Backpacking Stoves: Guide to Buying the Right Backpacking Stove for You

Many people think back fondly, or not so fondly, to their car camping days when they were kids. The old battered Coleman stove sitting on the picnic table cooking supper, a couple of pup tents and the station wagon packed so tight the kids sat on their sleeping bags. While that works well for car camping, today’s backpackers are looking for ways to pinch ounces and hike farther under their own power. Backpacking is a great way to get out and experience Mother Nature at its best, and sometimes its worst. But with backpacking comes a bewildering array of gear. There are many different stoves on the market right now and not all of them are appropriate for backpacking use. Many stoves are simply too big and heavy to even think of carrying into the woods more then the 50 yards from the car to the tent site. Imaging carrying that several miles on your back, and don’t forget the tent, sleeping bag, food and clothes. As many people depend on their stove to provide warm food, picking the right stove will lead to happiness down trail.

There are many things to consider when looking for a new stove:
– how many people it will feed
– average temperatures
– weight considerations
– accessible fuel types

Some stoves are better suited for one person, some are better suited in warm weather. Some stoves weight a lot while others weigh almost nothing. How you intend to use a stove will determine which stove will be the better fit. While no one stove will work in all conditions, here is a list of the various styles of stoves available on the backpacking market.

Multi-fuel stoves
Multi-fuel stove are just that, stoves that can handle various types of liquid fuels. There are some restrictions to what they can handle but for the most part they can run on most major, easily obtainable fuels such as kerosene, gasoline, white gas, or even diesel. The drawbacks to using anything other than white gas are the impurities. Kerosene, diesel, and gasoline to a lesser degree will clog up the fuel line with use and it will become necessary to disassemble the stove and clean everything up. Many of these types of stoves have a self cleaning pin that helps keep the fuel nozzle from clogging with use. Simply shaking the stove causes the pin to break up buildup of deposits. With some patience and attention, these stoves are great workhorses and are perfect for feeding a large group. Some come with a simmer option which can allow for gourmet cooking on the trail. Pancakes, anyone? They should be cleaned regularly and that can really only be done with by disassembling. It can be a dirty, smelly job from the soot and fuel. These stoves are also not that well known for being light. Properly starting one of these stoves requires a delicate hand and some patience. Too much fuel in the priming cup and you get a fire ball, not enough and the flame is out before the stove had warmed up. This type of stove will work in most types of weather. The MSR Whisperlite International is the most common stove from this category and retails for about $80. I still use mine off and on and have used it for years.

Alcohol stoves
Alcohol stoves are a very interesting breed of stove. They have no moving parts and burn quietly and cleanly. They can easily be made with a couple of soda cans making them very light. This lightness is very appealing to ounce pinching ultralight hikers. They are easy to use, simply pour some fuel into the center hole and light it, once primed set the pot on top and wait. Some commercial stoves come with a priming pan making lighting much easier and safer. They really only use one type of fuel and that is alcohol. Denatured is best, but in a pinch certain car additives, like HEET can be used too. As the stoves are so light they can be a little delicate and care must be taken to store then inside a pot to protect them from the rigors of being in a loaded pack. The fuel can be stored in a plastic bottle and pre-measured. Working directly with the fuel can be dangerous and care must be taken to make sure it has fully evaporated from hands and surfaces before lighting anything. Alcohol itself can burn blue or even clear, as such it can be hard to determine if the flame is completely out. Alcohol stoves only have two settings, on and off. Many backpackers use this type of stove simply to boil water for re-hydrating meals or making tea/coffee. Antigravitygear sells a nice alcohol stove for $12 and priming pan for $3. I have used this stove for several years now and love it.

Canister stoves
These are compact stoves that screw onto a butane/propane or isobutane canister. The stove itself comes in several flavors, but they either come with a piezo lighter incorporated or you have to use your own lighter. Working with a canister can be hard as there is little feedback on how much fuel is left. Options involve weighing the canister after every use until empty, or carrying an extra. Shaking will determine that there is fuel available but not how much. There can also be some fuel loss when screwing or unscrewing the stove to the canister. These stoves are limited to temperatures above freezing. If the canister gets cold, it affects the fuel mix by burning up one type faster then the other thus rendering the canister useless. Canisters can be kept warm in the sleeping bag or next to the body. These stoves are good for individuals or groups and can be used in simmer mode or boil mode. A good example of a typical canister system is the Snow Peak Giga Power at $40. Jetboil has a whole optimized cook system that uses a canister and special pot, this goes for $90.

Tablet stoves
Tablet stoves use a solid fuel that comes in pre-wrapped units. The tablet can be cut in half if one unit is too much. The stove has a space to place a tablet and holds the pot just above the tablet. The stove while very rudimentary, has two positions to allow for either an open flame or a less direct flame and folds down very compact when not in use. This is a very light weight and easy system to use. Simply place a tablet on the plate of the stove, light it, put a pot on top, and wait for the boil. This set up is best for one but not for group cooking. Tablet stoves will have trouble heating large amounts of liquid. Some people find that the tablets smell and can be hard to light. The Esbit brand tablets do burn cleaner then other brands, and tend to smell less. If lighting is an issue, a small squirt of hand sanitizer on top will help with lighting. The pros to this type of stove is that the fuel is pre-measured, and the whole setup is very light and easy to use, with no moving parts. The drawbacks can include difficulties in lighting and pre-measured fuel. The Esbit Pocket stove is typical of a tablet stove and retails for $10 including several tablets.

Wood stoves
No longer the large cast iron things that used to heat homes, these wood stoves are small, very compact and all natural. Fuel is gathered around camp and broken into pieces that will fit in the lower tray. Either some fire starter or smaller twigs are used to start the fire then larger sticks are fed into it until a good fire is going. It can take some practice to learn how to quickly and efficiently build a fire and keep it going. These stoves are slower to use as they have to be well primed. The nice things about this type of stove is that there is no fuel to carry. The downside is that some parks do not allow for open fires, collecting wood can be damaging to the environment, and after a heavy rain, finding dry wood could be a problem. The Littlbug Junior stove is a good example of a wood stove and retails for $50. The nice thing about this stove is that it can do double duty as an alcohol stove stand with wind screen.

There are many things to consider when shopping around for a backpacking stove. Weight, fuel type, cooking style and ease of use will all play a role in determining what will work best for the types of trips you will be taking. Cooking style is of great importance. Do you plan on using this stove to simply heat water or do you plan on frying, boiling and simmering your dinner. The number of people you are feeding also plays a role as some stoves simply cannot heat large volumes of water efficiently. Ease of use, after a long day of hiking will you be up to the challenge of dealing with a finicky stove, or do you want something easy. In the weight department, how much weight do you want to carry around. The same goes for fuel. Some stoves come with prepackaged fuel and others require metal bottles, and yet others require the gathering of wood. Fuel type will be a major player. Depending on what area you live in it may be very hard to get certain types of fuel. Another thing to note is that certain types of fuel cannot be sent through the mail and will limit resupply drops if you are on a trip that requires resupply or travel. And finally, stove stability needs to be considered. As many backpackers tend to use stoves on unstable ground, the stove should be able to support a full pot of food or water without tipping.

All stoves can be tricky to deal with especially the ones that require direct handling of the fuel. It is always a good idea to practice using your new stove at home before taking it into the field. Stoves should always be used outside to prevent any possible build up of deadly carbon monoxide. When selecting a stove, consider how it will be used and what will best suit your needs. In the end, no one stove is perfect for every trip but there is a stove out there that will work well in most of your situations.

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