Many, many moons ago, back in Alaska when times were hard, I once saw a fellow paratrooper pull out a remarkable little device and produce blessed HEAT while we were in the middle of nowhere. The device was a stove made by a company called Mountain Safety Research or “MSR.” I knew right then that I had to have one.
That was along about 1991 or ’92 and I was at Ft. Greeley, Alaska when I first saw one of these minor miracles. To this day I am not certain what model of MSR stove that trooper owned but it was lightweight, compact and terribly efficient. It could boil water in no time, even in sub arctic temperatures and it could be set up and taken down rapidly. All of these were worthy attributes for any piece of gear to be carried by an Airborne Infantryman in the Arctic. To top all of this off, the trooper carrying it told me that it had been 100% reliable for him, having never failed to perform.
As soon as we came back from that exercise I purchased my MSR Whisperlight at the REI outlet, down on Northern Light Blvd. in Anchorage. It has served me faithfully ever since, both in the Army and out. I have used it from the North Slope of Alaska to the Appalachian Trail in Virginia and North Carolina and even in the mountains of Germany and Spain.
Weighing in at about fifteen ounces, packed up, the stove itself does not take up a lot of space in my pack. Fuel bottles can take up a bit more room and add some weight but it is not excessive. I have invested in two spare fuel bottles, a cleaning kit, a windscreen kit, and at least one maintenance kit over the years. My MSR Whisperlight is still humming along nicely but I do take care of it, cleaning it regularly, replacing seals on the fuel bottles and ensuring the bottles are stored purged (emptied and dried of all fuel). Of course, it is my belief that any piece of gear worth having is worth taking good care of. You take care of your equipment and it will take care of you.
My MSR Whisperlight is sturdy and, as I have said, it can be placed into operation quickly. In the field it is somewhat self cleaning in that it incorporates “shakerjet” technology. That is to say, when you are finished using it and it has cooled enough for you to touch; you simply pick it up and shake it to minimally clean the burner. An internal plunger will move back and forth in the fuel jet, knocking loose any carbon build up. The stove still needs a good cleaning when you get back and I usually make a point of wiping mine down when it cools, but this “shakerjet” technology will keep it humming along in the field.
Placing it into operation is very basic. First you screw the pump onto the fuel bottle and pump it up. Then you unfold the stove, snapping the three legs into place, and attach the fuel bottle to the feeder line. Then open the fuel feed for just a moment to allow a bit of fuel to drip into the drip try under the stove. Be sure and shut off the fuel again before you light the stove for preheating. Light the few drops of fuel in the drip tray and allow it to burn in order to preheat the stove. You can buy an after market “preheating jell” for this but why bother with the added expense and item in your pack? Once the stove has warmed simply open the fuel feed a bit and watch the flame. If the stove is not warm enough yet you will get a high, billowing, yellow/orange flame. Once the stove has warmed enough the flame will settle into a nice low blue flame with a distinctive jet like, yet quiet “roar” to it.
The only downside to the MSR Whisperlight is the three legged arrangement which is actually common to many backpack liquid fuel stoves. You must have the Whisperlight on level ground or a nice flat rock or it will tip over. Since the legs also comprise the cook surface, this can make it difficult to place some containers on the stove top. Obviously the designers were only thinking of a medium sized round container when they designed this stove. An army canteen cup or a small, round, metal coffee cup does not set well on the stove top but they can be made to work if you are careful.
The MSR Whisperlight only burns white gas and this is the one place I would have gone with a different model if I had the money at the time of purchase. MSR makes the Whisperlight International which, while being virtually the same stove, is multi-fuel. This makes it a bit more versatile but it does add to the price.
Today there are a variety of backpacking stoves available to choose from. Many of them cost less than the MSR models but I suspect the quality is less also. “Canister” stoves have recently become all the rage because you do not have to mess with filling the fuel bottles, changing tops (to emplace the pump) or pumping them up. They also can be smaller and lighter weight. The fuel canisters tend to cost more money though and do not burn as long as a container of liquid fuel. The Whisperlight still wins hands down in my book. It has proven itself reliable in all kinds of conditions and environments plus the liquid fuel stove perform better in cold temperatures where canister stoves fizzle out.
If you are shopping for a good backpacking stove I heartily recommend a MSR Whisperlight if you have the money ($60-$80). They can be found at a great many retailers, including REI, Dicks, Gander Mountain, and Sports Authority, to name just a few. Of course you should shop around and find the best deal. Just keep in mind that my MSR Whisperlight is still soldiering on after nearly sixteen years and service in some harsh environments. Good luck and good hiking.