There is a dizzying variety of stoves available for backpacking use. You may be choosing your first stove, or have one type of stove but wonder if you are missing out on something by not having a different type of stove. While you can get by in almost all situations with most types of stoves, different stoves are best suited for different purposes and circumstances. This article will help you evaluate your options for a backpacking stove.
Choosing a backpacking stove
There are two main factors into choosing the type of stove you need: the fuel and the form factor. Some swear in the name of the traditional and bulky alcohol (spirit) burners (e.g the iconic but weighty Trangia). Many prefer the hassle-free gas cartridge stoves (which typically burn butane, propane or some mixture of them) that can be used with the traditional large stoves as well as ultralight titanium burners. Multi fuel stoves burn everything from gasoline to diesel to white gas to kerosene. And then there’s the bushcraft option of a wood stove that uses twigs, cones and wood chips.
Each of these stoves have their benefits and downsides. In this article I’ll take a quick look at the available fuel options, the different types of stoves using them and when and why you would want to select a particular type of burner.
Wood stove a.k.a Hobo StoveLet’s start from a fuel source that is in one sense the most traditional, but one that has found renaissance in the backpacking world with the advent of small wood burning stoves: wood. Or more accurately sticks, twigs, cones and wood chips.
On the left you see an example of a typical wood burning camping stove, the KAMPmate. It folds flat for easy carrying. You feed twigs, sticks etc. from below and put a pot on top to boil water or cook food.
At $29.90 the KAMPmate is in the cheaper end of wood stoves. At the high end you have a Kelly kettle (coming in multiple configurations from $115 to $160) which serves as both the stove and the kettle you use to boil water. You can also improvise a hobo stove. Ikea cutlery stand is a popular starting point.
One feature to look for in a wood stove is a battery operated fan. It has the downside of making a simple and robust design more complicated, harder to pack and easier to break, but on the upside the fan hugely improves the control over the fire. It also results in a hotter fire, cleaner burn result, leaving you with less smoke, soot and ashes to deal with.
Benefits of a wood burning backpacking stove
The benefits of using wood as fuel are obvious: you can find enough twigs and wood almost everywhere (except maybe in the open tundra and high up in the mountains where wood stoves are not suitable). You don’t have to carry your fuel (and therefore not have to worry about wether you can take it into an airplane, for example) and you can never run out of fuel. Wood is also free and ecological source of fuel. You get a fire to stare at with far smaller footprint and far more control than building a real campfire. With some closed models, you may even be able to use them even during times of forest fire warning.
The downsides of a wood stove
The downside to wood stove is that you always have to go looking for the fuel. Although wood is usually plentiful, it may be all wet. You will also need more kindling for a wood stove than to light a gas stove. If everything is wet, you might have a hard time boiling water when the last thing you want to do is fight with your stove after a hard day of hiking. Also, you are bound to have some soot on your pot. So be prepared or you may make a mess.
But be aware that there is a way to get around some of these downsides. Read on to find out how.
Who should buy a wood backpacking stove?
Who doesn’t like staring at a fire? If you’re into traditional backpacking, bushcraft, want to save money and have the patience to get a fire going. Maybe everyone should make themselves a wood burning stove, just to see that it’s not always about the money.
Other solid fuel stoves
There are also stoves that burn solid fuels other than sticks and wood. The german army has been using a stove that burns fuel tablets called esbit since the 1930’s. The fuel is usually hexamine and comes in tablet or pill form.
The ultralight, ultra simple Esbit stove in the picture only costs $10.99 so you will not go bankrupt with these stoves. But there’s really very little difference between wood stoves and solid fuel stoves. You could have the best of both worlds if you buy a wood stove and carry fuel tablets as a backup, in case you do not find wood or it is too wet to burn.
The ultra light gas burners
The MSR Pocket Rocket (left) is the classical example of a minimalistic ultralight gas burning stove: you have a burner that’s mounted straight on top of the gas canister. At $39.95 it’s not exactly expensive, but you can also find even more minimalistic stove made of titanium that weights only 25g for $19.99. This is arguably the simplest, least hassle type of stove you can have.
The benefits of an ultralight gas backpacking stove
The name of the game with these stoves is light weight. They are cheap, don’t take much room and at 25g to 75g, the weight is negligible. Also gas cartridges are probably the most convenient form of fuel. A small canister will last you a week easily during summer time and burns extremely clean.
The downsides to an ultralight gas backpacking stove
The downside is that you don’t get much features. Yes it boils water, but it is only as sturdy as your gas canister, stove and pot stacked on top of each other. On uneven terrain, it may topple easily if you are boiling a large pot of water. Unless you use some external wind blocker, the wind will dissipate heat because there’s no built in wind protection.
Also in very cold weather, you may have to go for a special winter gas canister (which costs more).
Who should buy a ultralight gas stove?
At the price point these are going, just about everyone should have one for when the circumstances are easy and you want something light and convenient.
The all in one cooking systems
Systems like the MSR Windburner (left) or various Jetboil configurations have become very popular in recent years. They combine a heat exchanger pot (usually insulated with a neoprene sleeve), a burner similiar to the ultralight burners described above (but often having some kind of wind protection) and a gas canister stand into one cooking system. The cost of these systems range from low end Jetboils at approximately $60 all the way to Windburner’s and comparable Jetboil’s $130 – $150.
The benefits of an all in one cooking system
Because they are designed to be operated as a single system, the parts integrate well into each other, so you get a sturdy and lightweight package that provides good value for money. The protective sleeve and heat exchanger make these very efficient water boiling machines.
The downsides to an all in one cooking system
Because of the type of pot (usually a little under or over one liter), you are pretty much limited to boiling water with these cookers. For most people, that is a limitation they can live with.
You may end up paying a little more than putting together similiar system from scratch, but usually you get a lot more well integrated package.
Who should buy an all in one cooking system
If you are looking at your first stove and don’t have any pots or other legacy accessories, then an all in one system makes a lot of sense. If you are looking at an ultralight option that provides a lot more benefits at a little higher weight than just a simple pocket rocket type burner, then an all in one system may also be for you. If you love to cook or have a large group of people you need to prepare meals for, then these systems may not be for you.
Traditional alcohol stoves
Trangia is probably the most iconic example of a traditional alcohol burning stove. The burner is a simply a cup you will with spirit. On the other end of the spirit burning spectrum is the ultralight DIY stove from a soda can.
The benefits of an alcohol stove
At least in the nordics, the trangia system with an alcohol burner is “your grandfather’s cooking system”. It holds nostalgia. The complete system is stable, well protected from winds and works in all weather. It is also easy to exchange the alcohol burner for a gas stove and retain the benefits of the cooking system.
On the lower end, a soda can alcohol stove may well be the lightest option for cooking on your treks. So for some going for ultralight gear, it is worth investigating.
Fuel may be a little more readily available than gas.
The downsides of an alcohol stove
Ethanol stoves are slower than gas. The complete Trangia type kits are quite heavy to carry around.
Who should buy an alcohol stove
If you know you want one, then by all means, go ahead. I would generally recommend gas stoves instead. For one, they are more fuel efficient
Gasoline (multifuel) stoves
The gasoline stove is the most heavy duty type of stove. Many gasoline burning stoves are properly called multifuel stoves because they can burn multiple different liquid fuels. The super solid MSR XGK EX favored by arctic expeditions, for example, burns diesel, kerosene, white gas, automobile gas (petrol), mineral spirits and aviation gas (gasoline).
MSR Whisperlite (pictured on the side) burns the same fuels, is almost as sturdy, a little less noisy (XKG is like a jet engine once it gets going) and providing some control of the power output (allowing you to simmer). With an adapter, it can even use gas canisters.
The benefits of a gasoline (multifuel) stove
The power efficiency and power output of gasoline stoves is at the top of the pack. You can also find fuel all around the world, no matter where you go. You should note that there are differences in the fuels. Some burn a lot cleaner than others. With less clean burn, you get more soot, meaning more maintenance of the stove.
The downsides of a gasoline stove
There’s a knack to using gasoline stove, that makes them a bit more stressful than other stove types. At first you release a bit of gasoline, then light it. It burns off, pre-heating the pipe through which the gasoline is fed into the burner. Once the pipe is properly heated, you can again open the gasoline line and get the burner fully going.
This pre-heating step can result in some pretty magnificent flames if you are not careful with releasing the pre-heating gasoline. It can be done, it can be done safely, even in a tent, but it’s a lot more careful work than operating a gas canister stove.
Who should get a gasoline (multifuel) stove
If you are winter trekking, gasoline may be for you. There are also winter gas canisters available, but gasoline will provide the best snow melting power. For proper expeditions, it”s the only choice.
Also if you are travelling the world and are unsure about fuel availability, a multifuel stove is a no brainer.
If you are just starting out, don’t know if you need one, or mostly trek in non-frozen temperatures, I would suggest looking at some other type of stove.
Summary: what to get if you’re…
Just starting out: an all in one gas canister stove
Heading out for a winter expedition: gasoline stove
Want to use open fire, or go bushcraft: wood stove
Want ultralight: ultralight titanium gas canister stove or a self made soda can alcohol stove