Monday, December 21, 2015

H is for Hiking Stoves

I mentioned in a previous post that on my first backpacking trip, we really didn't eat very well.  A big part of that was not having a suitable stove.  I have since learned that having a good stove is one of the four most important purchases for enjoyable backpacking (the others being a backpack, sleeping bag, and shelter).  I have also learned there are a wide variety that fit a variety of preferences and conditions.  Below is a quick overview of the different types and why you may consider one over the other.

Canister Stoves

By far, my favorite is the canister stove, which uses an isobutane fuel mixture in a metal canister that can be bought in different sizes.  I like these best because they are very small and lightweight.  Even after adding a pot, the total weight and bulk is less than most traditional backpacking stoves.

MSR Microrocket Canister Stove
Canister work great in almost any scenario except for cold temperatures and high elevations.  I have used mine successfully at 6000 feet, but it takes longer to boil water (which translates into more fuel usage).  I have only heard two downsides to these types of stove:  First, the canisters stay with you through the entire hike even when used up since you have to pack out your trash.  Proponents of other stove types complain of this added bulk since liquid fuel could be packed in a collapsible bottle that gets smaller as fuel is used.  In reality, though, it's not a big problem unless you're on a very long trip (longer than a week) and require multiple canisters or using your stove for a large group in which case, the extra canister(s) can be distributed among group members.  Second, many canister stoves have poor-to-average flow control, meaning the flame seems either very high or very low.  Thus, if you like cooking gourmet meals in a pot or almost anything in a skillet, it takes a lot of attention to keep it cooking and keep it from burning.  Anything soupy (even if it's not "soup", just on the liquidy side, which many hikers prefer because of ease of cleanup) will do okay, though.

A specialized version of the canister stove is the Jetboil Flash, which is a canister stove in a completely self-contained unit that holds the stove and the fuel inside a 1-liter cooking pot that doubles as a drinking cup.

In reality, the cooking pot really isn't useful for cooking, although it theoretically could be.  It's much more useful to just boil water in, which works for me because I prefer dehydrated meals where you just add water.  It does however, come with an attachment that you can use to place a frying pan or larger pot on.  We have even used our Jetboil with the frying pan on several picnics to have hot sandwiches or hot dogs.

Alcohol Stoves

An ultra-lightweight option is the alcohol stove.  They are about the cheapest stove option, and they are very easy to DIY out of a cat food can or a Coke can (Andrew Skurka gives directions on how to make one here).  You do have to carry a separate bottle of denatured alcohol, but overall, the weight is much less than any other type of backpacking stove.

That said, there are some significant downsides.  First, there's no way to put out the fire once started; you just have to let the alcohol burn up.  Second, there is zero flow control; the flame burns at one level, and it's dependent on the configuration of the flame holes on the side.  Third, stability can be problematic in the field if there's not any level ground around.  Finally, like canister stoves, alcohol stoves don't do well at high altitudes and/or low temperatures.  The combination of all those issues has kept me from jumping to this option despite the low weight and bulk.  Still, many people swear by them, so if you're adventurous and you're on a budget or ultralight is important to you, give it a try.

White Gas Stoves

White Gas stoves, like the MSR Whisperlite International were the standard for backpacking stoves for years.  These stoves work well in any environment and are really the best option for high altitudes and low temperatures.  They use liquid white gas that is available at most outdoor retailers.  Many can also use kerosene or unleaded gasoline, although they tend to clog the stove over time.


On the downside, these stoves cost a little more than canister stoves, are a little bit heavier, require occasional maintenance, and can require some babying and finesse to get them started.  Again, these downsides have kept me from purchasing one of these when my canister stove has performed well under every condition I've put it through.  Living in Colorado now, however, and wanting to do some backpacking through the mountains, I'm rethinking that decision.

Bottom Line

If you're considering a backpacking stove and are looking for a good all-around product for a reasonable price, I highly recommend a canister stove.  If you're on a budget but the stove is holding you back from eating well in the backcountry, give the DIY aclohol stove a try.  And, if you're looking for a stove to use in alpine conditions, a white gas stove is your best bet.

Blogging Through the Alphabet” style=


  1. I'm thankful for all the boiling water we've gotten from the hiking stoves, as well as a few dozen pieces of fried spam along the way!

  2. Wish I had known about this in my earlier camping days :-)

    1. They're incredibly handy for much more than just backpacking as we've come to realize!

  3. i learned a thing or two. Thanks for the post. :)
    Visiting through blogging through the alphabet

    1. Thanks for visiting, Annette! Come back anytime. The posts aren't always about gear. Often they're about places to go as well!