A participant in my upcoming Intro to Backpacking Workshop at Harriman State Park asks about backpacking stoves, “Do you have any suggestions for cooking stoves? I’e gone camping and backpacking a couple of times, but every time I’e taken the easiest non-perishable foods because I don’t know which stove to purchase. Are there some that can be used across most seasons? Which are the best models? Which are the most economical and light weight, yet durable?”
Perhaps no topic related to backpacking is as confusing as this. Walking into an outfitter, the novice backpacker is confronted with a dizzying display stoves. MSR alone has 5 varieties of remote feed stoves and 4 varieties of upright stoves! JetBoil has 6 options, each of which comes in an assortment of colors. Then there’s Optimus, Kovea, Snow Peak, Esbit and on and on and on… How in the world is anyone supposed to know which stove to buy?
Backpacking Stoves: Fuel
To start making sense of this mess, let’s start by talking about fuel options. This is the first choice you need to make when considering a stove.
- Wood: This free fuel is found nearly everywhere in nature. Sometimes it can be difficult to get a wood fire started, but practice makes perfect. While cooking a little more slowly than other fuels, wood fire adds to the atmosphere of camp and warms the body and spirit. On the downside, burning wood leaves a trace, which is not ideal for stealth camping.
- Alcohol: Available in almost all trail towns, rubbing alcohol is inexpensive and easy to use. On the down side, it is somewhat heavy, boils slowly, and may be difficult to extinguish for reuse. Alcohol is safe to carry in a light plastic bottle.
- Esbit: Running at about 60 cents each, Esbit Tablets are small waxy cubes that light easily and contain enough chemical energy to boil a half liter of water in just a few minutes in most conditions. This solid fuel can’t be extinguished and reused after it has been lit; but they’re very small and cheap. Esbit tablets are great to keep in your kit for emergencies because they’re light, last forever, and make great fire starters.
- Isobutane: isobutane is a mixture of butane and propane compressed into a canister. Canister’s come in different sizes. The smallest canisters typically cost around $5.00. In warm months, a small canister will last me a week if I’m only using it to boil water. isobutane stoves boil very fast in most conditions, but lose power in cold weather. The canisters are not readily refillable and usually end up in the trash. They are available in most but not all trail towns. Some canisters sold in Europe use a different thread size from the ones sold in America and Asia. Every other fuel allows you to carry the exact amount you think you need; but canisters carry a fixed amount. A lot of half empty canisters sit at home out of fear they won’t be enough to get through a trip.
- White Gas: White Gas is a favorite of old timers. It is heavy and must be stored in a metal bottle. This powerful fuel has superior performance in cold weather and is especially desired when it is necessary to melt large quantities of ice or snow for water. While powerful, most stoves are easily controllable and simmer well for cooking real meals. White gas stoves all need priming and can be dangerous to operate.
Backpacking Stoves: Pots, Pans, Mugs, Cups, and Kettles… Oh My!
Now that we have a fuel, we need to choose a pot to cook with. There are three factors to consider when selecting a pot: size, material, and style.
Size: Backpacking pots come in a variety of shapes and sizes. The size of the pot you select is going to be determined first by your cooking style, whether you’re sharing, and the time of year you’re going backpacking.
- 500-700 ml : Perfect for 3 Season solo trips if you’re just boiling water for dehydrated or freeze-dried meals
- 700-900 ml: Good if you’re making freeze-dried or dehydrated meals for yourself and a companion.
- 900-1200 ml: A great size if you’re cooking simple one-pot meals
- 1200-2400 ml: A pot this large may be necessary for melting large quantities of snow when winter backpacking
Material: Backpacking pots come in three basic materials – Stainless Steel, Aluminum, and Titanium.
- Stainless Steel is the cheapest and most durable pot material, but also the heaviest. It isn’t a great conductor and tends to develop hot spots, which makes it less ideal for cooking real food but still great for boiling water.
- Aluminum is mid-priced, mid-weight, and medium durability. Of the three materials, it has the best conductivity, which makes it the best for cooking real food.
- Titanium is very expensive but very light. Because it is so strong, it can be made into cookware with very thin walls. Thin walls overcome titanium’s conductivity problem and allows it to boil water very quickly. Still, it tends to develop hot spots which will make for uneven temperatures when cooking real food.
Style: Backpacking pots come in a few shapes and styles. The shape and style are largely dependent on your cooking style, but may be driven by requirements for fuel efficiency.
- A mug is a simple pot, usually around 500 ml or less, and usually without a lid. This is the lightest pot option and great for those who are just looking to heat water to dehydrate a meal and then drink some coffee.
- A tall pot is little larger than a mug and has a lid. The increased size allows you to heat more water or food with it. The lid increases efficiency and allows you to cook real food and regulated temperatures. Tall pots up to 700 ml can boil enough water to dehydrate a meal and make coffee or hot coco in a single boil.
- A wide pot is wider than it is tall. These pots heat more evenly and transfer heat more efficiently. They may be better for making one-pot meals than a tall pot. They’re awkward to drink out of.
- Kettles are what they sound like: an enclosed pot with a small lid on top and a spout for pouring. They’re very efficient if all you want is boiled water; but you can’t drink out of them or cook in them.
- Some pots have a piece of metal folded many times into ridges, ringing the bottom. This is called a Heat Exchanger or Flux ring. Its purpose is to increase fuel efficiency by adding surface area to the bottom of the pot. This comes at the cost of added weight, but may save weight over a long trip if you don’t have to carry as much fuel.
Backpacking Stoves: Stoves!
Ok, that’s 1168 words so far… what was this post supposed to be about? Just kidding. Its finally time to talk about stoves.
Cooking with Wood
The nice thing about cooking with wood is that you don’t even really need a stove; just build a fire and put your pot over it. If you’re using an open fire, you don’t even need a pot. After letting the fire die down, you can put a piece of wire mesh over the coals and cook meat, veggies, or even backpacker pizza. With some aluminum foil, you can make baked potato’s or ash cakes. A nice sharp stick allows you to make hot dogs, sausages, or s’mores for after dinner. An open wood fire provides a tremendous amount of heat energy for melting snow and warming cold hikers. I would list building a fire as one of the essential skills of wilderness survival.
That said, an open fire can be tremendously destructive and inefficient. Using an open fire to cook, you burn a lot more wood than you really need to, depriving the forest of vital nutrients and future hikers of vital fuel. Fires leave ugly remains in campsites and can devastate entire regions. Many jurisdictions don’t allow open fires during certain seasons or at all. For these reasons, we have a variety of self-contained wood stoves to choose from. These range from simple folding titanium boxes to more elaborate home-made wood-gas stoves. The gasifier stove is an extremely efficient system that superheats air and then re-combines it with smoke, kind of like an afterburner. The result is near 100% combustion with very little ash or smoke. The down side to the wood-gas stove is that if it runs out of fuel before reaching a boil, you have to start over. The simpler box-style stoves like the Qiwiz FireFly allow reloading while they’re burning. Most wood stoves will allow the backpacker to use an Esbit tablet as backup. (Wood Gas Stoves on YouTube)
Alcohol And Esbit Backpacking Stoves
Alcohol and Esbit Backpacking Stoves are largely interchangeable. An Esbit Stove is generally not much more than a pot stand with a small platform for an Esbit tablet. The platform prevents the tablet from burning the ground or picnic table underneath while the stand supports the pot and allows air flow. Many of these pot stands are built so that you could substitute a small alcohol stove for the Esbit tablet. (Esbit Hybrid Alcohol Stove)
Most Alcohol Stoes are home made. They can be as simple as a cat food can that you pour alcohol into, but there are many more complicated versions with dubious claims of improved efficiency. The home made variety are cheap and fun to make, but it isn’t easy to extinguish these when you’re done cooking; so you end up losing the extra fuel. Some commercially available alcohol stoves have small valves that can increase or decrease the flame, or even ignite it. (YouTube Videos on Alcohol Stoves)
Isobutene Canister Backpacking Stoves
People really like isobutene canister stoves because they’re easy to use, safe, and boil water very quickly. Some varieties lose performance in very cold temperatures because the gas loses pressure. There are basically three varieties of canister stoves.
- Integrated Canister Stoves like Jetboil are designed to work with a proprietary pot with a heat exchanger. These stoves are very fast, safe, and easy to use and ideal for children. They’re also the heaviest and most expensive of the canister stoves. The other downside is that each manufacturer only let’s you use their proprietary pots.
- “Freestyle” Canister Stoves like the Snow Peak Gigapower consist of a burner and pot stand that screw onto the top of a canister. While slightly slower and less stable than integrated stoves, they’re less expensive and more adaptable to any pot you want to use.
- Inverted Canister Stoves like the Kovea Spider use a hose to deliver fuel from an inverted canister to a burner. These tend to work better in winter when cold temperatures reduce gas pressure. They can be dangerous because liquid fuel can leak out of the burner and then ignite on the surface below.
White Gas Backpacking Stoves
White Gas Backpacking Stoves are the favorite of old timers and mountaineers alike. While the heaviest of all stove options, white gas stoves pack a punch of versatility and power. These stoves will burn for hours on a low setting and excel at melting snow or cooking real food. Turned to full power, they will boil water as fast as most canister stoves. Many models of white gas stoves come in multi-fuel versions that will burn a variety of flammable liquids; making them ideal for trekking in third world countries where white-gas might not be available.
The downside to these stoves is that they’re complicated to use. They need to be pumped and primed before they’re ready to use, and this process can be tricky and even dangerous. This isn’t a problem once you’ve practiced with them, but it is a consideration to be aware of.
Backpacking Stoves Comparison Chart
The following chart reviews some pros