I. Ultimate Stove Setup
A Stove For Every Occasion
For trips under 12 days, the alcohol stove and solid fuel stove combo shown below is the lightest and most weight efficient stove setup. For an alcohol stove, we recommend the Fancy Feast (AKA Super Cat) Stove, which is easy to build per the original instructions or this video. It reaches a boil faster than any alcohol stove at the expense of efficiency, and it can even outperform the Vargo Triad. If boil duration is not as important as ease of construction, the Fancy Feast Stove is the way to go. It is compatible with the Delta Gear Canteen Kit and Deluxe Canteen Kit. It can be used without the stove stand, as pictured, or with the stove stand if you need a windscreen. For a solid fuel stove, we recommend the Canteen Cup Stand, which doubles as a windscreen for the alcohol stove. Solid fuels, like Hexamine or Trioxane, are lighter and more reliable than alcohol, but more expensive. Take one or two solid fuel tabs with you to use at the end of your trip once the heavier alcohol fuel has been used up, or to have as a backup. Solid fuel stoves are the most reliable stoves, and, even if you run out of fuel, you will always have a way to cook as long as you can find dry wood. Both the alcohol stove and solid fuel stove can be lit with a Ferro-Rod Fire Starter.
For trips longer than 12 days, integrated canister stoves, like the Jetboil Sol, are the lightest and most weight efficient. For trips with weather below 0°C, a liquid fuel stove like the MSR WhisperLite Universal will outperform other stoves.
II. Choosing a Stove
There are many models and types of stoves available, ranging in price from $20 to $200. Although weight and size are crucial factors, another consideration should be the stoves fuel efficiency: burn time, energy produced, and cost to operate. Camp stoves use a wide variety of fuels, and many stoves are capable of burning more than one fuel type. A stove's efficiency can be shown by the amount of heat/energy transferred (measured in BTUs or KJ), or by giving the boiling time for a specific amount of water under ideal conditions.
Alcohol stoves have the best overall value and are the first choice for lightweight backpacking trips under 12 days. Even though they burn three times as much fuel as an integrated canister stove, the lightweight stove makes up for the additional fuel. Alcohol stoves are difficult to vary between a simmer and a boil for complex cooking. They can take 2-3 times longer to bring water to a boil, but does that really matter while in the backcountry? They are the most inexpensive, simple, and reliable stoves.
Solid Fuel Stoves
A solid fuel stove has the lowest carry weight of all backpacking stoves (with fuel included), and they are inexpensive ($4-12). It is basically a stand to set your cookware on top of, and set a fire underneath. The advantage of a solid fuel stove is that you can burn just about anything flammable underneath it. You can even make your own at home, as long as it's metal and well ventilated (dryer tubes work well). You can also use wood that you find while hiking and carry even less fuel as long as it's not wet or wintry. The major setback is the cost of fuel. Typical types of fuel are Sterno/Canned-Heat, wood, hexamine, and trioxane. The chemical tabs are good fire starters and will easily get some wood burning. A solid fuel tablet is simply the lightest fuel you can carry. Chemical fuel tablets are much more expensive than alcohol and white gas per BTU. It also takes longer to boil water with a solid fuel stove than it takes with a canister or liquid fuel stove. Solid fuel stoves are great backup stoves and will always have a place in my pack along with a few fuel tabs.
With superb flame control, zero maintenance, and compactness, this type of stove is good for 3-season camping (winter being the exception). Canister stoves come in two types: piggybacked or detached burners. Piggybacked burners connect directly to the top of the fuel canister. Detached burners have a fuel line that connects the stove to the fuel canister. Detached burners have more stability and versatility than piggybacked burners, but they are heavier and bulkier. There are some additional weaknesses such as poor performance in cold conditions and fuel limitations. Canister stoves thrive in temperatures around 15C to 21C but under 0C, they sputter as internal canister pressure drops. Sputtering also occurs as fuel runs low. The stove is lighter than a liquid fuel stove, but the weight and bulk of their canisters makes them impractical for lengthy outings (over 4-5 days). If you are camping overseas, certain types of fuel cartridges may not be available. Overall, canister stoves offer supreme operating convenience. No pouring fuel, no priming, and they assemble in seconds. Just make sure their limitations fit your trip and plan accordingly. Remote canister stoves perform better in cold weather than regular canister stoves, but for the added weight you might as well use a liquid fuel stove.
Integrated Canister Stoves
Similar to canister stoves, but with integrated heat exchangers and insulated cookware. These stoves can be 25-33% more efficient than top mounted canister stoves. While they do use fuel canisters more efficiently, they also weigh more. For trips longer than 12 days, the weight of the stove and canisters is less than that of an alcohol or solid fuel stove, but at the end of the trip you are still carrying a stove that weighs 3-6 times more. If you take a canister stove on a shorter trip for convenience, you should be aware that you are carrying an extra 4.5 to 11 ounces. Fuel efficient integrated canister stoves can pay for themselves in fuel savings over the life of the stove, compared to other canister stoves.
Liquid Fuel Stoves
If you're heading out in high mountains or winter conditions, or on extended treks, these stoves are indispensable. They burn hot and efficiently, even in deep cold and blustery winds. You only carry as much fuel as you need so long-distance backpackers benefit by saving weight and improving the storage flexibility with this type of stove. Overseas travelers need to be sure they purchase a multi-fuel stove that burns kerosene and unleaded auto gas. The main draw back to the liquid fuel stove is the mandatory cleaning time involved and the lack of an ultra-fine flame control in most models, that allows you to simmer or saute. The carry weight of white gas stoves is heavier than the other stoves in every situation, but its cold weather performance and high heat output for melting snow can't be beat.
III. Gas Fuel
Camp fuels come in two general types: white gas and butane/propane blends. White gas puts out a hearty flame that is wind- and cold-resistant. Butane/propane-burning units are easy to light and need almost no maintenance, but as the temperature drops, so does the quality of the flame. Butane/propane stoves perform well at extremely high altitudes, but when it's colder than 0°C regardless of your altitude, the liquid butane will not turn to gas and pass through the burner. If you are a 3-season camper, either fuel is fine but if camping in the coldest winter, go with white gas.
Alcohol is safe, stable and clean burning but you won't find too many stoves that use alcohol as a fuel, other than the low cost DIY stoves. That may be because alcohol burns with a cool flame so it is not very efficient for cooking. Also, when alcohol burns there is no visible flame, which adds a minor risk of a fire accidentally spreading. Despite its inefficiency, the low weight of the stoves make up for any additional fuel needed, and the cost per BTU is lower than any other fuel. This has made alcohol and alcohol stoves one of the most popular lightweight backpacking stoves.
Blended fuel typically is a combination of propane, butane and/or isobutane. When blended with isobutane it burns efficiently even as the pressure in the gas canister fades. It is more reliable than straight butane or isobutane, but its performance drops with the outside temperature, and generally shouldn't be used below 30F. Blended fuel comes in disposable tanks. As stated above, it is great for 3-season camping but not in cold conditions (whether seasonal or altitude-related).
Butane is extremely popular in Europe. It is sold in canisters that are generally already pressurized. When the canisters are empty, they are simply thrown away. Pure Butane burns very efficiently, but doesn't work well in temperatures below 10C. If the climate is colder, you should consider other types of fuel. Also, pure butane does not burn as hot as other blended fuels. Aside from the waste created by the disposable canisters, it is a good choice for 3-season camping.
This should only be used as a last resort. Gasoline is very noxious, puts out a lot of soot and does not burn efficiently. If you must cook with gasoline, buy the lowest octane you can find (84 to 86 if possible) and make sure it is unleaded. Cook your food with a lid on it to help prevent toxic soot from getting into your food. In extreme cold it can be hard to get a stove powered by gasoline to stay burning. Because it is a liquid, the stove it supplies will need a pump to keep the fuel pressurized.
Isobutane is a close cousin to butane. Isobutane is used to make aviation fuel, and burns more efficiently than butane. It also takes the cold a little better, and can be used when the mercury is 4.5C or above. Isobutane comes in disposable tanks. This is a good choice for tepid 3-season camping.
Kerosene is the grandfather of stove fuels. Available all around the world, kerosene burns very hot in almost any condition. Kerosene and derivatives are used as jet fuel because of the heat they generate. Kerosene, like gasoline, is very noxious and produces a lot of soot. This soot will clog the burners of a stove pretty quickly and kerosene should only be used as a last resort. Because it is a liquid, the stove it fuels will need a pump to keep the fuel pressurized. This is a fair choice for any season.
Propane is a clear gas most commonly used to fuel your patio grill at home. It produces a hot steady flame and burns clean and efficiently. It performs moderately well in cold weather. Propane comes in disposable tanks. A good choice for 3-season camping, but not the best choice at higher altitudes if you are in cold conditions.
Coleman has the market cornered on white gas or white fuel. Very inexpensive and widely available, white gas produces a hot, clean flame. Unlike most other fuels, white gas will burn in almost any weather condition or temperature. Because it is a liquid, the stove it fuels will have to come with a pump to keep the fuel pressurized. This is an excellent fuel source regardless of climate or altitude.
IV. Solid Fuel
Hexamine ("Hexi Block")
In use since the 1950s, this is a waxy solid fuel, similar to soap, containing hexamethylenetetramine (also known as hexamine. While the US Army used Trioxane the British Army used Hexamine. It was a great fire starter back in the days before MREs and MRE heaters. Hexamine can be used with a canteen cup stand, a Tommy cooker, an Esbit stand, or any similar device. It works at high altitudes and in all weather conditions. The non-toxic formula is completely harmless to the environment, although it is toxic if swallowed and can be deadly with prolonged exposure in an unventilated area. Hexamine tablets are significantly less toxic and significantly more effective than Trioxane (see below). Despite the manufacturers claim that the tablets are odorless, they in fact have a pronounced "fishy" odor, which, while not offensive, makes it necessary to treat them as food and keep them in bear-proof containers if camping. Hexamine does not liquefy when burning. The packaging says that it leaves no ash residue, but our testing found that it does leave a waxy residue. One cube will bring half a liter of water to a rolling boil in 8 minutes. One box contains 12 individually sealed tablets.
Sterno Canned Heat
Sterno gel is a formulation of denatured alcohol, water and gel. Pry open the lid and light the gel for 2 hours of burn time. It puts out a visible flame and a good amount of heat but offers no flame control. Since this is an alcohol based product, the combustibility decreases as temperature drops. Once it is lit, the only way to extinguish it is to put the lid back on. Some Sterno sets come with a small stovetop to put your cookware on top of.
It is good for heating food, or light-duty cooking like scrambling eggs for example, but if you want a long-term cooking solution, you'd best look elsewhere. Its not that the emissions are dangerous, but it took us 45 minutes just to simmer half a liter of uncovered water so its just not practical for cooking meat or boiling any liquids. We were able to cook an egg over Sterno in about 10 minutes. Nonetheless it is a good choice to throw into a winter survival kit, just make sure you check it frequently and seal it well as Sterno will dry out over time, rendering it useless.
Trioxane tablets are a chalk-like fuel used by the U.S. military. It was a great fire starter back in the day before MREs and MRE heaters. The tablets can be used with a canteen cup stand, a Tommy cooker, an Esbit stand, or any similar device. Each tablet is sealed in waterproof foil package. Unlike Sterno, you do not need to worry about spilling the material. Trioxane is harmful if swallowed and the packaging suggests taking precautions to avoid loose powder contaminating food. The fuel does not liquefy when burning but leaves a blue wax-like residue. The biggest advantage of Trioxane over Hexamine is that it is less expensive. It is generally packaged three tablets per box.
A couple of companies make stoves that use wood as a fuel. If you are going into an area where open fires are allowed, wood is a readily available choice of fuel. The downside is that wood is heavy and parks may require that you bring your own. A burning ban or several days of hard rain would force you to use an alternative solid fuel or stove. Good for lightweight backpacking when open burning is permitted and wood is readily available.
V. Stove Options
Some stoves come with two burners. These stoves typically give you the option to use one or both, and at different temperatures. For feeding a group, car camping, walk-in, or camping at a cabin, a double burner stove is an excellent choice. For backpacking or when space is an issue, youd better consider another stove.
Push Button Ignition
Push Button Ignition, also called Piezo ignition lets you start your stove with a push, well maybe a couple pushes of a button. Over the long term, these push button ignition systems can lose their ability to light, and if exposed to too much heat can melt. If your stove comes with the convenience of push button ignition, always carry an alternative source to get it started up, like matches or a lighter.
Some stoves come with an outer loop of aluminum to protect the flame from wind to keep it burning efficiently and keep the heat focused on warming your food and not being carried away in the breeze. Some stoves have a thin bar around the burner itself that protects the flame, albeit poorly. If your stove features the fuel canister under the burner, never use a windscreen that reflects the heat back down from the top, as you can overheat your fuel, damage the pump, and melt your push button ignition system.
Some stoves come with a repair kit, providing all the necessary parts to do minor repairs and keep your stove burning efficiently in the field. If your stove doesnt come with one, consider buying one if the option is available. Repair kits are usually very light weight, and their usefulness makes up for the extra space they take up.
Dual Fuel or Multi Fuel
Some stoves will burn a variety of fuels, which make the stove more travel-friendly depending in which region or country you are camping. Although not many will burn propane, these multi-fuel stoves may burn white gas, kerosene, gasoline or propane or isobutane. For the international camper, these stoves can be priceless.
Most stoves do not come with a fuel bottle. Bottles typically come in a variety of sizes and are measured in ounces or milliliters. Make sure the capacity you select will meet your needs without weighing you down.
VI. Cooking Tips
Don't Cook Inside
Never cook inside a tent or an enclosed shelter. Tent material burns and melts easily which translates into disaster. Also, when a stove burns it uses valuable oxygen and emits carbon monoxide and other deadly gasses. Regardless of the weather, always cook outside and never light the stove in a closed tent in an attempt to get warm.
Put a Lid On It
When cooking, be sure to keep a lid on those pots. Doing so helps trap the heat and decreases cooking time, thereby saving fuel.
Use a Windscreen
If your stove doesn't come with one, some heavy duty aluminum around the stove can serve as an adequate screen to keep the wind from throwing the heat around, or blowing your stove out.
Keep Your Fuel Warm
Warm fuel burns more efficiently. It is important to keep your fuel warm if camping during low temperatures. To do so, you may keep small bottles of fuel in a pocket of your jacket. Duct taping a hand warmer around the bottle is another idea. In extreme conditions putting your bottle in water will help keep it warm. If the water is liquid, it is warmer than 0°C (altitude and mineral content aside). In an emergency situation when temperatures are bitter cold, even packing it in snow is better than the ambient air.
Use a Durable Surface
Don't place your stove on frozen ground or on the snow. As the stove heats, the ground or snow will melt, increasing the probability that your stove will tip over, dumping your meal. Put your stove on a metal or durable surface like a rock, license plat, or an unused lid of your cookware set.
Test With Your Cookware
It is a good idea to bring your cookware with you when you buy your stove. The burner of the stove, minus the tank should fit nicely in a 1-2 quart pot. Any smaller, and the stove may have problems heating larger amounts of water or food. Any larger, and the stove is probably too big for backpacking. If your cook pot is larger than 2 liters (or 2 quarts) or you often cook on uneven surfaces, buy a stove with wide pot supports and legs that provide a stable base. When packing, you can store your stove in the pan, which makes it easier to find when it is time to cook and the durable pan helps protect your stove.