HOW TO CHOOSE THE BEST BACKPACKING STOVE
Having a backpacking stove can make all the difference at the end of the day. It means a hot meal in the evening after a long day on the trail and hot coffee or tea in the morning for a happy start. While there are some people who can live off bars and snacks, for most people on overnight backpacking trips, a stove is a must-pack item.
Researching the right backpacking stove can be overwhelming with all the options out there. We’ve put together this guide to help you understand the important factors to consider when purchasing a stove, followed by a list of some of the best lightweight backpacking stoves on the market.
Here is our guide to choosing the best backpacking stove for your backcountry adventures!
Factors to Consider When Choosing A Backpacking Stove
As with everything you put in your backpack, stove weight figures into that equation. You need to consider both the stove weight itself as well as fuel weight. If you’re selecting a backpacking stove for a long thru-hike, you’ll want to be counting ounces as well as the space the stove and fuel will take up in your pack. If you’re just looking for a stove for an occasional 1-2 night backpacking trip, weight isn’t as big a concern.
Efficiency, in our opinion, is the key factor to consider. It’s more important than weight because a more efficient stove means you’ll have to carry less fuel. Most nights in the backcountry, I need to boil water so knowing the amount of time and fuel a stove takes to bring water to a boil is vital.
Functionality at High Elevations & in Cold Temperatures
It takes longer to boil water at higher elevations, so having a fast-boiling stove is more important if you plan to backpack at altitude. Also, some stoves, such as those that use canisters, can depressurize in cold weather making them difficult to use when temperatures drop. Various types of stoves can also be prohibited in some areas and/or when above a certain elevation. Keep these factors in mind when searching for a backpacking stove.
Different Types of Backpacking Stoves
There are three main types of stoves; canister stoves, liquid fuel stoves and alternative fuel stoves. We’ll highlight the pro & cons for each and share our favorite stoves in each category.
*Note: The boil time we mention below is for 1 liter of water. Many times, you’ll be boiling less than that for your meals, so the boil times you experience will likely be less than what’s listed.
ABOUT CANNISTER STOVES
Canister stoves use closed fuel containers (called canisters) that contain pressurized isobutane and propane gases. There are two types of canister stoves, integrated canister stoves, and remote canister stoves. Canister stoves tend to be best for boiling water for dehydrated meals and very simple cooking for 1-2 people.
Integrated canister stoves have a stove that screws directly into the canister fuel source, like the oh-so-popular Jetboil or the similar MSR WindBurner Stove System. These stoves also come with a sealed cooking pot that pairs with it. Essentially, integrated canister stoves are a complete cooking system.
Remote canister stoves have a stove that has its own base with a fuel hose that connects to the canister. One advantage here is that you get to select your own cooking pot to use with the stove instead of having a cooking pot that pairs with the stove.
Pros of Canister Stoves:
- Canister stoves are easy to use and are very efficient.
- The fuel canisters self-seal so you don’t need to worry about spilling fuel.
- These stoves require little maintenance.
- Canister stoves are generally smaller and more lightweight than other backpacking stoves.
Cons of Canister Stoves:
- Fuel canisters can be expensive and it can also be difficult to know how much fuel you have left in your canister.
- Empty canisters should be disposed of properly – you will most likely need to collect and return them to a location for appropriate disposal/recycling.
- You can’t fly with fuel canisters so if traveling with a canister stove you’ll always need to identify locations that sell fuel canisters at your destination.
- Being small, these stoves often can’t accommodate a large pot.
- If on low in windy terrain, the flame can easily go out. You should NEVER use a windscreen around a canister stove because it can trap heat which could cause the canister to explode.
BEST CANNISTER STOVES FOR BACKPACKING
MSR PocketRocket 2
The MSR PocketRocket 2 is one of the lightest, most compact, and easiest remote canister stoves to use on the market. It’s also one of the least expensive backpacking stoves available.
Burn Time: 60 minutes on 100 mg canister
Average Boil Time: 3.5 minutes
The JetBoil MiniMo comes with a paired cooking pot so you don’t have to worry about selecting a compatible cooking container. The MiniMo also has better simmer control than some of the other canister backpacking stoves, so you can boil water as well as make other simple meals without burning the bottom.
Burn Time: 60 minutes on 100 mg canister
Average Boil Time: 4.5 minutes (although real life tests prove it to be faster than this)
Weight: 14 ounces (includes cooking pot)
Helpful Tip on Canisters
It can difficult to know how much gas is left in a canister. Here are two helpful tricks:
- While at home, you can use a kitchen scale to weigh your canister. This will show you how much is left compared to the original weight of the canister that is marked on the container.
- While in the backcountry, you can place a canister in water. Empty canisters will float higher than full canisters which will sink a bit. This is helpful if you’re unsure just how much you have left while on your trip. If you do this at home BEFORE leaving for the backcountry you can mark an initial water level line on the container. While on your trip you can then put the canister in water to see how much you’ve used.
Canister stoves are great for preparing easy meals at camp. Here are a few of our favorite backpacking meals.
ABOUT LIQUID FUEL BACKPACKING STOVES
Liquid fuel stoves use white gas, kerosene, diesel or automotive gas instead of pressurized isobutane and propane gases. The fuel canister generally connects to the stove via a hose. Liquid stoves offer more flexibility for cooking more elaborate meals for larger groups.
Pros of Liquid Fuel Stoves:
- It’s easy to see how much fuel you have left because you can unscrew the top and look in the fuel container
- You can refill a single bottle of fuel rather than having to dispose of/recycle used canisters and purchase new ones.
- These stoves perform well even at high elevations and in cold temperatures.
- Since these stoves can accommodate a variety of liquid fuels, it can be easier to find usable fuel anywhere in the world.
Cons of Liquid Fuel Stoves:
- Liquid fuel stoves require more knowledge to use. You have to prime the stove by heating the fuel line so the stove is able to convert liquid fuel into gas. It’s not that difficult, but you will want to do it at home first before you go out into the backcountry
- Routine maintenance and cleaning are required as well.
- There is potential for fuel spills since the fuel containers can be opened and re-filled.
- On average, liquid fuel stoves are heavier than canister stoves.
BEST LIQUID FUEL STOVES FOR BACKPACKING
MSR DragonFly Backpacking Stove
The MSR Dragonfly is great for international backpacking trips as you can easily find liquid fuel abroad. The flame can be micro-tuned, so this stove offers a lot of flexibility in what you can cook. This stove is a lot heavier than the other backpacking stoves, so this stove is best when you have a larger group and can split up the gear between hikers.
Burn Time: 126 minutes on 20 oz. of fuel
Average Boil Time: 3.5 minutes
Weight: 14 ounces (excluding cooking pot and fuel)
MSR Whisper Lite Universal Backpacking Stove
The WhisperLite Universal Backpacking Stove (the stove I have) is similar to the International WhisperLite, but the Universal model can be used with either canister fuel or liquid fuel, making it especially versatile. Again, this stove is best for those who are either cooking or groups or who want to cook more elaborate backcountry meals.
Burn Time: 110 minutes on 20 oz. of fuel
Average Boil Time: 3.5 minutes
Weight: 13.7 ounces (excluding cooking pot & fuel)
ABOUT ALTERNATIVE FUEL BACKPACKING STOVES
Alternative fuel stoves are continuing to evolve and in recent years seem to be getting more and more advanced. There are two main types: wood burning stoves and denatured alcohol stoves. Here are the pros and cons of each type.
Pros for Wood Burning Stoves:
- Potentially more lightweight since you don’t need to carry fuel
- Some models convert energy (from the stove) to electricity and have a USB to charge your devices (a phone or headlamp, etc)
Cons for Wood Burning Stoves:
- Can only be used in locations that have wood & you have to keep refeeding the fire
- Can be difficult to use in a location with moisture or rain as you need dry twigs & wood
- Can be prohibited at high elevations or in certain locations that don’t allow fires
Pros for Denatured Alcohol Stoves:
- Generally the most lightweight option you can find
- Denatured alcohol is very inexpensive and easy to find
- Easy to use and no maintenance is required
Cons for Denatured Alcohol Stoves:
- Extra parts are critical, such as a windscreen
- Fuel spills are a possibility
- Denatured alcohol doesn’t burn as hot (in temperature) as canister fuel/white gas so it can take a significant amount of time and thus fuel for water to boil
BEST ALTERNATIVE FUEL BACKPACKING STOVES
Solo Stove Lite Stove
With the Solo Stove Lite Stove, you can burn either wood or use an alcohol burner attachment to burn denatured alcohol. The basic operation is you stick wood and twigs in the stove, the stove sucks air in from the bottom and it results in a flame.
Burn Time: N/A (depends on the amount of wood or alcohol fuel you use)
Average Boil Time: 8-10 minutes for 1 quart of water
BioLite Camp Stove 2
The BioLite Wood Burning CookStove is a great entry level wood burning stove. BioLite has an innovative line of cookstoves. What makes BioLite’s new Camp Stove 2 unique is that the flame produced actually charges your phone and other basic electronic devices. Depending on what you bring into the backcountry, this stove might eliminate your need to bring an additional battery pack or solar panel, but that feature comes at an additional pound compared to the Solo Stove above. BioLite also has unique accessories, including rechargeable lights and battery packs as well as a grill and kettle option.
Burn Time: Infinite since you are using downed twigs, sticks, etc.
Average Boil Time: 5 minutes for 1 quart of water
Weight: 1 lb. 8 ounces (excludes cooking pot)
Best Backpacking Stove Accessories
To complete your backpacking kitchen setup, you’ll need a pot (if you’re not using a jetboil) and a few other stove accessories. Here are some of our favorites.
Other Backcountry Cooking Questions to Consider
What About Going No Stove?
If you’re just heading into the backcountry for 1 night, sure, going without a backpacking stove won’t be too rough. Salami, cheese, and crackers or peanut butter/jelly sandwiches make for great backpacking dinners, but ultimately having a nice hot meal after a full day of trekking is very satisfying. Plus, a hot toddy at night before bed and warm coffee in the morning to start your day are musts on our wilderness itineraries. But it’s all a personal choice.
What About Making My Own Stove?
When Kim, BFT’s former Community Manager, was researching for her Pacific Crest Trail thru-hike, she read a lot about making her own denatured alcohol stove out of a tuna can. There is plenty of information all over the web on how to do this if that interests you. In the end, Kim hiked all 2,650 miles of the PCT with her tried and true JetBoil. To her, having the reliability of a product that she knew REI would stand behind if it broke was important.
What About Cooking Over a Fire?
Cooking over a fire can be an option in areas that allow fires where fire risk is low. Once, on a 4-night backpacking trip, Linda, BFT’s Marketing Director’s backpacking stove broke, so she and her husband had to boil water and cook all their meals over fires. If you go backpacking in a fire-safe area and plan to cook this way, you’ll need a metal pot with a metal lid (to keep ash out). A small metal grate/grill is helpful for setting up a base to cook on, too. Always look for existing backcountry campsites with fire rings, so you don’t create new scars and remember to leave no trace. Also, note that fire safety skills are extremely important here and we do not recommend cooking over a fire in dry areas or if you are uncertain about your skills.
We hope our tips on how to select the best backpacking stove will help you enjoy some meals outdoors. What are your favorite backpacking stoves? What advice do you have for cooking while backpacking?
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