When looking for a stove for camping or backpacking, one of the most immediate concerns is weight, but of course the next concern is functionality and how long you will be dependent on your stove. Camping or backpacking overnight or for a few weeks is a whole different issue from living off the grid for months at a time. The stove you choose is going to depend on any number of different factors, depending on the climate, terrain and length of time you intend to be out in the wild.
One thing to take into consideration as well is what you are going to be doing with the stove – will you be cooking freeze-dried meals for which you may simply want a stove that will boil water rapidly, or are you planning on cooking more gourmet meals? If you want to boil water rapidly using minimal fuel, then you probably want an integrated canister system. If, on the other hand, you want your food to simmer, you may want a stove that uses liquid or alternative fuel.
Keep in mind that if you are camping with a group of 3 or more, it’s always a good idea to bring more than one stove so that everyone can eat at relatively the same time. With the lightweight portability of most stoves these days, it’s not a bad idea for everyone to have their own stove. In that case, you can also bring a selection of stoves to be used for different purposes.
For casual summer or ultralight backpacking, the most optional stove is a canister or integrated stove system, which is also great if you only want to boil water. During winter, at high elevations, or for large groups, liquid fuel systems are the best. If you’re planning on serving more gourmet fare on your excursion, you want to choose a model with flame control and a stable base. For international travel, however, you want to invest in a multi-fuel stove so you know that you can always find what you need to keep on cooking.
- Canister Stoves
A canister stove is, like the name implies, a small canister that runs on pre-pressurized gasses, such as isobutane or in some cases propane. Isobutane is most optimal because it burns hot and clean and performs better than conventional butane in cold climates. Another perk of canister stoves for backpacking is that when the stove is detached, the canister self-seals, which eliminates the possibility of a messy or even dangerous fuel spills in your pack.
Fuel canisters can connect by either screwing the stove directly into the top of the fuel canister for upright cooking, or it can sit on it’s own base and be connected to the fuel canister via a fuel hose. The upright option is the smallest and lightest option but is also prone to tipping over and doesn’t hold large pots well. Connection via a fuel hose is best for cold weather conditions because upright canisters depressurize in conditions lower than 32°F, which leads to a weak flame at best, and possibly no flame at all. It does, however, support larger pots better but also makes the unit heavier and bulkier to carry. In cold weather, you can keep the canister warm by carrying it in your jacket pocket when hiking, or putting it in your sleeping bag at night.
On the plus side canister stoves are very easy to use as well as being compact and lightweight and have almost zero risk of spillage. There is no priming required and they quickly generate maximum heat with good flame control and a clean burn. Most canisters also come with a standard valve known as a Lindal valve, which allows them to be used with most major brands of fuel canisters, even though manufacturers generally recommend only using their brand of fuel with their stoves. Many stoves will also come with a Piezo igniter, which is a button you push that creates a spark that ignites the stove. This is a handy feature if you lose your matches or they get wet, but it’s also not generally recommended that you rely fully on the igniter, but instead always carry weatherproof matches as a backup.
On the negative side, fuel is more expensive per ounce, and they perform poorly in cold weather. Also the heat output tends to drop as the canister empties, although some models come with a built-in pressure regulator to provide consistent heat output throughout the life of the canister. It is also sometimes hard to find fuel for them outside of the US, and of course the upright models are prone to tip-overs although some stoves come with stabilizers or have stabilizers available that can be purchased separately, that can help with the tip-over problem.
With canister stoves, it can be difficult to judge just how much fuel is remaining and that task becomes even more difficult with stoves that regulate heat output to maintain consistency. If the heat remains consistent, there is no way to tell whether the canister is getting low on fuel or not. Andrew Skurka, author of The Ultimate Hiker’s Gear Guide, estimates that a standard 8-ounce fuel canister should heat about 60 cups of water, which should be sufficient to heat approximately 15-20 freeze dried meals requiring 2 or more cups of water to rehydrate. That is, barring high winds, cold temps or other factors that could significantly diminish the stove’s performance. Time and experience, of course, will give you a better feel for just how much fuel you need for the kinds of camping or backpacking you do.
- Integrated Canister Stove Systems
A slight twist on the canister stove system is an integrated stove system, which pairs the fuel canister with a cooking pot designed specifically to work with the stove. These stoves frequently come with optional accessories as well, such as a French press for coffee making. The integrated canister system offers excellent fuel efficiency and a built in wind buffer for less than optimal conditions, as well as rapid boil times, but are all more expensive and less versatile with other pots.
- Liquid-fuel Stoves
Liquid-fuel stoves run on “white gas,” or “naptha.” Naphtha is a highly refined fuel that is processed so as to leave little to no impurities in the final product. It burns hot and clean, performs well in below-freezing temperatures and is much less expensive than canister fuel when compared based on a per-ounce cost.
Many backpacking stoves are multi-fuel stoves and a few camping stoves are as well. Depending on which model you purchase, they may also operate on jet fuel, kerosene, non-oxygenated unleaded auto gasoline or even diesel. It’s important to be aware that in the US, many gas stations only carry oxygenated gasoline in areas that have cold climates in winter months. This helps reduce emissions, which is helpful to the environment, but can damage your stove. Multi-fuel stoves are also the preferred stove for international travelers where fuel sources may be limited. None of these fuels, however, are as refined as white gas is and whatever impurities they carry may eventually clog some parts of the stove, such as the fuel tube.
Unlike canister stoves, liquid fuel stoves have a low profile design which makes for a much more stable base and makes them much less prone to tipping. They also have a fuel gauge, which takes the guesswork out of estimating your remaining fuel supply, but they also do not self-seal and are therefore prone to leaking or spilling fuel. They are also a bit heavier than canister stoves and require the purchase of a fuel bottle but that also means there is no canister to dispose of. They tend to be more expensive initially than canister stoves, but the fuel is less expensive, so the cost evens out somewhat over time. This also makes them better for large groups and larger meals, particularly for simmering meals which eats up more fuel.
A few downsides to liquid-fuel stoves however, is that white gas tends to degrade over time so older gas is more likely to cause clogs. In addition, they require periodic maintenance to keep them running optimally, and most liquid-fuel stoves require priming. Priming involves igniting a few drops of fuel in a small cup just below the burner, which creates a small flame that heats the fuel line. This allows the stove to take liquid fuel and convert it into a vapor.
- Alternative-fuel Stoves
There are a growing number of stoves offered that use fuel sources that are readily available in most camping and backpacking situations, such as twigs and leaves. This allows you to not have to carry any fuel at all, but the flip side of that is that these stoves tend to be rather heavy on their own. This makes it an optimal solution for longer trips, particularly in remote areas, although not ideal for areas that are cold or wet as it does require dry fuel, which might be more difficult to find in a wet area.
Another new feature that is available in some alternative fuel stoves is the ability to generate a small amount of electricity – at least enough to charge a mobile phone or other small gadget. A BioLite wood burning camp stove comes with a battery that uses heat from the stove to charge itself and can then be used to charge small electronics. It is also capable of boiling up to 1 liter of water in as little as 4 1/2 minutes. The stove weighs 2 lbs, and is approximately the size of a Nalgene bottle. It comes with anodized-aluminum legs that create a stable platform for cooking, but fold away for compact storage. If you charge the battery ahead of time, it can also be used kick start the fire before the stove begins generating it’s own power.
The best part of of all, however, is that because it uses twigs or small pieces of wood for fuel, it offers many of the same benefits that a campfire does, with less risk of a forest fire. You can sit around the stove and watch the flames, roast marshmallows on it, and if you use twigs from hardwood trees such as oak, maple or hickory it will not only burn the hottest and cleanest, but also produce the same “woodsy aroma” that a campfire produces. If you’re not sure that you will find dry fuel when you need it, the stove can also run on wood pellets that are available at most home and garden stores, although you have to carry them, which just adds more weight and takes away the point of using a stove which doesn’t require you to carry fuel.
Another option is a stove that uses denatured alcohol for fuel. These stoves weigh very little, burn silently and contain very few, if any, moving parts to worry about. They do not, however, burn as hot as stoves that use canister fuel or white gas, which means it takes longer to boil water, which also means it requires more fuel. Alcohol fuel can also be hard to find outside of the US, which makes them less than ideal for international travel, but optimal for ultralight backpackers because of their light weight.
Another popular option for ultralight backpackers is solid fuel tablet stoves which are also great for emergency kits. Both the stove and the fuel tablets are extremely inexpensive (around $10 for the stove and less than $10 for a box of 12 tablets) but can generate up to 1400°F of intense heat, which means it can boil 2 cups of water in about 8 minutes. Each cube provides about 12 min. of usable burn time but can also be extinguished and reused if you don’t need to use them for the full 12 minutes. The cubes don’t liquefy and provide an extremely clean burn which leaves no ash or residue. They also burn efficiently at high altitudes, light easily with ordinary wooden matches and can be used as a quick and convenient fire starter for campfires as well.