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Backpacking - How to Choose a Backpacking Stove

Aside from selecting a proper backpack, purchasing a stove would be another large investment you can make. Backpacking stoves allow the scout to have the ability to cook meals or sanitize water without the need of gathering firewood. These portable stoves are also clean burning and has a minimal impact to the Earth compared to building fires which normally leaves a mark. With this tool in hand it gives the scout the ability to cook complex meals in the outdoors by giving the scout temperature control as well as providing a way to cook where open fires may be prohibited. There is a large selection of stoves along with fuels available for the consumer, each with their own pros and cons. This article will allow the user to learn how to choose a backpacking stove based on factors related to the reader.

Stove Types
The first step when deciding on a backpacking stove would be to narrow down the type of stove. While there are multiple stove types available, there are three main types that are popular with backpackers due to their cost or fuel ability. The stove and their fuel is broken down below.

Canister Stove
Canister stoves are normally the cleanest stove that is available and burns fuel that is stored in non-refillable canisters. These stoves normally burn butane, isobutene, propane, or a combination. They are extremely easy to operate because all that is required by the scout is to screw in the fuel bottle, turn the control knob, and light the stove with an ignition source. The canisters are also self sealing which reduces the chances of fuel leakage while storing.

These stoves are light, dependable, and provide great temperature control. The biggest drawbacks with a canister stove is that their performance reduces at high altitudes and low temperatures. Since the fuel is pressurized, canister depressurization can occur when the fuel canister is cold, which would cause the stove to stop working. Another drawback with this type of stove is that since the canisters are self sealing, the canisters are not refillable causing the cost of fuel to rise. The table below breaks down the pros and cons of canister stoves:

  • Easy to use
  • Compact and light weight
  • Burns clean without the need to prime the stove
  • Sealed (reduces the risk of spilled fuel)
  • Great temperature control

  • Fuel is expensive
  • Performance decrease in high elevation and cold temperatures
  • Can't be refilled
  • Fuel limited to canisters
  • Difficult to estimate fuel consumption

As noted in the breakdown above, when choosing a canister stove, scouts should determine whether the trips that are taken are in high elevation or cold environments. Another item to keep in mind is that most canister stoves do not use a windscreen. Windscreen protects the stove from high winds and improves the performance of the stove. Given that the canister is pressurized, adding a windscreen will also heat the canister and may cause the canister to rupture. There are certain canister stoves that have a small windscreen; however most stoves do not. If a windscreen is needed or trips to areas of high elevation are on your destination list, a liquid-fuel stove should be used.

*The SnowPeak GigaPower stove shown above is a example of a canister stove.

Liquid-Fuel Stoves
Liquid-fuel stoves are stoves that burn liquid fuel. The fuel is selected by the scout and is normally white gas, kerosene, or even unleaded gas. The fuel is placed in a storage bottle and then pressurized by manually pumping the bottle. Some stoves may also burn other liquid fuel, depending on the size of the stove nozzle or filter. Unlike the canister stoves, liquid-fuel stoves perform excellent in cold weather and allow the backpacker to refill the bottle with other fuels if necessary. This makes this type of stove excellent for a backpacker traveling to locations where fuel canisters are scarce. Liquid-fuel stoves are also larger which provides a larger base for pots and other cookware.

While they are a lot more flexible than canister stoves, liquid-fuel stoves also have a few drawbacks. Liquid-fuel stoves do not burn as cleanly as canister stoves because of the different grades of fuel that can be used. In addition, since liquid-fuel stoves are refillable, there is a higher risk of fuel leakage if stored inappropriately. Lastly, since the bottles are not pressurized, the backpacker would need to pressurize and prime the stove before it can be used. Priming the stove allows the stove to turn the liquid fuel into a gas before it is burned by the stove burner. The table below breaks down the pros and cons of a liquid-fuel stove.

  • Excellent in cold temperature
  • Fuel is inexpensive and is versatile
  • Larger stove provides better heat coverage and larger base for stability
  • Fuel bottle is reusable

  • Heavier and larger compared to canister stoves
  • High risk of fuel spillage
  • Requires pressurizing and priming
  • Higher initial cost
  • Maybe noisier than canister stoves

As noted in the breakdown above, scouts should determine whether the extra weight and priming requirement is acceptable. The flexibility of fuel is a strong consideration when selecting a stove. Another consideration would be the destination. As noted above, unlike a canister stove, liquid-fuel stoves are excellent in cold weather. This type of stove can use windscreens since the fuel is stored away from the stove. These stoves are also field maintainable, so if needed the stoves can be disassembled and reassembled on the field. However, if a scout is looking for a stove with no moving parts, an alcohol stove would be more desirable.

*The MSR WhisperLite stove shown above is a example of a liquid-fuel stove.

Alcohol Stove
As stated in the title, alcohol stoves are stoves that run on alcohol. These stoves are very light and have little to no moving parts. Some manufactures produce alcohol stoves, but many are homemade. These are popular with ultralights, backpackers who focus on reducing gear weight as much as possible, since an alcohol stove is made from aluminum and weigh less than an ounce. Alcohol stoves are extremely quiet but do not burn as hot as the canister and liquid-fuel stoves. This causes the time to boil water or cook a meal to go up drastically. This also causes an increase in fuel consumption due to the prolonged use need for cooking. Alcohol may also be rare and hard to find outside of the states, so an alcohol stove may not be the best stove to have when traveling. The table below breaks down the pros and cons of the stove.

  • Extremely light
  • Fuel is easy to find while in the states
  • Customizable and cheap
  • Very quiet

  • Poor temperature control
  • Low heat output
  • Not produced by large manufactures

As noted in the breakdown above, while an alcohol stove is cheaper and lighter than the canister and liquid-fuel type stoves, alcohol stoves are geared towards the more experienced group where gear weight is an extremely important factor. Scouts who decide to have alcohol stoves should also consider the fuel. While plentiful in the states, denature alcohol may be hard to come by when traveling. In addition, since the heat output of alcohol stove is low, the efficiency of the stove is also very low. As such, the weight offset by the lighter material may be replaced by the weight of additional fuel. Given the limitation of this stove type, the alcohol stove is not very popular and only supported by a limited number of manufacturers.

*The Trangia Westwind stove shown above is a example of a alcohol stove.

Stove Specification and Consideration
After the type of stove and fuel has been selected, the scout should begin to narrow down the stove they would like to use. Some factors to keep in mind while selecting a stove is listed below:

Burn Time: Determines how long it takes the stove to burn through a given supply of fuel. If the burn time is a high number, it may mean that less fuel is needed; however, other factors need to be measured and are listed below.

Average Boiling Time: Determines how long it take for a liter of water to boil at 70 degrees Fahrenheit. This value is not taking fuel into consideration and determines how long it takes water to boil. The lower the number the faster it will boil.

Liters of water boiled: This determines how much fuel to bring. Different manufactures may post different specifications; however, most manufactures will note this per 100 grams of fuel. In terms of estimating fuel usage, this number is extremely important since this determines how efficient the stove is.

The specifications listed above can be obtained on the side of the packaging or on the manufacture's website. Aside from the specifications given by the manufactures, the scout should also keep other considerations in mind. These considerations are given by users and are not as black and white as the specification but should be thought about when selecting a stove. The considerations are as follows:

Temperature Control: Determine if controlling the flame on the stove is easy or hard. Is the stove capable of simmering? Also, keep in mind that, depending on the destination, the scout maybe wearing gloves. If gloves are used, temperature control may also be hindered.

Pot Stability and Stove Stability: Determine whether the stove and the pot used on the stove will be stable on the ground or on the rock. Remember you may have a table or a case at the store, but you only have a rock on a backpacking trip.

Maintenance: A factor that maybe overlooked is the ease of maintenance. This is an investment so the scout should think ahead. In addition, a stove that is field maintainable is definitely a plus. There is nothing worse than bringing a stove and having the stove breakdown on you.

Pack Size and Material: Although not an important factor, you may want to consider the pack size when the stove is folded. Some scouts may want a stove that folds into a small pack so it can be stored in their cook kit. You should also consider the material used to manufacture the stove. Stoves maybe manufactured from a range of materials from stainless steel to titanium.

Backpacking stoves are an investment and ultimately, when deciding on a stove, it really depends on the scout's personality as well as their destination. Different stoves are made for different destinations. The table below breaks down the activity with a recommended stove type. This is only a recommendation and should not be used as a rule since different stoves are being developed:

Activity Stove Type
Summer Backpacking Canister
Winter Backpacking Liquid Fuel
High Elevation Liquid Fuel
Only Boiling Water Canister
“Gourmet” Cooking Liquid Fuel
Ultralight Canister/Alcohol
Large Group Liquid Fuel
International Travel Liquid Fuel
Cost Canister/Alcohol

Aside from different activities, the scout should also consider the type of fuel each stove uses. This is also a factor in terms of destination since certain fuel can only be obtained from certain destinations. The table below breaks down the advantage and disadvantage of each fuel type.

Fuel Type Advantage Disadvantage
  • Clean Burning
  • Sealed Fuel
  • Expensive
  • May be hard to locate overseas
  • Not refillable
  • Extra weight when carrying multiple cartilages
White Gas
  • Clean Burning
  • Best for cold weather
  • Evaporates quickly when spilled
  • High heat output
  • Refillable
  • Priming is required
  • Spilled fuel is extremely flammable
  • Sold worldwide
  • High heat output
  • Spilled fuel does not ignite easily
  • Refillable
  • Priming is required
  • Fuel evaporates slowly
Unleaded gas
  • Available in the US and areas where automobiles are popular
  • Refillable
  • Priming is required
  • Spilled fuel is extremely flammable
  • Additives may cause clogging in stove
Denatured Alcohol
  • Readily available in the US
  • Clean Burning
  • Refillable
  • Inefficient (requires large amounts)
  • Spilled fuel is flammable

There are many factors that should be considered while choosing a stove, and like a backpack, the stove should be looked at as an investment. Backpacking stoves may range from $15 dollars to over $100 dollars, but the main thing to keep in mind is what the stove will be used for. Remember a scout is thrifty. Each scout should do their research before settling on a stove.