There are many backpacking stoves available for the consumer now. Lightweight alcohol stoves, canister stoves, and white gas stoves are the most popular now for general use. But what stove is “the best”? The true answer is: NONE OF THEM.
The article below will go into the pros and cons of the various stoves for “real world” (not marketing) use depending upon your needs.
Updated Jan 2016.
The “best stove” depends on what your use is for. Boiling a lot of water? Backpacking as a couple? Doing “real” cooking in the back country? Long time without resupply? Winter camping? These are all questions that need to be asked when considering a stove for backcountry use. Just as you would not use a screwdriver to put in a nail, certain types of stoves are suited for different type of tasks than another stove. Most experienced outdoor users have different stoves for different purposes. Like all gear, there is no best…just what is best for a particular person and their needs.
Here is my rough guide (and I do mean rough!) to the different stove uses.
First the baseline for my personal stove use. Most of my backpacking is for solo, three season use. When thru-hiking on the Western trails, tend to do about 25-30 MPD. Do some winter backpacking in Colorado. Resupplied every 5-7 days on average for the PCT, CDT and the Colorado Trail. Resupplied 3-5 days on the Appalachian Trail and Long Trail thru-hikes. My longest stretch without resupply was ten days in the High Sierra.
Also, I define a meal as enough for the standard two Knorr side dishes and enough water for a hot drink. For me, that equated one ounce of alcohol for most of my cooking. Never had to use more fuel than that, but I’ve used my stove enough where I make it work with a min. amount of fuel.
A quick note on Chemistry 101: In case your 10th-grade chemistry class was forgotten (and remembering the cute blonde who you had a crush on when you were sixteen does not count!), here is a quick reminder: Fuel volume and fuel weight are not a one for one ratio. One ounce of fuel by volume does not weigh one ounce. One ounce of alcohol (by volume) weighs approx. .8 oz. A 10 oz of a bottle of fuel weighs about 8oz (not counting the weight of the bottle). White Gas weighs slightly less per ounce; 10oz of fuel weighs about 7.5 oz. And so on…
On to the stove comparison!
Alcohol Stove: For solo, three season use, this stove works very well. A homemade alcohol stove is light (less than half an ounce), easy to use, inexpensive and runs on fuel that can be found in most towns.
As a base, here is my alcohol stove setup:
2 qt. Alum. Pot w/ tinfoil lid 4.500 oz
Soda Can Stove .250 oz
Windscreen / Pot stand 1.00 oz
Ziplock Bag .375 oz
12 oz. Mountain Dew Bottle (Fuel) .625 oz
Total: 6.75 oz
The primary disadvantage of an alcohol stove is that after about 10 meals (10 oz of fuel), you lose the major advantage of the weight savings. My alcohol stove setup weighs 14 oz with 10 days of fuel. If I were to go longer, an MSR PocketRocket (see below) would be more efficient for more extended use. For cold weather temps (below 15F, the raw edge of three-season hiking IMO), a white gas stove would be much more efficient. Alcohol and canister stoves (rated to 15F by manufacturers) perform poorly for winter use.
From Mechanical Engineering Magazine, August 2004 issue:
Once a trip extends beyond a certain duration, the advantage of the homebuilt’s near weightlessness bogs down in alcohol’s low heat content,compared to white gas or isopropane (11,500 vs. 20,000 Btu/lb.). Hikers relying on alcohol end up paying a fuel-weight penalty if they can’t resupply every four to five days.
(The above figure is for two meals a day)
Altitude has NOT been a factor for me with alcohol stove use. Have used it as high as 13k feet in October when it has been snowing out. Feel that is a good representation of what I consider the “raw edge” three season hiking.
Another advantage of the alcohol stove is that as you use more fuel, your weight becomes less and less than that of a canister stove. An empty metal container weighs about three ounces by itself! If I go out for a weekend, two ounces of fuel weighs 1 oz a the most. So, my setup would be about 7oz for a weekend vs. 21oz for the popular canister stoves.
Alcohol Stove: The alcohol stove is suited best for three-season, solo use. The light weight, ease of use and easy resupply makes it a solo thru-hiker favorite. If you need to do “real” cooking, long-term resupply (more than 10 meals worth), or share a stove then you may better off with a canister stove. Two people can use alcohol stoves efficiently, but more planning/expertise/patience is needed than a casual backpacker may want to do. Though alcohol stoves are not hard to use, they are not as convenient as canister stoves. That may or not be a factor in your decision. If you do take an alcohol stove in colder weather, you may want to have the fuel in your sleeping bag at night.
Canister Stoves: A good alternative for those whose needs are more than typical, three season solo backpacking. A canister stove is easy to use, more fuel-efficient in the long-term than an alcohol stove, an is better for couples/partners/families. “Real cooking” is also done easier on a canister stove.
You do have to pack out the empties and resupply is not as convenient as alcohol or white gas stoves. You often have to mail yourself containers on longer treks. Ken and Marcia have a good article on mailing canisters. As with alcohol stoves, canister stoves are not meant for winter backpacking. The canisters are rated to 15F by the manufacturers. They perform slightly better in cooler temps than alcohol, but not by much. In other words, for real world, three-season backpacking, the temps are not a factor for white gas vs. alcohol vs. canisters.
Jetboil and MSR Reactor
A very popular canister stove system in the past few years is the Jetboil system. It is popular because it is a “system.” Small pot, fuel-efficient stove, easy to use. Boils water very fast. It is expensive and heavy though! The integrated cup is meant just for boiling water and not cooking in, so it is of less use for partners and not as versatile as other canister stove types. (unless you are doing Mountain House type meals). Still, the convenience and quick boil times make it an attractive stove for some.
Here are figures from some Whiteblaze Jetboil. users. Thanks to Sdwoonek for compiling the data that I copied and pasted. Note these numbers are for the original Jetboil.
Originally Posted by Just Jeff
So a total of ~21 oz with a full canister.
Originally Posted by hopefulhiker
Old style Jetboil new snowpeak canister (21.6oz)
Originally Posted by joel137
Jet boil and one small full canister is…21.7 oz
Originally Posted by SoundWitness
total with new fuel canister….21.1 ounces.
Skeemers data is obviously thrown off by the addition of the “small cloth”, but since it was weighed and posted, I had to include it….
Originally Posted by Skeemer
26 oz with a small cloth and a couple of uses
So that’s about 21oz for the average Jetboil user. As the Jetboil people themselves advertise the stove for personal use (and the setup make it inconvenient for more than one person), it takes a longer resupply stretch to make the extra weight of the Jetboil more efficient than an alcohol stove over the long-term. This weight penalty is more pronounced on shorter resupply stretches typically seen by most backpackers. It is a system as well, so it is hard to use with other cooking stoves or pans. Again, not very friendly for multiple uses. Still, the convenience and ease of use does make the stove make it attractive for some users. It is over $85 though, and I think there are lighter and less expensive alternatives for canisters stove users if convenience and ease of use are not your primary purchasing points.
The newer Sol Titanium is approx 5 ounces less total than the original and is supposed to be more fuel-efficient. The lighter weight and efficiency comes at a hefty price of $150 however. It seems to be a direct competitor to the MSR Reactor.
MSR has come out with a similar stove to the original Jetboil called The Reactor. It is slightly less weight (18 oz), more expensive ($140), a bit faster, has a bigger capacity pot. If fast boil times and no futz factor is your goal, then this stove may be a good option.
Other Canister Stoves
The MSR Pocket Rocket and SnowPeak Giga Power stoves are roughly the same weight, price, and performance. Google them to find more thorough reviews.
Believe it or not, Coleman made a great little canister stove that put outs almost as much heat as the Jetboil (if not as efficient) and works well in the wind , weighs less than 3oz and it was only ~$35. Uses the same canisters as the Jetboil, SnoPeak, MSR, etc. Has received great reviews on such sites as Backpacking Lite. You can occasionally still find one online. Just never did well.
In short, these stoves weigh about 9.5 oz with a full fuel container and stove. Add in my 4.5 oz pot and a homemade wind screen. and it is about 15 oz. If I hiked with a partner (my main use for this type of stove), I’d take a bowl to eat out for myself or my partner. Call it one ounce for a Cool Whip bowl. So that is 16 oz total. for the setup I would use. These stoves are very fuel-efficient; getting about 20 or so meals with a full 8oz fuel container and using a low-medium simmer! Wow!
A “real world” caveat is that people tend to pack in extra canisters because they are afraid of running out fuel. A more experienced canister user tends to gauge fuel use more accurately. If you pack an extra canister in “just in case”, you are adding three to eight oz of weight (depending on canister size), ruining the overall efficiency of the stove.
Lighter canisters are also sold with less fuel capacity as well. The 4 oz fuel canisters, from what I’ve seen, last about one dozen meals. The canister stoves work best for couples due to not being able to hold more than a 2 ltr pot without tipping over. For larger group use, a white gas stove with a more stable base would be best.
Canister stove summary:
Jet Boil: For ease of use and quick boil times, but for a high price and weight, the Jet Boilstove may be a good choice for some people. It is not a good choice for couples or group use if you use the PCS. Jet Boil has come out with stoves meant for couples or even group cooking, but they are even heavier and more expensive. If you do Freezer Bag Cooking or similar pouch meals (just heating water), then you can probably get away with two people sharing the stove and pot for the single person Jetboil.
MSR Pocket Rocket/Snow Peak/Others: For more than ten meals, couples use and longer resupply, the canister stoves would be a good solution. If I ever did a trip with longer resupplies (like the Yellowstone to Yukon corridor ), I might take a canister stove.
All the canister stoves do have the resupply disadvantage which could be mitigated with careful planning. As with alcohol stoves, upright canister stoves are not meant for winter backpacking. Their performance is somewhat better in colder temps than alcohol stoves.
Remote canister stoves that allow the canister to be inverted, such as the MSR Windpro or similar, do work well for winter use. The inverted and remote canister stoves are starting to replace white gas stoves as the GO TO stove for many winter backpackers. Note that though they work better in winter vs upright canister stoves, even the inverted stoves start to balk in weather below ~0F.
If you do take a canister in colder weather regardless of the canister stove type, you may want to have the canister in your sleeping bag at night.
More info on canister stoves
White Gas Stoves: Heavy, complicated to use, noisy, expensive. For most three-season backpacking, there is no real reason to use this stove. A winter camping standard.
Though it is more fuel-efficient than the other stoves, the heavy weight outstrips the weight savings for overall fuel efficiency versus other stoves. If you are cooking for more than two people at one time, a white gas stove makes more sense because they have a more stable base (in general) and can boil lots of water quickly. Winter camping and high altitude mountaineering is where these stoves shine. It was the original use of these stoves after all! They work much better in cold weather than the other stoves and can melt snow quickly; an important chore in winter camping. The white gas stoves do have a bit of learning curve and can be finicky to use. Most of the white gas stoves also have two settings: “Blast furnace” and off! If you want to do “real cooking”, be sure to get a stove with a simmer function.
White Gas Stove Summary: For true winter camping/high altitude mountaineering, esp below ~0F, and large group use, it is the stove of choice. Otherwise it is too heavy for three season backpacking use.
Popular White Gas stoves include: MSR Simmerlite, MSR Whisperlite, MSR XGK, Coleman Feather 442, Svea 123 and many, many others!
Zip Stoves:Zip Stoves are an interesting stove. They are a battery operated stove that burns wood, twigs, cones, etc. With a single AA battery, up to six hours of burn time can be achieved. A fan is powered by the battery to achieve an efficient burn.
- No need to carry fuel
- burns almost anything (pine cones, knots, etc.)
- Infinite cooking time (make elaborate meals)
- personal campfire” on cold, wet days
- generally reliable
- very high BTU output, once it’s going (boils water quickly)
- tough going when it’s been raining for days (solution: carry fire-starter materials)
- requires fire-starting skills
- requires constant attention while cooking (feeding more fuel into stove)
- time required to gather fuel, start the stove, and cool it after use
- your cookware will be covered with soot (and most likely so will you…)
- Needs AA battery
- Works best in a forest environment; Obvious limitations in desert or alpine environment.
- If there is a fire ban, the Zip stove may be banned for use
- Weighs 18 oz, including battery
Zip Stove Summary: The Zip stove offers the advantage of needing no fuel other than that which you collect at camp, off the forest floor.
It uses a small fan, powered by a single AA battery, to create a very hot and surprisingly clean-burning wood fire. Fuel is reduced to pure ash. One battery provides several hours of cooking time.
Its main disadvantage is that it’s fussy and dirty. It takes time to collect fuel and start the stove, and once it’s lit, you must feed more fuel into the stove every couple of minutes. This stove will help hone your fire-starting skills!
If you spend a lot of time in camp and like to do a lot of cooking, it’s not a bad choice.
The “personal campfire” feature is not to be dismissed, and really needs to be experienced. No other stove offers this.
There is now a Titanium version of this stove that weighs 10 oz, but it is $129!
If you look at the Zen Stoves article, there are links to DIY type stoves as well that are a bit lighter and less expensive.
(Note, the data for the zip stove was provided by Terrapin. Thanks!)
Solid Fuel Stoves
Solid fuel stoves use tablets that are lit to boil water. They are lighter than even alcohol stoves (because of the fuel themselves), are more fuel efficient and make the overall lightest setup for all lengths of hauls. The disadvantage depends upon which solid fuel you use Esbit (hexamine) or Trioxane tabs.
First, let’s discuss Esbit. Though you can buy a special stove for them, there is no reason. A home-made alcohol stove turned over works well. Some people even use tent stakes as a pot support with the tab in the middle. Though this method can work, in inclement weather you are S.O.L. Probably worth it just to bring a cut off soda can bottom as your “stove” and a light weight pot support.
The major advantages of the Esbit tabs are similar to alcohol stoves; even more so. Lighter than alcohol and more fuel-efficient. If an alcohol stove is less efficient after about 10 + meals, doing some rough math the Esbit stove is not as efficient as the canister stove at about the 21 meal mark. That’s a long time between resupplies! If you are out for a long or short-haul and want something light, Esbit is a great option!
The major disadvantages? Price and resupply!
An esbit tab is about .50 each. Even with bulk discounts, it is still much more expensive than other fuels. If you do a retail resupply of .50 per tab, that’s $5 for 10 meals. Multiply that figure by a thru-hike! Even a discount rate of “only” .25 each makes Esbit expensive compared to the other fuels.
Resupply on a long haul can be problematic as not many places stock Esbit. As with canisters, careful planning can mitigate this problem. Similar regulations for mailing canisters applies to Esbit. Since Esbit can eat through plastic, a foil lined ziplock is suggested to carry the fuel. The ziplock also helps prevent the smell from permeating through your pack. The smell has been described as “rotting fish”. Mmm…rotting fish.
Esbit has been reported to be hard to light. In my limited use, found the Esbit hard to light as well.
As with alcohol and canisters stoves, Esbit does not work well for true winter camping. Esbit is also for “boil only” meals as well and is a bit slower than the other stoves. This stove is best for solo use.
As with Esbit, does not need a special stove. Trioxane can usually be found at Army surplus stores (online and local). The fumes are toxic, but not usually a problem unless you use in a poorly ventilated space (you should not use ANY stove in a poorly ventilated space!). About the same weight as Esbit for a quarter the full retail price. Because it is surplus, quality can differ. Trioxane burns hot, but not very efficiently. Not really suggested for general use. May not be bad as a backup to another stove.
Solid Fuel Summary: For the lightest system, you can’t beat Esbit. With careful planning, can avoid the resupply issue. The major disadvantage of Esbit is the price per tab. Trioxane? Last resort only!
(I’ve only used the stoves a handful of times. Thanks to Sgt. Rock and Ken aka “Big Cranky” for first hand research!)
Going stoveless works well for certain scenarios. There is no futz factor, resupply is a breeze and the weight is zero!
I don’t know how much weight is saved overall (Some backpacking staples such as Lipton’s must be cooked, but others such as cous cous do rehydrate fine), but not having to worry about cooking and needing water (for most meals) does make life simpler. Naturally, fuel resupply is not an issue. Going stoveless works best for warmer hiking and/or people who like to go very minimally.
Camp Fires: And let’s not forget the first “stove” humans’ used: A campfire!
Steep learning curve, can be hard to light in wet weather or snow, can’t always be used when there are fire bans as well as in alpine or desert environments. For the absolute lightest way to go, a camp fire is still the best..with major disadvantages. But how many people tell ghost stories around an alcohol stove? In all seriousness, a camp fire is best when you can use one, don’t mind waiting a bit and want ambiance. I find it best, personally, to just cook dinner on a regular stove and build a small campfire later. No stove will replace a camp fire for a great atmosphere!
About “Daily Average Haul”
“Daily Average Haul” is a concept Two Speed (a White Blaze user and a civil engineer) and myself came up with via e-mail exchanges. Sgt. Rock, one of the main admins at Whiteblaze, has also done much research on this concept. I shamelessly used some of his data for this section. 🙂
What this concept essentially means is that a stove system (stove, fuel and cooking system) has an initial starting weight, but also a weight that decreases over time due to fuel use. The weight of a stove system has a differing average depending over the time a stove system is being used. Hence the term “Daily Average Haul”.
For example, the initial weight of an alcohol stove is very light. But, if many meals are cooked without a fuel resupply (over ten), the weight savings of a an alcohol stove is mitigated. More fuel means the “daily average haul” weight increases.
Conversely, a canister stove system’s weight does not differ much over time. A 4 oz canister is good for about 12 meals or so. After the fuel is used, you are still left with a canister that weighs 3oz and can no longer be used. On a weekend outing, 4 oz of alcohol weighs about 2.5 oz. The empty 12 oz Sprite bottle weighs .625 oz. Taking the first example, the “daily average haul” for the alcohol stove is noticeably less than a canister stove (never mind a Zip or White Gas stove) for a shorter period of time.
If you are a canister stove user who packs another canister “just in case”, the weight penalty for “daily average haul” is even more pronounced.
If you are out for a REALLY long time without a fuel resupply, some stoves (e.g. an MSR Simmerlite or a Zip Stove in the appropriate environment) will have a daily average haul” weight that is lighter than other stoves.
When thinking about which stove is lighter, “daily average haul” is a useful concept to keep in mind. Depending upon your time out without a fuel resupply, one stove system may be more efficient than another.
Naturally, there are other reasons to use one stove system over another besides weight (convenience, time of year, availability of fuel, etc). but “daily haul average” is still a useful concept to keep in mind when determining what type of stove system best suits your needs.
International travel has its own set of variables. With the Post 9/11 airport security, getting a stove and fuel canister on a plane can be…interesting. Availability of fuel such as canisters is hard outside of a few well stocked areas. And while alcohol may be available in certain areas, it is not always easy to get (a well stocked pharmacy may have it for example).
- Multifuel stoves (white gas, autofuel, kerosene, etc.) will be the easiest to find fuel for BUT may be hard to get on a plane
- Alcohol stoves are easy to get on a plane, but are somewhat hard to get fuel for. I do have a friend who bike toured in France and found denatured alcohol fairly easily. On the other hand, friends who hiked Canada’s Great Divide Trail had trouble finding denatured alcohol in some of the smaller towns along the way
- Canister stoves are hard to get on a plane and are usually hard to find resupplies for except in areas blessed with a good outfitter
Whichever stove you go with, this link may help you find the fuel in the area by name: http://fuel.papo-art.com/
Burn Ban Considerations
Burn Ban Considerations
In recent years, there have been bans on open fires in the backcountry during times of extreme fire dangers (From Oct 2015: Non-Approved fires: Campfires utilizing solid fuel that do not distribute the flame with a wick., Alcohol ultralight stoves, Wood “twig ultralight stoves ) With more wildfires happening esp here out West, the rules are getting stricter on what types of stoves to use. In many parts of Colorado in the summer of 2012, open flames were banned. This meant no campfires, wood burning stoves, solid fuel stoves and alcohol stoves. (It did not help that a fire was caused by a negligent alcohol stove user). These stoves also do not generally have Underwriters Lab designation and/or have no shut-off valve. These reasons are partially the cause for the restrictions, too.
To quote the linked document’s text:
“Mechanical stoves and appliances fueled by bottled or liquid gas which allow the operator to control and extinguish the flame with a valve are permitted provided that such devices are approved by Underwriters Laboratory Inc”
Also note that many places ban backcountry campfires outright and/or have restrictions (again, esp with extreme fire danger). Wood burning stoves may fall under this ban depending on what the local National Park unit or USFS/BLM or State Park office decides.
To quote the letter above:
“The only difference in legalities between a liquid/gas fuel stove or the wood burning stove is that during certain fire restrictions, the wood burning stove would not be allowed when regular campfires aren’t allowed. Just check the conditions/restrictions with the FS you before you go on your trip to make sure you have a stove you can use. This question comes up often during fire restrictions, and again, the wood burning stove is considered the same as a campfire during these dry times.“
For all intents and purposes, the options for backpacking stove use during bans are white gas stoves and canister stoves. Or you can go stoveless.
There are many stoves to choose from. Which one is the best depends upon your intended use. Note these recommendations are given assuming there is no open flame ban or similar.
- If you are resupplying for less than ten meals, solo and three-season backpacking: Alcohol Stove
- If you are a couple and/or going a longer time between resupplies, want something quick and convenient or need to do real cooking:
Canister Stove other than Jet Boil
- If you are solo and want a convenient all in one solution and/or very fast boil times and/or if a couple doing boil and cook pouch-type meals: Jetboil or MSR Reactor
- If you are winter camping/high altitude mountaineering and/or below 0F and/or doing 3+ person meals: White Gas Stove
- If you are winter camping/high altitude mountaineering and want absolute convenience, above ~0F, but not in a 3+ person group: Inverted and remote canister stove
- Doing lots of “real cooking” in a forest environment and not hiking far: Zip Stove
- Want the absolute lightest stove and price/resupply (and don’t mind slower boil times) is not an issue: Esbit
- Prefer to go the ultra-minimalist route and want very little to no futzing: No stove.
There are other stoves as well that can be best called “specialty” stoves. These stoves are less used, but can prove a viable option for some people. Zen Stoves has a great summary of these different types of stoves.
Remember…it is just a stove at the end of the day. Gear is the least important part of backpacking. No matter stove you use, the mountain ranges are awesome, the sunsets are grand and those wildflower blooms will be gorgeous. Take what works and enjoy!