How to Select Backpacking Stoves

How to Select Backpacking Stoves

When you’re backpacking, do you look forward to a cooked meal at night and hot coffee in the morning? If so, you’ll want to bring a stove. But what kind of stove to bring depends on many factors: How light do you want it to be? How versatile? Do you need a stove that simply boils quickly or do you want one that simmers?  How many people are you cooking for? Are you going to be traveling internationally and what type of fuel will be available to you?

When deciding how to choose the best backpacking stove for you, the following decision points will help you choose:

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Stove type: Backpacking stoves are loosely categorized by the type of fuel they use and how the fuel is stored.

Stove specs and features: Burn time, average boil time, weight and convenience features may help you narrow your choices.

Stove usage tips: Understanding some of the nuances of how a stove works will ensure that you’re making an informed decision and also getting the best out of your purchase when you’re out in the field.

 

Types of Backpacking Stoves

There are three main categories of backpacking stoves:

  • Canister stoves: These easy-to-use, low-maintenance stoves typically screw onto the threaded tops of self-sealing fuel canisters that contain two pre-pressurized gases: isobutane and propane.
  • Liquid fuel stoves: These versatile stoves connect to refillable fuel bottles. While most liquid-fuel stoves run on white gas, you do have other options available, which can be a particular benefit if you’re traveling internationally.
  • Alternative-fuel stoves: This growing category includes stoves that run on fuel pellets or wood.

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If you already have some thoughts about what you want from a backpacking stove, this quick chart may help; but keep in mind, one size may not fit all. For example, you may want one type of stove for fast-and-light backpacking in summer, and another type for a group trip in winter. For more details about your options, read on below.

Canister Stoves

Canister stoves are easy to use and low-maintenance.They screw onto the threaded tops of closed fuel canisters that contain two pre-pressurized gases: isobutane and propane. Some of these stoves are incredibly small, fold up compactly and weigh only a few ounces. They may be usable in some international destinations that cater to American trekkers.

Pros:

  • They’re small and lightweight.
  • They’re quick to light. No priming is necessary before lighting a canister stove. Simply turn the valve and light with a match, lighter or piezo-igniter.
  • The flame adjusts easily and simmers well (most models).
  • The canister self-seals when you unscrew the stove, so there’s no worry about spills and leaks.
  • Some canister stoves have a built-in pressure regulator to provide consistent heat output throughout the life of the canister. This improves cold weather and high-elevation performance, too.

Cons:

  • Their arms may not be long enough to hold large pots securely.
  • It’s tough to know how much gas is left inside the closed canister, so you may want to carry an extra to be sure you don’t run out. (A small 4-ounce canister makes a good backup.)
  • A windscreen should not be used with an on-canister stove because it can trap excessive heat and lead to fuel exploding.
  • In cold weather, canisters can depressurize and produce a weak flame (unless the stove has a pressure regulator)
  • Compared to liquid-fuel stoves, the cost of fuel is greater.
  • Canister waste: Empty canisters need to be disposed of properly; you’ll want to research recycling options near you.

Within the category of canister stoves are additional types:

Integrated canister systems: These tall-profile cooking systems feature a burner that screws onto the fuel canister and pairs seamlessly with a twist-on, insulated cooking pot and a lid with drain holes and/or a pour/sip hole. They can be used with accessories such as a French press for coffee making. A 4-ounce fuel canister (sold separately) can nest inside.

In general, they’re designed to boil water quickly, not cook and simmer foods (though some models let you use a different pot from the one that comes with the set, and newer versions may be shorter and wider and easier to eat from). They boil water fast and efficiently, in part thanks to a built-in windscreen. Some of these stoves also have a built-in pressure regulator that allows for consistent performance in low temperatures and at higher elevations. However, compared to standard canister stoves, the integrated system is heavier and prone to tip-overs.

Remote canister stoves: This type of stove sits on its own base and has a fuel hose that connects it to the canister. They typically pack down small and are lightweight, though you’ll add a few more ounces and bulk compared to a standard canister stove.

On some models the canister can be used in an inverted position to improve cold-weather performance. These stoves may have wider support arms for large-pot stability. A windscreen may be used with off-canister stoves.

Liquid-fuel Stoves

All liquid-fuel stoves run on white gas, which is highly refined to have few or no impurities. It burns hot and clean, performs well in below-freezing temperatures and, compared to the per-ounce cost of canister fuel, is much less expensive.

Some multi-fuel stoves can also run on some or all of the following: unleaded auto gasoline, kerosene, jet fuel or diesel.

Fuel versatility makes multi-fuel stoves a great choice for international travelers who face limited fuel choices outside the U.S. (Note: Except for emergencies, REI doesn’t recommend the use of unleaded auto gas from a gas station pump because of gasoline additives that can damage your stove.)

There are two main downsides to liquid-fuel stoves:

Most require priming, which involves igniting a few drips of fuel in a cup below the burner, creating a small flame that preheats the fuel line. This enables the stove to convert liquid fuel into a vapor. You will need to pump your fuel bottle, too, to increase pressure.

They also require periodic maintenance, such as cleaning the fuel hose or replacing O-rings (in the stove and on fuel bottles). There may be many little parts and pieces to keep track of.

Pros

  • Liquid-fuel stoves tend to be low-profile and offer greater stability on uneven ground.
  • It’s easy to tell how much fuel you have left by peering into the fuel bottle.
  • While you do have to buy a fuel bottle, there’s no canister to discard.
  • These stoves perform better than other options at high elevations and in cold temperatures.

Cons:

  • Priming and maintenance are required.
  • Fuel spills are possible.
  • They tend to be heavier than canister stoves.
  • Multi-fuel stoves can cost a bit more.
  • Fuels other than white gas have more impurities that may, over time, clog stove parts such as the fuel tube.

Alternative-fuel Stoves

These stoves can be good choices for long-distance backpacking and also for home emergency kits. Some are ultralight; others are a bit heavier. There are a few different kinds:

Wood-burning Stoves

Because these burn twigs and leaves you gather in the backcountry, you carry no fuel, a nice option for longer or lighter trips.

Pros:

  • These can be simple and lightweight, such as a titanium base-and-windscreen/pot-support setup that folds flat.
  • Some models can generate enough electricity while burning twigs to charge a mobile phone or other small gadget via a USB connection.
  • Some models can be outfitted with an optional grill.

Cons:

  • Finding dry fuel during wet weather can be challenging.
  • Use may be prohibited during a burn ban or in some places at high elevation (for example, Yosemite prohibits twig-burning stoves above 9,600 feet).

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