campfires do not fit the Leave No Trace ethic. In many areas, fires are strictly prohibited due to forest-fire danger or the scarcity of available firewood, so a stove is your only option.

For most backpackers, your main decision will be between the 2 broad stove categories: canister fuel vs. liquid fuel. Ultralight backpackers may also want to consider one of the alternative-fuel options now available.

Here are some quick suggestions based on the type of trip you are taking:

Activity Recommended Stove Type
Summer backpacking Canister or integrated stove system
Winter or high-elevation use Liquid-fuel stove
To boil water only Integrated stove system (canister)
Ultralight backpacking Canister or alternative-fuel stove
Large groups Liquid-fuel stove
"Gourmet" camp cooking Any model with flame control and a stable base
International travel Multifuel stove

Canister Stoves

Canister stoves are the easiest to use. They run on pre-pressurized gas canisters (usually isobutane or butane/propane). You simply attach the stove to the threaded fuel canister, turn the gas knob and light it with a match or, on many models, the push of the Piezo igniter button. The canister self-seals when the stove is detached, eliminating the possibility of fuel spills.

The biggest drawback is that canisters depressurize in the cold (between 20° and 32°F) leading to weak or no flame. Normal pressure resumes when the canister temperature is increased.

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.

A popular canister-stove variation is an Integrated Stove System, discussed below.

Canister stove pros:

  • Easy to use.
  • Compact and lightweight.
  • Good flame control.
  • No spilled fuel.
  • Burns clean; less soot on cookware.
  • Instant maximum heat output.
  • No priming required.

Canister stove cons:

  • Fuel is more expensive.
  • Poor cold-weather performance.
  • Reduced heat output over time (as fuel is used, pressure decreases).
  • Difficult to tell how much fuel is remaining.
  • Hard to find canister fuel outside the U.S.
  • Can be unstable (small base, high center of gravity).
Other considerations:

  • Warning: 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.
  • Remote canister stoves (those that separate the canister from the stove) do allow the use of a windscreen to improve efficiency. Some also allow the canister to be inverted if it depressurizes in the cold (fuel is gravity fed to the stove to maintain function).
  • Some models have a built-in pressure regulator to provide consistent heat output throughout the life of the canister. This improves cold weather performance, too.
  • Stabilizers, sold separately, can be attached to the bottom of fuel canisters. These provide a wider base to reduce the chance of tipping over.

Tip: Stormproof matches should always be carried in case the Piezo igniter fails.

Integrated Stove Systems (Canister)

One popular option for the canister-stove shopper is an integrated stove system such as the Jetboil series. With this approach, the stove is paired with a cooking pot (and optional accessories) designed to work specifically with that stove.

Here's how these compare with traditional canister stoves:

Integrated-stove system pros:

  • Faster boil times.
  • Improved fuel efficiency.
  • Increased wind protection.
  • Cookware decision already made.

Integrated-stove system cons:

  • Less versatility.
  • More expensive.

Liquid-fuel Stoves

Liquid-fuel stoves are the most economical long-term choice and perform best in cold temperatures. They most commonly run (in the U.S.) on white gas using a refillable fuel bottle that is manually pressurized with a fuel pump. These stoves need to be primed, a process that preheats the fuel line enabling the stove to convert the liquid fuel into a vapor.

A popular liquid-fuel stove variation for world travelers is a multifuel stove, discussed below.

Liquid-fuel stove pros:

  • Excellent cold-weather performance.
  • Fuel is inexpensive (making it good for larger groups).
  • Highly stable base holds larger cookware.
  • Take only the amount of fuel that you need.
  • No canister to discard.

Liquid-fuel stove cons:

  • Most require priming to operate.
  • Usually a higher initial cost.
  • Higher likelihood of fuel spills.
  • Generally heavier.
  • Requires separate purchase of fuel bottle.

Other considerations:

  • You can alter the fuel capacity and burn time of liquid-fuel stoves by connecting to a different size fuel bottle.
  • Winter backpackers should make sure a stove's controls are large and easy to use when wearing gloves.


Multifuel Stoves (Liquid Fuel)

These are liquid-fuel stoves that can accommodate various fuels including some or all of the following: white gas, unleaded auto gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel and diesel. These stoves can cost a bit more and require more maintenance but the added fuel versatility makes them a great choice for international travelers.



A comparison of the most common liquid fuels:

 

  Advantages Disadvantages
White gas
  • Cleanest, most efficient fuel choice
  • Spilled fuel evaporates quickly
  • Readily available in U.S.
  • Best for cold weather use
  • Priming usually required
  • Spilled fuel very flammable
Kerosene
  • Spilled fuel won't ignite easily
  • Fuel sold throughout world
  • High heat output
  • Priming required
  • Spilled fuel evaporates slowly
  • Noticeable odor
Unleaded auto gas
  • Most readily available in U.S.
  • Priming usually required
  • Spilled fuel very flammable
  • Gas additives can lead to clogging

Alternative-fuel Stoves

Denatured Alcohol

These stoves have few or no moving parts to worry about, weigh very little and burn silently. They do not burn as hot so it takes longer to boil water and requires more fuel. Fuel can be hard to find outside the U.S. These stoves are good for someone that enjoys peace and quiet and a slow pace to their backpacking trips.

Comparing Stove Specifications

Once you've narrowed your search to a particular stove category, compare models using the following performance attributes:

  • Burn time: This refers to how long a stove burns using a given amount of fuel.
  • Average boil time: This is the time required to bring 1 liter of 70°F water to a boil (based on an average of 3 timed boils).
  • Liters of water boiled (per 100g of fuel): This is the "miles per gallon" rating for fuel efficiency at full stove power. Note: When stoves are operated at less than full power, they are even more efficient.
  • Pot stability: This is a subjective rating of how well a stove's support arms hold a typical cooking pot.
  • Stove stability: This is a subjective rating of the stability of a stove's design.
  • Ease of operation: Canister stoves are the easiest to operate.

Size and Usability

Does the stove offer a stable enough platform to accommodate your cookware? Is it small enough to pack in your cooking pot? If you're a winter backpacker, make sure the stove is easily operable when wearing gloves.



Stove Maintenance

Learn how to clean and maintain your stove properly. This is mostly a concern with liquid-fuel stoves. Bring along a field maintenance kit if you're going out for more than a couple days.

Backpacking Stove FAQs

Q: Are the various brands of fuel canisters interchangeable? For example, can I use my Gigapower fuel on a Jetboil stove?

A: Most canisters feature a Lindal valve with standardized threading. This allows fuel canisters to be interchangeable between brands, though manufacturers generally like to recommend using their own brand of fuel with their stoves.

Q: How difficult is priming? What are the steps?

A: Priming is required for liquid-fuel stoves only. Its purpose is to preheat (and vaporize) a small quantity of fuel to ensure proper stove ignition. While priming is not difficult, you should refer to your owner's manual for step-by-step instructions, or ask for an in-store demonstration at your nearest REI location.

Q: What is a Piezo igniter?

A: Pronounced pee-A-zo, this is a push-button spark producer (generated by a crystal) found on some canister-fuel stoves. It's a handy feature, especially if your matches are lost or wet.

Tip: Always carry stormproof matches as a backup.

Stove Usage Tips

Any stove:

  • Warning: Do NOT cook inside tents or enclosed spaces. This can cause carbon monoxide poisoning and create a high fire risk.
  • Check all fuel lines, valves and connections for leaks before lighting your stove.
  • Operate your stove on the most level surface possible.
  • Use a lid when cooking.

Canister stoves:

  • New fuel canisters usually contain a small amount of air near the top; after this bleeds off, the fuel will flow and ignite. If the stove tips, a large yellow flame-up may occur.
  • As noted earlier, do not use a windscreen with a canister stove.

Liquid-fuel stoves:

  • Don't fill a fuel tank to the brim. Fuel expands as it warms, so leaving an air space prevents excessive pressure buildup.
  • Empty the fuel tank before storing your stove for several months or longer.
  • If using auto fuel, avoid the oxygenated gas found in some areas of the U.S., especially during winter. It breaks down vital stove components.
  • Use alcohol for priming. It helps to keep your stove soot-free.
  • Use a windscreen.
  • Consider using a heat exchanger for cold weather or extended trips—it promotes faster boiling and saves fuel.
  • Don't spill fuel on bare skin. In extreme cold, this can cause frostbite due to the rapid evaporation of fuel.
Sourced By Tim Skallerud