Whether you’re waking up in the morning to a hot cup of joe, finishing the day with a steaming hot meal, or sanitizing your drinking water. There’s one lightweight simple piece of equipment can handle all three tasks, the question is, which backpacking stove is right for you?
Backpacking stoves have gotten lighter and more compact over the last 20 years with the growth in the ultralight movement. Taking a little itty bitty piece of the monkey off your back.
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Why not start a fire?
People are surprised to find out that most backpackers don’t cook over an open flame.
Cooking over an open flame when you’re camping with a group of friends and leisurely enjoying the evening, carelessly waiting around the smell of campfire and friendly voices. Sounds great, right?
According to the National Park Service, up to 90% of forest fires are caused by humans.
Cooking over an open flame is an inefficient method of cooking, and it takes the most time when compared to other backpacking stove options.
A conventional backpacking stove will take around 5 minutes to get from the backpack to a full burn.
Cooking over an open flame has the largest impact on the environment, and is covered in the leave no trace guidelines. If you find a previously used cooking space that really is the only time you should use a fire unless you are in a survival situation.
Backpacking stove tips
Avoid cooking in enclosed spaces like your tent or your garage, I know the garage sounds silly but every year people pass away cooking indoors. Indoors in this case isn’t limited to your house, it could be any structure in which you have 4 walls and limited airflow, in our case we are talking specifically about your tent.
Check all the connection points, which are each and every place that the hose connects to your stove. The connection points are failure points where the gas can escape and cause serious harm to you and your hiking buddies.
Find a surface level to cook on, this is one of the most important factors when getting ready to boil water, cook, or prepare anything. Without paying close attention you can easily have a fuel spill which can start a fire, burn yourself, or any number of terrible outcomes.
Carry a couple different means to start a fire just in case you lose a lighter or the piezo igniter that is included with your stove happens to fail.
Always carry some tools with you, mainly a multi tool, as trying to lug around 10 pounds worth of tools gets heavy and old fast.
Types of backpacking stoves
The Canister stove is easy to use and a lightweight single burner stove that has become a popular option for thru-hikers and backpackers.
It only has two pieces, the fuel canister and the stovetop which threads directly onto the fuel canister. There is no priming involved and the gas is pressurized which makes the flame burn consistently even in windy conditions.
You can control the gas output to simmer for more advanced cooking, rather than just boiling water to rehydrate something dried.
Their ease of use and the fact that the fuel has become more readily available make the canister stove a great option.
The pressurized gas doesn’t perform well in winter conditions which limits this stove to a three season stove, and they tip over easily because of the design. Look for one with arms long enough for the pot you’re going to be using.
The fuel is mainly found here in the US, so if you plan on using it internationally then you are going to need to plan ahead and possibly mail or pack the fuel with you when you travel.
- No priming
- Self sealing fuel
- Can be unstable
- Fuel only found in the US
- High price point
Liquid fuel stove
The liquid fuel stove offers consistent heat in cold weather as well as at altitude and is a decent option if you are traveling with a group.
It’s only two pieces, however, the hose has fittings that will need to be cleaned periodically.
The stove itself takes priming (pre-heating) before you start it. Priming is the act of pumping the bottle to add pressure and heating the hose that runs to the stove before you can fire it up.
It takes a little bit of work and it’s kind of annoying.
Different fuels can be used, while white gas is preferred, unleaded fuel, kerosene, and diesel will all work as well.
The stove itself takes some practice to get going.
Spilling can be an issue when you pack a liquid fuel stove you want to make sure that everything is tightened and double checked. When they spill it’s stinky and a fire hazard to boot.
It’s larger and heavier than the canister type stove, and with the pain in the ass setup and all the parts and pieces, the liquid fuel stove shines in the winter months.
- Works in extreme temps
- Universal fuel
- Consistent heat
- High maintenance
- Higher weight
- Needs to be primed
Solid fuel or wood stove
The solid fuel stove will burn wood and leaves, and is a popular option for thru-hikers who are going the most organic route when it comes to hiking. Hippy hikers, if you will.
These burn chemical pellets that were designed for the military as well as wood and other debris. In the wet months, finder dry debris can be challenging.
The fuel source can be picked up along the way or at the end of the day, you don’t have to carry any type of fuel source making a light alternative.
Be aware of conditions as well as burn bans in your local area.
You cannot regulate the heat so controlling temperature is out of the question, and it takes longer to boil water than the other methods mentioned above.
In the wet months, you are going to have to carry pellets with you, this stove is best in a dryer climate.
This stove is good for the minimalist or someone looking to save some money.
- Simple to use
- Multiple fuel sources
- Leaves residue on pots
- No temperature control
- Not for extreme temps
The alcohol stove is cheap and simple to make and one of the reasons they have grown in popularity with the minimalist hiker.
The wind will easily blow out an alcohol stove and this can get annoying but is easily remedied with a wind barrier. They only weigh an ounce or two and are one of the lighter options available.
You can buy them for cheap, or you can make one on your own and it looks way cooler to pull out something made out of an aluminum can.
Alcohol stoves cook slower than the other options and take more fuel, alternatively, you can easily make one at home and they are extremely lightweight.
The flame goes out easy with a little wind so having a windscreen when using an alcohol stove is a good idea, just in case.
The fuel is easy to spill on yourself and all over when you are packing your fuel waste is not an option. Practice outside if you haven’t used one of these before to avoid fuel loss.
- Inexpensive fuel
- Simple to use
- Silent stove
- Need a windscreen
- Easy to spill
- Not as versatile other stoves
The price for backpacking stoves varies from models around $3 for homemade alcohol stoves to models that can cost well over $100.
You can go cheap here for around $10 or get crazy and spend upwards of $150, it really is going to be unique to your situation and trip. If it’s your first stove then just get a cheap one, if you’re a seasoned vet than spending a little more will save you money in the long run.
There are decent backpacking stoves right around 10-20 dollar price range, if you are taking a long thru-hike consider spending a little more. You get what you pay for.
Stove weight is the main consideration when choosing the stove that works for your trip. On longer trips, the weight adds up quick so a lighter stove is the logical choice for thru-hikers and long-distance backpackers.
Fuel sources will vary on their burn time, it is on the person packing to make sure they have done the math and brought more than enough fuel.
The alcohol stove is going to be the most lightweight and in the past was the easiest to find fuel for so it dominated the backpacks of thru-hikers. As backpacking stoves have advanced in technology it has become easier to find alternative fuel sources.
The canister stove is the most popular among thru-hikers and is lightweight.
The fuel canisters can be a drawback to using canisters if you plan on going a week or two without resupplying.
Fuel Burn Rate
Take a look at how the duration of your fuel source per can of fuel. There are a few things to consider when choosing the number of fuel canisters to bring.
- How long does it take to boil water?
- How often are you using the stove
- How many people are there?
The fuel burn rate is on the label of your canister, so with a little math, you can easily figure out the amount of fuel necessary.
If you simply add the multiply the amount of usage per day by 7 and that will give you a rough weekly amount. From there you can easily figure out how much you need to pack.
Boil or Simmer?
Average boil time is the amount of time the manufacturer states that it takes to boil water, not always the case.
Water will boil at 212 degrees at sea level and 194 degrees at 10,000 feet, altitude and extreme cold will both have effects on the boil time.
Today a large portion of hikers use dried food that you just need to add hot water to and rehydrate, therefore some of the stoves are designed to boil rapidly rather than simmer slowly.
If you are looking to simmer rather than boil for more elaborate meals verify that the stove you are using does have a simmer control. It’s a method to control the flame and therefore the heat when cooking.
Not all of the backpacking stoves have a simmer control so if this is something you need verify it with the model of stove you decide to purchase.
Piezo sounds fancy, it’s not, it’s short for piezo-electric.
It’s a way to push a button to start your stove, in the morning it feels like it has the most benefit.
When you decide to buy a camping stove you’re going notice that not all of the stoves available come with a starter, so make sure you have a backup, to a backup.
There are not many things that suck as bad as spilling a hot meal at the end of a long day hiking.
Some of the stoves can be a little top heavy and unstable for more stability make sure it’s a flat patch of earth, and that the pan you are using isn’t too large for the burner.
What did we learn?
Choosing the right stove shouldn’t be a difficult task however with so many options it can feel daunting.
If you are looking for convenience and something that is easy to use, then a canister stove or alcohol stove is your best bet.
For winter months liquid fuel stoves are the best option, they keep a consistent heat and can handle the cold weather. The flame is strong enough to handle mild winds.
The ultra-minimalist the alcohol stove only weighs a few ounces and the fuel is readily available.